Creative Conversation Agent Irene Kraas
Welcome to Creative Conversations: discussions about the creative process. Today I’m talking with my long-time friend, literary agent, Irene Kraas. Irene was my agent from 1998 until 2013 when she essentially retired and I began working with Ammi-Joan Paquette. Irene still takes on a small number of select new clients (see more on this at the end of our conversation). She and I remain in close contact and we never run short of things to talk about in the wild world of writing and publishing.
<– Irene and Janet, Japan 2008
Janet: Hi Irene, I’m excited to have this creative conversation with you. You’ve mentored many authors over the years, and I was lucky enough to be one of them. Can you tell us what drew you to agenting and what you love about it?
Irene: I have always used reading as a way to explore everything. From the stars to minute details of human behavior. After a successful career consulting and implementing affirmative action programs in industry and government, I was in a place that I could do something more imaginative. The concept of finding new authors and helping their dreams come true was what spurred me forward. Little did I know how much I had to learn. I love launching new authors!
Janet: I was lucky enough to be one of those authors back in, what was it? 1998? I was so thrilled that Atheneum wanted to publish my novel, I would have given it away! Lucky for me, I had a literary agent with a head on her shoulders to negotiate the contract for me. You were a lioness for me from the beginning, making sure I got the best possible contract for my work. So, “my lioness,” you recently mentioned to me that you’d like to talk about the “reality of writing vs. publishing. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Irene: First, thank you for the kind words:) It’s amazing how some writers just sing to an agent and you were that kind of a writer for me. Glad to see that it has been so many years and so many books later:) As to reality in the writing world, it’s a hard thing to pin down. Many people take writing courses (how to write, how to write better, how to start writing), but rarely do people take a course that addresses the “reality” of submitting your manuscript to an agent and/or a publisher. Authors can no longer really submit to a publisher (except perhaps for romance). Editors should think about what might happen if they ignore new voices and ideas.
The reality is everyone needs an agent not only to get their manuscript read but to negotiate the contract. A publisher (no matter how nice they sound) does not want to give you anything and will take as many rights from you as your naivete allows. A writer is not an expert in negotiating nor does a writer (at least most of them) know what a “standard” contract looks like, much less how to change it. So, the reality of writing is that once you complete a manuscript you are (in my mind) a true author. That said, I could never guarantee that you might be a published author.
Janet: I certainly needed a skilled agent to help me with the entire publication process. Agents are invaluable. A savvy agent encourages the author to create the best possible work, evaluates when the manuscript is polished enough to be submitted to an editor, then walks that work through the doorway to the publisher. He or she also knows editors’ tastes and knows how to match your book with the right editor. You introduced me to many editors over the years. Can you tell us how you did that kind of matchmaking?
Irene: You point out something that can be the bane of an agent’s existence (sometimes) since editors move, drop out of the business and Lord knows what else. I’ve been in the business since 1990 and met editors and assistant editors who are now publishers and have their own line. One of your editors (Kathy Dawson) was one of those who went all the way. There are many others. For example, I knew Jason Kaufman (Dan Brown’s editor) since he was a senior editor. It never hurts for an agent to work with who today might be an assistant editor and tomorrow an executive editor and above. My theory is to be nice to everyone. It never hurts.
Janet: Excellent rule! I know you currently work with a few clients and that you are very selective at this point when taking on someone new. You mentioned your love of launching new authors. What do you love about that the most?
Irene: Selling that author:) Really that is as exciting for me as it is to the author!! As you said I am taking on a few new authors, but being semi-retired I have to make sure I’m at a point where I can dedicate myself to that author. When I send out manuscripts, I feel I need to be on top of everything, which is the way an agent should feel. I cut back because I was doing a lot of traveling and even with email it is hard to concentrate and do your best after a day of eating in France. Just came back from 6 months in Europe so that explains the cutting back. Now that I’m home (NEVER to get on a plane again) I feel I can begin looking at new work and giving my full attention to the submissions process and follow up.
Janet: Welcome home, and thank you for your dedication to your clients. Some of the Creative Conversation readers might be new authors with a manuscript that’s ready to go. What is the most important thing a new writer needs to know?
Irene: There are a number of things that I teach in my class that I feel are essential for a writer to know. First: Grab the agent as soon as you can with a one or two-line pitch. Make sure that your cover letter is Short! Second: Make sure you have read what the agent requires for a submission. For example, I like a short cover letter and 10 pages of your mss embedded in an email. I do not open attachments unless I ask for them. I know other agents who want only a letter. Third: NEVER, NEVER send a mass email to agents. I don’t care if you do multiple submissions to other agents, but it is rude for someone to not take the time to address an email to a specific agent. I delete those emails immediately and don’t even look at them. “Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents” is one of the best resources around. I highly recommend anyone looking for an agent start there.
