Good Afternoon, Readers 😀 Today I’m starting a new series: Publishing Insider!! It was inspired by my realtalk post on getting your foot in the (publishing industry) door:
Sharing a post I wrote, based on advice I just gave, to recent grads seeking that elusive "first job in publishing." https://t.co/vOZb7YYqRO
— Patrice Caldwell (@whimsicallyours) June 1, 2016
Publishing Insider will give you a peek into the publishing world as told by my daring interviewees who’ll come from all areas within the industry. The amazingly talented Jennifer Johnson-Blalock kindly agreed to kick off the series.
— Patrice Caldwell (@whimsicallyours) September 20, 2016
If you’re interested in being interviewed, contact me, but for now I’m turning it over to Jennifer.
Hi! [insert brunette girl waving emoji] I’m Jennifer Johnson-Blalock. I’ve been a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates since April 2015. I represent women’s fiction, YA, nonfiction (broadly—I currently have sportswriters and a fashion illustrator as clients, but I’m open to many things in that category), and though I have yet to sign clients in these areas, I’m also on the hunt for thriller/suspense, middle grade, and contemporary romance. When I’m not reading, I’m traveling (though probably also reading then), going to movies or theater, seeking out/cooking delicious food, or watching football or basketball. Follow me on Twitter @JJohnsonblalock, and check out my website, www.jjohnsonblalock.com.
Thanks for being here, Jennifer! What was your first job in publishing and how did you break into the industry?
My first internship was working as the Young Adult editor for Riffle, a startup website focused on book discovery. I got that in part because of a recommendation from an instructor of a publishing course I took at NYU. (I don’t think master’s degrees in publishing are necessary, but individual courses and the summer intensives are valuable.) From that point, it all ran along a fairly common path—that internship led to one with Liza Dawson Associates, which led to an assistant position at Trident Media Group, which led back to an agent position with Liza.
Before working in publishing, though, I practiced law and taught high school. In order to end up as an agent, I had to completely start over—picture me as a 30-year-old unpaid intern with a Harvard Law degree. I do think I was able to move forward a bit more speedily than I would have at 22, but I had as tough a time as anyone breaking in.
Wow. Now that’s dedication. No wonder you’re such a boss! What’s a day in the life like for you?
One of the very true clichés about agenting is that there’s no typical day. I usually have one BIG task I’m trying to chip away at each day—this week, for instance, I sent out a new submission, and it took me the bulk of three days to craft the pitch, finalize the sub list, and get it in the hands of editors. Other major tasks include reviewing contracts or editing clients’ work. I enjoy most of this work, but we all have our strengths and weaknesses—I have a theory that you can tell a lot about an agent’s personality by asking whether they prefer pitches or sub lists. (I’m a pitch person.)
Then mixed in with that is just other…stuff. Every stage in the publishing process (copyedits, covers, publication itself) tends to bring new questions from clients and things to discuss with the editors. Sometimes clients just need to brainstorm. I have email and Twitter open all day, keeping tabs on things and responding as needed (or just, you know, goofing around on Twitter and talking about my dating life). Editor networking takes time, too; at least once a week, often more, I’ll have coffees or lunches with editors to learn more about their taste and lists—these outings are almost always a blast!
Then there are submissions. I feel guilty that potential clients come at the bottom of the priority list—I know writers have worked hard and are anxious to hear from me. I try to work in at least a bit of query and submission reading each day, but it can be hard when things are busy with current clients—more and more work there all the time! I actually love reading queries, though; the possibilities are endless. But I can be bad about sending rejections; I make notes on my phone and then send in batches. I’m never excited to bring down someone’s day. All of the potential client work tends to take place on nights and weekends.
Speaking of Twitter, I noticed you started a new hashtag, #querywin. Tell me about why you started that and what you hope it will accomplish.
#querywin came about pretty organically—I didn’t set out with the goal of creating a new hashtag, but a couple things happened in quick succession: a client told me about the time she cried over an agent’s tweet that was obviously about her R&R, and I noticed a Twitter friend talking about harsh tweets she’d read about her work during the querying process. I’m a little sensitive about people being mean online at the moment, so I just started musing on Twitter about the problem and how to make it better.
One writer said he liked the positive side of #tenqueries better, and I got the idea to create a hashtag devoted to just that. It’s still so new—we’ll see if it takes off amongst agents—but I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from writers about it, and I’m really enjoying it so far. It’s funny that I’ve become this beacon for positivity because I’m usually a pretty cynical person, but I’ve definitely reached a point lately where it’s like, enough is enough. Let’s just be nice where we can.
