Literary Agent Interview: Jennifer Johnson-Blalock

The profession and day-to-day job of a literary agent has always fascinated me. These people work tirelessly and enthusiastically to help sell their clients' books to publishers. Just thinking of all your favorite books, some literary agent helped get that book recognized and published.

Today I interview Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates. Learn more about the job of a literary agent, what she looks for in manuscripts, and her favorite tv shows!

1. I've always been intrigued by the job of literary agents. You are my heroes! You help authors sell their books to publishers that we readers eventually devour and love. Can you describe a typical work day as a literary agent?

This is the hardest question--every agent will tell you there's no typical day! In general, though, it's a triage: clients under contract have to take first priority, followed by clients not yet under contract, followed by potential clients. Clients under contract come first because typically I'm not just responding to the client, but also the publisher. There's the initial contract review and negotiation to start after we sell the book, and then as the client moves forward, I may need to discuss a cover concept, review edits, talk about publicity strategies...I'm my clients' primary advocate in the publishing process. Sometimes that means just listening to them vent!

Next, I'm working with clients who aren't yet under contract. I'm an editorial agent; I believe that in this market, manuscripts need to be in the best possible shape before I send them out. So I always do at least one round of edits with a client. I'll usually start with an editorial letter discussing big picture concepts and a line edit, then read through a revision noting any problems that jump out at me, and then we're usually good to go. Once a manuscript is ready, I'm brainstorming the list of editors I want to submit to, writing the pitch letter, then sending it out into the world. Publishing is a slow process, so I'll typically be following up with editors a few times as they consider my client's work. As the submission process is happening, I'll be working with my client on the NEXT book, helping her strategize about what to write and reading it once it's ready.

Then I'm looking for potential clients whenever I have time--reading and responding to queries (I read every query myself), reading manuscripts, participating in contests, going to conferences, looking around the internet and the world for people doing amazing things who might want to write about it. This is the work that often happens after hours, on weekends or before bed.

Finally, there's networking. I frequently have lunch and coffee dates with editors and attend events put on by different publishing organizations to learn more about their taste and find the perfect fit for my clients. I also meet regularly with other agents who give me valuable advice and insight into the industry. Liza Dawson Associates is also an extraordinarily supportive, collaborative agency, so I spend some of my time helping my colleagues in their pursuits.

It's almost impossible to say what any given day will hold, but most days involve some combination of all of these things! That's actually one of the things I love about my job--it's so varied and never dull.


2. What do you pay attention to and look for most in any manuscript you read?

The short answer is that I have to love it. That's become one of the most cliched rejections (I didn't fall in love!), but honestly, sometimes that's just the truth. There may be nothing I can point to that's "wrong" with your book, but I just don't love it enough to put in the hours it will take to bring the book to market. This is incredibly subjective--my broad litmus test is whether reading the manuscript doesn't feel like work. If I don't want to put the book down, that's a great sign. If it feels like an assignment, I'm not the right agent.

More specifically, I think many agents and editors will agree that voice is hugely important: Is it captivating? Is it the right voice for the category or genre? Is it distinctive? But in many submissions lately, I've found myself being more persnickety about plot. I've read a lot of manuscripts about characters dealing with things in the past--which, of course, we're all always constantly dealing with our pasts--but important, exciting things need to be happening to the characters in the present to hook me.

3. Which of your and your agency clients' books/recent sales are you most excited to see hit shelves?

My first two sales will be coming out next summer, 2017, and I couldn't be more excited! Rebecca Barrow's debut YOU DON'T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/29008379-you-don-t-know-me-but-i-know-you?ac=1&from_search=true) is a beautiful YA about a girl who receives an unexpected letter from her birth mother as she and her boyfriend struggle to decide what to do about an accidental pregnancy--all while facing a growing distance with her best friend, who's keeping secrets of her own. Lots of big issues in there, but I love it because it feels so authentic and not at all melodramatic.

Then Kristin Rockaway's THE WILD WOMAN'S GUIDE TO TRAVELING THE WORLD (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30325444-the-wild-woman-s-guide-to-traveling-the-world?ac=1&from_search=true) is incredibly fun commercial women's fiction about a twenty-something New Yorker with a severe case of wanderlust who questions her prestigious consulting career and perfectly ordered life after meeting a free-spirited American artist in Hong Kong. It's smart and sexy all at the same time, and it's the PERFECT 2017 beach read. Look for cover reveals for both of those books soon!

