Interview One | Peter Knapp
I first became aware of Park Literary agent Peter Knapp during WriteonCon 2012. (What a great conference, by the way. Big shout out to all who organized it!) Anyway, I was on a few panels and signed into a forums and what name did I hear bandied about over and over? If you said Veronica Roth, you’d be right. But I also heard Peter Knapp’s name a hell of a lot and, me being me, I just HAAADDD to know more. Fast-forward a few weeks one email later and ta-da! One of the most in-depth, detailed, eloquent interviews I’ve ever conducted. Peter was an absolute joy to speak with – articulate and so passionate about books and the industry – and I can’t wait to watch his career blossom.
Peter and I talked everything from queries to stories to Park Literary to Nicholas Sparks to Marvin Hamlisch and editing. So please enjoy Part One of our interview and check back on Tuesday for Part Two.
Hi Peter! Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to chat with me! I’ve heard so many great things about you online; WriteonCon 2012 was all abuzz about Peter Knapp and who he is. So, a few quick and easy questions first:
a. When you see a yellow light, do you speed up or slow down?
I’m a terrible driver. I panic.
b. Fruits or vegetables?
c. Ironman or Thor?
d. Were you as devastated as I was when Marvin Hamlisch died?
No, I can’t honestly say I was devastated, but I definitely took note. I had recently watched Every Little Step (a documentary about casting a revival of A Chorus Line). Most of what I know about him, beyond his body of work, I learned only after he died. Reading obituaries has to be the worst way to become familiar with someone’s life, isn’t it? It seems particularly sad because not only was he talented—he was also incredibly passionate. He was an advocate for music education at a time when many school’s music and art programs were suffering budget cuts, if not being cut altogether. That’s important.
Okay, now that I’ve got those questions out of my system… 🙂 Moving on….
You work at Park Literary, a major agency house that represents Nicholas Sparks, Debbie Macomber and Emily Giffin, among others. Is working at Park Lit as fabulous as I’m imagining it?
Well, I don’t know what you’re imagining, but if it involves being fanned by big banana leaves and eating grapes off the vine, I’m afraid you’d be disappointed. We’re working hard—but we love the work, not only because of the clients we work with, but because of the other staff. I think all of us genuinely care about what we do—we’re passionate about books, but we’re also passionate about the business of books, which is increasingly becoming more than just the business of publishing. Is it fabulous? I think so. Absolutely. I keep waiting for the carriage to turn back into a pumpkin.
What are some of your day to day tasks? Is it possible for you to have an “average day”?
My colleague Emily and I always laugh at the idea of an average day. The fast answer is: No, there is no average day. We’re lucky enough to have a high staff-to-client ratio, and while we all have our specific job functions, we don’t work in silos—we all interact with each other and help each other generate new ideas and new ways of doing things. Because of this, there are constantly new projects to be working on, and our jobs adapt and evolve accordingly.
The best I can do would be to give you some examples of things that come up relatively frequently. We have regular meetings with our authors’ publishers, where we cover marketing, publicity and general publishing plans. We’re constantly brainstorming new ways to market a book and to grow an author’s audience while remaining faithful to his or her existing fan base. And we always look for ways to cross-promote between different initiatives in any author’s career. For example, in the case where a movie is being made based on an author’s work, we work hard to coordinate the marketing and publicity efforts between the movie studio and the publisher, and figure out how the author can help support these campaigns with social media, appearances, etc. What this means on a day-to-day level is a lot of brainstorming sessions, a lot of time spent on the phone, and a lot of time going to meetings, whether it be with the publisher, a film company, an outside publicist, someone at Facebook—and so on. I actually had a chance to get knee deep in all of this because Emily Sweet, who is our Executive Director of Business Affairs and Third Party Promotions, went on maternity leave and I had to step into her shoes for a bit. I can say with certainty now that they’re big shoes, and I may’ve been swimming in them for a bit, but the experience gave me a great education.
While I’m looking to start building my client list going forward, I am also still assisting Theresa Park, the head of the agency, which means I am supporting her in whatever capacity necessary: scheduling, taking notes on meetings, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to be a sounding board. I am a Virgo: this sort of work is rewarding for me. I’m constantly trying to organize everything and rearrange my desk and update to-do lists. I like when things look nice. I like to think this need to organize helps me do a better job overall, but there are definitely times when I think: What am I doing! I don’t have time for this!
For those who are just dying to become a part of the Park Lit client list, what are some things they can do to better their chances?