That’s a fabulous idea. We can always be nicer to each other. As an agent you get paid when authors do and it’s your job to find new talent. How do you get out there and network? Do you have any advice for writers looking to meet agents? What about advice and tips for people looking to get their first publishing job?
I go to a few conferences a year and participate in various online contests and pitch events (I got one client through #DVPit). And this is definitely a job where you’re always “on”—I’ve given out my card to an aspiring writer at many a bar. And when I have time I troll around the internet and just look for people doing interesting things—one of my clients came from Instagram. Actually, though, all of my clients except for the two I just mentioned have come from queries. That process works; I swear.
If you want to interact with agents, I think Twitter’s amazing. Just please interact with me like a human there. Don’t, for instance, query me, immediately start liking everything I say, and then disappear if I pass. I really enjoy relationships I’ve built with writers on there, many of whom are represented by other agents. Outside of #askagent, though, don’t expect agents to answer tweets asking for advice; that’s not really why we’re there!
I do think it’s important to network if you’re looking for a job in publishing. The classes I mentioned before were great for me, both for meeting the instructors and other students. Attend industry events (and again, as with Twitter, don’t be weird; aim to build genuine connections). Once you have that first job, join organizations like Young to Publishing—your network continues to be important as you move up. I participate in a group for newer agents, and it’s an invaluable resource.
Networking is so important. I couldn’t agree more! What do you wish you could have known back when you were starting out? What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
This is going to sound harsh but…one thing I didn’t consider when I started out is that this is a job where you never fully win. You have successes, don’t get me wrong, but there’s really no ceiling. You could always sell the book for more money, or even if you have a bestseller, it could have stayed on the NYT list for longer. It can be tough to be unequivocally happy with what you’ve accomplished.
On the other side of the coin, the best advice I’ve received, and a mantra I repeat every day is, “You’re doing enough.” Always always always I have a pile of work unfinished when I go to bed, but the reality is that I work really hard for very little pay, and I am (we all are) doing enough in the long view.
“You’re doing enough,” I need to have that on my bedroom walls, so it’s the first thing I see each morning.
What’s a project you recently sold that you’re excited for? What’s something upcoming, not from a client, that you’re obsessed with?
I’ve sold three projects thus far, and I love them all equally. I’ve talked in a couple recent interviews about the works that are coming out first—Rebecca Barrow’s YA YOU DON’T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU and Kristin Rockaway’s commercial women’s fiction THE WILD WOMAN’S GUIDE TO TRAVELING THE WORLD will both be released next summer.
But I’d like to take the opportunity in this interview to promote the third book I’ve sold: Kavitha A. Davidson and Jessica Luther’s HOW TO LOVE SPORTS WHEN THEY DON’T LOVE YOU BACK (University of Texas Press). It won’t be released until 2018, which is so long to wait, I know, but it’s going to be fantastic. The book is a guide for conflicted fans who want to keep watching the sports they love but who acknowledge the problems with the industry, addressing topics such as How to Watch Football When We Know About CTE, How to Cheer For Your Hockey Team When There’s An Accused Rapist On It, and How to Watch March Madness When You Know The Athletes Aren’t Getting Paid.
Kavitha and Jessica are both brilliant sports journalists, so I know the book will be really special. And in the meantime, Jessica’s first book (which I didn’t represent but love anyway) was recently released from Akashic: UNSPORTSMANLIKE CONDUCT: College Football and the Politics of Rape.
For non-client books, in the near future, I can’t wait for THE TRESPASSER, the latest from Tana French. I’m completely obsessed with her books; she writes the best literary mysteries (and I’d love to find something that comps to her in my query inbox, hint hint).
Further off, and to promote a debut, I’m really excited about Rachel Lynn Solomon’s FINGERS CROSSED, coming in spring 2018, a contemporary YA about fraternal twin girls who undergo a genetic test to determine if they’ve inherited their mother’s Huntington’s disease. I actually read the manuscript and passed—it was so close for me, but I just didn’t have the right vision for it. But I think it’s great, and I’m so happy it found the perfect agent and publisher! (There’s a lesson in there somewhere for writers.)
I am so excited for those—especially Rebecca Barrow’s YA novel. She’s amazing!
We all have those dream projects. Whether it’s working with a certain published author or a book concept you’ve never received. What have you always wanted to see in your inbox?
