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Interview with Kathleen Ortiz, Literary Agent

YA Highway teen contributor Kody Keplinger's debut, THE DUFF, will be published by Little, Brown/Poppy in September 2010. For more about Kody, visit our Who We Are page.

Here at YA Highway we are HUGE fans of Miss Kathleen Ortiz, junior agent at Lowenstein Associates. Not only is she fun and young and hip, but she actually agreed to talk to us on video when we did our Pub Tips Vlog. Lucky for you, Kathleen agreed to talk to Kody Keplinger again, as long as no cameras were involved this time. She was kind enough to answer a few questions, and she didn’t hold back at all!

KODY: Thanks for joining us, Kathleen! So, first off, why did you decide to become an agent?

KATHLEEN: In the words of my best friend, “You’re a reading and editing nerd.”

The truth: I love slush. Let me tell you how many jaws drop when I say that, lol. Most editors and scouts sit back and say, “God bless you.” I just really enjoy reading what writers have produced, picking out the ones I fall in love with, and helping them shape and mold it into something that can be great. I enjoy working with my clients, talking them off the ledge when they’re in the middle of revisions or receive a rejection, and cheering them on when we get positive feedback.


KODY: Oh my God, I love slush too! As an aspiring agent myself, I have to know, how did you get into agenting? (School, internships, etc)

KATHLEEN: I was the one who knew exactly what she would do with her life since age four. I was going to be a veterinarian and work with marine mammals. ::strikes superman pose:: I worked at a veterinary clinic for six years (through college), moved up from secretary to assistant nurse to surgery nurse, attended a special high school magnet program for pre-veterinary students, took pre-veterinary courses at the local college while I was a senior in high school and skipped off to college to work toward my pre-veterinary B.S. I even volunteered regularly for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida in their food prep, sea turtle show (I was the girl who stood in the tank giving facts to the audience) and even got to work with an adorable dolphin named Nicholas.

I was convinced that was my track (did I mention since age four?) and did everything to gain experience. Then I had the most amazing composition teacher freshman year of college who flat out told me, “If you don’t go into some field of publishing, it’ll be a waste of talent.” I had always loved reading (I was the kid who always had a book in my purse) and editing (friends put up with a lot of my spelling corrections senior year), so I took some English electives, hated them (that whole poetry/classics thing? Not really for me) and thought she was crazy. She sent me to the journalism building to prove me wrong. I talked to the dean, signed up for some magazine/newspaper publishing electives and poof! I was in love.

Just like with veterinary medicine, I wanted to gain experience in publishing. In four years I worked (simultaneously, for the most part) as an online editor for UWirePr.com’s arts/entertainment section (claim to fame: I interviewed Joss Whedon ::first pump::), an editorial assistant in charge of the teen section of Ballinger Publishing, a tutor (and co-creator of the online portion) for our university’s writing lab, a writer for Get ‘Em Magazine, a resume/cover letter critiquer, and a writer for our university’s paper.

After that I moved back to my hometown, got my own place and started teaching. I knew I wanted to work in publishing, but I really wanted to take a few more classes on interactive media design before I broke into the book publishing industry. I had the most amazing mentors in college who told me flat out “in five years you’re going to be grateful you did this. You won’t have the time if you work now in the business so take a year or two, brush up on your interactive and online skills and then go for it.”

Best. Advice. Ever.

I taught high school for a couple of years (English, Web Design, Yearbook, TV Production, list goes on), LOVED my students, but had to keep true to my goal.

Applied for grad school and 30-some internships. I landed two internships with the amazing Caren Johnson Literary Agency and Nancy Coffey Literary & Media Representation. Moved to NYC, worked my butt off at the internships and prepared for the new semester. Applied for a lot of jobs and was called in for three interviews. Got the job with Lowenstein Associates and am now Foreign Rights Manager and Associate Agent.

I think the most fascinating part, to me at least, is that every single job I had since high school has helped lead me to where I am today. Even working at a veterinary clinic helped, because I used to be an incredibly shy person and it forced me to interact with a variety of people on a daily basis. Agenting is a lot easier when you’re not shy :)

My parents always told me that if you find something you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life. While veterinary medicine was something I’d wanted to do since I was four, and even though I loved working with animals (and still do – friends and family still call for medical advice), I just couldn’t see myself doing it forever. It was more of a chore, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. Working in publishing is just amazing for me. I love what I do, and while it has its up’s and down’s like every other job, I can honestly say I can’t see myself working outside of this industry.


KODY: Wow, that is a great story! So, I’m curious, what are you looking for right now as far as manuscripts go?

KATHLEEN: I’m currently building my client list and am looking for chapter books, middle grade, and young adult – both fiction and non-fiction.