And everyone else at Liza Dawson Associates is doing incredible things as well. I'm thrilled that Hannah Bowman's client Pierce Brown is doing more books in the RED RISING world. But I'm also super excited about a very different book Hannah just sold to New Press about prison reform, such an important and timely topic. Caitlin Blasdell's clients Max Wirestone and Joel Ross are both awesome; they have books out and more on the way. And Liza has done some recent suspenseful women's fiction/thriller sales for Marybeth Whalen and Carey Baldwin that I can't wait to read--that's an area in which I'd really love to acquire.


4. What are some of your favorite books?

How much room do we have here? Seriously, though, let me try to narrow this down... Unrelated to work, like many other readers, I love PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (I wrote my college thesis on adaptations of it). I also adore THE SUN ALSO RISES and MIDDLESEX, and my comfort book from childhood is LITTLE WOMEN. I could read THE PORTABLE DOROTHY PARKER every night.

Thinking about favorites in genres I work in, I really enjoy women's fiction from Emily Giffin that's a fun read but that also pushes back against stereotypes a little--BABY PROOF will be mandatory reading for my partner if I'm ever in a serious relationship. I think LOVE WALKED IN by Marisa de los Santos is the best example of characterization I've ever read, and it also has such beautiful, poetic language. And I'm obsessed with the brash feminism of J. Courtney Sullivan, especially in COMMENCEMENT.

In YA, I love the voice displayed by writers such as Nina LaCour and David Levithan. I don't think I'll ever be tired of Lola in Stephanie Perkin's LOLA AND THE BOY NEXT DOOR. My YA taste runs the gamut from dark to sweet to heavy, but in MG, I'm definitely partial to the more serious side of things, books like COUNTING BY 7s.

I love reading thrillers, especially on vacation. Tana French and Megan Abbot are both favorites, and I cannot wait to read their latest this year. I was not at all surprised GONE GIRL found the success it did, and I thought Flynn's SHARP OBJECTS was also excellent. I also recommend Caroline Kepnes to anyone who will listen--YOU and the follow-up HIDDEN BODIES are some of the best examples I know of black humor and making you root for an antihero.

In nonfiction, I really enjoy books like ALL THE SINGLE LADIES that draw on the writer's personal experiences but are also deeply reported. I'm obsessed with pop psychology; STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS is a perennial favorite. And I love food memoirs. I've read dozens, but I think the first one I ever bought was COOKING FOR MR. LATTE.


5. What tv shows do you obsessively watch?

Too many, if I'm being honest. I think UNReal is genius, and I love to hate-watch (and tweet about) The Bachelor/ette. I can't wait for the next season of The Royals. I watch Gilmore Girls over and over, and I'm counting down the days til November 25. I think The Fosters is fantastic. And I frequently rewatch Sex and the City, Friday Night Lights, Gossip Girl, Queer as Folk, My So-Called Life, The Newsroom, and Dance Academy (so excited for the movie!).

6. If you could travel to any country in the world, where would you want to go and why?

I want to go almost everywhere! Italy is my favorite so far; every city from Florence to Venice to Sorrento has a special appeal to me, and I just feel very at home there. But I aim to travel to as many new places as possible--right now, Australia is at the top of my list; I'm trying to ring in the new year in Sydney. And I'm planning an African safari with my mom, though we're still trying to pinpoint the right country--possibly Tanzania? I love travel for so many reasons, but one of them is getting to experience places that I've read about and form a better picture in my head.

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.

3 comments:

  1. It's fascinating to read a little bit about what a literary agent does! It sounds like a lot of work so props to Jennifer, and all the other lit agents who do so much work to make sure a book gets published ;)

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  2. What a great interview! I've always found the profession of literary agent a bit mysterious and would love to know more about the path toward becoming one. Thank you for featuring Jennifer :-) Also - hook 'em horns!

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  3. This is such an awesome post! As someone who wants to work in the publishing industry, I always jump at the chance to learn more of what that entails. Awesome post, thanks for sharing! :)

    Ashtyn @ Wonderland’s Reader!

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