Janet: I’d like to back up just a bit. Sometimes when I teach writing workshops or classes, I have a writer who asks, “How do I get an agent?” And though I have information on how I ask them a few questions first. I often discover that the writer has not even finished his or her manuscript. Or if they have finished, they have not gotten any critique and have not done any real revision. So, Irene, when do you think a writer is ready to submit their work? I’d love to hear this from an agent’s point of view.
Irene: Unless you are a big name who everyone in the world would recognize don’t bother even trying to get someone to look at your mss. (Non-fiction is a bit different, but I won’t go into that). I have learned over the years that there are too many what I call “first chapterists”, they never get much further. An idea is not a manuscript. As I said earlier, in my mind anyone who completes a manuscript is a dedicated author. The rest is talk. As to critique groups, I’m a bit leery of them. Some are wonderful, but some not so much. It’s hard to admit, but sometimes people are jealous and critique becomes a word that does not mean what it is supposed to. Revisions and going back over the mss is a good idea. But writers are like Mothers and hate to let that baby go! One revision should be enough unless you’ve changed your mind about a pov or character. Remember the editor who buys your work will also help you flesh out things and polish your manuscript in a way that only a professional and GOOD editor can do. One more thing: Go to conferences to meet agents.
Janet: Thanks for the new words, “first chapterists” I’ll remember that one! I’ve talked to a lot of fellow authors who, like myself, have been in the profession for a while. Many of us have found that we have had to shift our definition of “success” over the years. What do you think of as a successful writer?
Irene: That’s a hard one. I would love to say it’s your talent, the fact that you’ve written a beautiful book or something equally important. Unfortunately, no matter how much you write, no matter how good you are, to a publisher you are only as good as the sales of your last work. It’s a painful realization for anyone. If you have noticed, today mid-list authors are disappearing. Publishers are lowering the amount of advances they are giving. Everyone wants to put a new author’s work out as an ebook (the kiss of death for a first-time author) and no one wants to publicize your work for you. It’s a nightmare – especially for first-time authors.
Janet: Since this blog is called Dreamwalks, I’d like to talk a bit about how to keep the dream alive. I know authors who have found their way out of a long fallow period by challenging themselves to become more creative, stronger writers, and breaking out with something new. Or who take a creative leap and shift genres, not to “make sales” but because they won’t give up on their inner storyteller. Writing is a lot like tightrope walking. There’s something of the daredevil in the very act of creating something new. I remember the first time I heard you speak at PNWA (yes folks, I met my first agent at a writing conference!), you said, “Be passionate about your work.” I knew then I had to meet you and contact you! I hadn’t even made an appointment to meet with you at the conference, but you were generous enough to say, “Send me something.” 🙂
Irene: Thanks again for the kind words. I still believe what I said that day to be true. Passion carries our dreams and without dreams, where are we? Sometimes our dreams don’t turn out to be what we might have wanted, but something else begins to grow or perhaps changes the initial desire. I had a woman come up to me at one of the conferences I attended. She had been quite successful as a romance writer. She told me that since she had breast cancer, she wanted to write what she wanted to write. Many agents find it hard to let a “successful” client switch genres. I told her that she should do just that. Write where your heart takes you. And so she did. Her heart took her many places, in many genres and I am happy to say I helped her dream come true. Passion, truth, and desire all work together to complete an entire experience. Taking a chance is what life is all about!
Janet: Bravo!! I love that story, Irene! Thanks for being a lioness for her. You were flexible enough to stand with me when I wanted to switch from realistic fiction to fantasy. It took a while to sell the fantasy, but we took a big leap together, selling Dragon’s Keep to Harcourt to editor, Kathy Dawson to Faber & Faber in the UK under the title Talon that same year. Then selling The Beast of Noor to Simon and Schuster a year later. A crazy/busy/happy time!
We took some other big leaps like traveling to Japan together when my book, Wenny Has Wings was made into a movie by Sony Pictures, Japan.
Movie Title: “Ano sora wo oboeteru”(click to watch it on YouTube)
Irene: Japan was great and talk about a contract, I just threw in that your agent had to go with you (business class of course). We’ve come a long way and I am so happy that we worked together and to see all the wonderful things you have done. Writers: use Janet as a prime example of someone who follows her bliss!
Janet: Thanks, Irene. It was terrific talking with you. Thank you for sharing all the information you’ve gleaned from your years of experience running a literary agency, for standing up for authors and for telling all of us, “Write where your heart takes you.” We all need to hear that.
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Kraas Literary Agency info. At the moment Irene has cut back on handling new submissions. That said, she is always looking for outstanding work by unpublished or published authors”. To submit to Irene directly send a query letter and 10 pages (embedded in the email) to: firstname.lastname@example.org