I’m open to all types, from dark and ‘edgy’ (sorry Kirsten) to light and funny. What would I love to find? If a well-written romance with the male point of view and a great voice fell into my lap, I think I’d record a YouTube video of my very embarrassing happy dance. I’d also love to find both a creepy YA thriller that makes me not want to sleep when I’m done (then I know you’ve done your job as a writer) and a steampunk with fantastic world building. As far as chapter books/middle grade goes, I’m all about finding the next RAMONA or MANIAC MAGEE.


KODY: I know you also work in foreign rights. Can you talk a little bit about what you do in that field?

KATHLEEN: If I wrote everything involved with foreign rights, it’d be about 10 pages long, lol. I’ll give it in a nutshell, though. I’ll use this fake book title: DA BEST BOOK by Stu Dent

So I sell DA BEST BOOK to Awesome Publisher. Once it’s sold, if the agency has kept the foreign rights (not all do), I draw up a little packet with the book description, author bio, publisher info, anticipated pub season, etc and contact both scouts and our foreign agents (I’ll be doing a post next week on who they are). If it’s non-fiction, I do mad research to see which countries the book will appeal to and throw in a few personalized facts and figures for that country. For example, a book on Civil War history? Most likely no one outside the US is going to care. A book on wars throughout history? Definitely target those countries involved. Then I pass on the electronic manuscript to whoever requests it.

The trick is staying organized and following up on everyone you send the information to. If you don’t hear back, you nudge them; if they want ARCs and promotional pieces before deciding, you make a note to send that once it comes in; if they want to make an offer, you research what former offers were like and counter with a request for a better offer; etc.

It’s an interesting process and definitely requires a LOT of organization on the foreign rights person’s part. But I really enjoy it, because I like seeing what sells in other countries, and I like promoting our agency’s clients.


KODY: Wow! I didn’t know a lot of that! So cool! Now, we can all benefit from the next question. From an agent’s perspective, what is the biggest mistake a writer (agented or unagented) can make?

KATHLEEN: I think there are two things a writer can do as a disservice to themselves, regardless if they are agented or not agented:

1. Like Laura Whitaker said in the YA Highway video, you are your biggest advocate. If you’re not willing to do the research, to do the work (both fun and tedious), or consider constructive criticism, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. I hear of a lot of writers who think once you’re agented, then you’re set to go. Getting an agent is just the first step (ok – second. Completing you manuscript is the first step). You still have revisions and edits and advice and waiting while you’re looking for a publisher. Never stop believing in your manuscript and never stop working to make it the best possible work you can produce.

2. Don’t burn your bridges. Just like agents rant about writers on Twitter and blogs, I totally understand if writers want to do the same. The difference? A) most agents don’t give too many specifics – we gripe about general things we see. B) we do it to both gripe and educate other writers on how not to query. The only education one gets from reading a Tweet or blog post saying “Agent Y is a friggin ass because they had such a short form rejection” is that you are bitter. Agents get rejected too (it sucks when editors reject our clients’ manuscripts), but we don’t throw up Tweets and blogs that say “Editor X can kiss my happy ---.” It’s unprofessional and we don’t want to burn our bridges. Besides, they’re our colleagues and we too learn from their feedback and know that every editor has different tastes.


KODY: Great advice! Okay, so you’re pretty active on social networks like Twitter. What are the advantages of social media?

KATHLEEN: I think, for a writer, social media is a huge advantage. Too many writers focus on “must build my audience!”, which is important but not necessarily the first thing you should go for – especially if you haven’t landed an agent or sold your book, yet. Social media is great for networking with others who are in the same boat you are and also who can become a support system for you. Groups like the Tenners and YA Highway can be excellent gateways into networking with other people who are also pursuing their writing careers.


KODY: Do you have any advice for writers using social media? (Where to draw the line, etc)

KATHLEEN: If you find your normal writing process interrupted by the need to Tweet, blog, or Google random, non-writing related things, then either give your Ethernet cord to someone to hide (if it’s a desktop) or ask someone to lock the wifi function on your laptop. It’s good to network and connect, but if it affects your job (writing), then it’s doing you a disservice. Reading all the blogs and Tweets in the world on how to get published won’t help you if you’re not actually writing something to publish.


KODY: Ugh. I think we all struggle with distractions. Now, backing up a bit, when it comes to queries, what kinds of things are insta-rejections?

KATHLEEN: Three major things:

  • You don’t follow submission guidelines: if you e-mail me a query instead of filling out that form we require, you’re getting deleted. I get at least five a day, and it just makes me shake my head because there isn’t a web site out there that says “e-mail me your query!” (and if you find one, let me know).
  • You query me with a genre I don’t represent: it really amazes me how many screenplay and picture book queries I get. I don’t represent either of those and I’m not looking for either of them. Do you want an agent to take on your work if they’re not only not passionate about your genre but also completely out of the loop on the world of your genre? If an agent says “middle grade, only,” then it means their connections are in that age range only. They probably don’t have editor contacts or know what the market is for your non-fiction historical proposal. Go for agents who represent what you write – you want them to not only like it but also be up-to-date on what’s going on.
  • Calling me “sir.” Last I checked, I’m female. I’m quite VERY certain there’s no question to that. If the fact that “Kathleen” is a female name doesn’t tip you off, at least do your research. Check out my blog, Twitter, Publisher’s Marketplace page or agency’s web site. All pronouns about me are “she.”

