As a kid, I loved to watch episodes of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom where they tagged and tracked animals to learn their habits. When I started on my writing career, I wished there were a way to do that with editors and agents. Sadly, they frown on people shooting them with a tranquilizer gun, and tracking these elusive creatures can get you pegged as a stalker.
However, Karen Ball, who’s been in the publishing industry for 30 years, developed fiction lines for major publishing houses, edited the books of amazing authors, is an accomplished author herself, and is now an agent with the Steve Laube Agency, was willing to let me interview her. Perhaps to lower the need for stalking and so forth. Although, as it turns out, she’s more than capable of defending herself.
(Note to criminals: She’s packing.)
So, here’s our conversation about agenting, publishing, conferences, and some personal stuff too, because don’t you want to know what kind of mischief this little cherub perpetrated?
ETY: All right, fess up. What did you do as a kid that got you in trouble?
KB: Made up stories. About everything. Getting a straight answer from me was impossible. In fact, my older brother, Kevin, likes to say, “It’s not fair. When we were kids you got in trouble for telling lies. Now…you get paid for it!”
ETY: Did you come to Christ as a young child or later in life?
KB: I think I did so in the womb. Christ was always there in my home, in my mother’s smile and my father’s hug. In the laughter we all shared and the honesty when dealing with hard issues. In the grace we were given and the mercy we extended. I can’t remember a day without Him.
ETY: I hear you took Karate lessons as a kid. What drew you to that?
KB: Actually, no, I took them as an adult. A few years after Don and I married. I’d heard it was a great way to get fit, as well as a good way to protect yourself. Since I was doing a lot of traveling by myself for work, I wanted to have that ability. LOVED it. Competed in tournaments and even won a few.
(Right. So y’all might want to take note of that. Even if she doesn’t shoot you, she can still hurt you with her bare hands.)
ETY: What do you love about the publishing business?
KB: The sheer chutzpah it takes to write or publish a book. There’s no way to know if a book will do as well as you hope, or if it will take off and become a blockbuster, or if it will die on the vine. ANYTHING can happen, regardless of how hard or how little you work. In fact, I wrote a couple of blogs for the Steve Laube Agency blog on that very thing…
When You’ve Done Everything Right
When You Don’t Do Anything At All
ETY: Describe your typical day.
KB: First thing I do in the morning is read the Word. I need to immerse my head and heart in God before I step into the day. Then I need COFFEE! Once I have coffee in hand, I map out what I’ll do for the day. And 9 times out of 10, as I’m doing that, something happens to make the map moot. There really is no typical day. Since I’m doing both editing and the agenting, I’ve got a multitude of things going on at once. So in the course of a day I could be on phone/video calls all day long, or working on proposals, or editing several projects at a time, or getting ready for a trip. I’ll say this for it all: I never get bored!
ETY: What do you like best about agenting?
KB: The synergy of working with my clients, helping them refine their projects, and finding the right publishing homes for them. It’s like I get to be a matchmaker, and I love that!
ETY: What do you like best about teaching at writers’ conferences?
KB: That I’m serving those who love words and want to share God’s truth in their stories.
ETY: Have you always liked speaking and teaching?
KB: Good gravy, no! I used to be terrified of speaking in public. I threw up every time I had to do it. Now, it’s as comfortable as sitting in my recliner at home. Amazing how doing something over and over can make it a part of you.
(All righty then, pay attention all you writers who hate speaking—there’s hope, ’cause y’all know how great Karen is at speaking.)
ETY: What do you feel are your strengths as an agent?
KB: The fact that I’ve been on both sides of the desk, as a traditionally published author, as an in-house editor, acquisitions editor, and executive editor, and now as an agent. Also my ability to tell when a book or writer has promise. I’m also strong at strategizing and brainstorming.
ETY: What one thing do you wish every unpublished writer knew?
KB: That being a writer isn’t about getting published. It’s about being obedient to the task God has given you, and that’s to write.
ETY: Number one problem in manuscripts people send you?
KB: The writers haven’t put in the time to refine their craft. I’d say around 95% of what gets sent to me is rejected because the writer’s craft is not at the level it needs to be for me to offer representation.
ETY: What do you wish everyone knew about you before they submitted to you?
KB: If I say I don’t represent something, like children’s books, that means I really and truly don’t represent them! Please don’t think that if I’ll just read yours I’ll change my mind. I won’t. The issue isn’t how well you do something, it’s how well I do something. I don’t know the market for picture books or children’s books. Never had kids. Have never worked with those categories. Have no interest in them as an agent. So I’m of no use to you if you write books that are in the categories I don’t represent. So please, please, PLEASE don’t send them to me.
ETY: What is the most challenging thing about being an agent?
KB: Dealing with clients’ disappointments. I so want my clients to find good publishing homes and to be able to focus on their craft and not worry about anything else. But the course of publishing seldom runs smooth, and too often people are disappointed. That’s hard, for them and for me.
ETY: What do you wish your clients would start doing, stop doing, and/or keep doing?
KB: I wish they’d stop doubting themselves. They are gifted writers and I’m blessed to work with them.
I wish they’d start resting in the fact that God gave them this task of writing, that He’ll equip them to fulfill it, and that their careers are in His hands. They just need to do what they know to do, and be patient.
I wish they’d keep writing the wonderful, emotive, powerful books they’re writing!
ETY: What do you want your epitaph to say?
KB: We saw Christ in her actions, heard Christ in her words, felt Christ in her love.
Folks, I’ve only known Karen for a couple of years, but I’ll say this. I truly have seen Christ in her actions, heard Christ in her words, and felt Christ in her love. She’s the real deal.
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