Name: Jennifer Johnson-Blalock.
Agency: Liza Dawson Associates.
What was your first job in the industry, which led directly or indirectly to your current agent role?
My first publishing job (after stints in a couple other careers) was an internship for Riffle, a startup website aimed at book discovery—I served as the Young Adult Editor and helped to curate content. That led to an internship with Liza Dawson Associates, which helped me land an assistant position with John Silbersack at Trident Media Group. After about a year there, I came back to Liza Dawson as an associate agent.
There’s no specific agent qualifications, so what would you say best qualifies you to do your job & allows you to do it well?
My law degree helps—I went to Harvard Law School and focused on entertainment law, so I’m good at reading a contract. It’s certainly not necessary for an agent to have a law degree, but it’s a nice bonus. More generally, I think I’ve always felt divided between business and creative pursuits, and agenting is really precisely balanced between those two worlds. Understanding both helps me guide clients in the right direction.
What routine, if any, do you look to start each working day with?
Emails and coffee to start; anything beyond that changes with the day.
Lift the lid as best you can, and describe a typical working day?
Honestly, every day is different, which is part of what I love about my job. But at a very high level, it’s a blend of taking care of current clients, finding new clients, and general networking. Current client work might include editing their manuscripts, getting on the phone with them about any concerns they have (about what they’re writing, problems with their editors, concerns about publicity, money woes…it runs the gamut), sending their work to editors, negotiating a deal, reviewing a contract, talking with editors or publicists, bouncing ideas around for new projects, reviewing royalty statements—anything and everything.
Finding new clients involves reading queries and manuscripts, scouring the internet for interesting people who might want to write books, attending events and conferences, participating in contests, and talking to people I’m interested in about their work.
Then there’s networking and outreach—lunches, coffees, and parties with editors and other agents, interviews like this one, and regular Twitter check-ins. This is definitely a relationship business, so I’m always looking to make new connections.
I’m lucky to work at an agency that handles a lot of the nitty-gritty business aspects of agenting for me, but I would be remiss if I didn’t note that all of that—receiving money, processing checks, mailing books and contracts, etc.—takes a tremendous amount of time as well.
What do you feel a client and agent should expect of each other in the course of a fruitful working relationship day-to-day?
Well, contractually, I promise in our standard agency agreement to use my best efforts to sell your manuscript everywhere I can, to advise you on your career, to review your contracts, to send you money promptly, etc. More broadly, like any good relationship, I think the agent/client one relies on respect and communication. Publishing is a slow business without any guaranteed outcomes, so I don’t think someone is a bad agent if it takes some time to edit a book, or they can’t sell it, or the book doesn’t become a bestseller. But I think it’s important to be honest with clients and keep them updated. Clients should, in turn, keep their agents informed, particularly as they start dealing directly with a publisher. And though it doesn’t always work out, I don’t take on a project if I’m not willing to do everything I can to make it a success.
Is there a typical process that sees a first enquiry turn into a working client relationship?
It usually starts with a query letter. If I’m intrigued by what I see, I’ll ask for either a partial or full manuscript and sometimes a synopsis. Once I’ve read the full thing and processed, if I’m excited by it, I’ll set up a time to chat with the author on the phone to learn more about them and their writing process. If it seems like a good fit, I’ll offer representation. Then the author will usually take some time to let the other agents looking at the manuscript know that they have an offer, talk to them if they’re interested, and decide which agent they’d like to work with. If they choose me, we’ll typically both sign an agency agreement that formalizes our relationship, and then I’ll start to work on edits.
What is the best way to approach you, or any agent, with a view to representation? Is there one part of an approach that makes you think this client is or isn’t for me?
There really aren’t any magical tricks; just write the best query letter and manuscript you can. A lot of writers seem to think they should be trying to make their query letter stand out. Really, you want your query letter to blend in so that the content can stand out; every client I’ve taken on has followed the general query template. Do your research online (Twitter, blogs, etc.) to make sure your query is adhering to industry standards. Then research some more to find the right agents to send it to (again, Twitter, Manuscript Wishlist, agency websites). Finally, double check the agency website to make sure you’re sending each agent what she wants—some (like myself) just look at queries first; some want the first 5 or 10 pages. You can also try entering contests or going to conferences, but truly, every agent I know is actively looking through their inbox, hoping to find the next great thing.
Is there any part of your day-to-day work that manifests itself in evenings & weekends?
Reading, reading, reading, reading, reading. All the time.
What one piece of advice would you give to a writer just starting out?
Keep trying! It’s a long process, and you can fail many times before you succeed. Find other writers, and build a support system.
What one piece of advice would you give to your younger self?
You know what you want to do—go do it; stop listening to other people.
Favourite film? So many—I love movies almost as much as books, but I’ll say Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and You’ve Got Mail.
Favourite TV program (currently or all-time)? Gilmore Girls, all-time. Currently, I’m liking Quantico, The Grinder, Scream Queens, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Favourite book? The impossible question! I’m expanding the category. Favorite classic is The Sun Also Rises. Women’s fiction: Love Walked In. Young Adult: Lola and the Boy Next Door. Literary: Middlesex. Thriller: Gone Girl (clichéd but true). Childhood book that I reread every couple years: Little Women. Ugh, just narrowing it down that much broke my heart; I’m constantly finding new books to love.
Favourite director? Maybe Tarantino… His films aren’t always my favorites, but they’re so distinctive, and he’s fascinating.
Favourite writer? In TV/film, Aaron Sorkin. In books, well, the authors of the books listed above, and just to sneak in a few more: Jane Austen, Emily Giffin, J. Courtney Sullivan, Nina Lacour, David Levithan, Tana French…I’ll stop.
Favourite actor (male or female)? Anna Kendrick