First, if you’re querying fiction, finish your book. It amazes me how many authors query us with incomplete novels. To keep the whole carriage-horse motif going, this is what would be considered “putting the cart before the horse.” This is true of just about any agency. And to be clear, a finished book is not the same thing as a finished first draft. Make sure you revise it, and then revise it a bunch more. Unless you’re a [famous actress, sports star, musician, politician], your novel absolutely has to be done. Once your book is done, do your research: Are we really the right agency for your book? Just because you love us—and we’re flattered—doesn’t mean we’re necessarily the best fit for representation. This isn’t a case of unrequited love—we love you too!—but we are selective in taking on clients, and we try to work with the books and authors we can really champion. We get a lot of people writing and saying, “Your agency represent Nicholas Sparks, and my book is exactly like The Notebook.” But if we already represent something just like your project, we probably won’t be interested in doubling up. More interesting would be if someone says, “You represent Nicholas Sparks, and my project is like The Notebook meets The Passage.” I read through a lot of the queries, and I am most delighted by the unexpected. Appeal to our interests, but show us that you also have something new to offer.
Querying is a huge part of getting your foot in the door. For you, what makes a query work, and what makes it flop?
A query letter isn’t easy: It has to introduce us to the protagonist(s), give us the set-up of the story, establish the stakes that are at play, and—generally—bring us to a turning point to show us what is the conflict or catalyst that jump starts the story. All of this, and it has to be short. This isn’t just because agents have hundreds of queries to get through (though that’s a part of it), and it’s certainly not because we have short attention spans (that, hopefully, is not a part of it). It’s because good writing works hard: it can do all of the above things and more in just a few short paragraphs. A query letter acts as the ambassador for the story. That’s what I always focus on when reviewing a query: what happens in the book? Don’t write what themes and big-idea questions guided your writing. We don’t want to see the man behind the curtain just yet. What I want established in a query letter is: who is the character, what is the conflict, what are the stakes, and why is the character uniquely qualified to be our hero?
It says in your bio you graduated in 2009! So first, congratulations! Second, let’s talk about degrees a moment. What do you think having a degree does and/or doesn’t do for an author seeking publication?
Thanks! I really don’t care what degree an author has. Have you seen the video from earlier this year of Neil Gaiman’s commencement speech for the University of the Arts? He admitted to padding his resume in order to get his first jobs in journalism. Now, I don’t recommend doing this, but the point is, you can make up your experience and say you have a PhD in Writing Really Well from a Very Prestigious University, but you can’t make up good writing, short of plagiarism. I will either think your book is good or I won’t. If, while reading your book, I am thinking about the degrees you have, it’s probably not a great sign because it means my mind isn’t on the story! It doesn’t mean you can’t tell me about your degrees (when my mom got her PhD, she requested we call her Dr. Mom), but unless you’re writing nonfiction, it’s not the most important thing.
What about writing classes? What’s your stance on those? Does it behoove a writer to take many courses, or is it better for them to just (tough love coming up in 3..2..1..) sit their asses down and write?
First, I should say I’ve only ever taken one writing class (to take another is on my to-do list; I think it’d be helpful for me as an agent), but my instinct is to say there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. For some people, a writing class will be essential. They’ll need the guidance and the structure and the feedback to finish that first draft or turn it into a finished, shareable book. Yes, you need to sit your ass down and write, but if you need a writing class to guarantee that, there’s no shame in that! If you don’t enroll in a writing program or class, then I do think you should try to find a community and critique group. There are people who can write in a vacuum, but I wouldn’t envy them. I imagine writing is lonely enough, you may as well enlist some writing friends to help you out and give you a little bit more perspective on your work-in-progress.
It also states in your bio that prior to working at Park Literary, you served as a story editor at Floren Shieh Productions, where you consulted on book-to-film adaptations. That seems like an interesting job! Is there anything you’ve taken away from that job that helps with your current one?
That was my first job out of college, not including internships, and it was extremely interesting. Really, it acted as a crash-course in publishing. I had to pay attention to everything that was going on: Which editors were acquiring what? How do publishing and Hollywood interact? What makes a story interesting in one medium but not another? All of these things are still essential to my job now. I think working on the boundary of film and publishing taught me to read in a different way, too. Film is so structure-oriented, and so I began to really focus on the structure of a story in a way I had never done before. When reading a manuscript or book, I had always first worked off of my instinct—did I enjoy the book?—and then the characters and story. But as I began reading more and more screenplays, I became increasingly interested in not just what the story was doing, but how it was doing it. What mechanics are at play here? I feel like the job helped me to shift my role from passive reader to participant.
Part Two of Peter Knapp’s interview will be continued tomorrow! We talk editing, what he looks for in stories, agenting style, and the lessons he’s learned.