Friday, September 17, 2010

Interactive Interview with an Agent: Kate McKean

Today’s interactive installment of “Interview with an Agent” features Kate McKean of Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. I’ll meet you at the bottom with details on the interactive part. Enjoy!

KV: How did you get into agenting?

KM: I always knew I would work with writing and books. I learned the ropes at the University Press of Florida after college, then earned my Masters in Fiction Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi. After I annoyed all my workshop-mates in grad school asking "Who's going to buy this? Who's going to read this?" I decided to move to New York and work in publishing. I was pretty sure I wanted to be an agent--salesmanship runs in my family and I knew I wanted to be on the idea-generation side of things. Turns out I was right. I love my job.

KV: How would you summarize your personal agenting philosophy? What do you expect from an agent-author relationship?

KM: My personal agenting philosophy is find good work and share it. I want to fall in love with books so that I can be the best advocate for my authors.

From the agent-author relationship I expect mutual respect, understanding, professionalism, reasonable expectations (on both parts), and shared excitement over books. (And a healthy patience on the author's part for my frequent use of words like LOL, Woot!, and OMG.)

KV: What client work do you have coming out soon? What drew you to those writers and/or projects?

KM: Coming soon are Boo Davis' DARE TO BE SQUARE (August 31), an amazing quilting book out by Potter Craft. Her work is new, modern, and gorgeous, but still celebrates traditional quilting. I first saw her work in BUST magazine and I just knew crafters would love it. She was just featured in the New York Times.

In July, Carey Wallace's debut novel THE BLIND CONTESSA'S NEW MACHINE (Viking/Pamela Dorman Books) came out, and it's amazing, if I do say so myself. It's about an Italian Contessa who is slowly losing her sight. She rebuilds her world in her imagination, and there's a touch of magical realism in the end. Plus, her lover (not her husband) makes her one of the world’s first typewriters so they can communicate, and of course that causes problems. A friend referred Carey to me and I just knew she was the real deal. I definitely fell in love with this book.

But there's also THE BOOK OF "UNNECESSARY" QUOTATION MARKS! Hilarious stuff! I'm a grammar geek, so loving this book was a no-brainer for me.

KV: What genres do you represent? What genres do you definitely NOT represent?

KM: Fiction: Adult: contemporary women's fiction, paranormal romance, romantic suspense, urban fantasy, and literary fiction.

YA and MG: pretty much anything. (Though I'm totally tired of angels right now.)

Non-fiction: craft, sports, humor, pop and internet culture, blog-to-book properties, food writing, health, wellness, (humorous, light) reference, technology, and memoir/narrative non-fiction.

I definitely do NOT represent serious books about history, politics, religion, or science--in fiction or non-fiction. I don't represent epic fantasy, police procedurals, thrillers, or children's picture books. Also, if your book centers around FBI/CIA agents, detectives, spies, terrorist cells, corporate espionage, government conspiracy, serial killers, metaphysical/enlightenment journeys, or serves as a way to right all the wrongs that have ever been done to you or anyone you know, I'm probably not the right agent for you.

KV: What query pet peeves and/or pitfalls should writers avoid when querying you?

KM: I do not accept paper queries, and require the first three chapters of your work with your query. Not following these simple steps is definitely annoying.

Please don't respond to a rejection, even if it's just a quick question, just this once. Unfortunately, I can't afford to give out free editorial/agent finding advice to everyone. I get 300-500 queries a month.

KV: What are you looking for in a manuscript right now?

KM: I'm looking for excellent writing paired with a good understanding that the reader must be entertained every step of the way. The reader, not the author, is paramount in this relationship. Also, I'm really looking for more YA and MG contemporary (i.e., not-fantasy) novels, and smart romantic suspense and urban fantasy/paranormal romance for adults.

KV: What’s the best way to query you?

KM: E-mail only: Please include the FIRST three chapters. E-mail attachments are fine.

Thanks again, Ms. McKean, for these detailed responses. I always like finding agents who take such large writing samples in the initial query, and I’m sure everyone else does, too.

If you have a question for Ms. McKean, feel free to leave it in the comments below. She’ll check in periodically throughout the day and leave you an answer. She’s also up for answering a few questions via her Twitter handle, @kate_mckean, so if you’d prefer to ask her your question there, have at it. All of this is a one-day-only event, though, so I'll be cutting off questions at 5:00 p.m. EDT (which is 2:00 p.m. PDT). Don’t delay!

Looking forward to your questions and Ms. McKean's responses!


Erin Edwards said...

Hi! Great interview! I thought the comments in masters class about "But who's going to *buy* this stuff?" was pretty funny. :)

Kate: You said you do "NOT represent serious books about... science -- in fiction.." What about a non-serious book with science in a fantasy MG novel?

Huntress said...

Is urban fantasy selling well and do you see the trend continuing?

Kate McKean said...

@Erin Edwards: I like science and I like MG, so that's fine. It's not the subject I'm concerned about--it's the audience.

@Huntress: UF seems to be going strong. I'm still looking for it. Just remember, what's on the shelf now was sold a year ago, and written two or more years ago. Trends are tough to chase.

Anonymous said...

What is your average response time for queries and submissions?

Kate McKean said...

@Anonymous: It varies, but I try to get to queries and requested mss in 6-12 weeks.

Anonymous said...

