Agent Query: Kate McKean

with Brian Mercer

Tell me, Kate, about your path to becoming a literary agent?

I was an English major at the University of Florida, and while there my smart older sister suggested I get an internship at the University Press of Florida. That taught me the ropes and turned into a full time job after I graduated. I then went to graduate school for my Masters in Fiction Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi, where I worked on my own craft and editing skills. It was awesome. But I knew I wanted to be a professional in the industry, instead of teaching (even though I do that now, too) or do another job to pay the bills while I wrote my book. I'd always worked in sales, I have an outgoing personality, so I knew agenting would be a good fit for me. I left Mississippi, moved to New York City, and here I am (in Brooklyn).

When someone is pitching a project to you, either in-person or through a query letter, what's going through your mind? How are you evaluating it?

My first thought is: "Do I want to know more?" If I'm captivated by the story, whether fiction or non-fiction, and want to find out what happens, then there's a good chance another reader will, too. Close on that thought's heels is: "Can I sell it?" If it's non-fiction, I also think: "Does the Author have a big enough platform? Is he or she established in this subject area?"

As an agent, you're not just handing a writer's manuscript over to editors but working with your clients to make the work the best it can be.  Can you speak to that process and what you bring to it?

I am a hands-on agent when it comes to editing. My years in University publishing and in workshops speak to that. But every manuscript is different. Some need close line editing. Some just need revision notes, and the Author takes off without more detailed guidance. I always stop when I'm just replacing words with others *I* would have chosen. It's not my manuscript; it's my client's. I've been on the other end of the editing pen, so I know how my clients feel, and hopefully that helps.

When we as authors are preparing and sending out query letters, we're trying to get a mental image of what it's like for the agent when they receive it.  Would you describe one of your typical query letter reading sessions? 

I try to read queries early in the morning, before the phone starts ringing or other emails come pouring in, several times week. I can only do 50 or so at a time or my eyes glaze over. I get about 100 a week. I know I've got something good when  .

I can't stop scrolling or when I forget I'm even looking at a computer screen. I want to forget I'm working when I'm reading queries, and just feel like I'm reading for the fun of it.

What percentage of queries do you reject simply because they are either not what you represent or the work that was submitted just wasn't ready?

I don't have a number for you, but it's a lot. Maybe just about half. It's usually the case that the query is not a genre I'm looking for or it's not suitable for the genre it wants to be (too short for a novel, for example), when I pass on a project for reasons other than merit. Because even if it's a really good book, I'm not going to be the right agent for it if I don't know the editors who buy in that genre. Any agent is not always the right agent.

When a writer gets an offer of representation, how should he or she be evaluating the agent to insure that it's a good fit?  What qualities should a writer look for in an agent?

This is a big question, but the author should consider how each party's personal working style meshes, how familiar the agent is with the author's genre, what each expects in regards to editing, and many other things. An author should look for an agent that she can see talking to in depth about her project, in a professional way, and one whose advice she would trust. An agent should be organized and communicative. And one who is above all, passionate about her project. An agent is not a therapist or a BFF (though friendships can and do develop). Communication is the most important thing, I think.

What material are you especially attracted to these days?  What are you presently acquiring?

I'm very interested in contemporary (non-fantasy) young adult and commercial women's fiction. I am still open to fantasy, but I'd also like to read some books about non-magical people, too. 

In addition, I'm always looking for romance, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, middle grade fiction, narrative non-fiction, sports related books, food writing, pop culture, humor and craft. 

I'm not looking for any epic fantasy, science fiction, police procedurals, crime fiction, or children's picture books.

You can learn more about Kate McKean here.

Brian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection(Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007).  He is a board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association.

Brian MercerComment