Book Broker—an interview with Joanna MacKenzie

Interview with literary agent Joanna MacKenzie (Nelson Agency)—query letter advice and manuscript wish list suggestions (#MSWL)


Agent: Joanna MacKenzie

Website: NelsonAgency.com

Preferred genres:  Fiction: bookclub/contemporary, women’s fiction, mystery, thriller, literary, horror, poetry, young adult.

Interview with book agent Joanna MacKenzie (Nelson Agency)—querying tips and manuscript wish list suggestions (#MSWL)

Bio: I owe my love of books to the librarian of my childhood bookmobile, who, after I had worked my way through The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley High, lifted the velvet rope and let me into the grown-up section, where I discovered V.C. Andrews. And to my father, who gave me Cat’s Cradle, Wuthering Heights, and One Hundred Years of Solitude for my fifteenth birthday.

A seasoned publishing professional with nearly twenty years on the agenting side, I’m driven by the stories my authors tell, both with the novels they write and with the careers they build. I represent New York Times bestsellers, Edgar and Anthony Award nominees, and critically acclaimed storytellers writing in all areas of adult and young adult fiction.


1) What stands out in a good submission?

A confident voice. When the first sentence sucks me in (this applies to queries, too), when the world-building is seamless, it doesn’t matter if it’s a vampire romance or a literary coming of age, I’m in.

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

When too much time is spent setting the scene, or I encounter info dumping.  Note, this is different than world building, which is key and expected in certain genres.  A writer has to know a lot about their characters and the world they inhabit before they start to write, but not all of that information needs to be told to the reader.  I often see manuscripts with really great first chapters that then proceed to jump back in time to explain some backstory the author feels the reader needs to know. Or momentum-disrupting segues into a character’s backstory to underscore why what is happening is vital.  For me, this often signifies that the writer is trying to communicate something important to the reader but doesn’t know how to do it—yet.  A critique group or a developmental editor can help.

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

I’d love to find a smart and fresh thriller a la Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister as well as a diverse take on kids on bikes.  I’m always on the lookout for contemporary and upmarket fiction that plays with genre or turns a well-known trope on its ear.

4) Writers are frequently told to "show" rather than "tell." What does this craft maxim mean to you, and how does an overreliance on "telling" impact your assessment of a submission? 

Characters are at their best when they are out in the world, interacting with others and making mistakes. I’m much more likely to root for a character when I see them being rather than when I’m told all about them.  And as with the second question above, I tend to think that when too much telling is happening, the manuscript simply isn’t ready to be submitted.

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’ve always called myself an editorially-focused agent, which is meant to signal to authors that we were going to edit their manuscripts before they went out on submission.  If anything, this aspect of my process has only intensified. As the agenting side of the industry gets more crowded and the avenues for publishing opportunities narrow, it’s important to me that each one of my submissions stands out. Plus, I’m in it for the long haul with each of my authors. I want them to grow in their craft and editorial is a big part of that.

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

This has become a long list for me of late, but I’m going to go with something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: compensation.  Publishing is a notoriously low-paying field for how demanding it can be.  It’s sad that it’s taken a global pandemic for us to be able to speak frankly about how underpaid a lot of people who work in publishing are, but it’s true and now we have to do something about it.  I’ve seen a lot of amazing humans leave publishing in the last few years because they were burned out and a lot of that burn out comes from not having decent financial compensation.  Not being able to afford childcare or being asked to do multiple jobs without adequate compensation is causing stress and burn out at an alarming rate in the industry. Publishing talks a lot about the importance of breaking down barriers to entry and one way they can do that is by adjusting compensation.

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

I just finished Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Garbrielle Zevin and it was excellent.  Zevin had me at video games and friendship, but delivered so much more.  I love complicated relationships and family sagas and there was a lot of that here, all delivered with a very confident voice.

Play the Fool A MYSTERY By Lina Chern

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

I am super excited about Play the Fool by Lina Chern which is coming out in March 2023. I had been on the lookout for a voice-driven mystery for a long time and Lina’s manuscript grabbed me from the first sentence, “I always knew Marley would disappear.”  This story is as much about adult friendship as it is about what happened to Marley. It’s a quirky mystery that probes the corners of modern friendship while also delivering one heck of a satisfying whodunit.


Interview with literary agent Joanna MacKenzie (Nelson Agency)—query letter advice and manuscript wish list suggestions (#MSWL)

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