As part of our 3 Year Celebrations we are thrilled to have agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of Liza Dawson Associates joining us! This Friday, February 26th, Jennifer is going to be taking pitches right here on the Sub It Club blog! Today Jennifer is stopping by to tell us more about herself and what she’s looking for. She has shared some excellent tips for everyone who is querying agents from writing pitches, to subject lines and replying to rejections, to personalization, so do read on! Pitch day information is at the end of the post. First, our interview with Jennifer:
What are your looking for right now? Is there anything on your wish list?
Generally speaking, I’m looking for nonfiction in all areas, both narrative and prescriptive, from writers with strong platforms. I’m also seeking commercial and upmarket fiction, especially thrillers/mysteries, women’s fiction, contemporary romance, young adult, and middle grade.
I’m still building my list, so I’m reading very broadly in those areas right now. Based on the clients I have, though, I’m particularly eager to add a thriller writer to my ranks. And in nonfiction, I’d love to add writers in the areas of food, wellness, or pop psychology.
My agent page on our website has a lot of information about what I’m looking for and specific books that I’ve enjoyed: http://www.lizadawsonassociates.com/staff/jennifer-johnson-blalock.html. And if you follow me on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, you get a good sense of my personality and #MSWL.
What does a manuscript need to hook you?
A fresh concept initially, but once I start reading, I think a strong voice is paramount. I can do a lot editorially in terms of plot and characterization, but I honestly have no idea how to coach a writer into a voice that isn’t there.
What do you think makes a good query? Any pet peeves?
I think good queries follow standard formatting and content guidelines—the content should stand out, not the way in which you present it. Just tell me what the book’s about, any unique features, and a bit about yourself. The best queries manage to convey the tone/voice of the work as they present it. I’m also a huge fan of comp titles; they really help me to understand how you’re thinking about the work. And personalize the query to the extent you can—at least with my name, but tell me if you’re responding to a MSWL request or if one of my tweets or something I wrote on the website caught your eye. There are so many resources on the internet now for writing your query and researching agents; writers are really out of excuses in those areas!
As far as pet peeves go, I try to give writers the benefit of the doubt with queries. But I prefer that the title be in the subject of the email (Query for Jennifer Johnson-Blalock may be helpful for the writer but isn’t at all helpful for me). Don’t reply to rejections—definitely don’t ask follow-up questions, but even saying thank you seems nice but is really just an email we have to delete, to be totally honest. And if you get a request, just reply to the email; if you change the subject line, it moves it to a different conversation grouping, which makes organization tougher.
What are some of the most common reasons you pass on manuscripts?
The vague but true response is that the specifics vary for every manuscript, but in order to offer representation, I have to be eager to pick the book up again when I set it down. If reading the book feels like a chore, that’s when I know it’s not a good fit. Most of the time, that comes down to voice. Occasionally, though, a book will just make a choice in terms of plot or character that I don’t agree with and is big enough that I don’t know how to fix.
How much work are you willing to do with an author on a manuscript you love?
Quite a lot. Almost all of my clients do at least one revision, with a line edit and editorial letter from me. Sometimes I’ll go through multiple revisions with a client—I want to get the book in the best shape possible. The key for me, which I alluded to in the previous question, is that I have to have ideas for how to fix a book’s problems. I’m happy to work on a book when I have the vision for it, but sometimes I’ll read something and like it but feel like there are things that need work but have no idea how to make them better—which means that there’s a better agent out there for that project.
How important is author platform to you when it comes to clients?
Extremely important (almost paramount) for nonfiction. I don’t take it into consideration in a negative direction for fiction, but it is a bonus factor.
What do you look for in a client ideally?
Someone who’s used their resources and done their research to gain an understanding of publishing and the marketplace. Someone who’s willing to work hard and who has realistic expectations. We have to share a similar vision for the book; it won’t work if the writer feels my revision suggestions are insane. (It’s completely ok to say no to an offer of representation for that reason; it’s part of why we talk first.) And finally, our personalities should be a reasonably good fit. For people who may never meet in person, it’s an oddly intimate relationship.
What is your advice on how to formulate a pitch? What elements do you think are important?
With a pitch, you’re trying to grab my attention with a very limited number of words, so focus on the elements that make your story unique. You want to introduce the main conflict and the primary character(s), but beyond that, try to give me a sense of your book’s most intriguing selling point. Is your protagonist an underrepresented minority? Do you have 200,000 followers on Instagram? Try to convey what will make your book stand out.
A huge THANK YOU to Jennifer for taking the time to share all of these great insights with us. You can learn more about Jennifer on the Liza Dawson Associates website.
Be here Friday, February 26th to pitch Jennifer directly! I will be putting up a new post on Friday morning just for pitches. Jennifer will be pursing your pitches between 10am and 6pm EST. She will be making requests on those that pique her interest and will be offering feedback which, of course, is pure gold for us writers! Here are the rules:
- Only pitch work in the genres that Jennifer represents: narrative and prescriptive nonfiction, commercial and upmarket fiction ( especially thrillers/mysteries, women’s fiction), contemporary romance, young adult, and middle grade.
- Pitch completed fiction or complete nonfiction proposals only.
- Post your pitch in the comments of the pitch day post which will be up on Friday, February 26th at 9:30am EST.
Pitches are to consist of:
- Word count:
- Pitch: 100-words maximum. (Remember a pitch needs to show the conflict, what is at stake for the main character, and hook Jennifer into wanting to read more!)
- Excerpt: The first 100-words of your novel. (If the 100th word is in the middle of the sentence don’t worry, just finish it out.)
Get those pitches ready Sub It Clubbers! As always, you are welcome to post your pitch in our private Sub It Club support group for feedback before pitching.