An Interview With… Kate Burke

Hi everyone, and on the blog today I’m delighted to have Kate Burke, a literary agent at Blake Friedmann. Kate answers my questions on how she started out in the industry and what she looks for in submissions.

Over to you, Kate…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Was it something you wanted to do when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

I never really considered publishing as a career until I was at university. I went to a Media Careers Fair in my last year (up until this point, I thought I would go on to do an MA in journalism!) and heard about the industry and thought that it sounded amazing. Working with books, my favourite things – what could be better?

2) You have a background in being an editor. What prompted the move to becoming a literary agent?

After ten years of working at big publishing houses, I felt experienced enough to try something new and moving to the other side of the business didn’t seem so radical! I knew the publishing process inside out, I had worked with authors for many years, I enjoyed editing but I started to feel as though something was missing. Becoming an agent and starting a list from scratch put the pep back in my step and I haven’t looked back since!

3) When you read sample chapters from a perspective new client, what do you look out for?

This is a tough one to answer! I suppose I look for something that engages me immediately in that first chapter – it could be the voice of the character, the tone of the writing or just an exciting, attention-grabbing plot incident – but it has to be something intriguing and different. If opening chapters are just full of description then I find that hard to connect with – there needs to be an incident or a character, something or someone to hook you in and make me want more. It’s so hard to describe! I just know it when I see/read it (sorry if that’s a waffly answer!).

4) Can you describe the first initial phone call with a client? What would lead to you offering representation?

I always have that call before offering representation as this job (and this industry) is so much about personal connections and relationships.

If I’m going to invest my time into developing someone’s book and, of course, their writing career, then we need to be on the same page about most things. If an author is receptive to edits and constructive criticism is prepared to put in the work and to work together, then that’s usually a great start to a call. We also need to have a shared vision about the book and the future, as well as just clicking on a personality level as we’re going to be spending a lot of time chatting over the next few years!

That first call is usually full of excitement and promise – I love it! – but I’m also a straightforward and honest person so I will share my editorial thoughts or concerns in that first call in order to put all my cards on the table. If an author is receptive to my ideas and feedback, and is willing to put in the work, then it’s that attitude that usually leads me to offering them representation.

5) Is there anything in the crime/thriller genre that you haven’t seen before? What would make you keep turning the pages?

I get so many crime and thriller submissions, and it’s quite rare that I see something truly original and different.

If something has an unusual setting or a unique character then I’m definitely going to be turning those pages!

I see a lot of novels with an alcoholic/divorced/messed-up lead detective with lots of emotional baggage who is searching for a missing child and, while I like those types of novels, I think the market is ready for a different type of hero or heroine. For me to turn the page, the novel has to offer a great character, a strong sense of place and a great plot.

I realise that I’m asking a lot but it’s a competitive market and, for books (especially debuts) to stand out, they must have a point of difference! On a personal note, I would like to see more diverse characters being represented in crime fiction (be that cultural, religious, racial or sexual backgrounds) and for a plot twist to truly catch me off guard.

6) What would make you reject a submission and not progress to reading the full manuscript?

Manuscripts with no clear plot or hook, long, descriptive pages about very little and bland characters are usually the reason I don’t call in the full manuscript. Also, if the submission is not within a genre I represent (ie, children’s fiction, science fiction or fantasy), then it’s not something I would usually call in to read more of. My and my colleagues’ areas of interest and representation are on our website so, if someone hasn’t taken the time to read those, then it’s unlikely that we’re the right fit!

7) What is the editing process like with an author, before you send it out to publishers?

It varies from author to author and depends on how much work and polish I think the novel needs before I put it on submission to publishers.

For some authors, it’s a couple of rounds of edits (usually done on screen after an initial phonecall or two, discussing them) and, for others, it’s a bigger and longer process or deconstructing the novel and replotting or restructuring it. Every book I work on is different – that’s what keeps my job so interesting! – and some books just take longer to polish than others.

On the whole though, the editorial process is done over the phone and on the screen (Word), and, once the author and I have got it to a place where we feel confident about it, that’s the time to put it on submission but there’s no precise timeframe for this process. All the hard graft pays off though!

8) When you leave your desk on a Friday, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/the weekend, what do you do to relax?

At the moment, with homeschooling and work, there’s very little downtime, I’m afraid but, in a normal, non-pandemic year, Friday nights would involve a nice meal with my husband, a glass of wine, catching up on our weeks and watching an episode of something on Netflix/Amazon/Disney Plus! I love TV shows (my other great love aside from books) and watch everything from crime/detective shows to romcoms.

9) Through lockdown, what have you been watching on television? Do you have a favourite programme that you watch religiously?

My subscriptions to Netflix, Prime Video and Disney Plus have been a godsend during lockdown! I have loved thriller shows such asMoney Heist, Criminal and the first two series of Sinner, as well as enjoyable, escapist romps like Bridgerton, Home for Christmas andYounger. I have been waiting two years for the return of Call My Agent (one of my all-time favourites) and I’m really enjoying WandaVision at the moment.

10) If you had to choose any favourite song between Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury (Queen) and Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you pick and why?

I would go for Under Pressure by Queen (I know, I know, it features David Bowie too!) as it’s just a brilliant song with two of my favourite singers (Freddie and David) which I have loved since I was a kid. Also, the bassline is the basis for Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby as song that I was obsessed with (and owned the tape album of) when I was ten! How embarrassing…

Thank you for your time today Kate. It has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Kate Burke was born in Dublin but grew up in Brussels. She joined Blake Friedmann as Senior Agent in January, 2019, and was previously at Northbank Talent Management for six years where she worked with many award-winning and Sunday Times bestselling authors.

Before becoming an agent, Kate was an editor at Headline and HarperCollins, and an editorial director at Penguin Random House. After ten years of publishing fiction, she moved to the agency side to pursue her passion for discovering new writers. She still loves to edit and works very closely with her clients on all aspects of their writing and publishing.

Her clients include Will Dean, Will Carver, Dani Atkins, Paul Finch, Mary Torjussen, Kate Thompson and Allie Reynolds. Kate is open to submissions from authors anywhere in the world and is particularly looking for crime and thrillers, romantic women’s fiction and historical fiction (but no children’s/YA, science fiction or fantasy, thanks).

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