Book Broker—an interview with Jared Johnson
Agent: Jared Johnson
Preferred genres: Speculative fiction, sci-fi/fantasy, horror, mystery, thriller
Bio: Jared Johnson is a literary associate at Olswanger Literary representing adult fiction and non-fiction. He loves encountering new and vibrant worlds that feel like they extend beyond the borders of the page. He’s drawn into stories featuring parent/child relationships with adult children or non-traditional families, strong non-romantic relationships (especially where you would expect romance), themes of reconciliation and redemption, and misunderstood rivals. He loves stories that foreground how characters relate to one another and how those connections situate them in their world. When not working, he can often be found trying to resuscitate his dying plants, visiting parks with his two dogs, bingeing British baking shows, or building a new deck for Magic: The Gathering.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
This question has several different elements for me. Mechanically, the pitch itself should give me all the relevant details of a story—who are the necessary characters to know, what is the problem being addressed, what are the stakes? Ideally, this isn’t too long, getting lost in the weeds of the narrative’s minutest details. It also shouldn’t lack the details necessary to help me feel invested in the story. (I find the most successful length tends to be between 250-500 words, though by no means is this a hard and fast rule.)
I also look for good comp titles. Not only do they help me understand more about the feel of your manuscript, they also help me see how you envision your story alongside other narratives. These comps don’t just have to be books either. (If I could just have someone pitch me an Arcane meets Ocean’s Eleven, I would die happy.) And I love when writers include their bio with the pitch. Agents receive such a high volume of queries that it can become all too easy to see pitches as a faceless piece of writing. The bio serves as a constant reminder that there is a person behind this letter.
In the pages themselves, I’m always impressed when the writing has a high degree of focus. By the end of the first page, I can pinpoint the driving motivation of the main character, or I can already visualize the world of the story.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
Very often the writing feels like it’s still “warming up” within the opening pages, not just in terms of setting and plot, but also in voice and characterization. This can happen through things like spending too much time building up the world or “vibes”, heavy dialogue, or any number of things that distract from setting up the opening hook. A reader wants to feel like they have a sense of the author’s style and voice from the start, and they want to know enough about the character to understand their essential driving force, what that character’s goals are, and what is keeping them from those goals. The other details can fall into place after those have been established.
I want to echo what CeCe Lyra says in her interview as well. If a manuscript isn’t ready for representation, it generally does not indicate a lack of skill. It indicates a lack of time and feedback. The necessary amount is different for every person, but it will always be necessary to a degree. It’s easy to tell when a manuscript has been passed around a writing group or has been in the hands of objective beta readers.
3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
Right now, I absolutely love stories with complex family dynamics and found families. I’m a fan of narratives where the main character’s ultimate development occurs more through their relationship to those around them than through the circumstances of the plot. I also love speculative fiction that doesn’t feel the need to explain why the world in the story isn’t like ours. One of my favorites that sits in this intersection is Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here, which is very nearly a perfect book in my opinion.
4) What typically draws you deep into a manuscript? What common snags are likely to break your narrative immersion?
In fiction, I love to see a story that reveals its driving elements right away, aka, the hook. Brandon Sanderson is fond of saying that he wants a story to make a promise to him from the beginning—it needs to reveal what the core problem is and who is going to fix it (or continue breaking it). Stories that convey their central motivating force early and build upon that will draw me in. Conversely, stories that spend the opening pages stuck in dialogue, trying to build up the world/setting, or trying to create vibes tend to lose me pretty quickly because I can’t see past them to the ultimate story.
5) When you sign a new client, to what extent do you work through additional revisions together before their manuscript is ready for submission to publishers?
I go through at least one round of revisions with every new manuscript I represent, though most often it’s two to three. More and more, editors are looking for a manuscript to be as close to print-ready as possible when they receive it. Making sure a manuscript is in its best shape before ever hitting their inbox will only help its chances. However, while I love editing and am excited to work so closely with clients on their manuscripts, my primary purpose as the agent is to sell it. When considering representing a new project, I can love most everything about a manuscript, but if I’m concerned that editing it will be too arduous—either because the prose isn’t quite tight enough or too many elements need work—I’m less likely to make an offer.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
I would pay me more money. (I joke… kinda.) In all reality this is a difficult question. There are a lot of current issues that need addressing. However, I do think a misallocation of resources is one of the biggest problems facing the industry right now. It has been apparent for some time that almost all employees—and especially entry- and mid-level employees—are being overworked and underpaid.
Publishers are putting up record profits each quarter, yet we’re seeing very little distribution of those profits into the places they truly matter: meaningful increases in salaries, the creation of new positions to lighten workloads and support new titles, intentional and ongoing initiatives to hire and support minorities (really, at all levels), and more favorable terms for authors.
The ongoing trend of capitalistic entities to maximize profits while minimizing investments isn’t a sustainable model and doesn’t support anyone not at the top. We’ve already seen an exodus of talented staff across all areas of the industry. Without meaningful attempts to address the core problem, we won’t have the necessary means to support authors and publish quality books.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
Piranesi, hands down. Clarke conveys two things to the reader immediately: a world that feels entirely foreign yet intelligible and one of the most lovable main characters in recent memory. It’s rare to encounter a character who, at their core, is incredibly content and optimistic. From page one, we’re invested in who Piranesi is and why he feels so connected to this world around him. So much of the book’s tension revolves around these two elements. By no metric is the book fast-paced or a rush, but we’re pulled along because we want to discover more of the world through his eyes.
We’re often convinced that good storytelling needs to move quickly to engage readers, or it needs to evoke negative emotions (because positive emotions just aren’t as weighty, obviously). Clarke crafted a bestseller that resisted both these trends, and the book occupies a unique space in my mind because of that.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
Oh, this is such a hard question. All the authors I work with are amazing and collaborating with them on their projects has been a privilege. Choosing just one to talk about is like figuring out which season of Taskmaster is the best. They’re all great!
However, I do want to shout out AN UNNATURAL LIFE by Erin K Wagner. Following a cybernetic organism convicted of murdering a human, and his lawyer, Aiya, who faces her own prejudices as well as those of the people around her, to ensure a fair trial for her client, the first of its kind. Erin offers such great exploration of human identity and responsibility. We’re currently working on a new project and will hopefully have more news soon.
I’m also thrilled for EYE OF THE OUROBOROS by Megan Bontrager, which was just announced and will be available from Quill & Crow in 2024. A queer cosmic horror and dark fantasy blend about Theo, a park ranger in West Virginia, who is searching for her sister in the woods where people have a habit of going missing and not returning. It’s a brilliant exploration of the bonds of found family, and it breaks so many tropes in the best ways!