Book Broker – An interview with Weronika Janczuk
Agent: Weronika Janczuk; The Janczuk Literary Agency, LLC
Young adult, fantasy & sci-fi, literary fiction, commercial fiction, women’s fiction, romance, crime, mystery & thrillers, memoir, non-fiction (innovative ideas & research; projects with a potential for social & cultural impact, etc.).
Weronika E. Janczuk serves as a literary agent with the Janczuk Literary Agency, founded in September 2019. She is looking to build a targeted list of fiction and non-fiction for young adults and adults.
Weronika returned to agenting in August 2018, after years in the non-profit realm (2013-2018), having spent some years in book publishing during her undergrad (2010-2012); during this time, she built a list of award-winning novelists and authors. The Janczuk Literary Agency was formed to maximize non-profit experience and make space for a broad, eclectic list.
Born to Polish parents in Canada, Weronika now lives in NYC. She completed a self-designed B.A. in the philosophy of the human person at NYU in 2013.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
One of the things that I love in a good submission is intentionality in the writing. It’s a hard characteristic to explain. Intentional—or compact—writing manifests itself on the page with a writer who is thinking very carefully about every dimension of what’s on the page: the place they begin and end, the quality of the prose and the vocabulary, the particular method by which they reveal the character and the plot, and the sensibility with which the writing is imbued. Of my queries, I’d say something like 2-5% of selections tops demonstrate true intentionality, and I look to see this deep, rigorous work in the writing prior to requesting more.
2) What is the most common error or flaw you see in query letters?
The query lacks a true arc to the concept and to the plot. Stories are living and breathing entities, and they need to be pitched as such. Queries will often fall “flat” in their set-up—they will have a lot of world-building and character-building as part of their fascination, but stories are about what happens to us and to our characters; queries will often fail to inspire that energy that underlies the desire to know what happens and what happens next. For an absolutely terrific guide to queries and their mistakes, see the blog QueryShark; literary agent Janet Reid never exhausts her own terrific backlist of feedback available to writers about the most spot-on format of a query letter.
(To be honest, I don’t read them first; I always look to the writing and the voice. It takes me less time—I can read five words to a paragraph and guess at whether I may end up offering representation and/or what kind of feedback I give, and I often request to give feedback, even if there’s no intent to offer or to read a full, to be frank. I love to teach and to guide careers, and this is part of my own investment in writers, the same way I was invested in as a writer a long time ago.)
3) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
See former literary agent Nathan Bransford’s writing advice database, which covers a lot of the needs that writers aren’t hitting in their books; given the availability of some of these resources easily via hyperlink, there’s no need for me to repeat myself here.
I also would say that literary agent Donald Maass’ books on craft, found here, are some of the tightest and most effective tools for writing craft available, and a lack of some of the clear technique displayed in writing is going to be among the reasons a manuscript may not be available for representation or publication.
See some specifics here:
- The lack of intentionality to the writing, as explained above; you can tell it in the choices the author makes with regards to scene structure, scene order, chapter structure, and chapter order. The question that I tend to ask: How is the author thinking about what s/he’s doing right now?
- A looseness to the prose and craft, as alluded to above; when the writing is more stream-of-consciousness in a rough way than it is tightly crafted for a clear storytelling purpose. The same question applies, as above.
- A lot of your common errors, as evidenced in the Bransford blog posts: flat characters, flat writing, a lot of history and world-building in the story build-up, and more.
- A concept that is overdone, either in terms of the plot itself (the set-up of the entire story, conceptually) or the specific plot twists (such as the princess who is meant to be the queen, but then gets between a rock and a hard place and can’t be the queen anymore) or moves the author makes with regards to project-building (such as a random encounter that changes everything right when the plot is starting to get difficult to manage; a sort of author-directed cop-out for a plot that was not that carefully constructed in the first place).
4) What advice can you give to writers who are submitting their work?
- Learn to read. Read to enjoy, but learn also to think. Thinking as you read—about what and how the author is doing to craft the story and the experience—is the most essential lesson in storytelling.
- Write to think. Use writing as a tool for thinking—about structure, technique, and more.
- Write to write. Write to create, and not to publish; this protects the best and most true stories from the feeling of being artificially created for a sale, with the exception being that sort of organic high-concept story that still lives and breathes with heart.
- Be patient. Be prepared to do a lot of hard work, and learn to make writing the space of hard work—editing, practicing, revising; repeat.
