A chat with agent
Kate Burke


Kate Burke is a literary editor at Northbank Talent Management. She heads up the fiction list, and, along with Chloe Seager, is offering writers from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity to get their work read. We caught up with her to learn more.

What is commercial fiction?

That’s a tough one as it’s hard to define but I would say that it’s popular fiction, which is widely read and sells well. It’s usually very accessible in terms of writing, style and themes, and often (but not always) can be categorised by genre so readers know what they’re getting.

You look after commercial and upmarket women’s fiction, historical fiction, and crime, thriller and suspense. What is unique about all of these and what similarities can be found?

Ultimately, all of these genres feature gripping stories and great characters, wherever and whenever they are set. While all types of fiction serve to entertain, grip and delight, crime novels and thrillers tend to be more escapist entertainment (and less of a reflection of real life as they often feature serial killers and are led by characters working within police industry) whereas upmarket women’s fiction, historical and psychological suspense tend to feature more relatable characters or sometimes even be based on real people (in the case of historical fiction). With women’s fiction and historical fiction, there is often a love story driving the novel forwards and, in the case of psychological suspense (as with crime novels and thrillers), there’s a mystery to be solved which keeps the reader gripped all the way through, and there’s often that ‘it could happen to you’ feel to the story as they tend to have domestic settings which feel very relatable. Historical fiction often serves to teach us about a time and place we don’t know much about so there can be a lovely educational slant to that type of fiction. Whatever the genre, fiction is about telling great stories and entertaining the reader, and, at the heart of novels, are relationships we can be hooked by and invested in.

Why does commercial fiction get looked down on by literary circles sometimes?

I think it comes down to people’s perception of what is commercial and what is literary. There are no concrete definitions and, even if those of us in the industry can perhaps categorise and distinguish these, it’s often very subjective. Some people (not us at Northbank!) perceive commercial fiction to be somewhat lighter in tone and style, and less impactful and long-lasting than literary fiction but that’s just one point of view. There are many commercial novels which have stood the test of time and become classics so it really is just a matter of opinion! What’s important is that people continue to read and enjoy books – whatever their classification. As a former editor and now agent, I have never been into labels. I read really widely and we represent a wide range of writers which we would love to add to. At the end of the day, what really matters is whether or not readers enjoy a story!

Northbank Talent Management is specifically looking for people from underrepresented backgrounds. Why is this important in the industry?

I think we all want to make sure that the books we put out there are accessible and relatable to everyone, whether they’re fiction or non-fiction, and that they represent people from all walks of life so that there’s something for everyone in them. Even if you’re just reading for pleasure or escapism, it’s nice to learn something along the way and it can get boring to always read about characters who are very like us or lead similar lives so that’s why it’s so important for books to feature characters from all walks of life. Books can have such an impact, as can the reading experience, and it’s important that a broad range of characters, topics, settings and stories are reflected and featured in literature so that no one and nothing feels left out, and that readers can get lost in someone else’s head and world for a little while.

What should budding commercial fiction writers be aware of? Any top tips?

It always helps if you can pitch your novel in one sentence (not always easy!) as that gives agents and editors a clear idea of what your novel is and how it might be marketed. Also, can help you focus on who you might be writing for/what audience you would like to reach. Another tip would be to make sure your novel is an appropriate length – commercial fiction tends to be around 100, 000 words but the range can be anything from 80,000 to 120,000 words. Anything shorter than around 75,000 words could be considered a novella and not something that’s widely published so it’s just worth bearing length in mind.

Find out more about the opportunity here.