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Jill Marsal,
Agent, Marsal Lyon Literary Agency


Jill Marsal WG:      Hello! Welcome, and thanks for stepping into my spotlight this month.  

WG:      To start off, please tell us a bit about yourself.

JM:      Thanks for having me to your site. I am with the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and have been agenting almost fifteen years. Prior to agenting, I worked as an attorney and have a legal background. And before that, I worked in New York at a publishing house.

WG:      Can you tell us why you decided to pursue a career as an agent and what steps you took to get you where you are today?

JM:      When I was in high school, we had a career day and I heard a literary agent speak. It sounded like a fantastic job, and I have always enjoyed reading. I interned with a literary agency and loved it then went and worked in New York at a publishing house, and after practicing law for several years decided to return to my true passion: agenting.

WG:      What genres/lines do you currently represent?

JM:      On the fiction front, I am looking for women's fiction, mysteries, cozies, thrillers, and all types of romance  contemporary, romantic suspense, historical, category, and paranormal. I also am looking for general commercial fiction.

On the non-fiction side, my areas of interest include business, current events, health, self-help, advice/relationships, psychology, parenting, and narrative non-fiction.

WG:      Are you interested in expanding into other genres, and if so, which ones?

JM:      I handle a pretty broad range of genres so am not actively expanding at this point.

WG:      Are there any genres you have absolutely no interest in representing at this time?

JM:      If a project is really strong, then I might consider other genres.

WG:      Do you represent any authors of non-fiction? If so, have you been successful in selling their projects? If not, is this a market that interests you?

JM:      Yes, I represent many non-fiction authors and have been successful in placing projects with the major New York houses. In fact, a number of my authors have made the NYT bestseller list for non-fiction projects.

WG:      What publishing houses/lines have you sold to in the past 12 months?

JM:      Grand Central, NAL/Penguin, Berkley/Penguin, Avon/Harper Collins, Harper Collins UK, St. Martins/Thomas Dunne, Tor, Amazon, Harlequin, Portfolio/Penguin, Oxford, Shambhala, McGraw-Hill, Reader s Digest, Chicago Review Press, New Page Books, New Harbinger, SOHO, Sourcebooks, Seal, HCI, Benbella, Entangled, Carina, Samhain, Ellora s Cave

WG:      Approximately how many works by first time authors have you sold in the past 12 months?

JM:      I sold approximately 24 debut authors in the past year. I have a nice balance between new authors and more established authors and represent everyone from debut to NYT bestsellers.

WG:      Are you actively seeking out new authors to represent, and if so, what would it take to catch your eye?

JM:      I love working with both new and established authors and am looking for strong writing, a great voice,  and/or interesting story. And a strong hook  is always good, too.

WG:      How would you describe your agenting style? What is your involvement with the author's creative process? With his/her career planning? Or is your relationship strictly the business side of contract negotiation and as author/editor interface?

JM:      I believe good communication between author and agent is critical to a successful relationship, and I am actively involved in working with my clients. This varies depending on each author and his or her individual needs. For newer authors, it may be reading manuscripts and offering editorial notes and feedback or brainstorming ideas. For more established authors, it may be focusing more on long term goals, helping the author move to the next level, branding, and career planning.

WG:      Do you enjoy one of these roles more than the others?

JM:      I enjoy all of these roles, and I think the variety of issues that come up keeps the job interesting and engaging.

WG:      Given that you feel an individual author's manuscript is marketable, how important is it that you personally like the work in order for you to pursue acquiring it?

JM:      I like to be passionate about every project I take on. I think it is critical for everyone involved in the project to really be a strong advocate for it  from the agent, to the editor, to the publicity team, to the booksellers.

WG:      How often do you provide feedback to your clients on the status of their submissions? How specific is the feedback?

JM:      I provide feedback to authors as soon as I receive it from the editors. I will share the exact comments and forward emails, when we receive them, because I think it is important for authors to get as much feedback as possible from the editors. And I know how hard it can be to wait to hear back so I try to provide feedback as soon as I hear anything.

WG:      What is your process for submitting work to editors? Is this different if the editor is one you've had no prior contact with as opposed to one you've already built a working relationship with?

JM:      I contact editors to let them know about a project and ask if they want to see it before sending. This way, I can pitch it to them and get them excited and hopefully help make the project stand out in a positive, memorable way so that the editors go into the manuscript or proposal with a good first impression. First contact may be phone or email, depending on which editor I am contacting since different editors have different preferences. And having been in the business for fifteen years, I have a good sense of what editors and houses are looking for and also keep an active database of this information so that I can target the appropriate editors and houses for each project.

WG:      How do you feel about sending a particular work to multiple houses simultaneously?

JM:      We evaluate this on a case-by-case basis. Very often, it will be a multiple submission, but in some cases, there are reasons to give a particular editor or house an exclusive.

WG:      Once a work has been sold, do you provide any input to the author and/or editor in the area of marketing and promotion for the book?

