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Chatting With... Agent Kevan Lyon of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency

Agent Kevan Lyon  

Cindy: Hi, Kevan. How exciting that you just opened your own agency! Congratulations. What was your background prior to starting Marsal Lyon Literary Agency? What inspired you to become an agent?

Kevan: After almost 5 years at the Dijkstra Agency, I decided to make the move to build my own agency with my colleague Jill Marsal.  We both come to our new agency with a great deal of experience in publishing and other related fields.  I have over 17 years of experience on the wholesale and distribution side of the business before becoming an agent, and Jill was a practicing attorney before she started at the Dijkstra Agency.  After leaving my previous work in publishing, I knew I wanted to stay in the business and when the opportunity came along to work with the Dijkstra Agency it was the perfect combination—working in publishing with authors in San Diego! 

Cindy: Oh, I love San Diego. Lucky you. Tell us, Kevan, what are some of your hobbies and interests?

Kevan: Reading! I read for work all the time and for pleasure as well. I love to exercise outdoors— skiing, walking, running, etc. I am also passionate about animals, and work with a rescue group to place dogs. (I have 3 of my own!).

Cindy: Oh, a dog lover. I have a beagle myself. Dogs are wonderful.

Kevan, what's the best thing about working in California instead of New York? What do you say to people who believe an agent and agency needs to be based in NYC in order to be successful?

Kevan: I am fortunate to be in a business that can really be based almost anywhere—so much of what we do is done through email and the phone. It is important to meet editors in person, which we do through regular trips to New York and conferences. I love working from my home office and do meet with my colleagues several times a week. Some of the best agents in our business are based outside of New York!

Cindy: Can you describe a typical day at the agency?

Kevan: I start very early given that New York is 3 hours ahead of me, and I am generally responding to email for several hours in the morning, both to editors and authors. I usually have one or two author calls scheduled in a day, and several unscheduled calls! Then, I try to get through a few hours of reading each day—and usually into the evening. I prioritize my reading based on reading clients' work first, work that is nearly ready to go for submission, work that I am particularly hopeful about, and then "slush" bucket reading.

Cindy: Do you work exclusively with your clients? Do agents at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency ever "share" clients or offer other forms of back-up?

Kevan: Generally we do work exclusively, however if one of my clients is writing in a genre that is better suited for one of my colleagues I will refer them for that particular book. Jill and I work very closely together, doing reads for each other and giving feedback, so a client will get the benefit of comprehensive feedback on a manuscript.

Cindy: That's nice to hear. Kevan, how, if at all, has the economic downturn affected your client list and the agency? What's your best advice for both published and unpublished authors in these tight times?

Kevan: There is no doubt that the submission and acquisition process seems to be ever tighter in the past number of months. But publishers must acquire great books to exist, we continue to see strong projects selling—but maybe for lesser advances than in the past.

Cindy: Yes, I can definitely see the lesser advances thing happening (more's the pity). How many writers are presently in your stable, then? How many clients would you eventually like to represent? In other words, are you topped up or still actively seeking clients?

Kevan: I have approximately 30 active authors at the moment, at varying stages of the process. I am still seeking clients, but I am probably a bit more focused on the genres and types of books I want to work with.

Cindy: So, what are your genres of interest? Do you specialize in certain areas?

Kevan: I am interested in both fiction and non-fiction work. For fiction, I work with women's fiction; commercial women's fiction and most genres of romance. I am particularly passionate about historical women's fiction and would love to find more authors in this area. I love a sweeping, complex story with a unique, fresh plot concept that I can "lose myself in." For non-fiction, I am interested in current events, memoir, environmental topics, narrative non-fiction, pets and other topics that generally appeal to women readers.

Cindy: Are there areas you don't currently represent that you would like to grow? Are there areas you have no interest in growing?

Kevan: I generally tend to stay away from Science fiction, or fantasy based fiction, although I do represent several terrific paranormal authors and love reading their work.

Cindy: Okay, as an example, if you signed a historical romance writer and, after a few published books, she decided she wanted to branch into romantic suspense, would you be okay with that? Would you recommend that she use a pseudonym for the romantic suspense or keep the same name used for her historicals?

Kevan: Yes, I work in both of those genres, and would be quite comfortable advising a client on both types of work. As far as the pen name goes, that is often a discussion that we would involve a client's editor in. It may be to the client's benefit to use one name as they are building their fan base—it will vary by client and where they are in their career.

Cindy: What stands out for you in a query—positively AND negatively? Do you ever get queries for Kevin Lyon? If a writer misspells your name or mistakes your gender, does it affect how you perceive her query?

Kevan: I often get Mr. Lyon—which just lets me know that they have not visited our website or done much research on me—but I still read the query hoping to find something wonderful! What stands out in a query for me is a unique plot premise—something fresh that stands out from the rest.

Cindy: I really dislike it when someone misspells my last name, but I do understand that it's far too easy to mistake a common spelling for THE correct spelling. That happens to me a lot with Procter (people always want to put in two O's).

Kevan, are you open to electronic queries?

Kevan: Yes, we ask for an electronic query to [email protected]. If we are interested in seeing more of your work, we will ask you to send us a sample of the manuscript either by email or hard copy.

Cindy: That's excellent. Electronic queries make the whole process go faster, which is definitely look for authors.

