Book Broker – an interview with Jill Marsal
Agent: Jill Marsal
Preferred genres: all types of mystery/suspense and psychological suspense, as well as cozies and thrillers that keep the pages turning and have an original hook. I am also looking for commercial fiction, all types of women's fiction, historical fiction, stories of family, friendships, secrets, interesting relationships, Southern fiction, or multi-generations. I welcome a dramatic storyline and compelling characters in interesting situations or relationships. If you have a novel that has a highly original concept or voice, I would love to see it.
On the non-fiction side: business, health, self-help, relationships, psychology, parenting, history, science, and narrative non-fiction. I am particularly drawn to projects which will move readers or leave them thinking, which make provocative arguments or share interesting research, or which offer useful, new advice.
Bio: Jill Marsal is a founding partner of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and has been in the publishing industry for twenty years. Previously, she worked as a literary agent with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency for eight years and at Dorchester Publications and Tudor Publishing, editing women’s fiction and suspense/thrillers. Jill also has a strong legal background and holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School. She practiced as an attorney with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati for five years.
Jill enjoys working with both new and experienced writers. A few of Jill’s represented books include WITH LOVE FROM THE INSIDE by Angela Pisel (Putnam), THE CHALLENGER SALE by Wall Street Journal bestselling authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson (Portfolio), FIELD GUIDE TO HOMICIDES by NYT bestselling author Lynn Cahoon (Kensington), CROSS HER HEART by WSJ and Amazon Charts bestselling author Melinda Leigh (Montlake), LIMITLESS MIND by Stanford Professor Jo Boaler (Harper One), MIDDLE SCHOOL MATTERS by Phyllis Fagell (Da Capo), and FEELING AT HOME: THE BRAIN AND WHERE WE LIVE by John S. Allen (Basic).
1) What stands out in a good submission?
A strong/distinct voice is critical for the manuscript. I think this can really make a manuscript standout, and a good writer can make any subject come alive with a strong voice. For the query, it is generally more of a summary. I want to know there are interesting characters—people who you want to find out what will happen to them. They might introduce you to an unfamiliar world or they might be people you identify with and relate to. I also think it is important to have a great “hook” or emotionally compelling situation that will intrigue editors and readers and make them want to read the manuscript. Ask yourself what about these characters or their situation is compelling or interesting or will make readers want to stay with them for 300+ pages. A good submission will summarize the project in two to three paragraphs that immediately hook the reader and demonstrate a strong/fresh story concept and should also provide a paragraph about the author.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
When the query letter says something like, “I know this starts a little slow, but please keep reading past the opening chapter. The plot really gets going around p.60.”
3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?
I would love to find great women’s fiction manuscripts, as well as more good mystery or suspense stories.
4) What do you love most about being an agent, and what do you find the most challenging?
I love working with authors and helping develop a proposal or manuscript to make it as strong as possible. It is such an exciting process to be able to work on a manuscript and take it from idea/concept to completed book. I enjoy brainstorming with my authors about book ideas and offering feedback on early blurbs or pages to try and bring out the strengths of a project, and I like the editing process in general. And after going on submission, I love being able to make “the call” with good news. It’s great being part of the process which brings readers books that can impact their lives, offer intriguing stories, take readers to places they would never otherwise experience, and entertain and inspire. The most challenging thing is to still find time for pleasure reading. After a full day of reading and working with submissions, sometimes I just want to chill and watch Netflix or something on TV, so I don’t get around to reading for fun as often as I would like.
5) What typically draws you deep into a manuscript? What common snags are likely to break your narrative immersion?
I am drawn in by a manuscript that moves you emotionally or makes you think about something in a new way or has characters that are really interesting and engaging, or a plot that hooks you and makes you want to keep turning the pages to find out what will happen next. I think a common snag is when there is too much telling and summary in the opening chapters and writers try and cram in too much information without letting the story get going and unfold organically.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
I feel like the industry is consolidating, and that some of the smaller and mid-list publishers (and even some of the big ones) are getting acquired/shut down, and in my view, that limits the range and breadth of authors who will find opportunities. I would love to see the publishing industry be more open to new and diverse voices, new and midlist writers, and new ideas, but that is challenging in an environment where there are fewer and fewer houses.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I just read Elin Hilderbrand’s Golden Girl, and it hooked me because of the characters and their relationships. As a mother, I found it very emotionally moving to think about what this mother was facing, what her children were going through, and I loved how it explored the various relationships she had—with her ex-husband, with her best friend, with her kids, and with the community. And there was also a murder and mystery element and deep family secret thrown in.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
I’m excited about UNMISSING by Washington Post and Wall Street Journal bestselling author Minka Kent in which a return from the past knocks a family dangerously off-balance in a novel of spiraling suspense. It is releasing in February 2022.