One of the nice things about running MFB is that you get to know some of the publishing industry's big names, the people in behind the writers and the cogs in the wheel that suss out new authors. One such big name and cog, is John Jarrold whom I personally admire greatly for his unbiased opinion and his steady commitment to his clients and the public.
I managed to secure an email interview with John and this is the result. I hope you enjoy reading it.
How did you become a literary agent?
Having spent fifteen years as a publisher of SF and Fantasy in London with Orbit, Legend and Earthlight, I left Earthlight (Simon & Schuster UK) in August 2002, for various reasons. I set up as a freelance editor, but early in 2004 various authors started asking if I’d thought about becoming a literary agent, and if so – would I consider them as clients. When I attended the 2004 Worldcon in Boston, I had four clients. Now I have just over 40 – and I’ve turned down well over 4,000 submissions to the agency. I love being involved in SF and Fantasy publishing – and horror/supernatural fiction. Although I took on a few authors in other areas, in the early days of the agency, I concentrate entirely on those core areas now.
What made you decide to strike out on your own?
See above! I work from home, I’m a one-man band. So if something needs to be done, I know that I’m the one who needs to do it. And e-mail makes this all so much easier than it would have been ten or fifteen years ago.
How do you cope with difficult authors / publishers?
Ninety-nine percent of the time, everyone is working in the same direction – the author, the publisher and the agent are all working towards getting a terrific book published as well as possible. But occasionally someone blows a fuse, or gets too egotistical. Having worked in publishing for so long, I know what all sides should be doing and normally we can sort that out. But occasionally an author and an agent – or an author and a publisher – realize they can’t work together. This is true in any endeavour that involves individual human beings. Sometimes, the vibes just don’t work. In which case it’s best to admit that, and wish each other the best for the future. As an agent and as a publisher, I have occasionally read authors the Riot Act, or just said ‘We shouldn’t work together any more’. And as an agent, I’ve had conversations occasionally with publishers saying ‘This isn’t good enough’. And they know I sat in that chair for fifteen years before becoming an agent, so I’m not saying this for the sake of it. And of course I have sometimes held my hands up and said I’ve made a mistake. The main thing is that there should be a WISH on all sides to sort matters out. Jaw-Jaw is better than War-War, to quote Churchill.
Have you ever been approached by an author, liked their work, but felt that they just would not be right for your agency to represent?
Yes, absolutely – and as a publisher. It’s a subjective business and I published many authors other editors turned down – and vice versa. A writer needs intense enthusiasm – personal and professional – from their agent and their editor. If that isn’t there on my behalf as an agent, I’m the wrong person. But if I think they’re very good, I recommend other agents they could approach.
Do you have a regret not signing a specific author?
Regrets are pointless – but no, as it happens!
How can newbie writers / existing authors catch your eye with their work?
Brilliant prose, great, involving opening, then wonderful storytelling, terrific plots, intriguing, three-dimensional characters and outstanding dialogue. And be aware of the market.
Are there any books – How To books or novels – that stand out for you that you would recommend new authors to read?
Lisa Tuttle’s book WRITING FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION is very good. Agent Carole Blake’s book on publishing is highly respected. Novels? Well, how about some favourite writers in the present day? Iain M Banks, Ken MacLeod, Ian R MacLeod, William Gibson, George R R Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Ian McDonald, Neil Gaiman, Robert Holdstock…all class acts. I don’t include any of my own clients, because it would be invidious to chose one over another.
What is your pet peeve as a literary agent?
Unprofessionalism. It’s a business. If an author wants an agent or publisher to treat them professionally, they should return the favour. Think about your submission, don’t just dash it off. This is equally true about writing in general.
Do you ever stop working?
Ha! I’m usually at my desk at 8 a.m., and often there until 6. But I think it’s necessary to have interests outside work. Mine include cooking (as anyone whose seen my Facebook page will know!), films, theatre, history, archaeology and music (ranging from Mozart to Canned Heat, Eliza Carthy to Vaughan Williams, Art Tatum to Handel). I try to take one day a week, or sometimes an afternoon, to get away from the desk – not always out of the house, but out of the room I use as an office, so I’m not tied to the computer. Living in Lincoln, I’m lucky with restaurants and pubs, and the area of the city around the cathedral is particularly fascinating.
What is the best thing about being a literary agent?
Wonderful writers. When you see something special, it’s like Christmas morning! I never get over the enthusiastic buzz that outstanding writing gives me.
And the worst?
Hmm. Can’t think of anything specific. You have to accept that there is a downside to any job, and get on with it.
What would you recommend aspiring authors look out for when approaching an agent for the first time?
Check out the agent’s website. Make sure they actually represent authors in your area – you’d be amazed the number of submissions I get for all areas of fiction and non-fiction, despite the fact that the home page of my website specifically says I only represent SF, Fantasy and Horror novelists. And make sure that you supply what they ask for – opening chapters or the whole typescript – in the way they want to see it, on hard copy or by e-mail.
What do you think will be the next "big thing" – for instance, here in the UK we are currently experiencing the urban fantasy / paranormal romance phenomenon whilst it has been on the rise in the States for quite a while. Young Adult/Teen fiction is also on the rise – do you ever spot clear trends or do you let your instincts guide you? (apologies if it's garbled, but I'm sure you understand the "gist" of it.)
Happily, I don’t know! If I could second guess public taste I’d be rich (which I’m not, as my bank manager will tell you!). But it would also mean we’re selling baked beans, ‘pre-wrapped ‘product’, and the joyous truth of publishing is that every book is different. Even if you’re looking at two fantasy novels that feel very similar, there is a fair chance that one will work commercially and the other won’t. There’s no exact template. So - as an agent or as a publisher – all you can do is trust a mixture of your gut instinct, your personal reaction and your knowledge of commercial publishing.
You can find John's website here - what makes me smile is if you click through and have a look at his client list, it's a whos who of established and new and upcoming writers in the world of genre writing.
Now, I wonder if I can somehow bribe him to employ me...