Book Broker – an interview with Kate Johnson
Agent: Kate Johnson
Preferred genres: literary and upmarket/book club fiction, memoir, narrative & creative nonfiction.
Bio: Kate Johnson is an agent at Wolf Literary Services, where she represents a range of fiction and nonfiction. Her authors have won the PEN Faulkner Award, Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, Whiting Award, Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize for Fiction, National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, and the Nigeria Prize for Literature. Kate regularly visits literary festivals and courses, and has judged the Bristol Short Story Prize and Bath Short Story Award. She was previously an agent and vice president for Georges Borchardt, Inc.; has edited and reported at StoryQuarterly, Bookslut.com, New York magazine; and graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
Voice is always the first thing that catches my attention: whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I want a narrator with a distinct way of looking at the world, someone I want to spend time with for the length of the read. And that means I want an author to have devoted enough time working on a novel to fully inhabit that voice, so that the storytelling is authentic and capable, not just a series of plot points.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
There are exceptions to this rule—and I admit I’m biased toward more sparse writing over big baroque tales—but when a novel is much more than 100K words, it’s often the first sign that it needs an edit for pacing or repetition.
For nonfiction, if the intended audience isn’t clear, or if it lacks a chapter outline, then that’s usually an indicator that the author hasn’t yet put the required thought into their idea. Sometimes I can still see a seed of an idea in a book and the author and I will work on shaping it together—and I do see it as the agent’s job to help identify the market and package the project for a submission—but when a proposal is competing against a hundred others for my time and attention, the more polished submission is going to win.
3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
Fiction-wise, I’d love to find a novel that grapples with the Hong Kong protests in some way, or life in the Gaza Strip right now. And I’m perennially interested in stories about perception: whether it’s more cerebral (the pain of two people never quite seeing the same thing in the same way), or basic and physical (say, a protagonist dealing with blindness or deafness). And I’d love to see more fiction that looks at unconventional love: stories about caregivers, or blended families, or the irritable old lady next door who gradually becomes an essential part of the fabric of your life.
In nonfiction, I’m hunting for cultural histories of food or craft, social-justice-driven narratives, underexplored subcultures, people on the margins, retold histories, and memoir as a way into a broader topic. And I have an eye out for a literary, empathetic true crime.
4) What do you love most about being an agent, and what do you find the most challenging?
One of the best moments, or series of moments, is the process when a book starts to feel real to an author: when they see the jacket, or get their first ever blurb—that first realization that their work is going to be read by the outside world, and that after countless hours of thinking and writing and editing and anxiety, it is going to be something they can hold and show their mothers.
On the challenging side, I find it wearying to write rejections (it really doesn’t feel good to pass on someone’s book, even if it’s something I do often). And I feel discouraged when a good book just doesn’t land in the way it should, be it due to lackluster publicity or, say, being published in the middle of a global pandemic.
5) What typically draws you deep into a manuscript? What common snags are likely to break your narrative immersion?
It’s always the voice that draws me in—an assured storyteller, a guiding hand—and often it’s unnatural or unnecessary dialogue that kicks me out. Dialogue is so hard to get right, and I find it’s often the least efficient way to get a story across. I also stop at the kind of early expository paragraphs that try and tell you all you need to know about a character, rather than giving you a chance to gradually learn as the narrative unfolds (in other words, telling rather than showing).
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
More diversity among the industry, and (perhaps as a result) more diversity in the books we collectively put out into the world. A big change that means a lot of little changes, from higher entry-level wages to rethinking the comp title system we use for acquisitions.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
Fifty Sounds by the Japanese translator Polly Barton is one of the smartest books I’ve come across in a long time, but for all its intelligence, it’s also warm and accessible, candid and vulnerable. It’s a memoir about Polly’s time living in Japan as an English teacher, but it’s also about how we learn, how we use language, how precious and precarious understanding is. Its curiosity feels infectious.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
All of my authors are exciting! I’ll share the book coming out next: The Raptures by Jan Carson, who the Sunday Times UK has called “one of the most exciting and original Northern Irish writers of her generation.” Set in rural Northern Ireland, over a summer when several children from the same village start succumbing to a mysterious illness—except for one child, haunted by guilt at being the sole survivor. Tempers simmer, panic escalates and long-buried secrets threaten to emerge. It’s imaginative, dark, funny, and profoundly empathetic.
And Jan as a writer is fearless and one of the hardest working people I know: she’s written novels (her previous one, The Fire Starters, won the EU Prize for Literature), flash fiction, stories, radio plays, is trying her hand at a musical (despite hating musicals), and is deeply engaged with her literary community.