Seriously, though, while I know the “Dear Sir” isn’t meant as an insult, it’s a red flag you were too lazy to type in my first or last name. I’m not looking for lazy clients. I want hard-working, I’m-gonna-do-my-research, passionate clients who want to reach their publishing goals. If you’re not willing to start at the query stage, then I’m not the agent for you.


KODY: To follow up that question, what kinds of things really catch your eye?

KATHLEEN: A great hook. Even if the rest of the query isn’t as stellar as it should be, if you have a great hook, I’m requesting pages. I totally get that some people just have issues with queries and that’s ok with me. But you have to grab me somehow.

I’m also a big fan of personalization. A lot of agents don’t care how you say you found them, but I like when writers put a little effort. It cracks me up when they say “I see your web site states that you’ve represented dozens of writers in sci-fi.” ::pauses to check web site:: Um, yea. Doesn’t say we take sci-fi and I’m not really on the web site (yet – stay tuned for my page to be revealed). So while I don’t need a dissertation on how you found me, it’s also nice when it shows you aren’t just making stuff up either. :


KODY: Good to know! Okay, so as an agent, I’m sure you are also an avid reader. Who are some of your favorite YA authors at the moment?

I’m a really big Holly Black, Neil Gaiman and Melissa Marr fan. Their world building and intricate plots are just completely intriguing and make me want to keep reading. I also enjoy Claudia Gray, Justine Larbalestier, Pam Bachorz, Libba Bray, Simone Elkeles, Maureen Johnson, Suzanne Collins, Kody Keplinger (*ahem* I had the pleasure of reading the DUFF and will most certainly purchase a copy – no lie: pre-order yours NOW. You WON’T be sorry), the list goes on and on. Kickin’ it old school? Philip Pullman and L.J. Smith (specifically THE FORBIDDEN GAME trilogy).


KODY: *blushes* Aw, Kathleen! Guys, I swear I did NOT make her say that! Okay, is there any other advice you would like to give to writers at any stage of the game?

KATHLEEN: If this is what you want, don’t stop practicing your craft and gaining experience. Conferences, critique groups, even Twitter chats like #kidtlitchat and #yalitchat can be SO much help when you’re starting out. Use all the tools available to you to help improve your craft.

Thank you so much for joining us, Kathleen! We always love hearing from you!

Everyone, keep an eye on this agent. She is going to rock the publishing world, I assure you. Make sure to subscribe to her helpful agenting blog, Neverending Page Turner.
Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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18 comments:

  1. Okay, this is really useful and Kathleen sounds totally fun. Thanks!
    *goes to do research*

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  2. Great interview. Thank you for doing this!

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  3. Kathleen, I love your backstory--it makes me feel better that I changed careers so many times to get to something I love. I too believe I took away something from all of those experiences. Woo-hoo that you're looking for male POV books b/c I keep hearing other writers say they may be hard to place. GREAT interview!

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  4. Great interview!
    I used to want to be a veterinarian, too. From sometime during childhood through my freshman year of college.
    Thanks for all the great insight, Kathleen :)

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  5. Great interview! *Falls in love a little bit more with Kathleen* -- In a completely non-creepy list of dream-agents type of way, of course! :)

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  6. Great interview! Also, I'm a huge fan of L.J. Smith and Holly Black and was already mentioning them in my query letter . . . so, query sent!

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  7. Kathleen is MY dream agent. :)

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  8. Thanks for this! She's definitely going on my list of to be queried in the hopefully not too distant future.

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  9. . . .she interviewed Joss Whedon. *faints*
    Great interview! Thank you so much!

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  10. Joanna...you are beyond..amazing :) ;-)

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  11. Thanks so much, Kathleen! I love how passionately you pursued your first career choice, then pursued the second with just as much passion. So awesome. Very interesting about the foreign rights stuff, too!

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  12. It's great to know writers aren't the only ones who abandon "safe" careers for some "crazy" dream about publishing.

    And also that Kathleen does the Superman pose at random.

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  13. Great interview Kathleen and Kody!

    My favorite quote: "Editor X can kiss my ---!"

    Oh, and that little bit about Kody Keplinger being one of your favorite authors :)

    Kathleen is MY Dream Publicist :) haha :)

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  14. suzie you're ridiculous - I <3 you :)

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  15. Fabulous interview. I found it so helpful in getting insight into Kathleen since she's an agent I'm considering. Kathleen, you made a great impression. It was great to get to know you a little more.

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Item Reviewed: Interview with Kathleen Ortiz, Literary Agent Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard