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Apr 14, 2021

Agent Spotlight Series: Fiona Kenshole

A warm welcome to literary agent Fiona Kenshole! Fiona came to agenting after nearly a decade as VP at Laika Studios, creating a development slate of new projects for the Academy Award-winning animation studio including the Oscar-nominated THE BOXTROLLS and CORALINE.

Previously she was a senior publisher in the UK where she published authors including Michael Bond (Paddington Bear), P.L Travers (Mary Poppins) and the Laureate Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) and was UK editor for Beverley Cleary, Lois Lowry, Bruce Coville, Gary Paulsen and Cynthia Voigt amongst others. She was nominated for “Editor of the Year” at the British Book Awards.

Fiona enjoys being on faculty as a conference guest speaker throughout the US and in Europe. She has taught publishing at Oxford Brookes University and Portland State, organized events for the Oxford Literary Festival and is herself a published author. A British citizen, Fiona now lives in Portland, Oregon.

She joined Transatlantic in 2013. Her clients’ recent successes include Rosanne Parry’s MG A WOLF CALLED WANDER (Andersen Press/Greenwillow) which has spent 52 weeks in the NYT bestseller list and sold in 11 languages; Sarah Mirk’s GUANTANAMO VOICES (Abrams) a powerful investigative nonfiction YA named a NYT best graphic novel of 2020; Vicki Grant’s YA romcom, 36 QUESTIONS THAT CHANGED MY MIND ABOUT YOU (Running Press), which sold in 22 languages and is optioned for TV.

CritiqueMatch: Share a fun fact about you. 
Fiona: I love cycling, and lived carfree for most of my life. I’d love to see more bicycles in children’s books – do you remember how as a kid, bikes give you freedom and independence? And it’s the closest you can get to feeling like you are flying!

CM: How many authors do you represent? How has your author list changed over time? 
Fiona: I currently represent 40 clients, including a small number of author/illustrators, who write everything from board books to YA, plus a smattering of adult illustrated nonfiction. I‘ve always specialized in books for children and YA. Now, I have found that I represent a lot more picture book creators than when I started – it’s so easy to fall in love with a beautifully crafted picture book. I’m very proud to represent Ann Whitford Paul, who is Amazon’s bestselling picture book author. I have such a soft spot for anything that makes me laugh. I’ve always loved the intersection between literary and commercial, which can overlap a lot in middle grade and YA. Obviously, I adore great prose and unforgettable storytelling, those books that go on to win awards and get great reviews, but I also love books that are truly accessible. Several of my clients write American Girl books, for example, as well as Minecraft and Disney Princess titles!  I’m doing more nonfiction now, which is lovely because my first publishing job was as a nonfiction editor. 
I recently expanded into adult nonfiction because many of my clients are very versatile and wanted to explore new directions, so one fun area I now represent is pet books – I have a client who is a brilliant animal behaviorist. 

When I first started, I represented mostly debuts, and while I now have a few new writers, I’ve found my great strength is working with established writers who’ve published a few books but have perhaps run aground in the midlist. I love working with experienced authors who’ve earned their stripes, but need a little help refocusing and developing their careers to get to the next stage. Often, I’m their second or third agent, so I help them to up their game. 

Last year I resolved to do more to help save the planet, so I’ve been focusing on representing books that celebrate the natural world, or help to fight climate change.

CM: Once you make an offer of representation, what happens next?
Fiona: I usually make an offer of representation on a call, followed up by an email. I will send you a draft client agreement and set up another call to go over it with you to make sure you understand it and everything is clear. I’ll suggest that you talk to a couple of my other clients to get an honest assessment of how I work – I’ll offer to put you in touch, so my existing clients don’t feel imposed upon if they don’t have much time. I’ll explain how our fantastic back office team works – they are a huge asset to my clients. You don’t just sign with me, you are signing with an agency with a wealth of experience, and a team as tenacious as terriers in chasing up payments! I explain that Transatlantic holds its client money in trust – in a separate account from the agency money, something that I wish more people would think about. I’ll talk through communication preferences, and establish your career goals. Every client has different needs: One client came to me with a deadline – their husband had given them a year to make money from their writing otherwise they had to get a job. So, working together, I got her five book deals for that year. Another client was upfront that she is a slow writer and needed time to develop ideas. So I focused on selling her subrights and got her a translation deal for one of her backlist titles – her first foreign edition. One client had been having middling success writing YA novels, then we discovered she has a gift for chapter books and is now earning more writing 800 word texts than she was writing 80,000 word novels! Next, I’ll ask you for a photo and bio to put up on the website and social media – we love celebrating new clients at Transatlantic. And then, we begin preparing for our first submission. When it’s ready, I’ll draw up a sub list, ask you for your suggestions, and get ready to launch you on the world. Hoorah!

CM: Thank you for sharing these insightful examples of what happens next with a new client; they are extremely helpful! What sets you apart from other agents?
Fiona: There are a few things that set me apart, I think. I have a wide breadth of experience because I was determined to learn every aspect of my craft before becoming an agent, so I’ve had a lifetime career in children’s books in many different areas, beginning as a bookseller putting books directly into the hands of children. As a publisher, I learned to spot talent – I am a passionate and involved editor. I learned about marketing through putting on events for literary festivals. Then I learned the magic of working with brilliant film makers to turn a book into a successful movie. And I wrote four books for Oxford University Press. It was only after seeing all these sides that I felt ready to represent writers effectively in all aspects of their writing careers. I bring an international perspective – as an immigrant, I can often see opportunities for my clients beyond the domestic market. And after those years working in film, I am a fearless negotiator and advocate for my clients. I don’t just represent your book, I work with you to manage your career. And my clients tell me they enjoy getting notes in a “plummy British accent.”

