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On being Kate McKean, the Internet’s literary agent

Book Lying in Grass

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Kate McKean turned blogs into a publishing powerhouse. So what’s next?

Kate McKean has the pleasing air of a woman who knows what she loves to do and has been succeeding at it for a long time. When I met the Howard Morhaim Literary agent at Little Purity, her local diner in Park Slope—which was not, as she feared, full of wailing babies—she was only embarrassed about that day’s yoga session. “I actually skipped,” she admitted.

When it comes to her career, by contrast, McKean is possessed of a enviable diligence and consistency. Beginning with the first of many I Can Has Cheezburger LOLcat compilations in 2008, she’s helped a slew of bloggers take their perilous first step in the journey from the Web to print. Her fingerprints are all over books that extol gratitude, collect forgotten bookmarks, revel in graphs, mock bad punctuation and imagine the “shit rough drafts” of great stories. At this point, it’s pretty much a gold-plated reputation: She’s the Internet’s agent.     

Kate McKean

Though McKean earned an MFA from the University of Southern Mississippi (and is hard at work on her novel), she came to see agenting as a natural fit and blog-to-book concepts as a particular strength. “I didn’t think I wanted to be a high school English teacher, and I wanted to be a writer, but I’m very practical,” she said. “I planned to be famous, like you do when you’re young, but I wasn’t going to be a starving artist. … I was not exactly popular in workshop, because people wanted to talk about art and I wanted to talk about art and living and surviving, because we were all not going to get professorships in creative writing. There’s like eight of those jobs, and those people are never leaving.” 

Instead she started reading the publishing trades and got an internship at the University Press of Florida, the latter on the advice of her sister, a lexicographer who founded Reverb, the company behind the meta-dictionary tool Wordnik. “I kind of do whatever my sister says,” McKean explained. “Because she’s smarter than me.” When McKean got to New York, she took assistant jobs with seven different literary agents, “which no one should ever do.” But she recalled the busy period with some fondness: “It was great and horrible and great.”

The first graduating class of Internet books

In the early years of website-to-book deals, bloggers were usually hesitant.

What McKean refers to as “the first graduating class of Internet books”—which burst onto the scene along with Cheezburger around 2008—includes Stuff White People Like (a satirical, self-loathing look at caucasity) and PostSecret (the non-mobile precursor to anonymous confessional apps like Whisper and Secret). All three, she said, rely on the “iterative meme”: Same joke, different day. But PostSecret and Cheezburger opened the door for the illustrated and image-based content that would come to form a familiar lingua franca online.    

“I don’t know how much of [mining the Internet] was conscious,” McKean said. With LOLcats, she “knew it was incredibly funny, and cats have always sold … it had some kind of magnetic quality. I want projects that people want to grab and touch, like gimme—mine. It had that.” But there was a problem: trying to track down the site’s mysterious creators. “I emailed them all the time. I flew to San Francisco and just missed them. They’d said, ‘Oh, we might be here around then,’ and I said, ‘I will be there.’ And it didn’t work out, timing-wise. … I knew everybody in town was after them, and I was like, ‘I understand the Internet.’ We’ve always been nerds in my family, I get it. And when they agreed to sign up with me, they said, ‘At first we were weirded out by how much you emailed us, and then we realized that’s what we wanted in an agent.’” 

The rest is history. Cheezburger became a thriving franchise assorted offshoots and merchandise, and McKean spun a sister site, Fail Blog, into its own book series.

Even as she came to be known for these sorts of adaptations, “there was a good deal of chasing” potential and often ambivalent clients. She recalls meeting with Randall Munroe, a one-time NASA roboticist whose webcomic, xkcd, had by then become a cult sensation. “He was doing his deal with Breadpig … a very grassroots, very indie” publisher. Munroe asked her why he would need traditional publishing, and McKean could only reply, “You, sir, don’t. You’re right, you could be selling these out of your garage and you’d be fine.” 

Munroe has since come around to traditional publishing, “for whatever reasons, which is great,” but in the early years of website-to-book deals, bloggers were usually hesitant. “They’d be like, ‘Who are you, what’s an agent, what are you talking about.’ And they’d ignore you.”

Six years later, she doesn’t have to make her case. The blog-to-book deal is an entrenched business model, and Internet denizens are regularly annoyed by concepts launched online with the obvious aim of landing one. (See: 300 Sandwiches, a domestic blog derided upon advertisement in the New York Post as both sexist and cynically calculated.) “It can be really smart and strategic,” McKean demurred on the subject of these maneuvers, “where the author builds a platform and ensures some modicum of success beforehand. But if the intentions are really bald, then nobody wants to read it. We see what you’re doing, and it’s gross, and nobody likes it. But if it’s good content, then it can be a good book and a good blog.”