Can you tell us aAbout how long does it take you to review a requested partial, then? A requested full? How much time should pass before a writer follows up on a submission?

Kevan: For a requested partial, I generally ask for 4 to 6 weeks, but I try to move along much faster than that. For a requested full it varies, but again I try to get to it within 4 weeks.

Cindy: If you reject a partial or full manuscript, are you open to seeing a query on a revised version?

Kevan: That varies by submission. In some cases the work and story ends up being not right for me, in other cases I may believe that it needs work, and if the author is willing to put in the work I will take another look.

Cindy: Do you prefer writers to query one manuscript at a time? If so, are there conditions under which you would consider more than one project?

Kevan: I prefer to consider one manuscript at a time from an author—I want to see the work that they believe is absolutely their strongest.

Cindy: Describe your preferred methods of client communication. Email or phone contact? Generally speaking, how long does it take you to get back to your clients?

Kevan: I am on email constantly—for better or worse! I also speak on the phone regularly with my clients, depending where we are in the submission process. I try not to bother them if they are writing against a deadline, but always make myself available to them. My turnaround time on email is within hours, if not minutes!

Cindy: Well, from our email correspondence, I can attest that you do respond quickly, which, in my opinion, is a huge positive for writers.

How about editorial advice? Do you offer it to your clients? What if the client doesn't agree with the advice?

Kevan: Yes, I offer detailed editorial comments and suggestions—again, this will vary by manuscript. I also often share a sample of the work, or the entire manuscript, with a colleague so that we can give comprehensive feedback from a fresh perspective. If a client objects to our advice, we will generally discuss it, and depending on the nature of the revisions needed we would decide how to proceed. If it is a minor point we leave the decision up to the author, if it is something more fundamental that we feel needs revising then we may step aside on the work.

Cindy: Do you use a written or verbal contract? Is it book-by-book, for a set period of time, or for the duration of the writer's career?

Kevan: Our goal at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency is to work with an author to build a career in writing.  We approach the relationship with a long term view, to successfully sell each book and work with them to build a strong career doing what they love.

Cindy: How do you work with a client to build her career?

Kevan: We work closely with a client at all stages of their career—first in working to make sure their first book is as successful as it can be, i.e. supporting the sale, marketing and publicity efforts in any way that we can. Next, we work with them to ensure their next books are as strong as they can be to ensure a long term relationship with a publisher, or will consider moving them to another publisher if that is what is best for their career. Our goal is to work with them to develop a lasting, successful career in publishing.

Cindy: How many editors do you submit a project to at once? Would you send a writer's project to editors on its own or along with other writers' projects?

Kevan: This varies with each submission, but generally I submit to several editors that are acquiring in the genre the author is writing in. I always try to avoid sending multiple submissions to any one editor, so that I can focus on one author at a time with an editor.

Cindy: How do you handle rejections for your clients? Do you forward each rejection letter or save them until you have a batch?

Kevan: I don’t send each rejection as they come, because it can be so discouraging for an author. I will give them a general update as to how a submission is going and then at the end of the process if they want to see some of the notes I will then share them with them.

Cindy: Some of us are masochists and want to see the rejections as they come. However, it varies by author, of course, and that's always something you could hammer out with an author if she or he desires it. However, are there circumstances where you wouldn't forward a rejection letter or inform a writer of a rejection at all?

Kevan: Not that I can think of. Editors are generally quite diplomatic in their rejection notes!

Cindy: That's good to hear! Now, if a client wishes to part ways, how would you recommend she handle it? What would you like her not to do? (ie. what's productive and what's not).

Kevan: Generally these situations are fairly straightforward—it is always best for an author to be honest about their wishes and part company amicably. Fortunately I haven’t had this happen too often!

Cindy: How would you handle severing ties if it's your choice and not the writer's?

Kevan: I would honestly tell the author that I thought it was best if they sought other representation. The only time I have parted company with a client was when we were unable to sell their work and they wanted to try other avenues, i.e. self publishing or another agent.

Cindy: What's the worst thing a writer can say or do to you at a conference? The best?

Kevan: That is a tough question—there really is no "worst thing," but the best thing would be for them to be aware of what type of work I am looking for and to tell me why they think their work will be of interest to me.

Cindy: Is there anything I've missed that you'd like to add?

Kevan: How about what do you love most about your work? And, I do love this work. I don’t think anyone could do this if they didn't absolutely love it because it is all-consuming. I carry reading with me everywhere I go, or so it seems. There is always more to do, more to read and you always, always feel behind.

Cindy: That pretty much sounds like the life of a writer, too...

Kevan: I hate to keep people waiting on hearing from us because I know their heart and soul is in their book, but sadly it is part of the process given the sheer volume of writers out there!
I love it when I find that story that absolutely "takes me away." When you look up and realize over an hour has passed and you have barely taken a breath because you are so caught up in the story you are reading. That is one of my favorite moments in this job. I also LOVE successfully selling my clients' books. It is such an exciting moment, and makes all of the hard work worthwhile.

Cindy: I can imagine! Selling is a rush for both author and agent, and it's wonderful when your agent shares that excitement with you.

For more information on Kevan Lyon and Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, please visit their website.

© Cindy Procter-King, February 2009.

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