To celebrate International Women’s Day we spoke to Kate Nash, founder of Kate Nash Literary Agency Ltd. She tells us of how she fell in love with female authors from a young age and how that inspired her career path.
Now I can’t say exactly if it was the Famous Five or the Five Find-Outers but it all started with Enid Blyton. I must have been aged about seven and I looked at the whole shelf of Enid Blytons on the bookcase of my neighbour, a girl a couple of years older than me, with envy and wonder. For the first time I saw more than great stories to collect. I was looking at a career. That must be her job, I thought. Writing all those books.
Of course I enjoyed books written by men – Arthur Ransome, W. E. Johns, Roald Dahl – but there was never a sense on the bookshelves, any bookshelves, that females were a minority or needed to be sought out. Mine collected L. M. Montgomery, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Nina Bawden, Helen Wells, Anne Digby, Mary O’Hara, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Frances Hodgson-Burnet.
As I teen I read through the small teen fiction section at the local library quite quickly and the most captivating were the Kevin and Sadie books by Joan Lingard. We had a second hand bookshop open up in town and it became part of Saturdays. That’s where I found K. M. Peyton and Agatha Christie. Christie wasn’t just Endless Night but endless books. Almost always a new second hand copy of something Christie every week available for 20p.
I am not going to pretend I didn’t fall hook, line and sinker for Len Deighton and Dick Francis, that’s what dads are for, but it was game, set and match when I borrowed my first Jean Plaidy from my grandma and then worked my way through her Catherine Cooksons. Ultimately, stories where women have agency told me – and still tell me — something more than the story itself.
Career decided – I was going to be a novelist – seemed rather fanciful later when, not having got more than a few chapters down, I was faced with the end of University and the job market. I was pleased to land a graduate traineeship in food and drink market research. With hindsight I suppose literature was always going to come knocking and I did eventually manage to write a novel, and later a few that were publishable. The excitement of being published by small but respectable publishers faded when faced with tiny royalty cheques that weren’t going to pay for a new laptop let alone the mortgage.
I quit PAYE and started a communications business with a friend which gave me the opportunity to work with publishers and authors. I organised a book award, and got sworn at by one A-list author only to find out later I was no-one special, he swears at everyone. Other famous authors were charming in real life. Publishing was an intriguing industry full of interesting people and the most intriguing job a few people seemed to do was that of literary agent.
There was no way anyone was going to employ me, then in my early thirties, to make the tea and learn the ropes at a literary agency. Visiting the offices of a literary agency drowning in piles of paper manuscripts, and with assistants with finishing-school politeness, these seemed to be family enterprises. A bit like funeral directors, tricky for outsiders to break in.
But Carole Blake, someone said.
I googled. Carole Blake had started her literary agency in 1977 after working as a secretary. Everyone I spoke to who had met or worked with Carole thought she was wonderful. She was real and terribly hard working. That’s me, I thought. I can’t be anyone else apart from just me, and I can do the work. At last I had a role model.
I bought her book written to explain publishing to authors, From Pitch to Publication. I followed her voracious embrace of Twitter. I watched Carole at a trade fair from a safe distance greeting and laughing with some publishers before her expression grew serious and it was down to serious business.
What would Carole Blake do? I thought. Just get on with it. Nothing ventured. I started my literary agency.