Deez Interviews: Meet Kate McKean, the literary agent with the best advice on building your platform and dealing with the slo-mo publishing industry
Happy Friday, Deezers! This week’s interview is with Kate McKean, whose verrrrrry elucidating Agents and Books newsletter is one of the best places to get actually practical and dishy info about how the publishing biz works. Enjoy!!
The interviewee: Kate McKean (follow her @kate_mckean!)
The gig: VP & literary agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency
You’ve talked about realizing that you wanted to be a literary agent when you were in an MFA program yourself. What drew you into this line of work?
I was working as an editorial assistant at the University Press of Florida, at the suggestion of my genius sister who knew I would need some kind of career with an English degree, and I started reading Publisher's Marketplace's daily newsletter, Publisher's Lunch. (The OG publishing newsletter.) I always knew I wanted to work with books — writing, editing, something — but as I learned about agents, I knew it was right for me.
I'm outgoing and like to be in control. Selling things and making phone calls doesn't really scare me. I knew (somehow, I have no idea how) that I wouldn't have to live in New York forever as an agent, and probably would if I were an editor (15 years later I'm still here! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯).
I don't know how I knew so much about myself as a 22-year-old, but I was exactly right. Being an agent is perfectly suited to my personality. I still went and got my MFA because I wanted to write, but that only reinforced that I knew I wanted and needed a career on top of whatever writing I wanted to do.
Your client list includes internet sensations (like I Can Has Cheezburger) and digital media savants like Daniel Ortberg. How does digital space play into your work, both in terms of finding voices to represent but also then figuring out how to shepherd internet-y work into print?
It's just where the writers are. Before the internet and digital media, agents found writers from journals and newspapers and magazines and cold submissions, and we all still do. Those journals and newspapers etc. are online (too) now, and submissions come in through email. It was just physically easier to find new writers with a keyboard and monitor and computer.
What changed on the publishing side is that the editor/agent has to figure out how online readers intersect with book readers. There's some stuff we know (no one really wants to buy a book of printed out blog posts) and some stuff we don't (why some things are beloved online, but for free, and others are beloved online and people want to pay money for a book).
It sounds pat, but every book is truly different, whether that author has an online following or not. Books are not websites. They have different uses and formats and readers. It sounds obvious, but that's the lens we have to look through to help writers make the jump from online to print.
Your newsletter, Agents and Books, offers answers to common questions you get about literary agents, publishing, and writing. What inspired you to start this newsletter — and to provide the most vital information about your work for free?
I'm a writer and a teacher, too, and I love love love talking about publishing. I love doing conferences and panels and talks and educating people about this stupid, infuriating, wonderful, magical business of books.
When I learned about Substack, it seemed like a perfect fit — easy to use, easy to monetize, lots of control over my content. I wanted to make money off of it because I believe in writers (including me) being paid for their writing, but I was also very aware that a lot of publishing information is behind a paywall, real or metaphorical.
I wanted to provide lots of nuts and bolts information for free — where to find agents, how to write a query letter — in one place that would (hopefully) be easier to fine, while saving some of my ~~deep thoughts~~ and other things for paying subscribers. There's been some give in take in that plan as I write more and more newsletters, but I still think that it's important to teach people about the industry they very much want to be a part of.
Writers coming up through digital media in hot pursuit of a book deal often are surprised to find that the publishing industry is often a whole different ball game. What's one difference between the two industries more people should know about?
EVERYTHING MOVES SO SLOWLY!!! It takes weeks and weeks for me to read things, for editors to read things and make an offer on a book, for a contract to get done. It takes MONTHS and YEARS for the publisher to edit and print a book.
People think that technology should have made this whole process faster and easier, and it has, but it's still one person writing, one person editing, a few people designing and copyediting and selling a single book. I told someone today that their book, if it was ready to go right now to editors, probably wouldn't come out until early 2022 and they gasped. But yep, that's how it goes.
Also, you'll never have up to the minute sales metrics, but I'm definitely now going to write a newsletter about this, so brb.
Finally, you've written in your newsletter (“How Publicity Works”) about the importance of having a platform, especially when it comes to actually selling books. What advice do you have about building a platform without becoming too much of a personal brand shill?
Building a platform is not the same thing as selling stuff. You build a platform by doing the thing you want to be known for — writing things, talking about things, participating in a community. You could write a newsletter! Post and comment on news articles related to your platform.
Over time, you become known for something (i.e. your personal brand), and if you can monetize it (i.e. sell a book) THEN you will eventually have something to shill and sell and promote.
Promoting yourself on the internet is hard and makes a lot of people cringe. There is a difference, though, between BUY ALL MY STUFF RIGHT NOW and I think these things, what do you think?
Don't be a jerk, obviously. Some people don't realize that the platform comes before the book, or whatever you want to sell. The book doesn't build the platform. I am absolutely and totally using my newsletter to build my own platform, as well as to educate people about publishing, because I would definitely like to write a book about this one day. I'm taking my own advice.