As readers look to understand America’s current social crisis, Eloquent Rage by Brittney Cooper, What Truth Sounds Like by Michael Eric Dyson, and They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South by Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers have become increasingly popular. Those authors all have something in common: they share a literary agent—Tanya McKinnon, founder and principal of McKinnon Literary in White Plains, N.Y.
McKinnon Literary is a Black-owned literary agency operating in an overwhelmingly white book industry, and though it only recently marked its sixth anniversary, McKinnon has a roster of long-standing clients from her more than 20 years in the agenting game. Also among her clients are scholar Robin D.G. Kelly, professor of American history at UCLA, and acclaimed comics artist Mark Siegel, founder and editorial director of First Second Books, Macmillan’s graphic novel imprint.
From its inception, McKinnon Literary—which specializes in serious nonfiction, literary fiction, children’s books, and graphic novels for kids and adults—has had a strong record of attracting critically acclaimed and commercially successful authors. Academics and journalists are a major part of McKinnon’s clients, and they come to her attention through their writings, speeches, and social media presence.
“Generally, I become aware of them because they have a point of view or idea that resonates with me, and then we talk,” McKinnon said. “I’m always mindful of it being a good fit and that we are compatible intellectually and interpersonally. It’s helpful to have a nice feeling of unified vision and rapport with the writer.”
After attending Tufts, McKinnon became an editor at Boston’s South End Press, a now-defunct nonprofit house specializing in left-focused political titles. A master’s degree in cultural anthropology from the New School came next, then a job as a foreign scout at Mary Evans Inc., where she spent nine years working as an agent. But, she said, in 2014, after an extended leave following the birth of her daughter, she decided to open her own shop “to help authors whose ideas and work I admired and thought would change the world for the better find their place in trade publishing.”
Three and a half years in, McKinnon hired her friend Carol Taylor, a former senior editor at Random House, to be the agency’s editorial director. Her team now also includes agent Devin McIntyre, as well as an entertainment attorney and an intern.
The agency, McKinnon said, often helps clients transition from academic publishing to trade book publishing. It also offers authors such services as a speaker’s bureau and pulls in publicity and social media coordination from other sources to support their business models.
Many of McKinnon’s clients, she said, are “gifted intellectuals who turn their minds to very American issues—racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, capitalism, inequality—in powerful ways.” Among them are journalist Sylvia A. Harvey (The Shadow System: Mass Incarceration and the American Family), scholar Imani Perry (Looking for Lorraine), journalists Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin (How We Fight White Supremacy), and Damon Young (What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker), who writes for The Root’s “Very Smart Brothas” column.
McKinnon believes clients looking to produce thoughtful, culturally sensitive works on African American topics are drawn to her because of the long list of celebrated Black authors she represents. “Because I see the African American experience as central to the American experience, people of color who come to me don’t feel overly burdened with having to prove the worth of their ideas,” McKinnon explained. “So we already start from a place of empathic interest on my part.”
Sometimes, McKinnon added, “white writers come to me feeling that I can help them think through the racial politics of something they’re working on. They’re able to talk through the complexities of race and gender with me, and I am extraordinarily honest with them about ways in which their work could be made stronger.”
The agency’s robust roster of graphic novel creators stems from McKinnon’s lifelong love of the comics medium. Her first client in the category was First Second’s Siegel, whom she met over 20 years ago, when he was a graphic designer at Simon & Schuster. His 2013 adult graphic novel Sailor Twain, an innovative paranormal tale set on a 19th-century steamboat, initially launched as a webcomic, went on to become a hardcover bestseller.
She currently represents such comics creators as Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado, author and illustrator, respectively, of the Giants Beware! series published by First Second; cartoonist and editor Hazel Newlevant (No Ivy League, Oni Press); Danica Novgorodoff, who is currently working on a graphic adaptation of Jason Reynolds’s novel Long Way Down (due out in October from Atheneum); and writer Conor McCreery and Nigerian artist Jibola Fagbamiye, whose next project is a graphic biography of the 1970s Nigerian pop musician and political activist Fela Kuti.
McKinnon recalled that early in her career she focused on “selling what was sellable,” and that being an agent “was more like a job” back then. Now, her goal is to bring books to market that combine personal fulfillment with commercial success.
“Obviously, I choose work that I believe will succeed in the marketplace,” McKinnon said. “But being able to shepherd work whose vision I believe in is very important for me. I wake up excited to represent the people that I represent. Now, it doesn’t feel like a job; it feels like my second child.”