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

Author Interview: Jenny Ferguson, Author of BORDER MARKERS (Plus Giveaway!)

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Today we’re chatting with Jenny Ferguson, author of BORDER MARKERS. Jenny happens to be a Pitch Wars 2015 alumni (and 2016 Pitch Wars mentor!), and we’re so excited to have her on the blog to tell us more about her debut novel. So, without further ado, here’s what Jenny had to say about her book, the inspiration behind the story, and her opinion on metaphorical snacks.

First of all, what is BORDER MARKERS about?

I am not good at this question. How about I let you read the blurb, something a group of skilled people came up with!

After the accidental death of a high school-aged friend, the Lansing family has split along fault lines previously hidden under a patina of suburban banality. Every family’s got secrets, but for the Lansings those secrets end up propelling them away from the border town of Lloydminster to foreign shores, prison, and beyond. 

Told via thirty-three flash fiction narratives, fractured like the psyches of its characters, Border Markers is a collection with keen edges and tough language. It’s a slice of prairie noir that straddles the line between magic and gritty realism.

See, I feel better knowing you read that and I didn’t mess it up by trying to do something I’m terrible at. I’m a storyteller, not a story-summer-upper.

What inspired you to write this book?

Through one of those silly acts of fate, I ended up living in Lloydminster, Alberta/Saskatchewan, Canada, for two years in the middle of my high school career. A rough move, to say the least. It gets cold that far north in Canada—the kind of cold where you need to plug cars in so that they’ll start in the morning. Once, I drove half way across town with a 50 foot extension cord trailing behind me on the icy roads—but that’s another story.

The other act of fate that turned me into the woman who would write Border Markers was that my parents enrolled me in the local Catholic high school so that I could continue my French Immersion studies, and not the public high school, where I would have been a lot more comfortable. But after all, I’d been studying French since kindergarten: I probably shouldn’t quit just because we moved to what I considered the frigid, middle-of-nowhere.

In the end, I really ended up loving Lloydminster, the people and the places, despite the town’s many problems.

And now we’re going to time warp a few years: I’m back in Toronto, and I’m working as a clerk in a busy maternity ward, and I get an email that sucks the air out of the room.

A friend of mine has been attacked on the street.

My friend dies later that night.

For a long time, I’m wrecked. For a long time, I don’t know how to process. When I can, I know that the town of Lloydminster, this place I thought I didn’t belong to, was the right place to go back to in order to move forward.

Of course, Border Markers is fiction. But the emotion and the weight of life in the pages comes from the town, from its people—and yeah, I’m one of them even if I don’t live within those borders today.

Places imprint themselves on you, and you imprint yourself on those places, as it should be.

What imprint do you hope your book leaves on your readers?

Always, always, always I hope that my book—and any other books I publish—hit a reader in the feels. Literature, in my heart, is always about transmission of emotion and experience. And by experiencing these things, we change. This is something I believe: Books change people, and by changing people, they change the world.

Okay, re-reading that, I come across as someone who has lofty goals. But, hey, that’s not a bad thing, right?

Do you have any writing rituals? Beverages, snacks, walking three laps around the room counter clockwise before you sit down at your desk?

I have to write alone. I guess you could say that I can be alone in a room full of people, but I need to feel isolated, and I need to feel empty.

That doesn’t mean I don’t snack. The empty feeling is more metaphorical. You know writers, we like metaphors. But not metaphorical snacks. That’s not cool.

The last three books you read:

Other than my Pitch Wars slush pile? Haha. Okay, then we need to wind back to my lovely vacation to Croatia/Montenegro this past June:

Erin Morgenstern’s THE NIGHT CIRCUS

Louis Carmain’s GUANO: A NOVEL (translated from the French by Rhonda Mullins)

Matthew Heiti’s THE CITY STILL BREATHING

Coke or Pepsi?

When I’m bad, coke with a squirt of lime, over ice. When I’m good: water with the same lime over the same ice.

What’s your best piece of advice for writers?

You have to love the process, even when you hate it. Because the process is writing. Publishing isn’t writing. It might be part of writing, but it’s not the whole thing. Oh and I’m going to add in a second, but related, thing: mental health breaks. Take them when you need them. Enjoy the time away from writing, from the process, so you can come back to it and still love it.

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Jenny Ferguson lives in a log cabin (without an internet connection) and names her pets after (dead) American presidents. She is Métis, French-Canadian, a feminist, and an activist. BORDER MARKERS is her first novel.

Twitter: @jennyleeSD

Thank you so much, Jenny, for being on the blog today! Congratulations on your debut!

BORDER MARKERS is now available to order on Amazon. And starting today, you have a chance to win a copy! Enter Jenny’s Goodreads Book Giveaway by clicking on the widget below! (Also, we’ve been told if you visit Jenny’s website, there just might be another surprise giveaway.)

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Border Markers by Jenny Ferguson

Border Markers

by Jenny Ferguson

Giveaway ends October 06, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Book Marketing: A Brief Overview

So you sold your book. You signed the contract, and maybe even began your edits. Publication day looms in the far-away-and-yet-still-too-soon future.

Now what?

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In most cases, your book has already made it beyond the hands of your agent and your editor. Designers, production teams, publicists, marketers—there’s a whole army of people working to make your book launch a success.

