Interview with Jennifer Johnson-Blalock of Liza Dawson Associates

Johnson-Blalock Headshot

Today, I’m interviewing Jennifer Johnson-Blalock, an associate agent, of Liza Dawson Associates with questions about Publishing, what she’s looking for, and being an Agent.

Jennifer 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.

David: You’ve probably seen a lot of queries since you became an agent. What’s the number one thing writers get wrong in a query? Is there one area where we should really try to improve?

Jennifer: The number one mistake writers make in queries is not hooking me in with a compelling and succinct description of the project. I get a surprising number of queries that provide more of a synopsis, talk mostly about the writer, or (worst of all) say that the book “can’t be described.” I think queries are most akin to flap copy—perhaps with a bit more plot summary.

One area in which I’d urge writers to strive for improvement is with comp titles. They’re SO difficult (trust me, I know from writing pitches), but finding the right comp really helps agents get a feel for your book. Don’t be afraid to be specific; think: the voice of X and the pacing of Y.

David: Something that stood out for me right away is that you’re looking for highly readable books that explain why we act and think like we do. Can you explain what you mean in a bit more detail and give us some examples?

Jennifer: I’m really fascinated by pop psychology and sociology books that explain human behavior and conditions. One of my favorites is STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS, which is all about how we misremember the past and do a poor job of predicting what will make us happy in the future. Recently I loved MODERN ROMANCE’s exploration of the contemporary dating landscape.

I’m really looking for books for a trade, rather than an academic, audience. Daniel Gilbert’s use of memorable anecdotes and Aziz Ansari’s humor made those books very readable and compelling for the average reader.

David: My family is Oklahoma City too, though they don’t attend Thunder games. What’s your favorite book with a sports theme? Though it’s fiction, I love Chris Crutcher’s STAYING FAT FOR SARAH BYRNES.

Jennifer: Recently, I loved Emily Giffin’s THE ONE AND ONLY–such a perfect blend of football and romance that nails that FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS feel. And this is a few years old, but Miranda Kenneally’s CATCHING JORDAN has a female quarterback, which is just amazing. I’d love to see more sports books about women breaking barriers. Also, I’ve been saving them for a slightly less hectic week, but I’m so excited to pair my Olympics gymnastics viewing with both Caela Carter’s TUMBLING and Megan Abbot’s YOU WILL KNOW ME. (Come to think of it, I loved DARE ME–yes, cheerleading is a sport.)

David: You’re a feminist, which I, and my critique group, really appreciate. What are some pitfalls writers fall into in that department? Are there certain tropes or negative clichés they should avoid?

Jennifer: Oh, this is a big question. This is by no means comprehensive, but there are two things I see frequently in books that really frustrate me as a feminist. The first is rape as a plot device or characterization ploy. If it’s at all possible for you to substitute an assault without rape and have the same story, then you shouldn’t use rape. And it also shouldn’t be a shortcut to explain why a character’s angry or vulnerable. The second big issue for me is the failure to present accidental pregnancy as a choice. I read so many books where a character becomes unexpectedly pregnant and immediately jumps to, okay, now I’m having a baby–that’s not a foregone conclusion. I want a character to at least consider all her options, including abortion.

On the other side of things, however, I’ve read many submissions over the last year where the politics are so appealing, the feminist themes are so strong, but the plot is lacking. I really believe in strongly plotted books, even for novels that are very much concerned with theme, voice, and characterization. Feminism is a baseline for me; it’s not enough to make me sign a book.

David: Publishers Marketplace lists some great deals across different genres for you over the last year, including non-fiction, fiction, and YA. What’s your favorite recent sale or work by a client you’re excited for us to read?

Jennifer: I cannot choose between my babies! Seriously, though. I will say that the FIRST two books that will be hitting your shelves come out next summer, 2017: Rebecca Barrow’s YOU DON’T KNOW ME BUT I KNOW YOU, a contemporary YA about a girl who receives an unexpected letter from her birth mother as she and her boyfriend struggle to decide what to do about an unexpected pregnancy, while facing a growing distance with her best friend, and Kristin Rockaway’s THE WILD WOMAN’S GUIDE TO TRAVELING THE WORLD, a work of commercial women’s fiction about a twenty-something travel-loving New Yorker who starts to question her five-year plan after meeting an American artist in Hong Kong.

They’re obviously very different books, but they’re both extremely smart and well written and feature strong women at their centers–they also both have very long titles ha!

David: I know a lot of agents and editors get bombarded by writers and it can be overwhelming, being pitched all the time. Is there anything you’d like writers to know that you feel would improve the process from our side?

Jennifer: Just keep in mind that agents are human–sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes life gets in the way, and we don’t respond as quickly as we should, etc. Know that we appreciate how hard it is for writers, and we really do wish the best for each of you. We’re all readers who want more books in the world, but we as individuals have limited resources and thus have to limit what we take on. And remember that this is a highly subjective process. I’ve disliked books that the rest of the world has loved. When I read queries or hear pitches, I’m looking for books that I personally want to champion.

David: I love THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN. I wrote a lot of papers about her in college. My poor professors probably got so tired of all the bondage talk. You have such a wide range of what you’re looking for. Are there any topics or areas you’re really oversaturated with right now? Any you’re light on and really hungry for?

Jennifer: As a newer agent, my list is still small enough that I could take on more of anything. But I’d really love to find the following:

  • a dark thriller or suspense novel–think Caroline Kepnes or Gillian Flynn
  • an upper MG project like COUNTING BY 7s
  • a very smart contemporary romance that feels fresh
  • a deeply reported narrative nonfiction book with a personal edge and a sociological bent like ALL THE SINGLE LADIES

David: Before you were an agent, you interned at LDA and worked as an assistant agent at Trident Media Group. What advice would have for anyone looking getting into publishing? Any myths you’d want to dispel?

Jennifer: Publishing–especially agenting–is very much still an apprenticeship model industry in which connections are important. You really do have to start at the intern level, and I’d encourage you to be open about your first internship. I actually started as an intern for a digital book discovery platform, which led to my internship at LDA, where I really wanted to be. And that was at 29 years old, with a Harvard Law degree and a few years of experience in both law and education–there are no shortcuts.

Once you have that internship, be willing to put in all the time you can, even though you may not be getting paid. I put in hours beyond my required 15 each week for Liza, which seemed a bit crazy at the time, but it obviously paid off in the long run. Finally, I’m not in a position to change this yet, but I know the expectation of an unpaid internship in New York City is impossible for some people–I hope that we as an industry continue to work on ways to make publishing more of an equal opportunity career field.

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