What would you say the minimum length is for literary fiction? I've got a finished manuscript that comes in short. The novel stands strong as is, but I'm concerned the length will be a de facto rejection. Should I force myself to add more at the risk of creating filler? Or go as it is? Thanks in advance for your help. I'm really grateful to have a way to ask questions!

Kate McKean said...

@Anonymous: I have a hard time selling books under 50k words (YA, MG or adult. I don't do chapter books). The main reason is that when published in hardcover and priced at $25, book buyers feel like they're not getting their money's worth if the book's slim. And publishers make the most money on hardcovers.

I firmly believe you shouldn't shoehorn stuff in a book just to make it market ready. Maybe this isn't the book to publish now.

If it's right around 50k you might be able to squeak by. If it's more like 30k, it's a novella, and I'm not looking to acquire those at all. And I don't know the editors who do, either.

Ken said...

Kate, do you prefer active or passive YA protags? I notice most are pretty passive (stuff happens to them, they react) vice active (where protags take the initiative and solve the problem).

Kate McKean said...

@Ken If I had to choose, I'd say active. But I don't tend to think about novels in that way. I prefer to be so swept away in the prose and plot that I'm not thinking of mechanics. I wouldn't reject a book because the protag was either/or--I'd pass because I didn't connect with the story either way.

lotusgirl said...

Thanks for the interview Krista. It was nice to get to know Ms. McKean better. She's one of the agents I've been researching.

Ms. McKean, how editorial are you as an agent?

Julie Lindsey said...

Headed to my first ever writing conference and I have a pitch too! Any advice for either?

Krista V. said...

Kate, I remember reading somewhere that you enjoy college football. Since it's one of my addictions as well, I have two questions for you: What team do you cheer for, and what do you think of all the wackiness that went on out West this summer? (Or are you Easterners all above any goings-on west of the Big Ten (plus two, now)? :) )

Kate McKean said...

@lotusgirl: I'm pretty hands on editorially as an agent--up to as much as the manuscript needs. I've gone four rounds with one manuscript, and sent another out after one read-through. Every book is different. But I like editing.

@Julie Lindsey: Don't be shy! Remember, agents and editors are just people and they like books as much as you do. Talk to us like we're humans, not magical beings who can grant the power of publication upon you. Talk to other writers, too. Make friends. Relax during your pitch and just tell us about your book. I've never decided to reject a book on an in-person pitch alone---unless the author came off as a crazy, unhinged, stalker. :) Also, never, ever, ever pitch to an agent or editor in the bathroom.

@Krista V. GO GATORS! And being that I'm an SEC girl, I conveniently forget (ignore?) football in the West. USCWho? I also follow a little Big Ten, mainly Wisconsin.

folksinmt said...

It seems like every YA novel I pick up lately is 1st person. Am I shooting myself in the foot by writing in 3rd? Could a book in 3rd be instantly rejected because of that fact?

Thanks for taking time to do this!

Kate McKean said...

@folksinmt: Don't overthink your book. POV would never make or break a submission for me. Just write a good book.

Kim Batchelor said...

If I know one of your clients, should I mention that in my query? And should I shower him with gifts to make sure that he speaks well of me, should you ask?

Kate McKean said...

@Kim Batchelor Talk to your friend and see if they will offer to formally refer you to me. But don't be upset if they decline. Some people don't want to share or mix business and friends.

If that's not right for you, clearly indicate your relationship to my client, i.e. went to elementary school with, married to, saw once at a conference, stalk on the internet...

It's nice to have a connection, but a direct, personal referral means more than "hey, I know this dude you know." :)

MS Winchell said...

I noticed you said you have a hard time selling a book under 50K. Does that go for MG too? I have read that 30-50K is ideal. Mine is @ 40K and your comment has me worried. I have another @ 36K. Is that bad?

Also, if someone sent a query to you the day you opened to Q, and then received the "out of office" message, does that mean it went through or did not. Should they (I) re-send?

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I don't have a question, but just wanted to say thank you for the great interview, Kate and Krista!


Kate McKean said...

@MS Winchell: MG chapter books can be less than 50k, but I don't work with those, so it's not my area of expertise. I still think MG stand alone, normal novels should be close to 50k. 36k for a non-chapter book would give me pause. If I saw one that was 40k but AWESOME, I'd probably work with it. There is an exception to every rule--just don't assume you're the exception.

If you got my OOF message, I still received your email. No need to resend if you sent on the 13th. OOF responses don't automatically delete an email, they just bounce a reply back.

@A.L. Sonnichesen You're welcome!

Krista V. said...

Thanks, everyone, for making another interactive interview a success! And thank you, Kate, for taking the time to answer all our questions.

Have a great weekend, all!

Erica75 said...

Can't help but add: Go Badgers!!!!
(Umm, sorry. But yay college football and yay Badgers. Umm, sorry. This really was a good interview.)
(also, my verification code is chiesse, which made me think of cheese, which led me to post about the Badgers. It's not me, it's the word verification talking!)

Krista V. said...

Hmm. Maybe I need to do a post on college football so we can all declare our allegiances... :)

SuzanneWrites said...

Great interview! :)

Krista V. said...

Thanks, Suzanne.

Anonymous said...

Go Badgers and go fab agents like Kate who take the time to respond to our questions!

Krista V. said...

Thanks for stopping by, chriskellywriter!