It’s been such a long time since I’ve interviewed a literary agent, so the opportunity to interview one as lovely as Jennifer is one I absolutely had to take! Check out her wisdom, scout her wishlist here, and above all, query her!
You acquire in such a wide variety of areas, from cookbooks to contemporary YA to law. What categories and genres feel the closest to your heart, and why?
I’m definitely a generalist! I’ve always read widely, and I think one of the joys of agenting is that you’re not constricted to a certain style or type of book. And it’s lovely to be able to send things out at the same time and not have to juggle editors—I’m going out in the next month or so with a women’s fiction, a YA, and a nonfiction project.
To answer your question, though, if I had to pick one category of my heart, it would have to be women’s fiction. I’ve been reading it for years; I devoured the Red Dress Ink imprint in the early 2000s. (Blogger’s Note: Me too!!) One of the reasons I read is to figure out who I am and what my place in the world is, and those are the books where I can most fully see myself. (And on a related note, I’d really like to find more diverse authors in this category so that a greater number of women can feel the same way.) But don’t stop sending me all the other good stuff, writers; I love it, too!
I never get to talk to anyone who works with cookbooks, but that was actually my first internship in publishing—the now-defunct (I think) little cookbook division at HarperCollins—so I have to ask about it. What kind of cuisine is your favorite to read about? To eat? To cook?
I think in the internet era, when we all just google “chicken goat cheese” or whatever we have in our fridges, a cookbook has to bring something extra to the table. (That was an unintentional pun that I’m intentionally leaving in place!) I really love cookbooks with a narrative component or themed cookbooks like Judith Jones’ THE PLEASURES OF COOKING FOR ONE, and my favorite sort of food books are memoirs with recipes like Molly Wizenberg’s A HOMEMADE LIFE.
On a trip to Italy once, my sister-in-law posed a question: if you could only eat either French food or Italian food for the rest of your life, which would you choose? I went French–I can’t live without my mother sauces and pommes frites. But I actually love to cook Italian food. The precision of baking is my favorite, but I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, so pasta is my savory equivalent. You know I like you if I bust out my gnocchi rolling board.
I actually have yet to sign a cookbook author—if you’re reading this, cookbook writers, query me!—but I DID just sign an amazingly fun project from writer Lauren Koshere (@LaurenKoshere) called PIE-WORTHY: How to Bake Smart in Love that guides you through what to bake at various stages in a relationship and includes recipes. I’m thrilled to be working with her on that.
You have such a wide variety of professional experience outside publishing, too. How do those experiences contribute to how you do your agenting job, and what you particularly want to see in work submitted?
If I’d just worked in a PR firm, too, I think I’d be fully equipped to be a literary agent! In all seriousness, though, while it’s by no means necessary to go to law school to be an agent, I do think that I have a stronger than average grasp on contracts, licensing, and copyright issues, which has been a huge help as I’ve gotten started. And working as a high school English teacher 1) improved my editorial skills and 2) gave me a firmer foundation in YA lit (another category I love so hard—I actually started a YA for adults book club in Austin!). This is very much a learn-as-you-go sort of job, but I do think that my other career starts gave me a solid foundation on which to build.
In terms of how it affects what I like to see, as a teacher talking to teens every day, I became very aware of the gulf between what teens want to read and what some adults want teens to read. I actually think most YA writers are aware of this and write for teens themselves, but it seems like a bigger issue in MG. With the law, honestly, that was largely a misstep for me, and more than anything the experience has made me connect more with stories about people who are struggling to find their way or opting for a less obvious path in life.
Obviously we’re all familiar with some serious agent-querier horror stories, but let’s talk the fiip side – what are some best practices you wish all queriers abided by?
First of all, let me just say that most queriers are lovely. And I can imagine how difficult it must be for writers! There are many agents out there who have talked in depth about queries, but here are the highlights:
– Do your research—An agent’s submission guidelines are the bare minimum. I love when writers respond to my #MSWL or note something I said on Twitter. (Non-book things are fair game! I got a query in response to my complaining about bridal showers; I LOVED that.)
– SELL your book to me—Don’t just summarize. Figure out what what makes your book special and what the most compelling way to convey that is. Comp titles are your friends if you use them right.
– Be responsive–If I ask for pages and you can’t send them within a couple days for some reason, that’s totally fine, but I appreciate you letting me know. I get excited to see things when I request! And definitely pay attention to the format agents ask to see your work in.
– Be polite–Obviously! This is a professional communication. I will say, though, that I don’t think you need to reply to a form query rejection.
– Query only when your manuscript is ready and only when you know you want an agent—If you know it needs more revision, do that first. If you think you might want to self-pub, make that decision first—or later, but I shouldn’t be involved in it.
– Set guidelines if you get an offer–It’s incredibly helpful when you tell me you got an offer and plan to respond to it by X date. If I really need more time, I can ask for it, but I always flounder a little when I get an email that says essentially, “I got an offer, so let me know…”
Those are the basics, but here are a few for extra credit:
– Don’t change the subject line when you send requested material–Many of us use Gmail-based email, and if you change the subject line to say requested or what not, it moves it out of the conversation. Then, particularly if you’ve started an entirely new email, I have to dig through my inbox for your query to refresh my memory before I read. Which brings me to:
– Paste your query into the front of the manuscript—Then I don’t have to go back to my inbox at all, and I’m happy when I start reading!
– Use small paragraphs in your query letter–They’re easier to digest when I’m reading many queries in one sitting, and if I understand your work easily, I’m more apt to like it.
You used to curate YA content for Riffle. If you were doing that right now, what recent books would you absolutely have to include?
So many things. For those of you who have never checked out Riffle, it allows you to make lists of books, and part of my job was to come up with themed lists of YA titles. I don’t think I ever got to do a dance-themed list, which is a particular obsession of mine, and there are so many goodies to put on that now: TINY PRETTY THINGS (dying to read the sequel that just came out), POINTE, THE WALLS AROUND US…just to name a few. I’d also love to do a football list—FIRST & THEN would definitely be on it, and THE LOVE THAT SPLIT THE WORLD gets bonus points because it could go on either of those two lists. And on a more serious note, I would definitely include a list on rape and sexual assault that would include, among others, ALL THE RAGE and EXIT, PURSUED BY A BEAR.
Anyone can see what you’re looking for right now on your site, but what’s something that you made you insta-request that you had no idea you were looking for until you saw it?
I requested a speculative fiction manuscript recently that I’m excited to read–I usually stick to the realistic world and leave speculative to my capable LDA colleagues who specialize in it. But this writer was responding to my MSWL request for books about happy couples, and the project just sounded fascinating. Though it’s important to follow agents’ guidelines, I think it’s also okay to take slight chances with queries particularly when responding to something an agent says she’s looking for. I’m really never unhappy about receiving a query; sometimes you truly don’t know until you see something.
Imagine you’ve just gotten a manuscript that looks amazing and you know you want to read it from start to finish. And whoa, you have an entire day free to do it! What’s your ideal reading setup? (Space, snacks, the works. Don’t skimp.)
Ah, the dream. When I really want to treat myself and focus in on a manuscript, I read in bed. I’m a little weird about my space division, and I normally make myself sit in a chair or at my desk if I’m working; bed is for sleeping only. But I have a very soft mattress and far more blankets than I need, so it’s very cozy.
I’d also change into what I call “play clothes”—not stuff you sleep in but not things you’d leave the house in on a normal day either; think, the ratty pair of sweatpants. Glasses, not contacts. Blinds open for the natural light. My “mellow” playlist in the background: Norah Jones, Sara Bareilles, Carole King, etc.
Definitely an oversized mug of tea in my favorite grey TYPEWRITER mug in the morning with a Kind bar or some such—I don’t like to waste time on meal prep when I’m in deep reading mode. Chex Mix and cherry Coke Zero (almost impossible to find in NYC, but a girl can dream) as the day wears on; eventually I’d break down and order a pizza. This actually sounds delightful; I’m going to implement this plan as soon as these moving boxes are gone.
And finally, tell us the coolest thing you’ve experienced in bookworld since starting work in publishing.
EVERYTHING; I love being an insider! One of the best things, though, is on the nonfiction side. Whenever I see someone doing something cool in the world, I can email them to introduce myself and ask if they want to talk about writing a book. Oftentimes, nothing comes of this, but the conversations I’ve had have all been fascinating. And it’s just such a luxury to have greater access to talented people.
One of my clients, Jessica Luther, is a prominent sports journalist, and when I was reading a proposal for a colleague a couple weeks ago, her client cited Jessica (not knowing she was a client of mine) in one of the chapters. It just tickled me to get confirmation that I’m working with someone who’s an influencer, whose work matters to other people. It’s wonderful to feel that, as an agent, I’m helping to put good and important things into the world.
Jennifer Johnson-Blalock joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in 2015, having previously interned at LDA in 2013 before working as an agent’s assistant at Trident Media Group. Jennifer graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English and earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Before interning at LDA, she practiced entertainment law and taught high school English and debate. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, and visit her website: www.jjohnsonblalock.com.