Book Broker – an interview with Lynn Johnston

Book Broker: an interview with literary agent Lynn Johnston, from the Lynn Johnston Literary Agency, with querying advice and #MSWL manuscript wish list suggestions

Agent: Lynn Johnston


Preferred genres: Nonfiction, most categories.

Bio: For 20 years, Lynn Johnston has represented nonfiction and a small selection of fiction. The books on her list have been called "firebreathing" and "righteous" by the New York Times, "exuberant" by O, The Oprah Magazine, and "a godsend" by Publishers Weekly. Among them are New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today bestsellers, Books for a Better Life Award finalists, the winner of the International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Award, Grammy nominee for Best Spoken Word Album, and numerous titles appearing on "best nonfiction of the year" lists.

1) What stands out in a good submission?

A good submission should convey confidence. I don't mean false bravado; the submission should convince me the author has a firm understanding of the topic with its nuances and can explain it in a way that a layperson will engage with the material. What's the saying? Writing something simple is hard. The ability to distill a complex topic into consumable ideas shows the author has command of the material. If you can do that in the submission, you've already beaten the odds.

In addition, a good submission feels fresh. With nonfiction, so many topics have been covered in numerous books not to mention articles, podcasts and documentaries. It's rare for a nonfiction project/book to break completely new ground, nor is it necessary. Authors need to figure out their special sauce and ask themselves what is the most unusual, counterintuitive aspect of their material. Lead with that.

2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?

With most nonfiction, the author matters as much as the material. Why is this author writing on this topic? What experience or expertise are they bringing? How serious are they about the topic? When I google the name, it should make complete sense that the person is writing on this topic. If I can't find that information externally, the proposal should address it. Otherwise, I wonder if maybe the person should spend more time developing the topic before tackling a book on it. Your book publisher should not be the first person to publish you.

3) What's at the top of your manuscript wish list right now?

Always on my list are authors who really know their stuff and ideally have an audience who wants to hear more from them.

4) What do you love most about being an agent, and what do you find the most challenging?

At the end of the day when I can see the direct value I bring to an author, from pushing them on the book proposal to intervening on a publishing issue, it's a great, satisfying feeling. The most challenging aspect is not being able to place a worthy idea or author. Sometimes the timing, thesis, writing or whatever isn't right—yet. That last word is critical. I've had projects that didn't sell the first time go to auction after the author revises the material.

5) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?

We need more opportunities for midlist authors, authors whose first book may not have sold great, authors whose book can be profitable but not in the huge way that is required by many of the big houses, authors who are taking chances, authors whose backgrounds are outside the mainstream. As an industry, we need to experiment more instead of relying on what has worked in the past.

6) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?

An editor (Eric Nelson) recently tweeted that if your book doesn't read like an Agatha Christie novel, it's not the best it can be. I agree. I'm a sucker for page-turning nonfiction and have to tip my hat to Educated by Tara Westover whose memoir was unputdownable.

7) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?

They're all exciting :-)

If I have to give a shout out, I would encourage your readers to look beyond obvious titles. True gems exist outside of the bestsellers list.

An interview with lit agent Lynn Johnston, querying advice and #MSWL manuscript wishlist suggestions

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