08/25/2010 08:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Lit Agent Kelly Mortimer is "Defiantly Different"

Kelly Mortimer is passionate about her writers, and thinks that an agent-writer relationship should be long term, like a marriage. In this interview, she tells us why she's not interested in taking her client's money, what kinds of books get her excited, and why she thinks some people will just not get into digital publishing.

What's your official title? And why are you the best agent that you know?
My official title is: Kelly Gottuso Mortimer, the Extreme (bipolar, Italian) Agent-Diabolically Diligent. Maniacally Moral. Defiantly Different.

For the second part of the question, I'll give you the same answer I gave a conference audience in '08. All the agents were onstage for an "agent panel." The moderator asked one final question, which I was last to answer: "Why is your agency different than the others', or, what do you bring to your agency that's different?" As the mike went down the line, I heard answers like: "I was a professor of literature at Harvard," "I've sold over 800 books," "I instituted legislation that benefits all authors," and my fave, "I wrote all the correspondence for the Secretary of State."

Since I'd opened my agency in June of '06, what the heck was I gonna say to compete? I decided to tell the truth: "Every agent at this table is a better agent than me. They all have more experience; they've all gone through things I haven't gone through yet. If I was sittin' where you are now-and two years ago, I was-I'd wanna sign with one of them, not me.

"What I do differently than some? I only sign writers who haven't been published, or not in the past three years. Those are the writers I wanna help. As to me personally: I'm a fighter. I'm scrappy. I'm the female version of Rocky Balboa, and the human Sea Biscuit. I just don't have it in me to quit."

What have you done to weather the economic problems facing publishing now? And what do you tel your writers that they should be doing?
Pray. I'm big into prayin'. In addition, you might find this hard to believe, but I've done nothing to "brace myself," as I don't use my agenting commission for me. Meaning, I've never written a paycheck to Kelly Mortimer. I'm not an agent to make money, but to help writers. Sorry, but I really am more interested in what I can make for my clients, not what I can make off my clients.

What do I do with the money? I gave a client a monthly stipend for a year when her hubby couldn't work, so she didn't lose her home - I also ran eBay auctions for her, selling edits. I paid for a client's Web site, as the client couldn't afford one. I've helped non-client writers as well, both anonymously and otherwise. And I use the money for regular business expenses like conferences that aren't "all expenses paid." I'm not saying I'll never take a paycheck, but as of now, I haven't.

For writers, there are fewer deals out there for those I represent. Publishing houses are calling on their known moneymakers to put out more material, as opposed to signing writers with no track records, or worse, bad track records. Still, deals are made.

My advice is, even when you get a contract, keep your regular job, or work part-time. Wait until your numbers come in so you know more contracts are looming in your future. Some writers need to keep their jobs for years until they build a solid following. Other than that, live below your means and save every cent you can. I do count my pennies! We have a huge change jar and every evening, my hubby - he's such a sweet man - and I drop in our coins. At the end of the year, we're able to buy four 1-year passes to Disneyland.

Are you excited or worried about the potential of digital publishing, like ebooks and ereaders?
They are in the news. But for all the hemming and hawing, IMO (I know I left out the "H." Not bein' humble is what keeps me from bein' perfect. Yes, that was a joke.), new technology won't replace books. Ever. Do I think technology has a role in the future of publishing? Absolutely. What percentage? I have no idea. I can predict the future in certain aspects - Oops! Spilled the beans on that one. Guess you'll haveta watch my blog to see what I mean - but I have no idea how radically technology will change publishing as we know it. Right now, e-book sales only account for 1% of the market, expected to rise to 3% by the end of 2010 (Daily Finance, 2/17/10).

I do know many people who'll never succumb to the lure of certain technologies. I just can't see myself in a steamy, candlelit bathroom; reclining in my tub, immersed in bubbles; and ... holding a Kindle....

