Book Broker – an interview with Kate McKean
Agent: Kate McKean
Preferred genres: Adult—science fiction, fantasy, contemporary women's fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction, memoir, narrative non-fiction, graphic novels, gift books. Kids—YA and MG fiction of all stripes, graphic novels, non-fiction of all stripes, select picture books.
Bio: Kate McKean joined HMLA in 2006. She earned her master’s degree in fiction writing at the University of Southern Mississippi and began her publishing career at the University Press of Florida. She is proud to work with authors in a wide variety of genres including Daniel M. Lavery's spectacular memoir SOMETHING THAT MAY SHOCK AND DISCREDIT YOU, Alix E. Harrow's award winning novel THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY and Trung Le Nguyen's acclaimed graphic novel THE MAGIC FISH. In addition to working with clients, she is an adjunct professor at New York University.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
I like to forget I'm reading a submission. I know this isn't anything an author can plan for, but when the writing or voice or idea is particularly transporting and reading submissions stops feeling like work and just feels like reading for pleasure, that's when I know I have something special. That's why authors should just write what's in their heart and make it the best they can instead of trying to game the system through tips and tricks. You just want to connect with readers. Just do your best to do that.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
One sign is a word count that is wildly off the mark for the genre. When I see a commercial novel that's 200k words or 35k words, I know the author isn't done editing (or writing) and the book isn't ready for me to read. (And I wrote more about word counts for different genres here in my newsletter: Agents & Books.)
3) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?
Relax. There are very few things that will get you automatically rejected (and zero things that will get you automatically accepted). Act as you would in any professional situation and put your best foot forward. Give agents the information THEY need to make a decision about your work (which is why submission guidelines vary from agent to agent) and let them do their job. The same reason you wouldn't tap dance into a job interview is the same reason you don't need to pile bells and whistles on your query letters.
4) What are the three most overused opening scenes that you encounter in submissions?
I mean, everyone must have the same first answer right? It's waking up—in the morning or from a coma or after a car accident or in the middle of the night or whatever. It's natural to think of a story starting the way a person's day starts (in the case of waking up in the morning and taking a shower and examining their face in the mirror to tell the reader what they look like and making coffee) but it's boring and overused. Start literally anywhere else. I'm not sure I can even think of two more since that one's so prevalent.
5) Approximately how many query letters do you receive per year? Of those, how many will you respond to with a request for a full manuscript? And of those, how many are likely to receive an offer of representation?
I don't keep track of this number in a formal way. I probably get about 6-7000 queries a year, give or take. I probably request a full from maybe 30 of them and then offer representation to fewer than a dozen people. That's mostly because I have a pretty full client list at this point in my career. I don't think it's useful to dwell on those numbers because (a) they aren't very encouraging to writers! and (b) you just never know. I could have gotten on some list somewhere that says I want mysteries and 1000 of those queries are mysteries to which I respond right away that I don't represent that genre. Or one month all my clients are busy with projects and I have more time to read and that month alone I request 30 things and one of them is yours. It is and isn't a numbers game, but moreover it's a connection game. You just want to find the agent who is passionate about your work. You can't do that unless you query.
6) What is the average length of time it takes to place a manuscript with a publisher, and what is your strategy for a client whose manuscript isn't selling?
I sold two things this month that had been on submission for almost a year. I also sold something that was on submission for about 3 weeks. I would say on average something is on submission for roughly 3-4 months until we get an idea of how it's going to go. Each book has a different submission strategy, so some books have small submission lists that go through several rounds of submissions and others have a big, big list that goes to a lot of people at one time. I'm sorry that all my answers are it depends! but it's just true. Every book is different and an agent should approach them that way.
When we're not getting the answers we're hoping for, I take a look at the rejections and see if there is a common theme and if there's a revision to undertake. Sometimes the plan is just send to more people because we haven't found our match. And sometimes there are just no more people to send to and there's nothing left to do but work on something else. I do not believe in any-port-in-a-storm style submissions. I do not send to a publisher I wouldn't be proud to be published by myself.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
Rumaan Alam's LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND.
It's out on October 6th and I got a galley. Rumaan is a fantastic writer and that first chapter drew me in with his voice alone. But it also creates this wonderfully creepy mood where you know something weird or bad is going to happen but you don't know what yet and it makes you crave the next and next and next chapter. It's a delicious book.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
I can't wait for the world to read Trung Le Nguyen's debut graphic novel THE MAGIC FISH. It's earned starred reviews from Booklist and Kirkus and everyone who's read it has fallen instantly in love. I think it's going to make a big splash.