Is good material enough?

So is good material enough? “It used to be,” McKean said. “I used to say that readers find good content. Early on, if you built it, they would come. Kind of. It was a smaller pool, certainly, and lower-profile, so things could just naturally bubble up. Now there are so many great Tumblrs and blogs and Twitter feeds that that make no sense as a book—but are funny, great, get a lot of attention. But there’s no book there. There’s no reason for someone to go into Barnes & Noble and pay $14.99 for this little four-color joke book when all of it’s online—there’s no reason to own it. I hear a lot from editors, ‘What is the reason to buy? What’s the call to the bookstore? What’s going to drag someone to the store?’ And some of it is personality-driven, where people want to own a piece of that person.”

She cites Hannah Hart, who rose to prominence with a YouTube cooking show called My Drunk Kitchen. “She’s the most adorable thing in the world … people just want her brand in their house.” Humans of New York’s Brandon Stanton—a photographer with a soulful interview technique—is another example. 

McKean’s own most popular client, Mallory Ortberg of the Toast, sits comfortably at the center of what you’d have to call a cult of personality, which no doubt helped Texts From Jane Eyre crack the New York Times bestseller list. The anachronistic mashup of classic novels and digital-era communication has its roots in the repetitious memes of yore but is unmistakably fueled by Ortberg’s singular voice.

“There’s stuff on the Internet that’s fine … and then there’s stuff that blows your brains out.”

McKean is adapting to the shift. In fact, she’s even taken on several talented writers without a specific project in mind, including Leah Reich, who over the course of 2014 wrote a series of essays called “A Year of Wednesdays” for Medium. “She owes me a proposal,” McKean said. “I read [her work] and felt I knew where she was coming from—and she felt the same way. We speak the same language, we’ll figure it out.” 

The same goes for writer Caroline Moss, whose Twitter feed @YourAwayMessage has nearly 300,000 followers. “Such a strong voice,” says McKean. “[She] can do whatever you ask of her. We just need to find the container for that work.” 

Ditto Hairpin contributing editor Jazmine Hughes, “who’s freaking awesome—I don’t know what her book will be. She’s not the voice of [x] yet online.”

Plenty of established names have meanwhile eluded her grasp. “I went after Thug Kitchen, Hannah Hart. Everyone went after Grumpy Cat. But I don’t feel like I’m a bad agent because I didn’t land every project I’ve ever gone after, because not every agent is the right person for each book.” 

Her biggest professional regret: Jolie Kerr. “‘Ask a Clean Person’”—an advice column that became the bestseller My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … and Other Things You Can’t Ask Martha—“I sat on that. I thought, That would be so great, and I just didn’t do it, and didn’t do it, and someone scooped me—we’re friends, so I can say that. But I was like, Why did I do that? Why?!

Kerr’s helpful and gently admonishing tone is further proof of the persona-driven book deal’s value. “There’s stuff on the Internet that’s fine,” McKean said, “and then there’s stuff that blows your brains out—this person is smarter than me and I want to bask in that … the reader wants to be surprised every time the page turns. Now it’s better to find someone with a platform and audience and ask, ‘OK, what else do you want to say? What’s important and what do people who know you want to hear about?’” 

She also sees a strong future for Instagram: “I’m looking at pet Instagrammers, because that kind of marries a lot of different successful paths in publishing. I think Instagram might be the next frontier in blog-to-books, but it has the same hurdles as any of it. And there are some really contentious things. I’m not doing any Star Wars parodies,” she said. Anything remixed or repurposed is a tough sell.

Besides, there’s no shortage of original talent: forthcoming publications include Jaya Saxena and Matt Lubchansky’s ode to the dorkiness of fatherhood, Dad Magazine, and Benjamin Dewey’s Tragedy Series, a beautifully illustrated archive of what McKean described as “Victoriana absurdity.” And the question, when picking up these proposals, is always the same: “How do you translate the market into book buyers? If someone has 300,000 Twitter followers, great. How many of them are really going to buy the book? So now we’re looking at engagement metrics—this many likes, this many retweets, or reblogs. Someone put their finger on a button that made a thing happen, and that shows they were engaged. Finding a way to take that content and put it into a new form that people want to engage with again is the challenge.”

