Karen Ball has been blessed to use her love of story for over 30 years in publishing. Currently the owner/operator of Karen Ball Publishing Services, LLC, Karen built and led fiction lines for Tyndale, Multnomah, Zondervan and B&H Publishing Group. She’s acquired and worked with some of the top published novelists, including Francine Rivers, Karen Kingsbury, Angela Hunt, Ginny Yttrup and Robin Jones Gunn. In addition, Karen is a best-selling, award-winning novelist, a literary agent with the Steve Laube Agency, and a popular speaker. She lives in Oregon with her husband, father, and two four-legged, furry “kids.”
You are a multi-talented lady: editor, author and agent. In what ways do your editing and writing influence your perspective as an agent?
They give me a firsthand understanding of what both authors and editors really need. Though I work for my clients, not the publishers, I know how important the whole concept of “shared risk” is, so I work hard to ensure my clients are taken care of, but also to help them become assets in the editors’/publisher’s minds. I want editors to be excited about working with my clients, not just because their books sell well, but because they work so well with them. My experiences also make me a good sounding board for either authors or editors, because, again, I understand both sides. In some ways, far better than I ever wanted to! But all I’ve been through in 30 years in publishing has equipped me in unique ways to do this whole agenting gig, and for that I’m grateful.
When you write, how do you balance plot and characters? Would you consider yourself character-driven or plot-driven?
Very definitely character-driven. My characters start talking to me long before I know who they are and what book they’ll be in. In fact, it’s usually a comment from one or more — or even an argument — that sparks the storyline. But keep in mind that I write suspense, so the plot is a major element as well. I love plots that take readers by surprise. Especially since they usually surprise me first. Writing really is an adventure!
How can a writer with a complete manuscript know when it’s ready to query?
I encourage writers to attend writers conferences where they can have their manuscript and proposal critiqued by proven writers. That’s the best way. Short of that, the only way to know is to send it out. The editors’ responses will make it clear if the proposal/manuscript is ready or not. But don’t expect editors to send you a critique. There’s no way they have time to do that — which is why writers conferences can be so valuable. Not only can you get a critique there, but you can usually find help dealing with the issues the critique may point out.
Can you offer a few querying do’s and don’ts?
Well, for me, don’t query! I can’t make a decision on a query. I need the full proposal, including two to three sample chapters. That applies to fiction and nonfiction. For me, it’s the writing that makes the difference, so I have to see that writing. And I don’t want to see an already published book, because I want to see what the “author’s” skill is, without an editor’s touch.
So the first step an author should take is to visit the agent’s website and find the guidelines for submission. They differ, sometimes a lot. So don’t think if you’ve read one guideline you know how to submit to all agents. It ain’t so. Just within our agency (the Steve Laube Agency) you’ll see that Steve, Tamela and I all have different preferences on submissions.
Once you know how the agent wants you to submit, follow the guidelines! You’d be amazed how many proposals come to me with the first line, “I know you stated in your guidelines that you don’t want ________, but . . . ” Nuh-uh. If I said I don’t want it, then folks, I don’t want it. And you don’t endear yourself to me, or any agent, by trying to push me to consider something I’ve made it clear I don’t want. It doesn’t help the author at all, because when a proposal comes through with that line, it doesn’t go any further. I’ve told my first-pass reader that’s an automatic rejection. It’s not about being a brat, it’s about respect. I respect writers a lot and don’t want to waste their time letting them send me things I don’t want. All I ask is they respect me as well and submit what I “do” want.
Speaking of a first-pass reader, writers need to realize that many agents, yours truly included, have someone who reads the proposals when they arrive. These are folks we know well and trust, and who know what we want. My reader has been working with me for over twenty years, first as a reader of proposals when I was an editor, and now as my agency reader. She knows what gets me excited, and she saves me — and the writers — a lot of time by doing a first-pass read on proposals. So don’t feel bad or neglected if you receive a rejection from the reader rather than the agent.
And for those who have emailed my reader, offended that I didn’t see the proposal, please know this: No, I would not have made a different decision if I’d read the proposal myself. How do I know this? Because I’ve trained my reader well, and I know she has amazing instincts. Do I accept everything she sends me? No, of course not. But what she sends me always has solid craft, and that’s the most important factor. From there I have a whole list of other considerations to determine if the author and I will work well together.
Finally, please understand that agents have a lot on their plates. We all want to get you a speedy response on your proposal, but sometimes that can’t happen. I’ve had authors upset with me because I’ve taken far too long to review their proposals. Believe me, if I could have done it faster, I would have. But my first priority is to my current clients, and often those responsibilities make it hard for me to review proposals. Many agents end up in the same boat. We want to turn things around fast, but there are times when it’s just not possible. Doesn’t mean we’re not interested, just means we haven’t got time right now.
Your agency website (The Steve Laube Agency) shows that you’re open to proposals. What story would you love to discover right now?
Fiction or nonfiction, I want the story that God planted deep in a writer’s heart and spirit. The story that is changing that writer’s life and perspective, so you know it will change the readers as well. I want the story that won’t let the author go, that has such a grip on him/her that it haunts them!
What would you consider the most rewarding and/or enjoyable and/or just plain fun aspects of your job as an agent and as an editor?
Brainstorming with my clients and authors. I love exploring where they story and characters can go, as well as, for my clients, exploring where their careers can go.
I also love, with my editing customers, seeing their writing improve as we work together. It makes me want to jump up and shout, “I knew you could do it!”
For those newer writers planning to attend a conference in the near future, what are some good ways to prepare?
Read the works of the faculty and staff who will be there. Do you research and know who the editors are and what they’re looking for. Make sure your work is as strong as it can be. And, ever and always, remember Who has set you on this path. If God has given you the task of writing, then be obedient and write! Seek to do so with excellence, and come to the conference with a teachable spirit.
Many thanks to Karen Ball for being our specialist this month! For more information about her and her books, her work as an editor, and even a few savvy writing tips, visit her website: Karen Ball Books.
At five years old, Amanda G. Stevens disparaged Mary Poppins and Stuart Little because they could never happen. Now, she writes speculative fiction. A music addict, film lover, and ice cream enthusiast, Amanda lives in Michigan and is a finalist in ACFW’s 2012 Genesis contest.