JM:      Yes, once a work has been sold, I am available to help authors brainstorm about marketing and promotion. Often, I will also arrange calls between me, the author, and the editor to discuss p.r. and strategize about marketing.

WG:      What do you see as the personal strengths you bring to the table in the agent/author relationship? In the agent/editor relationship?

JM:      I love agenting and think that comes across in my advocacy for my authors and my relationships with them. From when a project comes in, I offer editorial feedback and work with an author to try and take proposals and manuscripts to the next level. I enjoy strategizing about an authors  career, goals, and growth. I like working with an author not just for one book but for the long term to help them grow their brand and readership and really develop. And over the years, I have developed strong relationships with editors and know what they are looking for and who might be a good fit for a particular project or author.

WG:      Do you feel that writers' conferences provide significant value to you in the way of networking with authors? With editors?

JM:      Yes, writers  conferences are a great place to meet authors and also other editors.

WG:      Have you ever been involved in the sale of movie rights? Foreign rights? If so, did you handle this yourself or did you work with someone more specialized in this field?

JM:      Yes, we have had very strong sales on the foreign front and our books are found in many countries, and we have also had books optioned for films, which is very exciting. We work with the Taryn Fagerness agency for foreign rights, as well as a couple of co-agents for film rights, depending on what type of project it is and which film co-agent would be best suited for the project.

WG:      Realistically, what is the normal timeframe for your response to queries? Partials? Fulls?

JM:      It depends how many submissions we get in, how many partials, how many fulls, how big the slush pile is, and what other things are happening in the office at the time. Response time can vary from the same day to four weeks.

WG:      Do you feel an agent based in New York has a significant advantage over one who is not? Why or why not?

JM:      I don t think it matters in this day and age of emails, internet, phone, and instant communication. The important thing is to know the editors and houses, what they are looking for, and have good relationships and good contact with them.

WG:      In your opinion, when is the right time in an author's career for him/her to start actively looking for an agent?

JM:      When you have a manuscript that is polished and ready to go, that is the right time. If you send it out before it has been edited, given how competitive the market is, agents may pass so you want to make sure you are putting your best foot forward.

WG:      What piece of advice or 'pearl of wisdom' would you like to offer authors who are considering approaching you (or any agent) for representation?

JM:      If you send me a portion of your manuscript, please send the opening pages. It is not a good idea to send the middle section and tell me you did that because the manuscript doesn t really get going until p.50.  Take a look at your opening, and make sure you are starting in the right place. Is there too much of an information dump  and backstory/set-up? Is the story too slow to get going? If so, cut and tighten so the beginning will really hook the reader- that is critical.

WG:      Do you think contest credits help authors further their career before and/or after making that first sale? Have you ever acquired a client that you discovered via a writing contest?

JM:     I think writing contests can help authors establish credentials, especially if it is one of the more well-known contests, and I have certainly requested projects that I have found through writing contests, but it ultimately does depend on the writing.

WG:      Do you visit the websites and blogs of authors you work with or of authors you are considering working with? If so, is there something in particular you look for that potentially impacts your view of the author and their work?

JM:      I do visit the websites and blogs of authors I work with or authors I am considering working with. I want to make sure they are presenting themselves in a professional way, that they have information about their books up there so that readers can find out about their projects, that they have clear contact information, and that the sites leave viewers with an overall positive impression. And I have offered feedback to my authors where I see things I think they can do to improve their websites (or let them know where I think the website is really strong!).

WG:      How important do you think self-promotion is to a writer's career? Is there a particular area of promotion that you feel is most effective?

JM:      I think in today s publishing market it is more important than ever for writers to help promote their books. It really is a joint effort between writer and publisher and with all of the growth of social media, there are a lot of opportunities out there that didn t even exist five years ago. I think it is more important for an author to be comfortable with the area she (or he) picks then to always say there is one best way.  As an author, you want to play to your strengths- if you are good at short, witty quips, twitter may be the best way; if you tend to write longer, perhaps it is blogging. The best strategy can vary from author to author and book to book.

WG:      I love to collect quotes, all kinds of quotes - inspirational, quirky, motivational, profound, etc. Do you have a personal favorite you'd like to share?

JM:      So many books, so little time. 

WG:      What do you do to relax and have fun?

JM:      I like to listen to music and run. And eat ice cream. Or chocolate.

WG:      Other than your client's work, what do you enjoy reading?

JM:      For non-fiction, I really liked The Bookseller of Kabul and for fiction, I enjoyed The Help. Unfortunately, I don t do as much pleasure reading as I would like because I spend most of my time reading clients  work or new submissions  I like to try and stay on top of these as much as I can.

WG:      Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on your life? In what way?

JM:     This is too hard to just pick one!

WG:      Before we close, is there anything else you'd like to mention about yourself or the agency?

JM:      We are always looking for new and exciting projects.

WG:      Is there a website you can point us to where folks can go to learn more about you and/or your agency?


WG:      And finally, thanks again for taking some time to 'stop by' this month!