Pushback from publishers

“‘OK, this had a million followers, why didn’t it sell?’ And everyone’s like,
‘¯\_(ツ)_/¯’”

Publishers have caught up with the scene as well. Though McKean struggled at times to explain the appeal of, say, the Weird Twitter subculture—ably captured in Twitter: The Comic (The Book)—they now understand that they can leverage online audiences for profit. “They know when you’re spinning metrics,” she said of the editors who once had to be told that “hits” are a meaningless measure of blockbuster potential. “‘Oh, we haven’t mentioned how much blog traffic it gets,’ which means there isn’t any. 

“Of course they’re savvy, they have to be, because they’re accountable. It’s the profit-and-loss statement on their desk, and it’s the sales report later on their desk, and their bosses are going, ‘OK, this had a million followers, why didn’t it sell?’ And everyone’s like, [imitates ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ emoticon].”

Part of the problem, McKean speculates, is getting books in front of people in the first place, especially given the ad hoc process for pitching to retailers not normally thought of as booksellers. “Urban Outfitters buy books like they buy shirts, they don’t want to buy until they can see a physical book,” she said. Anthropologie will similarly stock books as impulse buys, with an eye toward sleek design. “We sold books in Spencer’s Gifts for Cheezburger—I don’t know if that store even exists anymore.” (It does.) “Places in the middle of the country, we sell books there too, not just in Brooklyn. … Any way that it works is the way that it works. If people want to buy it at Walmart, then we’ll send a bunch of copies to Walmart.”

That tension between publishing’s capital city and the rest of the U.S. is felt in the acquisitions stage as well. “Actually one of the hardest things is: Everyone in New York, N.Y., likes it—but nobody else cares,” McKean said. But “a lot of Brooklyn bloggers are well-connected to the indie bookstore world,” which can make marketing more effective. 

“There’s the myth of the generally interested reader, but I think mostly the books are for the fans, as in the TV model—here are the die-hard browncoats who are going to save Firefly. … Word-of-mouth marketing is one of the strongest strategies publishing has. Give them a better version of what they want,” she said, adding that New York writers are “all friends on the Internet.”  

So has the Internet made publishing a kinder and less Machiavellian game? “It was so hidden,” McKean says of the bygone literary epoch. “Nobody knew how anything worked. With as many agents and editors as there are on Twitter, people can see that we’re just humans, not these nasty gatekeepers who relish rejecting people—and I get my jollies by crushing people’s dreams. I like cheerleading and crocheting. I’m not a scary person.” 

If there’s a downside to this transparency, it’s that agents are too accessible. McKean had to delete a flurry of proposals sent in the minutes leading up to her current open query season, which began at midnight on January 1. “Once a day I have to respond to somebody—and I could not respond, and just ignore people—but I’m like, ‘no queries via Twitter please.’ I’m southern. I’m nice. … It’s really tempting, when I’m reading queries, to write snarky things on Twitter, subtweet the queries I’m reading, but nobody wins: makes me look like a jerk, and it’s not ethical just to make fun of people’s writing. It’s beguiling, but I don’t do it.”

Fifty Shades? Read whatever you want. I don’t care what books people buy, as long as they buy books.”

There are plenty of reasons she would turn down a book, McKean said. “Some [blogs] are just rights nightmares—you can legally do it on the Internet, but you can’t legally put it in a book and sell it for money. And I can’t do books of things that are funny on the Internet but no one cares outside of that.” Exceptions abound, however: McKean represented Mike McMahan, author of the popular parody Twitter account @TNG_S8, which amassess fake plot summaries from an “unaired” eighth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. “We were able to get the book officially licensed,” McKean beamed, a big fan of the actual show. “It’s CBS, Paramount—and the entire cast follows the account. It’s one of my crowning glories of Internet agenting.”

Once a book makes it to market, McKean said, her work is long since done. She’s just glad to have expanded the planet’s library a bit. “I don’t care what books people buy, as long as they buy books,” she declared. “If they buy one book, they’ll probably buy another. With the whole Fifty Shades thing: I don’t care, read whatever you want. If a quarter of those people buy one more book, publishing is saved. It’s like, we’re good.” 

Odds are, that new book began life on someone’s computer. “The writers are on the Internet, so that’s where we’re gonna find them.”

Disclosure: McKean represents several Daily Dot contributors.

Photo by Florin Gorgan/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Miles Klee

Miles Klee

Miles Klee is a novelist and web culture reporter. The former editor of the Daily Dot’s Unclick section, Klee’s essays, satire, and fiction have appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Vanity Fair, 3:AM, Salon, the Awl, the New York Observer, the Millions,  and the Village Voice. He's the author of two odd books of fiction, 'Ivyland' and 'True False.'