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The Road to Becoming An Agent, and Where It Is Heading

October 8th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | Comments Off on The Road to Becoming An Agent, and Where It Is Heading
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Literary Agent and consultant Maggie McKernan of The McKernan Agency ended up in her position in an interesting fashion. After studying Philosophy and Logic, she got on a train and ended up in Paris. She took it into her head to become a writer, and spent three very hungry weeks with no fixed accommodation before she stumbled into the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, where the owner offered her a bed on in the library above the shop in exchange for work. McKernan took him up on this offer, and spent her days working at the till, reading, and serving a few customers. At night she slept upstairs among rats with writers who boarded there. McKernan watched them come and go, and  slowly began to realize that she did not actually want to write, but work with writers.

The turning point came when a young Sebastian Barry wandered into the store. Speaking to him, she discovered that what she really wanted to do was publish people like him. Determined now to work in publishing, she wrote to sixty publishing houses in London and got a job, which she partly puts down to her looking up the name of a managing director and addressing her letter to him personally. She began working in design and production, as this was the only way in. She never believed that she could work in editing like she wanted, but her views on editors were soon to change.

“None of them were quite as clever as they first seemed, and you could become an editor,” she told us. She worked for a while, then moved houses, set up a literary fiction imprint, and worked more and more with writers, which she loved. Her particular approach was to keep the writers’ interests to the forefront of what she did. “My strength as an editor…”, McKernan said, “was what they call in publishing Author Management.” This entailed working closely with the authors, managing their expectations and helping them to achieve what they wanted to achieve.

Four years ago, she changed tack and became a literary agent as she wanted to be her own boss, as commuting to London was no longer an option for her. This was a good move for her personally, and everything was going quite well. And then along came the recession.

McKernan was undeterred. She began to take on a client list, and now has between twenty and twenty-five writers, which she hopes in time will become fifty.

McKernan doesn’t seem overly spooked by the technological advances in publishing and what these will mean for the literary agent: ““As long as writers are still enabled to write I will be happy, and I may have to do something else, I may have to make my living some other way.”Her attitude to e-books is refreshing: “All that really matters is that people keep writing books and that we keep being able to find books.”  Naturally, McKernan clearly sees the need for the literary agent – they are a way of filtering out unpublishable material so that publishers do not have to employ a whole division solely to read new manuscripts. Surprisingly for a literary agent, she is fully supportive of the idea of self-publishing: ““If you do it yourself, you get all the money…the writer sees the possibility of getting all the money, and why should they not?” However, she does mention that self-publishing authors may want to consider hiring someone to do P.R for them. Unlike some agents, she gives no indication of wanting to be both publisher and agent to her authors, but she does insist that ebooks are an area she would love to work with if she was just starting out.

In spite of this attitude, McKernan realises the publishing industry is changing drastically for everyone:“Challenges and opportunities are almost the same thing…technology has frightened everyone, and agents in particular….Will people still print books? Will they still buy books?” All those in the industry must watch and wait as technology and e-publishing develop further before these questions may be answered with any certainty. Whatever happens, it seems McKernan will take it in her stride and continue to put the author first.

By Kate McNamara