Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, Associate Agent, Liza-Dawson Associates

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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. Follow her on Twitter @JJohnsonBlalock, and visit her website: www.jjohnsonblalock.com.
Q: Have you always read your own queries?
JJB: Yes! I’m a newer agent–it’s been a little over a year now–and while I have an amazing roster of clients, I’m still looking to grow my list. It’s important to me to read my own queries so that I know I’m not missing anything. Occasionally, I’ll request something I didn’t know I was looking for or even something I thought I didn’t want because something about the letter just seemed too appealing not to take a look.
Our first priorities as agents have to be to our existing clients, so I think most agents reach a point where they have to let someone else do at least the first sift through the query inbox. But I hope to read my queries for as long as possible.
Q: Why did you want to be an agent?
JJB: I love books–that’s why we’re all here, right? More specifically, though, I love how varied agenting is. Since my relationship is with the client rather than a specific aspect of the publishing process, I get to follow a book through from start to finish, helping my client with tasks from contracts to editing to publicity. Every day is different, and every situation is a unique challenge. (I love being challenged.) And there’s nothing more exciting than being one of the very first people to read a truly great book.
Q: Have you fallen in love with any stories but passed because you know they are difficult sells?
JJB: No…ish. If I really fall in love with something, I take it on. That doesn’t always mean the book will sell (I’ve had one so far that didn’t; I’m sure I’ll have more–that’s part of the business), but if I’m head over heels for the book, I have to try. However, I’ve definitely LIKED books that I haven’t taken on because I thought they might be tough to sell. Publishing is competitive, and the reality is that I work for free until a book sells. I like to have a reasonable belief that a book will have a good chance in the market. You never really know for sure, though, so all I can do is go with my gut and hope that if I love something, I’ll find a publisher that does, too.
Q: How do diverse books impact your selection?
JJB: I definitely seek out diverse books, and I’m always happy to receive queries for them, especially if they’re #ownvoices. I recently signed a client through #DVpit, and my first sale was for a YA book with a biracial protagonist. I really love how the conversation about diversity in publishing has expanded recently, and I think it’s so important that we keep talking about how we can better represent more readers. Everyone should be able to see her or himself in a book. That being said, the quality of the book and my love for it is still paramount, and I do consider and acquire books that don’t feature diversity as well. But it is a bonus factor for me.
Q: What’s the most exciting thing about discovering a new writer?
JJB: Oh my goodness, everything. I love when I’m reading a submission, and I start to get that “don’t want to put it down” feeling, and realize it may be something I want to represent. And it’s such an amazing feeling when I’m on the first call with a writer, and they can barely speak because they’re so excited to get an offer of representation. And then getting to call an author and tell them you got an offer on their debut book? THE BEST. I love everything about being on the front lines with an author, helping to achieve their dreams and to bring a new book into the world.
Q: Is the #MSWL helpful for you or are you flooded with one genre because of it?
JJB: #MSWL is incredibly helpful! I think agents get more flooded with genres because of sales; we definitely build reputations for success in certain areas, so it makes sense that writers would query us with those projects. MSWL allows us to say, I know I’m a great fit for this, but I’m ALSO really looking for that. I’ve found that writers are really responsive to that. I think it’s helpful on both sides.
Q: If you could change anything about agenting-what would it be?
JJB: I don’t know that this is something that ever COULD be changed, but one of the toughest things about agenting for me personally is a lack of objective benchmarks. I could always be doing reading more, there could always be more offers, the advances could always be higher. It’s difficult to feel like you’re doing and have achieved enough, and it’s tough to set boundaries. I’m really having to learn to figure out what my limits are and to celebrate achievement milestones along the way.
Q: How intimidating are conferences for you? Many writers attend conferences hoping to make an impression, is that overwhelming?
JJB: Most of the time, conferences are exciting. So much of my work gets done in front of the computer. Even phone calls are becoming less frequent than they used to be, thanks to email. (I’m okay with that, for the record!) But it’s really nice to be able to talk to writers in person, have a conversation about their work, and connect a face and a personality with the manuscript.
They can be tiring, however–many agents, including myself, are introverts, and conferences involve between one and three days of nonstop peopling. But I know how excited and nervous writers get about meeting me at a conference, and frequently I leave conferences invigorated by their energy.
Q: Do you consider yourself an editing agent?
JJB: Absolutely. Publishing is competitive, and I want to help writers get their work in the best shape possible before we go to market. I usually send my clients an editorial letter and potentially a round of line edits soon after signing them. We do at least one round of edits and potentially one or two more. I don’t send a manuscript out until it’s as good as we can make it. And when I offer representation to a writer, I always discuss my broad thoughts for revisions so they can decide if our visions for the manuscript are a good fit.
Q: What’s the process for a writer after they sign with you? Do you typically ask for revisions before submitting to publishers? Is there an estimated timeline you could share about the process after you say yes! I want to be your agent.
JJB: Yes–as discussed above, I almost always do at least one round of revisions with my clients. That process depends on how quickly I can get them edits and how quickly they revise–I’d say generally it’s a few months before we go on submission. (Obviously if something is time sensitive, we’d move much faster.) Once the manuscript is ready, I typically send it out within a week. Then it takes editors a while to evaluate, to get colleagues to read, to decide to pass or present to the acquisitions board. I’ve heard of offers being received in anywhere from a day to a year–I’d say a few months is typical for fiction. Nonfiction can go a bit faster, since they only have to read a proposal. While we wait for a response, I encourage my clients to keep writing and working on the next project because we’ll need that no matter what happens with the current one.
If you enjoyed this interview, you may also enjoy: Sarah Davies, Tricia Skinner, Alan Gratz, Lisa Mantchev, Monica Hoffman, Betsy Thorpe,  and Karen McManus
Michelle4Laughs posts great interviews too.
To Query Jennifer:

