Jill Marr is an agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She graduated from San Diego State University with a BA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing and a minor in History. She has a strong Internet and media background and nearly 15 years of publishing experience. After writing ad copy and features for published books for years, she knows how to find the “hook” and sell it. Jill is interested in commercial fiction, with an emphasis on mysteries, thrillers, romantic suspense and horror, women’s commercial fiction, and historical fiction.
David Bumpus interviewed her via email.
David Bumpus: What is the relationship between author and agent like today? What sort of relationship should authors realistically expect when they seek an agent?
Jill Marr: These days an agent is more of a jack of all trades than ever before. Most of us are heavy with the editorial process, as projects need to be as perfect as possible when we take them to market. Then even after we place the project with a publisher, we are there—pushing for the very best jacket art and every little thing. Then at pub we help to promote the author and the book and are constantly thinking about the author’s career, not just the one book.
DB: What is the relationship between agent and publisher like in today’s marketplace? Has there been a shift in the way that book deals are struck—similar to the way that, say, record companies now tend to produce one-hit wonders instead of career musicians?
JM: This is really one of the aspects in the industry that hasn’t changed much, though many of the players have. We are all out to find great art, books that people think and want to read. We want to discover writers and mold careers.
DB: As an agent specifically looking for commercial fiction, what do you look for in a manuscript? What makes or breaks a manuscript for you?
Usually I’ll give the writer about 10-15 pages to get me hooked. If the voice speaks to me, if the pacing really moves and if the characters are strong and interesting, I’ll keep reading and hope for the best.
JM: I’m always drawn to a great concept and a unique voice. I have a difficult time reading manuscripts that clearly need editorial help and I always caution writers to be sure that agents are not the very first people who read their work. I’ll first look to make sure that the overall concept is new and fresh and if it’s something that excites me, I’ll take a look. Usually I’ll give the writer about 10-15 pages to get me hooked. If the voice speaks to me, if the pacing really moves and if the characters are strong and interesting, I’ll keep reading and hope for the best.
DB: Do you feel cinema has changed the way we write books? Do people simply not have the patience for books anymore? What aspects of writing do you think cinema has influenced (when reviewing manuscripts that people have sent you, do you see trends such as they are all action and dialogue, no thought given to detail or inner sensation, gratuitous sensationalism, etc.), and what do you think the effects are? And how does all of this factor into what you, as an agent, want to solicit?
JM: I don’t think that film has changed literature much at all. If anything, some of the best movies are book-to-film projects, so the film world is coming knocking, looking for content. Because of our close proximity to Hollywood, The Dijkstra Agency does a lot of book-to-film deals and often when I’m reading a manuscript that I think I’ll pick up I’ll be thinking about film agents at the same time.
With regard to trends, most of the derivative projects I get are from writers who really don’t know the industry or the market to which they are hoping to sell. What we are seeing published today will be yesterday’s news in 18-24 months when the books I am selling to publishers now are released.
DB: What are your thoughts on the role of entertainment in books? As an agent specifically geared towards commercial fiction, how big of a role does entertainment play when seeking to get a book published? Is there room in today’s publishing landscape for a ruminating, existential, plotless tome, or is commercial viability king? And are these things mutually exclusive?
JM: In publishing there is room for everything. But will it sell to a wide variety of the reading public? That’s another question. Most people pick up a book and hope to be entertained, so it’s just a matter of how they want to be entertained. I like it when a book makes me think and I like when one stays with me long after I put it down. But I personally don’t like it when a message is forced down the reader’s throat. And I like a narrative that really moves (and that’s with any genre). Plus, in general, the gigantic tomes, no matter how wonderful, are difficult to translate, so the foreign sales and outreach will be limited.
DB: There is an idea that place affects writing. There is also an idea that NYC writers are different from LA writers, who are different from Portland writers, who are different from Southern writers, and so on. Are we becoming divided? And are these biases prevalent in the industry—does place affect who is interested in publishing you?
I love a book that is so well written that the setting almost becomes a character in itself.
