#40: An Interview Kate McKean, by Maria Gagliano

Pitching an agent can seem like mysterious work. Like most creative endeavors, all responses are subjective—what doesn’t make one person tick can read like a bestseller to someone else. And the hard truth is, in some way, everyone’s response is right. If one agent doesn’t see the potential in a book, it’s not the project for them, and they should pass. The challenge is in finding an agent with just the right taste, at just the right point in her career, and with just the right eye to help bring your project to its fullest potential. Not easy. In this interview agent Kate McKean shares her process of finding and working with projects that gel with her.

Kate is moderating one of the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference’s most buzzed-about panels: Art vs. Commerce: It’s Not All About the Writing. This panel debuted at our 2013 conference to a packed room, and we’re bringing it back this year with much excitement. Here Kate shares a little about her take on the friction between art and commerce in book publishing. The conversation will unfold in full force on September 7.

You’re moderating our panel “Art vs. Commerce: It’s Not All About the Writing.” You’d actually suggested this as a panel idea last year and it’s now among our most popular. How has the friction between art and commerce affected your work as a literary agent? 

KM: The friction between art and commerce in publishing forces me to be even more choosey about the projects I represent. I’ve read many, many novels that were beautifully written that I knew (and sometimes later confirmed) would not sell. That happened to me with a query last week. And then there are the novels that I’m sure will sell that I don’t take on because I do not connect with the writing. The truth of all writing is that not all novels we write will sell–good, bad, “commercial,” or “literary.” And that most (I hesitate to say all here) novels that sell have some art and some commerce in them. Regardless, all writers have to take the reader into account. Don’t forget, the reader is not only the person who will read your book, but the person who pays money for your book.

What projects do you typically represent?

KM: I have a diverse list. On one hand there are my non-fiction clients working in craft, humor, food writing, sports, and memoir, much of that highly illustrated and spawned from the internet. On the other I have my fiction writers, writing mainly in contemporary YA, fantasy (YA and adult), and some commercial and literary fiction for adults. You have to diversify as an agent, both in working in tune with the market, and taking my sanity into consideration. I could not just work with one kind of book all day.

What are some surprising, yet common, mistakes that writers make when pitching their work to you?

KM: Writers forget to tell me what happens in their books. They spend so much time telling me about how they wrote it and why they wrote it that they forget about the things that make the reader turn the page. Also: abstractions. I don’t care if your novel is about love, faith, heartbreak, forgiveness, and acceptance. I want to know that it’s about the mom who comes back from rehab to an empty house.

How much editorial work do you typically do with a client before submitting their project to publishers? 

KM: It varies from client to client. Some need several line edits, some just need a more broad editorial note. And sometimes that changes from book to book with one author. I think I work more closely editorially with my clients than other agents because of my MFA background, but it just depends on what the client/book needs. My goal is to address the issues I know an editor is going to point out so we don’t give them that easy reason to say no. The rest is kismet.

Would you take on a client if you saw the potential in their project, but knew it still needed substantial work before it could be publisher-ready?

KM: Two years ago, yes. Now? Not so much. My client list is getting full and I don’t have the time to go through four rounds of edits on a project before sending it out. That’s the natural course of an agent’s career, I believe. Luckily, there are still young and hungry agents out there who have this time. That is to say, if the writer was out of this world amazing and needed work, I would take them on. But just potential is not enough.

Where do you usually find clients? Is blind querying effective, or do you tend to find more clients through referrals or some kind of in-person meeting?

KM: This has changed in the last few years, too. Before, I was finding most of my fiction through slush (unsolicited queries) and most of my non-fiction from me reaching out to writers on the internet, including Twitter and Tumblr. Now, it’s much more through referrals. I still find writers through the query pile and conferences, though, just less often than before. I expect this will ebb and flow throughout my career. Sometimes the query pile is full of gold, sometimes your clients know all the good writers.


Kate McKean is a literary agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency in Brooklyn, NY, where she has worked for over seven years. She earned her Master’s in Fiction Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi, and enjoys both the creative and business aspects of her job. Her clients include Madeleine Roux’s New York Times bestselling YA novel ASYLUM, and New York Times bestselling humor book I Can Has Cheezburger. She is most interested in contemporary women’s fiction, middle grade and young adult fiction, as well as memoir.

Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and Business Director of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, and Salon, among other publications. When she’s not playing with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian parents. She shares her (mis)adventures at