Book Broker—an interview with Jill Marr
Name: Jill Marr
Bio: Jill Marr graduated from SDSU 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 20 years of publishing experience. She wrote features and ads for Pages, the literary magazine for people who love books, as well as book ads for publishing houses, magazine pieces, and promotional features for television.
Jill is looking for fiction and non-fiction by unrepresented voices, BIPOC and Latinx writers, disabled persons, and people identifying as LGBTQ+, among others. She is interested in commercial and upmarket fiction, with an emphasis on mysteries, thrillers, Gothic, horror, romance, fantasy, speculative fiction, and historical fiction. She loves food-centric novels, no matter what the genre. She is looking to find more rom coms with a fresh voice, perspective and a strong hook. When it comes to suspense she likes it dark and psychological. Her tastes lean more in the vein of The Silent Patient, The Lost Apothecary or Mexican Gothic than Private Investigator and CIA stories. And she almost never takes on military or Western projects. However she is a sucker for novels with grounded magical realism, and is always looking for a new take on mythology or folklore.
She is also looking for non-fiction by authors with a big, timely, smart message. She'd like to see work that does a deep dive into subcultures and social commentary as well as historical projects that look at big picture issues. Jill is looking for non-fiction projects in the areas of current events, true crime, science, history, narrative non-fiction, sports, politics, health & nutrition, pop culture, humor, music, and very select memoir.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
When it comes to my interest in submissions, there's a trifecta that I look for: it must have a unique concept (we see so much of the same thing); an interesting and fresh voice (I'm a voice-driven reader for sure); and an author who knows the genre, where they belong in it, and is already building a readership. I'm reading a submission now that has an agent offer already and the author doesn't have a website or social media (authors should at least have a website when they query, social media is a bonus but not all people are comfortable there, and I get that), so it may be a pass for me without going too far into the manuscript.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
Early pages can tell a lot. I'm a big showing VS telling reader and that can be obvious early on. I also feel like dialogue is important. If it's done well you don't notice. If it's bad, it is glaring. One of my pet peeves is reading a character as they tell another character what they already know: "Sis, you know I'm married and have six kids." Why, YES, she does know that! Why are you telling that to the reader through dialogue? Dialogue VS exposition is important. Also, avoid info dumps and watch pace early on, no matter what the genre. I don't need a paragraph on what each character looks like.
3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
I'm on the hunt for stories that incorporate magic realism, and/ or folklore and mythology. I'm hoping to see fiction with an underlying social-impact message, like Naomi Alderman's THE POWER as well as more sports related and historical non-fiction.
4) What's one thing you wish querying authors knew about your job as an agent?
I think it's important for writers to know that we REALLY want to love their projects. Agents are not in business to reject writers. If that's all I did, I'd never make a dime. Every time I open a query, I think—I hope this is going to blow me away.
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?
That really varies, depending on the author and the project. My boss has a mantra about the shortest path to submission and sale. And we love amazingly clean manuscripts that are ready to pitch to editors. But I don't think I've ever NOT done at least one round of structural edits, often more, before taking a project out to market.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
Agents would also get summer Fridays off.
7) How has technology changed your approach to agenting?
I'm dating myself but when I first started at the Dijkstra Agency as Sandy's assistant, we submitted everything by snail mail (okay, FedEx). We'd sit on the floor of the office in a makeshift assembly line and put together the submission. We had to charge the author for the mailing, too. So it's unbelievably refreshing to do most communication by email now.
I also love that we have such an advantage these days with programs like Query Manager, which was life changing for me. My submissions still get backed up but they are all in one place, so it helps me to stay organized.
And Twitter/social media has also changed the way I do things now. I absolutely love that I can tweet a #MSWL shout out on Twitter about a wish-list item that may come to mind. And, look at that—soon after I see submissions that are in that same wheelhouse. It's brilliant!
8) What red flags in a query letter are enough to cause you to pass on a project without looking at the writer's sample pages? What percentage of submissions would you say die with the query letter?
If a writer doesn't know their genre (My project is a thriller but it also contains a steamy romance and a mother/daughter redemption story) and audience (My book will appeal to all ages!), that's a huge red flag. I'd say about 95 percent of submissions die with the query letter, and many of those are simply because it's not exactly what I'm looking for at the moment. But with our queries, we also ask to see ten pages of the manuscript. And I almost always read some of the manuscript because I owe it to myself (some writers are terrible at query writing but can really write) and the writer to read some of their story. Plus, I'm curious.
That said, if the word count is VERY off for the genre, I generally pass without reading sample pages.
9) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I don't get to read for pleasure very often, so I do most of that on audio. And the last story that really swept me away was THE LINDBERGH NANNY by Mariah Fredricks. I just love historical novels that tap into real life stories that are mainly unexplored. Seen through the eyes of the Lindbergh's nanny, Scottish immigrant Betty Gow is a fish out of water who becomes a suspect after little Charlie disappears. All the while, she hopes to find justice for a child who she has grown to love.
10) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
WHERE IVY DARES TO GROW is an atmospheric timeslip novel by my talented debut author Marielle Thompson. And I'm so excited for readers to get their hands on it, releasing June 27. It's MEXICAN GOTHIC meets OUTLANDER about a woman who is struggling with her mental health and spending the winter in an eerie old manor, when she gets swept back in time into the arms of her fiancé's ancestor. It's haunting and hot and it's full of really fun Taylor Swift references.