#SLWC17: Meet the Speakers: An Interview with Literary Agent Kate McKean
July 24, 2017
by Maria Gagliano
Every year the book world changes all around us. The Big Six shrink to the Big Five, while indie presses claim a bigger stake in the industry. Editors come and go; print books peak, drop, and then make a comeback. Lit trends cycle through the marketplace. But what does it all mean for writers trying to get their work noticed by editors and agents?
Literary agent Kate McKean chatted with us about how she’s seen the business change since she started well over a decade ago, for better or worse. Kate will share more of her wisdom at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn on September 10, when she joins us for our panel, “Welcome to the 2017 Book World.” Conference attendees can also sign up to pitch their work to Kate in person at a one-on-one meeting. But note: Kate is not the agent for you if you’re writing about dragons. Don’t even try her, no matter how good your writing may be.
I imagine you have an especially sharp sense of how things have changed over the years since you have a long history of helping people make the leap from online personality (i.e., many bloggers) to published author. Whether online or off, what stands out to you the most in terms of how the industry has changed in recent years?
The consolidation of publishing houses has and will continue to have the biggest effect on publishing–and readers and authors may not even notice. As publishing houses merge, the rules change on how agents can submit to editors. It hasn’t gotten too bad with the merger of Penguin and Random House, but it’s far from over. The fewer players we have–and this goes for retailers too–the fewer opportunities readers and authors will have.
Where do you typically look for (and find) clients? Has this changed over the years?
In my early days, I got many clients out of the slush pile. I’d say most of the books I sold in my first two years were straight from slush and those authors continue to sell for me today. But I also get many clients from reading and interacting with authors on the Internet. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, news sites, blogs, etc.—whether it’s a writer on a particular topic (I am still on the hunt for a sociologist or otherwise for a book on Emotional Labor) or someone’s voice I enjoy very much, I’ll reach out, or they will connect with me. More so now, I get a lot of clients from personal referral. That’s the best, because I already know they’re awesome because my awesome client likes them. It doesn’t always work out, but I enjoy making those connections.
Are there any reasons you might pass on representing an author that would surprise writers?
I don’t like books with dragons. I know! It’s more or less arbitrary, but I just don’t care for them. I like fantasy, but dragons just don’t do it for me. I also am not really into Arthurian legends or archeology/Indian Jones-type/mummies/Ancient Egypt. Again—mostly arbitrary! But those subjects don’t excite me. Luckily, there are dozens and dozens of other agents who are excited by those subjects.
Note: that doesn’t mean the books I see about those subjects are bad—I just am not the right reader for them. That’s very often why I, or other agents, pass on a book. And I don’t even know the editors who like books about Ancient Egypt, so I would be the worst agent for those books. That’s why agents A: put their preferences online and B: say “this one’s not for me.” I would be a terrible agent for an adult mystery or thriller or WWII non-fiction book, too. I don’t sell those, so I don’t know those editors.
Oh, and if I see you’re being an egregious troll on the Internet, I’ll pass. Agents Google authors. Be mindful of that.
Can you tell us about a debut author that you’re excited to launch this year? How did you connect with him/her?
I was really proud to help Biz Ellis and Theresa Thorn publish You’re Doing a Great Job: 100 Ways You’re Winning at Parenting (Countryman, 2017). They’re the hosts of one of my favorite podcasts, One Bad Mother, and as a new parent myself, their message of you’re doing a great job was so helpful to me. I started out as a fan, and then reached out to them before my daughter was born last fall. I was thrilled they wanted to do a book!
Most of the parenting “advice” or messaging out there is BE CAREFUL NOT TO F*CK UP YOUR KID, which in terms of general safety is great advice. But it seems everything will mess up your kid, and that’s just not true. Biz and Theresa are hilarious and approach parenting with humor, acceptance, and love. They encourage you to go through the world telling others they’re doing a good job, which EVERY parent needs to hear, and to tell that to yourself, too. The book is a fun gift book (perfect for baby showers!) but it’s full of real, important messages about taking a breath and realizing you’re not going to mess up your kid because they had non-organic blueberries or watch half an hour (or three) of Elmo.
What’s on your project wish list at the moment?
As I mentioned, I really want a non-fiction book by an established writer with a platform about Emotional Labor, particularly in coupled relationships. I want some truly sublime, entertaining middle grade fiction. I want memoir, especially from women, but also from other non-female minority communities, beautifully written and emotionally realized. I’d love more work about parenting from non-traditional families and people of color. I want a novel like The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe—about women in the workplace set in the 50s, 60s, 70s, whether it’s like Mad Men, but from Joan/Betty’s POV or something I’ve never seen before. I’m fascinated by women of that era subverting the norm.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, and co-founder/Business Director of Slice.
Kate McKean is vice president and literary agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency in Brooklyn, New York, where she has worked for more than eleven 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. She also teaches classes in publishing at New York University. Her clients include New York Times bestselling YA horror author Madeleine Roux, YA and adult fantasy author Delilah S. Dawson, and author of the New York Times bestselling Texts from Jane Eyre, Mallory Ortberg.