So let’s talk about marketing, that crucial piece that many authors begin considering even before they send their first query letter. Endless information and advice is available online about how YOU can market your book—blogging, social media utilization, etc—but what about your publisher? Where do they fit in?

Assisting me in this post will be Katrina Kruse, senior marketing manager at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Katrina has worked in publishing for 20 years (closer to 30 if you include her bookselling days) and marketed a myriad of works, from fiction to reference material to cookbooks.

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To help illustrate this process as plainly as possibly (keeping in mind that things may vary from house to house), we’ll be discussing the marketing that goes into a hypothetical fictional work: SLUSH, a gripping mystery about an intern who notices troubling parallels between a manuscript she finds in a publishing house slush pile and a rash of disturbing crimes.

Thanks for the help, Katrina! So: SLUSH. How do you find out that this book has been added to the upcoming list, and what are some of the initial steps you’d take when it comes to marketing it?

K: I’d first find out about SLUSH a few days before our launch meetings, where editors share information about books for an upcoming season. I’ll read a synopsis of the book, a sample chapter or two, and an in-depth author interview before listening to the editor pitch the book and make us all excited.

For SLUSH, we would start with deciding how many ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) to print. These are used by sales, publicity, and marketing, and are one of the key ways of getting the word out early.

Another preliminary item I take care of is translating the publication information sheets into sales speak, so that our sales reps can be prepared to sell the book.

 

How do you decide what kind of marketing goes into a certain book?

K: After launch, I find out what sort of budget I have to work with, and start researching ideas for how to promote the book. We also have a meeting with the whole marketing team, because other people sometimes have great ideas too. Additionally, I’d talk to the author, so that we can all be on the same page when it comes to messaging.

Personally, I also like to read the manuscript to see if it will spark some creative ideas. For example, since SLUSH takes place in a publishing house, we might produce pens or tote bags as promotional items.

 

What kind of limitations do you run into?

K: Probably the biggest limitation for any book is budget.

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How is a book’s marketing budget determined? And what are some examples of what that budget gets spent on?

K: A book’s marketing budget is determined by the advanced first printing projection, and will often be adjusted throughout the publishing process (if, for example, the book really starts taking off).

Big budget marketing ideas might be ad campaigns or author tours. An ad in a major print publication can start at $10,000 and easily go over $100,000. For tours, we’d need to budget for flights, hotels, transportation on the ground, and food. (And let’s not forget that many people in this industry can imbibe a fair amount!)

Lower budget ideas include postcards, pins, mounted blow-ups of the book jacket, and small giveaways.

REALLY low budget ideas (in terms of money, not time—something important to keep in mind) could include arc giveaways on Goodreads or email campaigns to targeted mailing lists.

(I’m jumping in to comment on this: many authors would be surprised to find out how much design and production time a seemingly “small” or “cheap” marketing item can take (for example, a digital-only download for their website). Not to say don’t share a creative idea or ask for something, but two questions I’d encourage any author requesting a marketing piece to consider is “How long will this REALLY take to produce?” and “Will this realistically lead to spreading the word about or selling more of my books?”)

 

So, what’s a typical marketing cycle?

K: In a typical cycle, I would hear about SLUSH about a year before it hits the shelves. I would get a budget and create a marketing plan about 10 months out. At this time I would have at least read part of the book.

Next, we hone the message to create TI (title information) sheets, as well as presentations for our sales reps (so they can become as excited about SLUSH as we are).

We also work on perfecting back copy for Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) of the book. (ARCs are printed approximately five or six months out to give adequate time for reviews.) When ARCs are in hand, we do mailings to bookstores and the media.

Marketing kicks into high gear two to three months leading up publication—booking and designing ads, mailing ARCs, crafting social media ideas, and trying to generate consumer pre-orders.

 

Once the ball is rolling, what kind of speed bumps can a book’s marketing run into?

K: When we make our budgets we are still a ways out from publication and, as the fiscal year moves along, budgets tend to get cut. Or, a retailer may want to place a large order, but only if a certain set of conditions are met (like a specific advertising program).

Finally, there’s the unexpected. An interview, segment, or article can always be bumped in lieu of a more interesting story or major world event.

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Oh my goodness, SLUSH won a major award in its genre! How does that affect it’s marketing?

K: We go back and make sure all accounts know about the award and blanket social media with the information. Often times, we also run more ads for the book.

 

Is there anything an author can do to assist their marketing manager?

K: Good communication is a great first step. Spend the time before your novel publishes building up your social media accounts. Share any marketing ideas you might have. Don’t be bashful; let your friends know that you have a book coming out. Email your acquaintances, too. And while you may want to give everyone you know a copy, remember that the goal is to sell books.

 

What’s the weirdest marketing material you’ve ever produced for a book?

K: Not my creation, but when I was a sales rep for a computer book publisher, they created branded flannel boxer shorts. They were insanely popular!

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Thanks, Katrina! That’s a great overview, and I hope it has been informative for the readers. For reference, we’ve also included a sample TI sheet for SLUSH: SLUSH_Sample_TIsheet

Of course, many authors decide to do some of their own marketing and giveaways. In the coming months, Katrina and I will be compiling lists of marketing pieces (and sources) for authors’ personal use, including ideas for all budgets!

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