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Author & Agent Interview: Shay Kauwe and Jon Cobb

Today, we are thrilled to be interviewing Shay Kauwe, Kanaka Maoli author of the forthcoming In Language There is Death, and her literary agent, Jon Cobb. You can learn more about Shay on her website and more about Jon on his agency’s website.

You can add Shay Kauwe's forthcoming adult urban fantasy novel, In Language There is Death, to your Goodreads here, or to your Storygraph account here.

We started this Author & Agent blog series to spotlight Pacific Islander creators and their agents for Asian and Pacific Islander month. Our hope is that this series will inspire other Pacific Islanders interested in pursuing traditional publishing as creators or as agents. As we learned in the creation of our website, there is not a single Pacific Islander agent, and we hope to see that change. Thank you for joining us!

Shay's Interview

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and the project for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it?

In Language There Is Death is set in a fictionalized Los Angeles, where each language is its own branch of magic. When Kea, an unlicensed spell smith with the rare ability to cast in Hawaiian, is accused of assassinating a politician, she must prove her innocence by tracking down the true killer before LA comes for home.

I've been describing my book as Babel for "C" Students. (Lol!) I adore R.F. Kuang's work but feel that her story is still from the perspective of someone who's been let into that ivory tower - but what about the rest of us? The ones who aren't ever going to get through the gate to begin with? I've always found languages fascinating even though I am, admittedly, not very good at learning them. However, like many in the Hawaiian community, I'm in the process of studying my mother tongue. And the deeper you get into learning any language, the more you start to realize that there is no "wrong" way to speak something; nor are there any languages which are inherently better than others. As a kid, I used to feel that Hawaiian was not a "useful" thing to know but I was so, so wrong. This is something that I feel is at the heart of my story because I want people to feel empowered through their language, no matter what it is or how they speak it. 

What resources did you use to compile your list of agents to query? What criteria did you use to build your list? 

As a former teacher, I'm a huge proponent of data tracking! Essentially, I made a spreadsheet where I listed out any agents I was interested in and then ranked them in terms of how much I liked them. Generally, I found that I was picky in selecting who to query. I knew I wanted someone that explicitly mentioned they were interested in acquiring BIPOC stories and they also had to demonstrate this via their client list (less than you'd think). I then reached out to agents in rounds of around ten to twelve. However, I didn't really have luck through this traditional method. I actually received my offer of rep after competing in a Twitter contest, #DVPit. Jon and a few other agents reached out which is how we connected! If it wasn't for #DVPit, I'm not sure I would've known that Jon was looking for clients so I'm very glad the stars aligned. (My understanding though is that #DVPit no longer operates.)

Did you tailor your query to each agent?

Not really. I made sure to tailor the agent's name at the very top but I can't recall doing other changes. I'm not sure that it's really necessary. The meat of the query letter is the blurb so if that's solid, you'll probably get bites! If you don't, I'd advise revising that before looking elsewhere. I can't imagine agents would throw out a query based on the introductory paragraph or author background section unless there are some serious red flags there. 

What about Jon made you query him?

To be completely transparent, Jon didn't offer me rep right away. We actually did a Revise & Resubmit, which was something I hadn't heard of at the time. Basically, Jon enjoyed the premise of my story and the writing style/voice, but he felt that the changes he wanted to make to the plot would require a lot of work. He ended up sending me an edit letter and I outlined how I would adjust the story to accommodate his feedback. When I sent Jon the revised outline, he liked it so much that he ended up making an offer before I even rewrote the book! That experience has turned me into a plotter and I have to say that I'm a better writer for it. (RIP the "pantsing" life)

What advice would you give creators looking for representation?

Find your people! Forming a writing group or joining one can make the world of difference. It can be so tough when you receive bad news, or even when you're trying to share good news with family/friends who don't get it. (Publishing has all its own little jargon and drama!) Other authors support each other and will push you to become even better at your craft. I am so grateful for the groups I'm in. Shout out to The Raft, Pacific Islanders in Publishing, and my newly formed and aptly named Writer's Group.

When Jon offered, what made you decide to sign with him? What criteria did you consider?

After Jon made a request via #DVPit, I sent along my materials and was pleasantly surprised to find that he was really fast to respond. Publishing is so slow and having someone on your team who is communicative makes a huge difference, especially to me because I tend to write a lot, very quickly. But the biggest deciding factor for me actually was talking to a few of his other clients. They gushed about him! Now that he is my agent, I totally understand their enthusiasm. Jon is the best champion I could've hoped for. 

What advice would you give to Pacific Islander creators looking for agents?

I think as Pacific Islanders we have to be very selective with the people who represent us. Having a bad agent is worse than not having one at all. I know it doesn't feel like that when you're out in the query trenches but I've seen too many authors get taken advantage of, or their careers seriously damaged by just settling for the wrong person. Unfortunately, this happens even more frequently to BIPOC writers. Personally, I've had a really good experience in publishing thus far but it's not lost on me that nearly every person who has ever made an offer of rep, extended a hand in help, or offered professional advice has been BIPOC. We 100% need community to survive these rough waters.

How long have you been signed together? What’s your favorite thing about Jon?

I've been signed with Jon for a little over a year now. It's really hard to choose my favorite thing about Jon but what first comes to mind is his vision. Jon can read my work and see exactly what needs to be done to it in order for it to shine. He also provides great critique to help get the manuscript there! I can definitely handle harsh criticism, but it never feels like he's picking things apart just for the sake of it. Every piece of feedback that Jon provides is intentional. It's such a rare skill and it makes him phenomenal at his job. 

Jon's Interview


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