KATE BARKER set up her own literary agency in 2017 and represents a wide range of novelists and writers of non-fiction. Before that she was an editor at Viking for a decade and has also worked for Curtis Brown, Orion and Bookouture.
Thank you for judging 2023’s prize. What do you hope to find in the opening 5,000 words?
Thank you for asking me. I want to care so much about something in those 5,000 words – a character, the setting, the premise – that I cannot stop reading. That emotional response could be provoked by almost anything. Ideally the first 5,000 words will also give me a clear indication of the kind of book the author is writing so that I can see how it might be published.
Any tips for the first page?
Start as late in the story as possible. I want to feel like I’ve opened a door into someone’s life at a pivotal moment. A common problem is including lots of back story on the opening page: generally it’s better to leave that for later.
Think carefully about the first line of your book. Does it grab the reader? Here’s the first line of The Secret History by Donna Tartt: ‘The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.’ I mean, you can’t not read on after that, can you?
What do you look for in a one-page synopsis and do you read the extract or synopsis first
I always read the extract first. A synopsis is a technical document that no reader will ever see – it’s just for the agent and publisher. It needs all the key information: main characters, setting, plot, resolution. If it’s to fit on one page then sometimes you have to leave out some of the sub-plots.
As an agent, what makes you want to request a full manuscript?
If I am drawn in by the extract and there’s a clear publishing hook I will request a full manuscript. I will call in a book with a brilliant extract even if I’m not sure what the hook is.
How perfect will a manuscript need to be to win?
Not perfect. I’m fine with novels being rough around the edges, so long as it’s evident that the author can write captivating scenes, the characters feel real, and there are the makings of a compelling plot, even if that plot has some issues. More work goes into editing a book than many people realise.
How do you feel about judging blind?
Absolutely fine. I spend a lot of time reading debut novels and the covering letters are sometimes so long that I skip straight to the extract anyway. The novel is the essential thing.
Could a novel in a genre you don’t currently represent still win?
Yes! I don’t represent science fiction or fantasy, for example, because I don’t habitually read in those genres and never worked on them when I was an editor, but when I do pick up something different I get caught up in the narrative anyway. I’m always sucked in by a great story.
How and why did you become a literary agent?
My second publishing job was as an assistant at a big literary agency. I had been working in marketing at The Folio Society, a specialist publisher of the classics, and though that was a good job I really wanted to work with living authors, so an agency seemed to be the best place to go. I then worked publisher-side for ages, mostly at Penguin, but went back into agenting after a career break. I love working with authors and developing new talent and that’s what agents do!
What do you love most about agenting?
The buzz you get when a book starts to take off. It’s even better when it sells in many countries. You’re thrilled for the author and delighted that all their hard work, often over many years, has paid off. It’s gratifying when your own faith and a publisher’s faith and investment in a book is vindicated.
How do you work editorially with new authors?
I’m generally very hands-on editorially. I was an editor for many years, and I’ve ghostwritten too, so it feels like a good way to add value for the author. What the editorial work looks like in practice varies. It might be as simple as a quick line edit or it might be a complete overhaul requiring multiple drafts. Some authors have lots of raw talent but perhaps can’t afford one of the creative writing courses, so they need more help. Sometimes it’s all done in writing; sometimes it involves long brain-storming conversations. I make it clear to an author if I think their book needs a lot of work because that’s a big commitment on both sides.
Any other advice for entrants?
People write fiction for different reasons. Remember that a good book and a marketable book are not always the same thing. Publishing is a business and what you are writing won’t necessarily be in fashion. You need lots of self-belief and persistence in this industry – you have to keep trying, or you won’t get there – but recognise that sometimes it’s better to call time on a particular book and write something new. If you keep getting knocked back then think carefully about why it hasn’t worked and apply what you’ve learned to the next book. Writing is a long-term craft and overnight successes are rare.