I would swipe J. Courtney Sullivan. There are more lucrative steals I could make, to be sure, but COMMENCEMENT is one of my all-time favorite novels in its unabashed feminism. I’m constantly quoting from it and recommending it and buying it for friends. Also, I met the author at a signing once, and she was completely lovely, which is always a nice bonus with clients!
Totally adding COMMENCEMENT to my to-reads…It sounds like something I’d love!
Okay, now for the not-so-fun things. What is one of the worst mistakes you’ve made? How did you learn and grow from it and come out stronger?
This is going to sound nuts to most people, but honestly, my biggest life mistake so far has been Harvard Law School. I went into law school saying I wanted to be a literary agent, which is kind of ridiculous, but forgivable—I had zero contacts, I’d read an article telling me that was a great plan, my dad was not on board with me moving to NYC. I took the LSAT, and it just snowballed; I didn’t do the necessary research and soul searching I should have.
But while I can understand my decision to go, I really regret not having the strength of self to quit. I knew after the first year that it definitely wasn’t right for me, and I was really depressed for much of law school—I was obviously unhappy, I gained a ton of weight, I spent most of my time alone in my apartment watching TV…it was bad. Everyone told me I shouldn’t quit—it’s HARVARD, after all—but I knew what was right for me.
It took me a long time to recover from that, but I wound up being much more confident in myself and my decisions and much more knowledgeable about my feelings. When I later found myself in a job that was making me deeply unhappy every day, I quit and never looked back. Nothing’s ever perfect, but I have a better sense of what my personal baseline and boundaries are now.
Love that! Learning when to quit was one of the best + hardest things I learned. Now for the silly stuff. What’s your most embarrassing moment?
I’ll share a sort-of book related one. I interned at a fashion magazine in NYC the summer before my senior year in college, and the work was pretty brutal. One day they call me over at 4:30 pm and tell me that this stack of rare books they’d used for a photo shoot HAD to be back to Bauman’s Rare Books by 5, and the intern who was supposed to do it disappeared. They give me the books, just pile them in my arms, with 20 bucks for cab fare, and shoo me out the door.
The office was at 35th and 5th, and Bauman’s is on Madison and 54th, and there’s not a cab in sight (this is pre-Uber, kids), so I start trotting up Madison, looking over my shoulder to see if a cab is coming. I finally spot one and hail it, but it’s on the other side of the street and moving up as it’s moving over. I pick up speed, but the sidewalk is blocked by double strollers, so I move to the side of the road, which unfortunately is just loose gravel.
Obviously, I fall. And since I’m carrying about twenty grand worth of books in my arms, I don’t break my fall AT ALL, just hit the gravel on my knees, clutching the books to my chest. The cab leaves, of course, and I limp my way to Bauman’s. When I walk in the store, the sales associate looks at me absolutely horrified and just asks, “Did you bleed on the books?”
I have endless amounts of empathy for interns.
“Did you bleed on the books?” LOL. I’m dying. Growing up, I wanted to be a fashion designer. I’m so happy I decided not to go that route.
Now that I’ve embarrassed you, what’s a TV show you’ve been binge-watching lately?
I’m a little low on time right now (it’s been such a crazy summer), so I’m watching the new episodes of THE MINDY PROJECT on Hulu—a) because I just got Hulu (I know, I know, but I love cable), and b) because it’s 30-minute episodes, so I don’t feel like the worst for taking the time to watch a couple. I know I need to watch STRANGER THINGS; I swear I will when I get a bit more caught up with reading. And I kind of constantly binge-watch GILMORE GIRLS. My mom and I both DVR it from Freeform every day and just watch it continuously.
GILMORE GIRLS! I just started, for the first time, and am in LOVE with it. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
This is super random, but I collect antique teapots when I travel. If you go to the homepage of my website, www.jjohnsonblalock.com, I took the photo on the front page, and the teapot pictured is one I bought at a flea market in Florence. I have quite a few now—from Buenos Aires, Amsterdam, Bratislava, Alaska, some places that don’t begin with A or B. They’re a pain to carry back, but I love them. My grandparents owned an antique store, so it’s definitely in my blood. And I love tea. And travel. So it just combines a lot of my loves into an adorable package.
OMG. I, too, love tea + travel. You’re officially the coolest. Thanks so much, Jennifer for stopping by.
And with that, the first “episode” of Publishing Insider is over. Feel free to use #PublishingInsider on social media to continue the conversation. Stay tuned for more!
Thanks for tuning in! Enjoy the day!!