JM: I think if anything, we are becoming less divided. I love a book that is so well written that the setting almost becomes a character in itself. One of my authors is writing a thriller that is set in Peoria, IL. The author and his family moved there a couple of years back for his wife’s job, but he does not like the city. In the novel the city took on a life of its own. When he asked me if he should change the setting I said, absolutely not! It was one of the strongest aspects of his first draft. It’s great to read a novel that is set somewhere I’ve never been.
DB: Do you see any biases in publishing–between gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.? How do you think we can overcome or otherwise dismantle those?
JM: I don’t, really—sorry, not the most entertaining answer but the literary world is likely the most open and inviting.
DB: There seem to be two major career trajectories writers are encouraged towards right now: to teach, or to try to make it as a commercial writer, and this seems largely tied to where the writer is coming from (specifically if the writer has an MFA, where MFAs are often encouraged to go into teaching). What are your thoughts on the NYC publishing route versus the push to become-an-MFA-to-teach-in-order-to-create-more-MFAs-who-will-do-the-same situation? What counsel would you provide to an MFA graduate signing on with you who is looking to make writing a viable career path?
JM: A big part of being an agent is managing expectations. Even after a nice sale to a publishing house, I always tell my authors not to quit their day jobs. So I’d advise an MFA graduate to look for work that is related to the field, whether it’s teaching, writing ad copy, website copy, anything. And then continue to write that book. That way they continue to develop their skills (and let’s face it—it’s nice to get paid to write) while working toward the ultimate dream of getting published.
DB: Due to how easy it has become in recent years to create and run a website, many major literary journals are going online, and numerous other journals are cropping up (and disappearing) left and right. How do literary journals, online or in print, feed into this new generation of writers? And how do you think they’re affecting the landscape for short story writers, specifically? If you’re published by a number of online literary journals, is that enough?
JM: It’s all about getting your name out there. When looking over the bios of prospective writers, agents love to see that they have been published in literary journals, magazines, and even online. That said, we also really like to see that the author is savvy about social media and getting their name out there in any way. Bloggers who have a good following are always interesting to us as well. There are so many ways for writers to get exposure these days, that those who are not getting out there really don’t have any excuse.
DB: What are your thoughts on going indie versus seeking publication with the Big Five? There is a growing notion that the dedicated, passionate members of the literary community are moving towards the indie publishing houses because that’s where all the other people who are passionate about the community are. Do you feel these tensions as an agent when deciding along which route to push a book?
JM: I recently heard that when an author goes the traditional publishing route, approximately 70 people will be involved with that book at some point in the process. So if an author can negotiate a contract, is a talented editor or has access/funds to one, can design quality jacket art, get the distribution to bookstores and clubs like Costco, obtain reviews, and national coverage for their book, then I’d say feel free to consider the indie route.
The unfortunate part of the indie movement is that there is a lot of garbage out there that is being self published. There are editors for a reason. So the waters have kind of been muddied in that regard. But there are some great self-published books as well. The beauty of the way that the publishing industry is moving is that there are more and more options for agents and authors. If an agent helps one of their authors go the indie route, we want to make sure that it’s done well and will ultimately help the author’s career.
DB: When you’re looking at a manuscript or negotiating with an author, are there any deciding factors that tend to incline you toward either wanting to work with the author on one project, or that would move you to seek a symbiotic, career-long contract?
JM: My preference is always to work with the author and help shape the career for their entire body of work. But I have worked with authors who, for instance, were presenting me with a nonfiction project when they already had an agent for their fiction. I never think that I’m just “one and done” with an author.
DB: What would you say are the do’s and don’ts of writing a query letter, and a hook?
JM: There are so many—too many to mention. We could do an entire interview just on the writing of the query letter! But if I had to narrow it down to the top three pet peeves it would be, sending out the mass email query to dozens of agents at the same time (doing homework is so crucial and picking the agents to whom you submit is not unlike dating—see who you think represents the types of book you are writing), this just comes off as lazy. If someone simply writes “check out my project” and includes a link, that isn’t going to work either. Be sure to look at each agent’s website to see how they like to receive projects. I’m guessing that not one will want to click through to a link. And finally, treat the query letter like a cover letter to a resume. Be professional, smart, and courteous. You’d be surprised to see how that goes a long way. Every time I open a query letter I hope that it’s going to be something I’ll fall in love with.