Insights from a publisher-turned-agent: Interview with Kate Burke
Kate Burke is the fiction literary agent at Northbank Talent Management, having joined in 2013, and represents a variety of bestselling and prize-winning authors. Before that, she was a fiction editor for ten years, working at Penguin, HarperCollins and Random House.
1) You worked as a commercial fiction editor before making the leap into agenting: how did this come about, and how does your editorial background help you in your work as an agent?
I loved working in publishing (at Headline, Penguin, HarperCollins and Random House) but the higher I climbed on the editorial ladder, the further away I felt from the authors and editing (my first love) so it was time for a change. Agenting seemed like a logical next step – I knew the business, how publishers worked, and what sold so why not go out and find new writers? That was five years ago and I haven’t looked back!
My editorial background means that I can offer my clients expertise on both side of the business and I often spend months working on drafts with my clients before submitting to publishers. I dedicate as much time is needed to get the novel right – it always pays off in the long run!
2) What do you think are the essential ingredients for good agent–publisher relationships?
I think frequent communication from both sides goes a long way, a willingness to compromise (again from both sides) is ideal and a good personal connection can really help. As I have worked in the business for many years, I know a lot of editors but, of course, editors move around and new ones join all the time so it’s my job to connect with everyone out there who is acquiring books. I make time to get to know them and to see them fairly regularly to keep up with what they’re doing, publishing and looking to acquire.
3) Your agency has recently relaunched as a full-service agency (giving equal weighting to books, broadcast, brand licensing and public speaking). Is this a trend in the literary agenting world?
I don’t think it’s a trend but I do think it’s forward-thinking to explore new avenues for our clients and to be able to offer a full service by in-house staff. In this digital age, there are so many more opportunities to connect with an audience and to think outside the box in terms of content. As a fiction agent, my starting point is always the book itself but, as an agency, we are always looking at new and creative ways to originate projects, to take books to new audiences and to ensure that our clients have a voice.
4) What does this change mean for the way you work with publishers?
It doesn’t actually change anything in the way we work with publishers as we have always been very focussed on selling rights ourselves. Yes, we have added strands to the business, such as building a speakers’ bureau and bringing in a broadcast agent but we will continue to be an agency that retains as many rights as we can (translation, film & television, audio). Our goal is to sell those rights directly to publishers and studios in order to secure a better financial deal for our authors, and that hasn’t changed. Of course, we can’t always retain these rights but we try to and that’s something our clients really appreciate (though publishers definitely see it differently!).
5) Tell us about a genre you think we’ll see trending in the next twelve months – or the genre you’d most like to see fading away!
Publishers have been snapping up feminist historical and dystopian fiction over the past six months so I think they’re expecting that genre to trend. It will be interesting to watch – I think some of these books will fly off the shelves but I’m not convinced it’s going to be as big a trend as, say, psychological suspense has been over the past five years. Readers continue to buy and love psychological/domestic suspense because, although it’s fiction, it has that it-could-happen-to-you feeling, and the characters are often relatable. What’s great about some of these forthcoming dystopian novels is that they highlight important and current social and political issues but I do wonder whether or not that will make them date quickly… Just my opinion and I would be happy to be proved wrong!
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