Jennifer is acquiring both narrative and prescriptive nonfiction. She is looking for seasoned writers with strong platforms and is excited by works that use a unique story to explore a larger issue. Particular areas of interest include current events, social sciences, women’s issues, law, business, history, the arts and pop culture, lifestyle, sports, and food, including cookbooks and health/wellness.

Jennifer is also seeking commercial and upmarket fiction, especially thrillers/mysteries, women’s fiction, contemporary romance, young adult, and middle grade.

While she’d be happy to receive queries for works in any of those broad areas, Jennifer is especially interested in the following:

  • highly readable books rooted in psychology or sociology that use memorable research (the kinds of details you’d whip out at cocktail parties) to explain why we act and think the way we do
  • politically minded issue books that put hot-button items like education into a realistic, holistic context or Washington insider narratives
  • history that’s quirky (THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN) or has particular relevance to today’s issues (ON IMMUNITY)
  • works situated in the classical dance world, indie/alternative music world, contemporary art world, or Hollywood at any point in history–working in the entertainment industry didn’t manage to squelch Jennifer’s enthusiasm for it
  • books that help you figure out how to do life better (THE HAPPINESS PROJECT; THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP)
  • all things football and basketball–Jennifer graduated from UT the year Vince Young brought home the National Championship, and her family in Oklahoma City never misses a Thunder game
  • chronicles of unique communities like competitive Scrabble players
  • cookbooks that tell a story about the person writing the book or the food itself, research-based health/diet books with programs that sane people would actually follow, or accessible books about wine or cocktails that strive to make reading about it as fun as drinking it
  • food memoirs or novels that take the reader behind the scenes in a fresh way like SOUS CHEF–being VIPed at French Laundry is a recurring fantasy of Jennifer’s
  • thrillers with a literary bent à la Tana French, with an outsider protagonist who stumbles into a conspiracy like THE PELICAN BRIEF, or with a psychological focus and an unreliable protagonist (SISTER)
  • smart, upmarket women’s fiction in the vein of J. Courtney Sullivan or commercial women’s fiction like Emily Giffin’s that subverts common tropes
  • contemporary, realistic young adult with a strong voice and compelling characters (Nina LaCour; Stephanie Perkins; Leila Sales)
  • middle grade or young adult nonfiction, particularly narrative history books about lesser known women or people of color
  • absolutely any sort of book with a strong feminist slant

To submit to Jennifer, please send a query letter only in the body of the email to queryjennifer[at]lizadawson[dot]com.

If you enjoyed Jennifer’s interview, you may also like to read my interviews with Tricia SkinnerSarah Davies, Nancy Handy, Alan GratzLisa Mantchev, Monica HoffmanBetsy ThorpeKaren McManus and  Nicole Ayers.

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