CM: How hands-on are you in the editing process before you send the manuscript out to publishers?
Fiona: I love editing. It’s in my very bones. I have an ear for story, in the same way musicians have an ear for music. To me, it’s very close to making a garden – clearing the overgrown bits and tidying up so the roses are exposed. I ask a lot of questions to try to help the author get as close as possible to their original vision of the story. We’ll do two, possibly three rounds of revision, if necessary. There’s a special skill to being an editorial agent, though:  I work with the author to get the book ready to submit. After that, their publisher will have a vision for how they want the book to be, so it’s super important that we haven’t worked on it so much that the writer is too burned out to do more revision. That said, many of my clients find they don’t have to do a lot of further work on a text that I’ve sold. I spent many happy years as an editor, so I understand some of the challenges of taking a project you love to acquisitions. I try to have anything I send out on submission ready for an editor to share confidently with their sales, marketing and rights teams.  

CM: Any noteworthy publishing trends in middle grade in the last three years? 
Fiona: Most noteworthy is the acknowledgement of the need for own voices, and writers of color finally beginning to take their rightful places on the bookshelf. I see this movement only growing stronger, and it’s an exciting thing to be part of.  In the US, middle grade graphic novels are extremely popular, and I still see a lot of hunger for more from editors. The interaction between text and picture has been a passion of mine right back to my bookselling days, and for many years I was the UK editor of Asterix. I’d love to do more.  I’m thrilled that animal stories seem to be having a moment again – I will always love stories about animals, and continued to champion them even when they were unfashionable. In the UK, there’s a solid market for historical adventure stories, whereas these are really tricky to sell in the US.

CM: Can you share a client success story, from their query/introduction to you all the way to publication?
Fiona: I met Rosanne Parry at an event she’d organised for young writers. Rosanne is a fantastic middle grade writer, as well as a part-time bookseller. We got to know each other, and a few months later she approached me to let me know she was no longer represented by her agent. Her first book had done well, but her later books had done less well and after her editor left, she was dropped by her publisher. She sent me a manuscript for the novel she wanted to send out on submission, which I read. With a heavy heart, I told her I didn’t think I could sell it, so I was not the right agent to represent it.  I was gutted because I really liked her, and I knew she was talking to other agents as well as me. But she gave me another chance, so we discussed her other ideas at length, and this one story about a wolf spoke to me powerfully. I was thrilled when Rosanne decided to sign with me. We worked on the book for 9 months, I did three rounds of notes, I think. Then we went out on sub – to astonishing indifference:  A Wolf Called Wander was turned down by 42 editors. Animal books were a hard sell just after the election in 2016: We kept faith through a lot of rejection! Finally, I found two editors who loved it as much as I did – one in the UK and one in Canada! We had an auction, and our little wolf was then brilliantly edited by Chloe Sackur at Andersen Press in London. Greenwillow picked up North American rights and the book sold in ten other languages. On publication, word of mouth started, and it was highlighted as an indie pick by the independent booksellers. It spent the best part of the year in the New York Times middle grade hardback bestseller list, and is currently on the paperback bestseller list. I am currently shopping film rights. Rosanne signed a three-book, six-figure deal with Greenwillow for her next books, and her follow up, A Whale of the Wild, was a Washington Post Book of the Year 2020. We are good friends, and when my heating stopped working last week, Rosanne turned up on the doorstep with a space heater and a jar of home-made soup. The best kind of client!

CM: Sounds like an incredible journey with your client! How is your agency addressing the need for diversity and inclusion in publishing? 
Fiona: In recent years, Transatlantic has made hiring agents of color a priority, and we now have a gifted group of BIPOC junior agents who are doing some fantastic deals. They are spearheading an agency-wide mentorship and intern program for aspiring agents of color, which launches in a few weeks’ time. I’m proud to be part of this and will be helping to teach negotiation skills. Each agent at Transatlantic is also taking personal steps to combat racism: my client list isn’t as diverse as it should be, and I am working to address this. So I made the decision to only accept BIPOC queries for 4 months of the year, and to give free places to aspiring writers of color on classes that I teach. I’m on the lookout for stories about disability told with authenticity, humor, and lack of sentimentality – my brother is profoundly mentally and physically disabled, and I feel stories like his are still not yet being told, especially by writers of color.   


Wish List

Genres/sub-genres you’re looking for:
    • Middle grade, especially funny stories, real children in magical worlds, and any kind of animal story. 
    • I’m passionate about the natural world and saving the planet and look for stories that chime with those beliefs, and I would especially love to find more native American writers. Yes please to a 21st century 101 Dalmatians or Charlotte’s Web. Black and Latinx environmentalists and crusaders would be terrific!
    • YA, especially romcoms, high school politics. Queer and diverse retellings of classic stories. 
    • Unreliable narrators.
    • I have a soft spot for snarky British humor – obviously!
    • For picture books, I’m currently only taking on projects with author/illustrators, especially those who share my animation background. 
    • Graphic novels – for all ages, but particularly younger middle grade. Also nonfiction graphic novels on the environment, animal behavior.
              What you’re not interested in:
              • Rhyming picture books, didactic picture book texts, poetry, screenplays or faith-based stories, and I don’t usually like sad endings.

              2 Client Examples
              (This list includes affiliate links)
                  Greenwillow Books - 2020
                  Abrams ComicArts - 2020

                  Query Tips

                  Please provide a couple of tips for querying authors.

                  I want to see three things in your query letter – 
                  • What makes this book special? 
                  • Why I should read this book NOW;
                  • And why only you can write this book.
                  • Please don’t email me directly, especially not with an attachment. I use Query Manager for everything.

                  Submission Guidelines: