HackCollege Interviews: A Literary Agent
The bulk of writers know that in order to get a novel published the traditional route, they will need to reach out to literary agents in hopes of representation. Even with this knowledge, there are still plenty of questions that can add stress to the querying process. Fortunately, I got a chance to chat with Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, who was kind enough to answer some common questions that newbie authors might have.
There are plenty of writers who spend their days sharing their thoughts and creative musings with a limited audience, most of whom would love to expand their platform by getting published.
Some people who love to write actually don’t like to read as much as you’d think. According to Jennifer, this may not be for the best, because when asked if she thought an author should be an avid reader she said:
“Definitely. I think that reading widely and frequently can only help you develop your craft as a writer. It also helps you to better know the market. It’s important on the agent side as well, to learn more about what sort of books are being published and succeeding.”
One note I’ll add is that you shouldn’t read a bunch of best selling books like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones, write their replicas, and expect to hit it big. By the time you finish writing one like them, a new trend will have already arrived. Be the trendsetter by writing what you feel, not what you think will pad your bank account.
Moving on the to Jennifer’s most important query tips:
“1. Give the most compelling explanation of your book. Queries aren’t synopses–they’re more akin to flap copy with a bit more plot. Craft a strong hook; make the agent need to read more. Don’t include extraneous information, particularly about your bio if you’re a fiction writer.
2. Say at the top of the query letter why you’re sending to that agent. The more specific you can be, such as referencing a particular tweet or MSWL item, the better!
3. Use comp titles; they can really help an agent understand your work. For tips on how to use them effectively, look at my guest blog post with Carly Watters.”
Next, I thought it would be important to know if there were any query mistakes that are so unforgivable she would pass even if the manuscript were great:
“Well, unfortunately, if the query is terrible, I’ll never know if the MS is great–I just won’t request. Take time with your query just like you took time with your manuscript to make sure I go beyond the letter.”
So, here is what makes her say yes to a query/MS:
“When I work on a book, I have to put in months of work before I make any money on it–and before I know if it will even sell. And I’ll wind up reading the book five or six times before the process is over. In order to do that, I really have to love the book. It can’t feel like work the first time I read it; I have to not want to put it down. That’s a high bar, but I have limited resources to invest (I’m just one person!), so I have to be selective.”
When it comes to query preparations she recommends that every author do this before sending any queries out:
“Research agents as much as possible. There’s so much information out there–agency websites, interviews, Twitter, #MSWL. Be selective, and target agents who are really looking for what you’ve written.
When it comes to beginning your novel, however, there are no rules:
“I don’t think you need to do anything special before writing a first draft; everyone’s process is different in terms of plotting and outlining. But remember that a first draft has the word first in it for a reason. I think revision is where the real magic happens.”
If a query is successful, the sent MS was amazing, and the agent wants to offer representation, here’s what happens after “the call”:
“First, the writer should talk to any other agents who are considering their work and give them time to offer representation as well. Then, if a writer decides to accept my offer, we sign an agency agreement that sets out expectations. Next I’ll edit the manuscript, and the writer will revise–it usually takes about two rounds before the manuscript is ready to go on the market. Finally, when the manuscript is in the best shape possible, I’ll write a pitch letter and come up with a list of editors to submit to, then send it out in the world. Fingers crossed from that point!”
Any published author will tell you never write your book for money, write it because you have this special combination of words repeating in your head and you can’t rest until you get them out. But in case you’re curious, I also asked what the typical range for an advance on a book and if there is anything that can make this number higher:
“This is the one question I can’t really answer! Advances vary so widely depending on category, genre, topic, editor interest, who the author is, which publisher makes an offer… They could honestly be anything from $500 to seven figures, though I’d say a more common range is 10-100,000. Multiple offers can help drive up the advance; if you have an auction amongst several publishers, that will make them bring their best offers. But those offers are still based on the profit and loss statements a publisher runs.”
With a publication offer comes deadlines for edits and rewrites! This is how deadlines work and the consequences of being late on them:
“Sometimes there’s flexibility, and that’s something an agent is great for–talking to the editor to try to come up with a new deadline. But the publication can be delayed if you’re too late. And legally speaking, they’re allowed to cancel the contract if the author is late, and the author would have to pay back the advance. Particularly as a debut author, it’s good to meet your deadlines if at all possible. Publishers will look favorably on a writer who’s easy to work with.”
Lastly, getting an agent isn’t the only way to get a book published. Plenty of people self-publish, and here are Jennifer’s thoughts on choosing that route:
“I think it’s a great option if you want to put your book in the world, but there are a couple things to keep in mind. First, you shouldn’t self-publish thinking it will be your path to getting rich quick. It’s rare that a self-published book sells hundreds of thousands of copies. Second, you shouldn’t self-publish thinking you can traditionally publish later. There are exceptions, of course, but generally agents and publishers won’t consider previously published work. But if traditional publishing isn’t possible or if you want more control over the process than it affords, self-publishing is a valid way to go. Just be prepared to put work into it. Many successful self-published authors hire freelance editors, designers, and publicists to perform some of the functions that a traditional publisher would.”
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.
For more information about Jennifer’s career path, check out her interview with Jessie Devine.
Now that you have some tips for what it takes to become an author, my last bit of advice is to do more research and don’t give up!
Everyone goes through rejection. Just keep revising, get beta readers, and don’t stop until you find the right fit for the world you’ve created. The only exception to this rule is if it’s been a year with no requests. Then, either re-visit the query or shelve the story and start a new one.
But no matter what, never stop writing.