- Experience people. I love to people-watch, and I think the best writers go looking for more people—to learn to understand and love them well.
5) Are there any recent changes or trends in the publishing industry that you think authors should know about?
To be honest, I think the more interesting questions here are: What hasn’t the publishing industry done yet? What are we missing here? There exists a lot of innovation in terms of technology and marketing that would foster an even more deeply solvent industry that is being untapped, and the reason is that most authors and editors and publishers and agents are raised by the industry only; they are not necessarily raised in innovative corporate or non-profit infrastructures, or infrastructures that are striving to excel at understanding or reaching people as they are in their experience.
The industry know books. But the industry may not know business and may not, actually, ultimately, know people that well. It sounds like a misnomer, but if we don’t even have a book published about the human person (and I’m working on one), there’s no guarantee that we actually know our readers that well as people; we may know them as consumers of a product, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have grasped all of the positive and negative influences that determined why this person is this consumer, of this product, in this way. Let me remind you that lot of writers live in hobbit-holes and are solitary; a lot of readers are like them, also, while other writers and readers are of great public testimony and primacy. Changes that I would like to see include deeper understanding of the demands of on-the-ground marketing and marketing geared towards fostering a relational and conversational book-reading culture, which would also help protect from an overly electronic one.
Beyond this, the audio market is fascinating now. The amount of technological advance that informs a solid sale is great, and to know that agents can take, for example, books to audio auction more quickly; that advances are more solid, and the technology involved in the creation of audio books more rapid and feasible; and that the market is growing for travel and other forms of audio- and e-dependency only helps to shape the vision for the business and marketplace which is contemporary book publishing. One case study is the ever-growing Blackstone Publishing, which began as an audio publisher before it moved on to other forms of publishing; another, as always, is Amazon, with its own audio and e-publishing departments and platforms.
6) You've just decided to represent an author and the contract is signed. What steps do you take to prep the manuscript for submission to publishers?
- Read it again.
- Write a full editorial letter. In the past, these have ranged from just a couple of paragraphs in an email to 7-15 systematic pages of meta-level and chapter-by-chapter or proposal-level feedback. If I am hooked by the voice or writing, I am known to go to a far extent to try to get a writer published, since voice and writing like this are so hard to come by and to teach from within the inbox. The same goes for non-fiction: if I find a captivating story or background, then I really want to encounter the person and his/her ideas and background more deeply, and really understand it from within the inside out.
- Compile a submissions list of editors. I think about tastes, the size and nature of the imprint, the distribution, the book potential, the audience and sub-audience, the work involved in marketing the book, and more.
- Write a pitch. Or, perhaps, write the pitch first. Sometimes I finalize my pitch before I finalize my editorial letter.
- Edit again, if needed.
On the most part, this is not a complex process. What is complex is the work done in preparing the actual manuscript editorially.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I read two excellent works of non-fiction side-by-side during a bizarre medical leave. One is Malcolm Gladwell’s #1 national bestseller Outliers (Little, Brown, 2008), and another is Trevor Noah’s #1 New York Times bestseller Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (Spiegel & Grau, 2016).
The first I loved so much because Gladwell is flawless at identifying really cool trivia about reality, and the best way to teach it—you would be surprised as to how many things we assume to be outliers in reality, such as really successful ice hockey teams, people, or organizations, which actually aren’t outliers in a sort of "random" sense. Gladwell has taught before that, before someone can truly be an expert at something, s/he will have had to spend 10,000 hours paying attention to it—and discusses the way in which icons like Bill Gates of Microsoft and others have spent their entire lives practicing genius before that genius manifested in their "outlier" (non-outlier) success.
Noah, on the other hand, has one of the funniest stories to tell about his upbringing in Africa, and the voice and atmosphere are evoked brilliantly; I still have vivid flashes of different-color-skinned Africans embracing their culture and geography, on the one hand, and on the other, stories of his mama and papa, which changed his person and his sense of culture.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
One of the most exciting projects sold in 2019 is debut author Zoe Mikuta’s Gearbreakers (Feiwel & Friends, 2021). You can learn more about Zoe and this magnificent YA debut here, which is Pacific Rim—the film—for teens, featuring angry girls and cyborgs. It’s a flawless story, and I loved it and the heartfelt, flawless YA voice from the beginning; the book sold when Zoe was 18 years old, and will publish when she’s 20-21 (to be determined by Feiwel!). She’s hilarious, and you should add Gearbreakers to your 2021 to-read list.