What do you think most editors are hoping to work with? And what are you always on the lookout for?
Truthfully, - and I mean that. I tell my gals pals not to ask me if what they're wearin' looks good, unless they really wanna know - editors are looking for books that'll make the publishing houses a lot of money. I hear once upon a time, an editor took a writer and brought them along slowly, helping them to build an audience and work their way up the ladder. They aren't allowed to do that anymore. Authors gotta charge outta the gate like a bull leaving a chute.

Technically, what's hot/what are they looking for? Depends on the editor. Everyone has their likes and dislikes. Generally, I'd say: dark paranormals, as opposed to light. Young adult. Inspirationals, especially "bonnet stories" (Amish), which are crossing over into the secular market. Urban fantasies. Suspense.

I have a lot of proposals, and I figure what I want is there, I just gotta find the time to read 'em. I'll tell you what I don't want/like for fiction: tear-jerkers (I shed enough tears being a jerk during the first-half of my life), I never liked Chick Lit (What I refer to as WWW - works of women whining), I don't wanna feel anguish (been there, done that), and I don't want something just because it's popular. I don't think it's wise for a writer to write for the market. I think a writer should write what they love, and at some point, it'll be what's hot; or mayhap their innovative writing can make the genre they love hot.

For non-fiction, I really haveta see the proposal to know if I'll like it, so I have no restrictions on what I'm willing to take a look at. I'll just mention it's vital a proposal has a strong platform and/or a humongous hook.

How should a writer approach you? And are there some kinds of query letters that you hate?
Best way for writers to approach me is like I'm a person. I often tell conference goers, "Relax. I'm really a human; I'm only disguised as a literary agent." If a writer wants to know what kind of an agent I am, they should go to my site and read my home page, which has quotes from some of my clients, or if they wanna know what kind of a person I am, read my blog. I also have an agency yahoo group/loop, where self-promotion and questions are encouraged.

Pet peeves? Writers who disregard my submission guidelines: Those who send snail-mail queries when I only take e-mail queries, those who e-mail unrequested material, and those who send queries addressed to: No one (no name whatsoever), Sir or Madame (what if I was a "Miss"? No, I'm not, but they don't know that!), Mr. Mortimer, Mr. Kelly Mortimer, Dear Agent; and my personal favorite, Dear (insert agent's name) without inserting my name - No, I'm not kidding.

To me, the agent/client relationship is like a marriage - without benefits. I'd rather avoid gettin' married; than get married and divorced. Trust me, I've done a lot of both, with clients and husbands. Either way, it bites. How can a writer know if I'm the right agent for them if they haven't even gone to my Web site?

How do I know who hasn't gone to my site? Those who send me queries via US Mail - which I toss - those who send materials not requested - which I ignore - and those who don't know my name - automatically deleted - or that I'm technically a female. What do I mean by that? I shoot rattlesnakes (never go out on my 20 acres without strappin' on the sidearm my hubby - he's such a sweet man - gave me for Christmas: a Smith & Wesson scandium-alloy-J-frame .357 Magnum M&P 360. Only weighs 13 ounces. Sigh.), drive tractors, love to ride motorcycles, know sports, and ya can't drag me to a "chick flick," but if Bruce Willis is blowin' something up, I'm there. But I'm not butch - Not that there's anything wrong with that . . . I love bubble baths, shoe shopping, make-up, and dressin' up - not cross-dressin' up-not that there's anything wrong with that either.

And finally, what is something about you that very few people know?
Ha! ROTFL! I haveta tell ya, there ain't much - refer to the above questions. I think one of the best compliments I ever received was when a good friend told me I was the most transparent person she'd ever met. I'll tell a stranger my life story if I think it'll help 'em. And I do have one-heck-of-a life story.

On the boring side, I have a Web site just for writers with lots of links at:
More interesting stuff? I quit drinkin' without attending AA meetings, I stopped smokin' without a patch, I conquered a nasty (the bad "nasty") cocaine habit without going to rehab, but for the life of me, I can't stop eatin' Trader Joe's Reduced Fat Cheese Puffs. The fat isn't reduced when one eats the entire bag in a single sitting. I wanna know what they put in those things. I know it's a vast conspiracy . . .