Like our workshop, these faculty interviews focus on youth novels. To read all years’ faculty interviews, see our Directory.
Pete Knapp is an engaging agent. He’s savvy, successful, personable, and prompt— top qualities on a writer’s dream-agent list. Pete is intensely interested in a wide range of middle-grade and YA fiction. The agency as a whole represents clients in commercial and literary fiction for children and adults. Pete has offered a fun, informative interview for our workshop enrollees and friends. Enjoy!
I. GENERAL TOPICS
Why did you become an agent; what do you enjoy most about the work?
My first job out of college was as a film scout for Floren Shieh Productions, where I helped the company's clients—film and TV entities out in Los Angeles—look for suitable books to adapt into movies or shows. A big part of the job was talking to agents and editors to learn about and obtain manuscripts they were selling and buying, then we’d read those manuscripts so we could tell our clients what we thought. I loved the work because I got to read across categories and genres, and it gave me a bird's-eye-view of the market.
What I was missing, however, was the ability to stay involved in a manuscript as it went through the editorial and publication process, and as it found its way into readers’ hands. Talking to agents as a scout, I always found their job exciting: they get to discover new voices, they have the excitement of sending manuscripts out and selling them, and then they get to stay involved not just with that book, but with many more from the author for years to come. Naturally, I wanted to do this myself.
My favorite part of the job now is helping an author define goals, then coming up with a plan to achieve them. Sometimes that goal is just selling a manuscript, sometimes it is finding a more creative way to engage with fans, sometimes it’s a preorder campaign... but as an agent, I get to work closely with authors and publishers to find a way forward. It's great.
How many novels do you sell per year, and what percentage are debut authors? Which genres are you soliciting?
My goal this year is to sell around 10 middle grade or YA titles—an increase over last year—and I hope about 50 to 60 percent debuts. I am looking for great middle grade and young adult fiction in all genres. I like both high concept, commercial books (but the voice still has to be fantastic) as well as very literary stories. I am not afraid of more controversial novels, nor novels that are a departure from what I typically see.
What’s the outlook on YA novel trends—or is YA evolving past trends?
YA fantasy has been selling well, but it seems to be getting a little harder now that it’s growing crowded. There was an uptick of space-set science fiction novels that sold last year, too. Increasingly, though, editors are asking less for books that fit into some tidy trend and more for great voices and characters that feel new and different than what we’ve already read.
Name three novels you’ve sold in the past few years. Which aspects of each novel appealed to you from the query and/or manuscript’s first lines?
26 Kisses (Simon Pulse) by Anna Michels comes out in this spring. It’s a fantastic contemporary YA romance about a girl who tries to get over heartbreak by kissing her way through the alphabet. Anna is so excellent at balancing swoon-worthy romance with characters that have real depth, and the result is a book that has both heart and heartache. Something I love about Anna’s writing is her ability to weave a warmth and humor into stories that are thematically very substantive.
The Disappearances (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Emily Bain Murphy is a YA mystery about a girl who moves to her recently deceased mother’s hometown and discovers that it’s cursed to lose the things that weave life together—the stars in the sky, the sound of music, the ability to dream—and that her mom might be behind it.
When I read Emily’s pitch, I remember thinking the premise was so strange and wonderful that I had to read it; I'm glad I did, because Emily's writing is absolutely gorgeous. The book is atmospheric and melancholic, and the prose has a lyrical quality that captures the heartbreak of a young woman who is at once grieving her mother and coming to know her in entirely new ways.
Counting Thyme (Putnam) by Melanie Conklin is a gorgeous contemporary middle grade about a girl whose younger brother has cancer, forcing the family to move across the country so that he can enroll in a new clinical drug trial.
I immediately requested the full after receiving this query: the submission letter presented such compelling emotional stakes, and the first person voice in the opening was irresistible. This story has a refreshing honesty as the narrator tries to find her own story while living within her brother’s. It has real emotional heft, but there’s also a warmth to the dynamic in her family, a sense that they are all in it together, trying to make sense of a very difficult situation.
Queries, Craft and Critiques
Many publishers are closed to unsolicited submissions. Do you consider unsolicited queries; i.e., those without a referral (not a workshop attendee, etc.)?
Yes, as an agent I am actively seeking new writers! Our agency has a “No reply means no” policy, and we aim to read all queries within two or so weeks of receiving them. For manuscripts, I aim to respond within about 8 to 10 weeks of receiving them.
Are query letters peripheral for you, or are they an important reflection on the author and manuscript? What makes a query irresistible to you—or not?
Queries are very important. I receive hundreds of submissions each month, and so query letters help me pick out the ones I want to read more of. What makes a query irresistible is that it promises a great story in a tantalizing way—much like book jacket copy.
How many pages do you usually read in a manuscript before deciding to continue reading, request a full, or reject the manuscript?
Our submission policy is to send a query letter and the first five pages. If we aren’t hooked by the fifth page, we won’t request the manuscript. If I’ve requested a manuscript, I continue reading until I lose interest.