Interview: Jennifer Jackson

Jennifer Jackson will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. She is Vice President of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, which she joined in 1993. Growing up reading science fiction and fantasy led naturally to a concentration in that genre, which she continues to champion. After pioneering the expansion of the agency into the areas of romance and women’s fiction, she is now developing her list in the mystery and suspense genres. She is also looking for YA fiction, both literary and commercial, in all genres.

Her current roster includes New York Times best-selling fantasy writer Jim Butcher, Hugo Award-winning science fiction author Elizabeth Bear, USA Today best-selling author Anne Bishop, Anthony Award finalist Chris F. Holm, and Nebula and Hugo finalist Cherie Priest. Previously, she worked as a bookseller for Waldenbooks, and also for Forbidden Planet, the retail division of London’s Titan Books. She maintains a personal website at http://www.jenniferjackson.org/ and blogs at http://arcaedia.wordpress.com/.


What is the one thing you would like to convey above all else to authors who are preparing to submit material to you? Is there one particular requirement in your submission guidelines that authors tend to overlook or ignore?

I think the most important thing is not to rush into submissions. Make sure that what’s getting sent really is the best work it can be. As for the guidelines, sending the right number of pages with the initial query seems to be the most often neglected item. Our guidelines call for the first five pages of a novel. I’m not a rules-lawyer about it, but the number of people who don’t include pages at all or include fifty pages or more is surprising.

You mentioned in your blog that approaching an agent at a convention is acceptable behavior (especially if you offer to buy the agent a drink!), but the reality is that you are a busy woman at conventions, and sometimes writers feel shut out. Any advice?

Be genuine. One of my newest clients met me at a convention. As it happened they were sitting with a writer-friend of mine who isn’t a client, and when I stopped to say hello, they invited me to join them. It was purely social and a really nice time. That author didn’t pitch me then, but I knew of their work and remembered them when their query came later. So, if you’re at a convention, spend time with people and take opportunities as they occur. But don’t take it personally if someone is on a schedule–just try to make a good impression and say hello again if you see them later on.

As you think about some of the new writers you have taken on recently, what qualities made them or their work stand out to you?

I have a weakness for what I call prose-ninjas. These are talented language-smiths who make beautiful sentences and evoke a depth of setting and articulate characters and their emotions in a striking way. I also find that I’m drawn to those stories that bend or transcend their genre. The conversation of literature that’s going on in speculative fiction right now is fascinating.

What advice can you give to the writer who has an offer from an editor/publisher but is not yet represented by an agent?

Ask the editor for time to consult agents and get a reasonable deadline. Then, email your top agent choices, being sure to put something in the subject line about having an offer. Don’t forget to follow the guidelines even at this stage. And give the agents enough information to be able to get back to you quickly, including information about the publisher. An example of what not to do is to send a one-line email such as “offer received from un-named publisher–need help fast.” It’s an exciting time. Enjoy it. But remember to always have a professional approach which will benefit you long term.

What prompted you to blog with the tag “Letters from the Query Wars”? Does it feel like a war to you some days? All days?

At the time that was a tongue-in-cheek title after “Letters from the Front.” The battle back then seemed to be finding a way to respond in a timely fashion and still give everyone professional and fair consideration. Then the title just stuck.

What about your entertaining tag “Agent Manners”? Is there a story behind starting these posts? Are they making a positive difference?

Those were a spin on the classic “Miss Manners” columns–an old family friend had given me a copy of the book as a gift. I haven’t posted that column in a while but I hope to start them up again sometime in the future as they seemed to get a good response.

You’re coming up on twenty years with the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Are you planning to do anything special for that? Will there be a celebration? Ice cream?

For my ten year anniversary at the Donald Maass Literary Agency, the whole agency went out to Jean Georges for dinner. It was the best meal of my life and still is (with apologies to Michael Mina). It’s sure going to be hard to top.

In that twenty years, how many authors have you signed? Is there a limit to how many you can represent at one time?

Of course there has to be a limit. There are only so many hours in a day. As for how many authors, there are a lot of variables involved. For instance, some authors write quite quickly and do more than one book per year but others take more time and may produce a novel every few years. It also depends on how much support an individual author needs in developing their work or planning their career or even how much subsidiary rights activity they might generate. So, in short, there’s no simple answer to this one.

You wrote about the pleasures of agenting on your blog. Do you have a favorite moment or story you can share?

Wow. Well, that’s tough to narrow down. There are some great milestones: Like the first time I held a finished book in my hand written by an author that I represented. Or the first time one of my clients hit the New York Times List. Or sitting next to a client at the Hugo Awards when their name was announced as the winner. I get a lot out of being a part of the author’s journey, and if I could go back in time and tell younger me this was what I’d be doing, I think she’d really be looking forward to it.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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