Agent Interview: Jennifer Johnson-Blalock

I recently had the chance to interview agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of the Liza Dawson about recent trends in Women’s Fiction. She’s such a thoughtful, professional presence in the publishing world, and I truly appreciate the time she took to answer my questions. (To the Shelves questions are bold and italicized)

TTS: The buzz is that agents are looking for slightly more serious WF that tackles big issues — is this correct? Which issues seem to be the ones garnering the most interest?

Yes and no. I’m certainly looking for slightly more serious WF at the moment, but that’s primarily because my list is skewed towards the more fun/commercial. I think it’s still a mix, as it’s always been. There are people who are looking for weighty matters, and there are those who are looking for more fun escapism. Many, including myself, are open to both, and I’ve had different editors recently tell me they’re looking for one or the other, so there are certainly places to submit both.

Whether serious or light, I think there are many agents looking for diversity, in the broadest sense of the word. There’s been almost a mandate for it in YA, and there are an increasing number of agents and editors who would like more diverse WF offerings as well.

TTS: How much influence has our current political situation had on what agents/editors are looking for?

That’s a tough question. It’s certainly influencing us, but I don’t think it’s doing so in one universal way–this ties into my answer above. In the last couple weeks, one editor told me she’s really only looking for books that are politically engaged in some way. But another editor told me she thinks really lighthearted, fun, commercial books will experience an upswing because of what’s happening politically. And it’s difficult to be too on the nose in publishing since books are typically scheduled 18 months out. So my best advice is to write what you need to right now, and there will probably be an agent looking for it–though it might not be the same agent who was looking for it in October.

TTS: What are the big picture trends in publishing WF , and what are  WF editors looking for?

I’ve heard an increasing number of editors looking for WF (particularly in a debut) that’s high concept or has a really strong hook–something with a premise that will get people excited and allow the editor to break it out in hardcover on a crowded list. (THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY by Leigh Himes is an example of high concept WF.) Diversity, as I mentioned above. Several editors have asked recently for historical upmarket WF (think Paula McClain). I still know editors who are looking for suspenseful WF, but I think that trend is waning.

TTS: How long does it typically take WF editors to make an offer?

I’d say a few months is probably average, but it varies. (This is probably the second toughest common question for an agent, after “how big will my advance be?”.) I got an offer in two weeks at the end of 2016–that was unusual, but it happens. And then you hear the stories of a book selling after six months, or even a year.

TTS: How much of a market is there for romance/WF crossovers?

I don’t think there are many true crossovers. I have a couple clients whose books started as contemporary romance, and by the time I saw them, they were edging into WF, and one of the things I did editorially was to push them more definitively in the WF direction, namely by developing the non-romance portions of the plot. I think of it as a continuum, with contemporary romance on one end of the spectrum and literary at the other end. The line between commercial and upmarket WF is pretty blurry. But for publishers, there’s a more clear demarcation between romance and WF–it’s oftentimes different editors, digital only vs. trade paperback deals, different contractual elements. There is certainly commercial WF with a strong romance at its center, but that typically doesn’t follow the usual conventions (alternating third-person POV, for instance) of contemporary romance. Generally, the easier it is for publishers to categorize your book, the easier it will be to sell.

TTS: What WF writers do you like?

My perennial favorites are Emily Giffin, J. Courtney Sullivan, and Marisa de los Santos. Recent WF I read and loved includes THE HATING GAME (which is probably the best example of a successful romance/WF crossover), COME AWAY WITH ME, and THE REGULARS.

TTS: Finally, is there anything I didn’t ask but you think would be interesting for WF writers to know?

I mentioned the word “diversity” a few times here, so I want to expand on that briefly. There was recently an Open Call for Muslim Writers that many agents participated in, and I know of at least one agent-client match that came from that. When I say I’m looking for diverse books, I mean that in the broadest way possible–diversity of race, religion, culture, sexuality, socioeconomic status… But with WF in particular, I’m also on the hunt for a diversity of female experiences. For instance, the dating landscape has changed so much in the last decade. And I know a significant number of women just in my own life who are choosing not to have children. I’m always on the hunt for books about women making different choices or leading atypical lives.

Thanks again so much for your time! 

ABOUT JENNIFER:

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.

If you’re interested in querying Ms. Johnson-Blalock, please check her agency’s website for up to date submission directions: www.lizadawsonassociates.com

Heather Capps