Meet the Agents: An Interview with Kate BurkeHarry Bingham
This is an interview with one of the literary agents Kate Burke. She has previously worked as a commercial fiction editor and now works as a literary agent for Diane Banks Associates. Kate is currently on the lookout for some new writers to add to her client list. Her Twitter is here, the Diane Banks Associates page is here and her Agent Hunter page is here!
Q. What books/authors do you love in commercial fiction? (Crime, women’s) Give us some examples and say why you liked these books/authors.
I love so many authors – too many to name! – and read at least a novel a week so what I’ll do is highlight the authors I have stuck with over the years as they consistently deliver great novels. They are Stephen King (I love the madness of his characters and the huge landscape of his stories and writing. The Stand is one of my favourite books ever written.), Marian Keyes (because she balances humour and darkness so well) and Colin Dexter (I love police procedurals and have read every single one of the Morse novels). I also devour lots of Scandinavian crime fiction – I have been reading Henning Mankell and Arnaldur Indridason for years – as I love the often cold, empty, bleak settings coupled with their often very gruesome but intelligent mysteries. I also really liked their dark, damaged characters and getting invested in a detective over a series of books.
Overall, though, I read very widely in terms of genre, and I’m always up for trying new writers. Recently, I have enjoyed Jane Shemlit’s Daughter (psychological suspense about a missing teenager), The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North and We are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I have also been reading lots of commercial young adult/crossover novels – The Hunger Games Trilogy, Divergent, The Universe Versus Alex Woods, We Were Liars to name just a few. These novels are all quite dark in their own way and can be enjoyed by a young adult or older adult audience – not an easy thing to achieve as a writer.
Q. What books/authors do you love in literary/historical/book group fiction? Examples and reasons, please!
I genuinely love all kinds of fiction – commercial and literary – but, in terms of these particular genres, I would say that Philippa Gregory is probably my favourite historical author. I learnt most of my Tudor history from reading her novels over the years – such a good mix of real history and bonkbuster! You can tell she loves the periods of history she’s writing about and she has a great mix of research, factual detail and good romance.
In terms of book group and more literary fiction, I have been a fan of Margaret Atwood’s since my teens – such a brilliant vivid imagination! – along with Anita Shreve (I love her narrative tone, particularly in her earlier novels – she tells stories quietly and carefully but with such atmosphere), Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go had me in tears as did Remains of the Day – I love being moved by beautiful writing!) and John Irving (such quirky stories and characters but his novels are epic in scope and theme, and appeal to everyone and anyone. Everyone should read The World According to Garp!).
Q. How about sci-fi/horror/fantasy/paranormal/YA dystopian/erotic? What would you be interested in, and what’s a big no?
As I have mentioned above, I’m a fan of all kinds of literary and commercial fiction – crime/thrillers, historical, reading group fiction, YA dystopian etc – but paranormal and fantasy (anything to do with witches, werewolves, vampires, angels or any hybrid of those!) are usually a no-go for me. As much as I like fiction to entertain me and transport me to another place, I find it difficult to get lost in anything with supernatural creatures particularly if it’s at the more erotic end of the spectrum. If it’s at the more mainstream/commercial end of sci-fi (say, The Passage by Justin Cronin) then I usually enjoy that but the really pure sci-fi and fantasy isn’t usually my thin. I’m not a big horror fan either (although I do realise that Stephen King, one of my all-time favourite authors, writes a blend of sci-fi and horror at times) though, as an agent, I have to know the market – even the smaller, niche ones – so I read a bit of everything. I have yet to read a good erotica novel so that’s a no-go too!
Q. On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?
My list only comprises of a small amount of celebrity non-fiction as my focus at the agency is on fiction but my colleagues cover all areas of non-fiction – true life stories, inspirational memoirs, popular science, politics, business, health and diet, self-help – and we have a very broad non-fiction client list (more detail can be found here: http://www.dianebanks.co.uk/clients/)
Q. Is there anything in particular you’d love to see at the moment?
I’m really looking for big, sweeping historical novels with a strong sense of time and place (my preferred historical periods being from the 17th century onwards). I particularly love dual-narrative historical novels (stories set in two distinct time periods and brilliantly woven together), set around a house full of secrets with an element of mystery to the story and would really love to see more manuscripts of this type.
I’m also really on the look-out for a smart and pacy detective series – ideally with a female lead character – but it has to be a fresh, new hook or angle (I’m not looking for yet another forty-something lead detective who’s married to the job and has a drink problem!) and the author must have done impeccable research so all the procedural detail is current and accurate.
Lastly, I would love to find some female crime/suspense that isn’t procedural – more what we call psychological suspense or a domestic thriller – which centres around a family to whom something terrible (missing child, for example) has happened. This kind of suspense needs to be really pacy, very emotionally engaging and has to deliver a knock-out twist (something in the vein of Nicci French, Sophie Hannah, Gillan Flynn, Jane Shemlit).
Q. What’s your biggest turn-off in a covering letter? What would you really hope to see?
In terms of the biggest turn-offs, there are several and they are much more common than you would think! These include getting my name wrong (calling me Katie!), grammatical errors and typos (there’s just no excuse!), and writers who position their novel as the greatest thing ever written. I would really advise against putting forward sweeping statements like this to agents! You are submitting your novel for our opinion and judgement so let us do that… And I would really advise positioning yourself as a literary writer unless you’re really sure that you are – nine times out of ten, when I receive a ‘literary’ novel on submission, it’s the most commercial piece of writing I’ve read in a long time!
In terms of what I hope to see in a covering email – I like to see a writer’s passion come through (so please do share your love of reading and writing), what inspires them and I really want to see a bit of market awareness from them. I really like it when authors know what they have written (in terms of genre), have labelled it well and have outlined why they think fans of that genre would like their novel. It shows commercial awareness and that they actually read (you would be surprised by how many submissions we get from people who don’t read!).
Q. Would you take on an author who had self-published? What kind of self-pub sales would make you sit up?
Yes, I’m certainly open to this and one of my clients – for whose debut novel I have secured seventeen different publishers – actually self-published her novel a few weeks before I noticed it on Amazon UK. What I’m looking for from self-published authors is a great sales record (not free downloads – actual paid-for sales), a good social media profile and, above all, a fantastic novel. I can’t quantify the sales level required as it all comes down to the novel itself – it has to be brilliant for me to consider representing it.
Q. What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?
Think about who it is you are writing for and who will enjoy your novel. Think of your audience rather than writing something for yourself (though it’s important to stay true to yourself and that you enjoy the process). Ultimately, to succeed in this business, you have to have some commercial awareness of what people are reading and what’s selling.