Ask the Agent: Kevan Lyon

Richard Lee Talks with Kevan Lyon of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency

We first chat about Kevan’s ‘Lyonesses’, a group of her clients who became friends through HNS conferences. ‘They hatched the idea of the Group. They’re all terrific. They talk on Facebook Live periodically, swap industry rumours, that kind of thing. And when there’s a cover reveal or a release, they post all over social media. It’s a great group.’

And a successful group. New York Times bestsellers, Reese Witherspoon Book Club Picks – quite the group to join. What excites me is how they achieved their success because, quality of the writing aside, each seems to have blossomed significantly under the nurture of Kevan Lyon.

It is early morning in San Diego and Kevan sits in a noticeably white-walled and clutter-free office. There are no knickknacks or distractions here. There is a single large promotional poster for The Alice Network, so it seems natural to begin with Kate Quinn.

Kate signed with Kevan – who was recommended to her by writer friends – after her previous agent died. At that stage Kate was writing Renaissance Italy ‘and kind of had to do a reboot because … the sales had slowed’. The ‘positioning of the books by the publisher’ was not right, Kevan says, though she ‘went on submission with another book in the Italian world and got turned down.’ So they looked at new ideas. Kevan suggested moving to the 20th century, ‘We talked about a dual timeline. And then Kate took it and ran with it. She really did all the heavy lifting. And then this editor chimed in with some ideas, and then Kate was off to the races.’ Even so, it wasn’t an instant sell. Initially they sent a proposal of ‘100 pages or so’ of the book that became The Alice Network because ‘she’s a gripping writer. I absolutely couldn’t put it down. But people wanted to see the full novel, so we ended up having to go on submission with the full novel. And HarperCollins is very happy that they identified the book as a winner.’

Chanel Cleeton’s success story seems similarly meteoric, but with similar bumps in the road. ‘Chanel is a true success story of someone who had the raw talent. We just needed to find the right lane for her passion for writing, and from a fan and sales standpoint.’ And I’m thinking: what does this actually mean? What is ‘raw talent’ if it’s anything at all, and how do you ‘just’ find the ‘right lane’?

Kevan initially signed a young adult novel by Chanel, but that book didn’t sell, so she ‘moved to romance’. That  ‘never took off’ as her ‘writing and her storytelling ability deserved’, Kevan notes. ‘So we asked her publisher if they would consider a historical novel that she would like to write. That was Next Year in Havana, and it was pulled from family history. Berkley, to their credit, bought that novel on almost nothing more than a short synopsis and an idea. #OwnVoices wasn’t the push then that it is now. So really again, timing was just very fortunate. And the book delivers. Then we got the happy news that Reese Witherspoon had picked it as a Book Club pick, and that just catapulted Chanel onto an entirely new professional track.’

As a third case study, take Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. Laura is a prolific romance writer, but also a professor of American History. Stephanie was coming to the end of a series published by Berkley about Cleopatra’s daughter. Together they came up with an ambitious idea based on their shared love of American history, which became America’s First Daughter, about Patsy Jefferson. ‘And we sold that on proposal as well, because it’s a big book and they did not write the whole thing. The editor that bought that is the same one who bought The Alice Network, so she and I obviously have similar taste – and that book really was the beginning of a new direction for both Stephanie and Laura. They did My Dear Hamilton next, which also went on to a huge success. And then Stephanie went out with a solo project, The Women of Chateau Lafayette: three time periods, three amazing women, three very different stories that are all intertwined in the end. That is one to definitely put on your reading list! And we just sold a book for Laura Kamoie, her first solo historical, that will come out in 2022.’

Kevan’s client list features many other names who have had similar success, some of them similar transformations. In the course of our conversation we talk about Jennifer Robson, Janie Chang, Alison Stuart, Gillian Bagwell, Kaia Alderson, Natasha Lester – and I wonder if there is something they all have in common. What draws Kevan to an author? What really matters in a novel?

‘It’s narrative voice that captures you… It’s so easy to lapse into ‘telling’. You’re trying to catch the reader up on the history and the background and all of that, and it’s often one of the big, weak links in a new historical novelist’s work. But some authors, right away, you’re very much caught up in those worlds… you’re in the scene with the characters.’

So it’s the voice that counts – the ‘hook’ can come later?

‘Well, no. I think you’ve got to have that narrative hook because you’ve got to have that storyline, that from a marketing standpoint for a publisher, immediately catches the reader’s attention. Many authors, when we’re discussing their next book with their publisher, we will go through a shortlist of ideas that just don’t have a hook that is strong enough. We’ve got to be able to have a narrative hook that sets a book apart in the market, that, you know, forces people to go, “Oh, that sounds intriguing. I really want to read that.”’

Biggest question: how do you find the ‘hook’?

‘Honing in on that right idea is the key. If you can work with a group of other authors that can poke holes in your idea, it can help because it’s too easy to get caught up in the fact that this is a great story. It may be a good historical story, but it may not be a great novel. I’ve sat down with writers at HNS pitch sessions where they say: “I’m going to tell the story of da da dun, and I’m going to tell it in five volumes.” And it’s like, whoa! Not a great idea! First off, a publisher is going to want to buy one, and the story has to be complete and captivating in that one. Let’s worry about the next books later.’

‘One of the tricks is to think, when you’re starting out – what is the back cover copy? And then you know what’s the beginning, middle and end of the story and what’s going to be the pacing element that drives people through the novel.’

‘The author and I will talk first and often I’ll love something, or think we can make it into something, and the editor will go, “I don’t know. Let’s keep trying.” And we go through a number of what I thought were good ideas until we have a great idea. And that’s what’s needed.’

Still… what is a great ‘hook’?

‘Something… unique. Whether it’s the character, the event, the setting, or an item, an object that links two stories, or a family tie. Stories that intertwine, where something links characters together and makes it intriguing. Or an amazing story or person: Vera Atkins in World War Two (Laura Kamoie’s new book) or Frances Perkins in the post-war Roosevelt era (Stephanie Dray’s latest) – or an event, like the storm in Chanel Cleeton’s Last Train to Key West, so the story isn’t World War One, it’s all these returning WWI soldiers … sent down there on this work detail and basically left to die in the storm by the US government’.

All great ideas are easy when you have already had them…

Is Kevan still taking on clients? A few. The strike rate is apparently much better if you actually send her novels that she is likely to be interested in. Do you have to be female? No. She has a few male clients, but she mostly represents women’s fiction with strong female protagonists. Do you have to be US-based? Absolutely not. She has Australian, Canadian and British clients – though the US market is the one she knows, the one she knows how to grow an author in.

And what’s on trend?

‘I feel like a year ago, I might have said 20th century, but now, yes, 20th century history and even into the fifties and sixties. But I think the playing field is more wide open now than it was maybe even a year or two ago, that you don’t have to stay in the 20th century.’

‘Some areas are going to be more difficult than others. Medieval, Viking, Ancient Rome: do I think that those are going to be more difficult? Yes. But could the 17th and 18th centuries be a possibility? I think so. If you can find the right character and maybe you can find a dual-timeline parallel story that makes it ever more intriguing.’

‘So – I feel – no holds barred if you’ve got a great idea.’

Kevan Lyon is a long-term supporter of our North American HNS Conferences and will be appearing at our virtual conference in June.

The HNS runs an Agent Newsletter featuring interviews and news about Literary Agents. Sign up via our website: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/guides/how-to-find-a-literary-agent-for-historical-fiction/

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: RICHARD LEE is founder and chairman of the Historical Novel Society. He is writing a novel about the Crusades.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 96 (May 2021)


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