Looking Out for the Best Trends: An Interview with Literary Agent Yasmin Kane
By Mary Karayel, Hayley Cadel and Alexandra Constable
Yasmin Kane works for Kane Literary Agency, established in 2004. Her role is to champion writers’ works to potential publishers, predominantly of literary fiction and Young Adult fiction. In this interview, Yasmin discusses her relationship to this career, providing invaluable insight into what it means to be a literary agent and publisher within the publishing industry.
Can you tell us a little bit about your role as a literary agent? What drew you to the role and what does your day-to-day job look like?
I have spent my entire life in stories. Books are simply like breathing air – I would not want to breathe without them. Just being surrounded by books brings incredible peace to a room. I read most of the classics as well as copious amounts of poetry and philosophy as a teenager; this was the reason I read Law instead of English at university.
I was drawn to the role of an agent as I have a nurturing nature and have for the majority of my life been fascinated with the concept of creativity. I love the thrill of discovering new voices.
Being a literary agent is an incredibly varied role, and no two days are the same. I liaise with my writers and their publishers, answer numerous queries from my writers, edit their work, give career guidance and champion their work. In short, I am their number one cheerleader. When editing, there is a fine balance between sharing a vision and pushing writers beyond limits they thought they had.
On a practical note, some days can involve phone calls, zoom calls, meetings and a lot of time spent responding to emails. I also read manuscripts my writers have completed, draft pitches, pitch material and look through submissions. Quite often, I have to prepare for public-speaking events and usually do this when inspiration strikes, which tends to happen at the last minute – inspiration has no timetable!
How do you think the publishing industry has changed since you started working in a literary agency in 2004? Have you seen changes during the pandemic? Are there any changes you want to see in the future?
In some ways, the industry has changed immeasurably. For example, seventeen years ago, editors used to have a much greater input prior to signing new writers, mentoring and providing editorial guidance and developmental fees. Sadly, this is no longer the case. The role of an editor has expanded so that it is no longer as focused; editors are expected to juggle multiple tasks.
I would love to see more consistency among editorial staff in the future. Some editors retain their positions for years, yet in some publishing houses it is like a revolving door. Publishing does not pay very well, and sometimes it is too costly for young people who wish to live in London. Hopefully now that there is more hybrid working, the publishing industry can start to employ passionate and open-minded young people from all over the country.
Additionally, when I take part in Q&As at events, many writers have asked why publishing is so secretive. This really surprised me, as I had no idea it felt secretive to people outside the industry. I would love to demystify publishing and make it more transparent.
Of the books you have acquired/found publishers for, which are you the most proud of? Why? Was it because of its publishing success or its important message, for example?
I have loved acquiring books since the pandemic and I have been so lucky to discover some incredible writers. Bear in mind, they have all been writing for years and years; they did not suddenly take up writing during the pandemic. In particular, a title from a few years ago is very close to my heart: The Definition of Us by Sarah Harrison. I laughed and cried my way through it. I changed the ending before pitching it, and it sold instantly. I loved the message in this book: there are no definitions of individuals. No matter what label society puts on people, we are all the same, we all laugh, love, cry and hurt. I wanted every young adult to own their happiness and not be swayed by the judgement of society or their peers.
Given your experience, do you feel you can somewhat predict the degree of success of a book in certain ways, and if so, how do you predict how well it will do?
From my perspective, this is simple. When I pitch a book to publishers, I intuitively know how they will perceive it. Sometimes it can be trickier to break debut authors as publishers understandably are reluctant to throw an enormous marketing budget at them. I feel it really boils down to how powerful the story is, as it will find its readership through word of mouth. This is still the most powerful way of propelling book sales; a great story will always find its way. Sometimes we are all surprised by books which end up selling phenomenally well, but there is always a story behind how they came to be bestsellers. The writer may already have had an enormous public platform and if you couple that with a terrific read, it will undoubtedly do well.
On your wishlist, you have asked for fiction with “all-encompassing universal themes and huge unforeseeable twists.” Could you elaborate on what themes you gravitate towards and the type of books that exemplify what you are looking for?
Personally, I am obsessed with time and time travel, philosophy and life-affirming questions. I suppose speculative fiction is what I naturally gravitate towards as I love being surprised and you never know where you are going to be taken in those kinds of stories. I am an enormous fan of David Mitchell; I foisted Cloud Atlas upon everyone I know! That is the perfect novel. I also love The Bone Clocks dearly. I am a huge fan of The Time Traveller’s Wife and The Night Circus. Works by Kazuo Ishiguro and Haruki Murakami, amongst other writers. These stories take bold and universal themes of love, loss, injustice, control or lack of it, and they transport one to these exotic landscapes, which feel excitingly new and also comfortable to traverse. That is the gift of a master storyteller. I am forever looking for the next David Mitchell.
I am also in love with Young Adult fiction. Being a teenager is such a unique time; teens are so impressionable, so open-minded, every emotion is in full bloom, and I think literature for this readership should always encompass those radiant themes. I love fairy tales, so novels with a moral or unforeseeable twist would be wonderful. In non-fiction, I love books that contain a message of hope and make one introspective, tug at your heartstrings and make you ask big questions. I am forever asking questions...
What do you think readers have an appetite for at the moment?
It’s winter, there is still a pandemic raging around us, people want to be comforted and escape through great stories. Anything with a hopeful message is being well-received. After the last couple of years, we know only hope can get us through. People want to read stories about the human condition, no matter where in time or space the story is set, so long as it is beautifully crafted and moves people.
There is some incredibly exciting literature out there, but I would really love to see more new literature by debut authors.
How would you advise publishing hopefuls and future literary agents to follow book trends and keep up with publishing news in order to become successful literary agents?
Publishing is very much a people business, in that we are incredibly kind and respectful towards one another. I love working in publishing; I have some wonderful friendships and it never feels like work. Socialising used to be an important part of publishing, but that has been virtually obliterated, but not forever! Even though I have lived practically all of my life in London, I do feel it is time for publishing to spread its wings and be less London-centric.
Regarding trends, my advice would be to try not to keep up with every trend; it will drive you mad. What is a trend today was a book acquired two or three years ago. Unless you can predict trends, it is tricky. Besides, trends are fickle, so follow your heart and champion stories that move you. Join the SYP (Society of Young Publishers), Byte the Book and Book Machine, as these are great ways of networking without leaving your home office. Learn as much as you can about publishing and talk to people who work in publishing. Get work experience too. Yes, this can be done virtually! You could be a reader for an agent, for example. In fact, I am looking for a reader...