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Meet the super agent for the Internet

February 12, 2015, 11:10 AM UTC
Photograph by Bill Wadman

About five years ago, Kate McKean’s older brother sent her a link that he thought she’d like. Clicking on it, she found a woman calling herself Allison Hewitt who was “blogging the zombie apocalypse,” she says, “in real time.” McKean loved the writing. “But what really got me was that readers were participating,” she says. They were posting comments like: “chicago gone too. get out of city, get out as fast as you can.”

McKean, an agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, saw a potential book deal—not with Allison Hewitt, a fictional blogger who worked in a bookstore while the undead overtook the world, but with her creator, the anonymous Madeleine Roux, then an aspiring author living in Wisconsin.

By 2014, with McKean’s help, Roux had published two zombie novels with St. Martin’s Press and two young-adult novels with HarperCollins, one of which, Asylum, became a New York Times Best Seller. Roux’s fifth book will arrive this September.

Dubbed “the Internet’s agent,” McKean, a confirmed Southerner now living in Brooklyn, is a new kind of literary agent, one of a handful who not only promote their clients online but also find them there. Like the Internet itself, Internet agenting is evolving.

Way back in 2002, bloggers were all the rage. Unknowns like Julie Powell, mastering the art of Julia Child’s cooking, bubbled up, attracting a following that led Sarah Chalfant of the Wiley Agency to score a reported six-figure deal with Little, Brown and Nora Ephron to direct Julie & Julia, starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep. (A recent, similar stunt had a reporter preparing 300 sandwiches in exchange for an engagement ring—an “epic journey of bread and betrothal,” reads the pending book’s promotional copy—and was deemed calculating by its many detractors.)

By 2007, the so-called “iterative meme” was proliferating, with McKean at the forefront. She signed a deal with Gotham for a book based on the virally popular running-joke blog I Can Has Cheezburger?, a compilation of cat photos with ungrammatical captions. “People were talking about it,” she says, “and I saw it and thought, Great content, super funny, and it’s about cats. Cats sell.” The blog begat Cheezburger, Inc., a veritable industry of spinoffs and books, two of them Times Best Sellers. It has also spawned a swarm of superstar cats and the field of “meme management”—one Hollywood talent agent represents Grumpy Cat, Nyan Cat, and Keyboard Cat, along with some human memes like Scumbag Steve.

Over the years, as personal blogs have been eclipsed by websites like The Awl and The Toast, client spotting increasingly happens there, as well as on social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and Instagram.

Snapchat, however, has yet to birth a major star. McKean, 35, isn’t a fan. “I literally don’t get it,” she says.

Where clicks were once crucial to selling books to publishers, now the prevailing metrics are shares and likes—actions that show audience engagement. A large number of followers is good, but a large number of retweets is better. For McKean, that means scouting resonant voices that she believes have more staying power than a succession of punch lines, like Mallory Ortberg, co-founder of The Toast, whose book, Texts from Jane Eyre, originated as a web series on The Hairpin and became a Times Best Seller.

As with all developments in publishing, the Internet-to-book boom has prompted predictions that the invasion of digital zombies and cats spells the end of the industry, or of Western civilization. McKean references the “ten-cent plague,” the viral midcentury fear that comic books were creating a generation of juvenile delinquents.

Daniel Halpern, the president and publisher of Ecco, a prestigious HarperCollins imprint, cites cheap mass-market paperbacks, CD-ROMs, and computers themselves as past supposed literature slayers. “People said, ‘Oh, my God, authors are gonna write too long because they don’t have to retype,” says Halpern, who is also a poet. He wasn’t familiar with Texts from Jane Eyre, but when told that it was a series of imagined smart-phone exchanges between famous fictional characters (King Lear’s opener: “okay who wants a kingdom”; “me me i do”), he said, “That sounds great.”

In some ways this new publishing order is selling the same old product on an updated platform. What is CDB, William Steig’s 1968 illustrated wordplay classic, if not an iterative meme? When Stuff White People Like scored a reported $300,000 deal from Random House in 2008, GalleyCat reminded readers that Martin Mull had capitalized on the same conceit 23 years earlier with The History of White People in America. McKean points out that Garfield is the ancestor of Grumpy and friends.

“There have always been bad books,” says Halpern, who doesn’t worry that they’ll crowd out the good ones. “Whatever the format, the first step is somebody sitting down to write the book, and that won’t change.”

Among those hopefuls is McKean, who lives with her husband of four months and is allergic to non-pixilated cats. “I have a novel in a box,” she says. It’s a young-adult story about entrepreneurial kids and the Internet, but “it is a huge mess, so I am letting it sit until I feel like doing it again.” Maybe the next iteration will click.

Susan Chumsky is a writer and editor in New York City. Her favorite children’s book is the proto–interative meme CDB.