A Long Road: Jennifer Johnson-Blalock’s journey to becoming an agent

As you (may) know, I am currently interning with Pam (amazingness) Howell at D4EO Literary. I’m doing this because I’m interested in pursuing a career as an agent, and Pam is a fantastic mentor.

The road to becoming a literary agent isn’t super clear cut; in fact, there are many, many paths. In my quest to further my education, I asked super successful LDA agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock about her agenting journey! Here’s her story:

Becoming a literary agent takes time—though most aspiring agents manage to do it in less than ten years. And without going down two completely different career paths first. I took a somewhat circuitous route.Johnson-Blalock Headshot

By the end of the summer before my senior year of college, I’d decided I wanted to be a literary agent. I had no idea how to pursue this ambition, though. I didn’t have any contacts in the industry. I wasn’t able to land a book publishing internship that summer. (I worked at a fashion magazine instead.) My parents were less than thrilled at the thought of me moving to NYC after college to be an unpaid intern.

Then I read an article—I don’t remember who wrote it or where it was published, but I promise it existed—claiming that if you want to be a literary agent, law school is a great idea! I think in hindsight, they were probably talking more about talent agents at places like CAA or WME, many of whom have law or business degrees. Nevertheless, this was a concrete, parent-approved plan, and I’d considered law school in the past.

So I signed up for the October LSAT, got a good score, applied to a few schools, and wound up going to Harvard Law School. As I mentioned in my recent blog post, I wrote my application essay about wanting to be a literary agent, and HLS sent me an acceptance letter with a note that said, “The path to becoming a literary agent starts here!”

I quickly realized though that while law school might be helpful for becoming an agent, it certainly wasn’t necessary. I thought about dropping out several times but was told by friends and family that quitting HLS would be insane. So I focused on entertainment transactions and worked with the Recording Artists Project, helping local musicians negotiate management and recording contracts.

I wound up accepting an offer to work at a firm in LA intending to specialize in entertainment law, which I’d done for them as a summer associate. But that department dissolved just before I started at the firm, and they told me I had to do patent litigation. I think I set a firm record for the fastest departure.

I needed to regroup, so I went back to Austin, where I’d gone to college. I tried to get various media and publishing jobs, but now it was 2009, the middle of the recession, and I was very overqualified. I did contract work for a solo entertainment attorney, but she didn’t have the resources to hire me full-time. After about a year of partial employment, I went back to UT and got my teaching certification.

The teaching program took a year and a half to complete, and then I worked as a debate coach and freshman English teacher at Episcopal High School in Houston. Teaching was both harder and more rewarding than practicing law, but while I loved curriculum planning, I was particularly ill-suited for classroom management. And by that point, I was almost thirty years old, and I still desperately wanted to live in New York and work in publishing.

So I gave notice that I wouldn’t be renewing my contract, and in June of 2013, I moved to NYC. Once I moved, my path to becoming an agent wasn’t that different from anyone else’s. While my age and experience helped expedite my progress somewhat, I still had to start at the bottom like everyone else.

I sent out nearly 100 applications for assistant positions and got zero responses. In the meantime, I’d signed up for a class on Digital Strategies in the Publishing Industry with Jeffrey Yamaguchi through NYU’s School of Professional Studies. (I think the summer institutes at Columbia and NYU can be very helpful—I didn’t figure out my game plan in time!)

Jeff recommended me for an internship with Riffle, a startup website focused on book discovery, and I worked for them curating YA content: creating themed lists, hosting giveaways, conducting interviews, etc. This position helped me land an internship with Liza Dawson Associates.

I worked my ass off for Liza, to be blunt. I stayed up late reading queries for three different agents, I read manuscripts ASAP and did my best to write stellar reports, I took on every task offered to me, from reviewing contracts to brainstorming publicity ideas to proofreading manuscripts. In return, Liza gave me the most fantastic reference as I applied (again!) for assistant jobs.

In April 2014, I started working as an assistant for John Silbersack at Trident Media Group. John has been an amazing mentor to me as well, and I learned so much working with him. In addition to assistant tasks like phones, mailings, check and royalty processing, etc., I worked on pitch letters and submission lists, sat in on calls with current and prospective clients, and gained a newfound understanding of what the day-to-day business of being an agent is like.

After about a year at Trident, I heard Liza was considering bringing on a new agent, and I asked to be considered. She said yes, and I joined Liza Dawson Associates as an associate agent in April 2015, a little more than a year ago. I’m still learning as I move forward, which is why I’m grateful to work with such a knowledgeable, supportive group of colleagues, but I have a client roster I’m proud of, I’ve made a few sales, and I couldn’t be happier I persevered. By this point, I’ve had enough careers to know that agenting truly is the right one for me.

Naturally I had a couple follow up questions for Jennifer, and she was a great sport about answering them. I wanted to know:

Did you have a day job while you were interning for Liza? If so, what was it? How did you manage your time?

I didn’t have a steady day job, though I did do freelance copyediting, study guide writing, that sort of thing. I’m involved with my family’s company, and I’m incredibly lucky because that gives me the resources I need to pay the bills while doing what I love. I do think we need to continue working as an industry to create more paid internship opportunities so that more people are able to get their start.

You mentioned taking classes on publishing at NYU. Do you have an opinion on publishing-focused degrees? For example, many schools (including NYU) offer a Master’s in Publishing; do you think this is helpful/unnecessary/something else?

I think they’re generally unnecessary, particularly if you have to go into debt for them. The shorter summer intensives and individual classes give you contacts and skills, and that’s really all you need–you don’t get paid more if you have a master’s degree!

Finally, what do you think is the most challenging part of navigating the publishing industry–today, and while you were moving up the ladder?

I think the most challenging thing, then and now, is how competitive the industry is and how much depends on luck. Hard work and skill unquestionably play a big part, but I was also lucky to get the opportunities I did, in an environment where there are more qualified candidates than there are jobs. And now that I’m an agent–yes, you need to have taste, and you can work to find clients and get to know editors, but I also believe there’s a large component of luck in whether a book sells to a publisher or breaks out among readers. There are many things that affect your success that are largely out of your hands, which can be tough.

Finally, here’s some advice from Jennifer worth its weight in gold:

A few takeaways, for those of you hoping to land a job in publishing or just figuring out your own career paths:

  • Follow your dreams. That couldn’t be more trite or more true. I can’t tell you what would have happened if I’d had the strength of self to move to NYC at 22 or to quit law school. But I’m so happy I found the courage eventually to do what I really wanted.
  • Make the best of all your experiences. Even though it isn’t necessary to practice law or teach high school, I learned things from both those jobs—how to read a contract more closely, how to edit constructively, what teenagers really want to read. I gained valuable skills and knowledge that I put to use later.
  • When you finally get the job you want, WORK. Publishing is a business that relies heavily on connections. I worked hard for Liza, and she helped me in return. Then I worked hard for John and gained the experience I needed to return to Liza as an agent.
  • It’s truly okay to make mistakes. I’ve made plenty, and I still landed somewhere I really want to be.

Honestly, do you need more convincing? Jennifer is awesome, and you should definitely check her out on Twitter. If you’re querying, be sure to take a look at her wishlist and sub guidelines as well!

Pitch Wars Mentor Bio Blog Hop


Hello, hello. It’s that time of year again, when I get to post my Pitch Wars wishlist and wait for all of you marvelously talented YA writers to send your work my way.

I love Pitch Wars because it’s writers helping writers. Publishing can be rough, but it can also be wonderful. PW is one of those times, when agented/published writers and industry professionals come together to help you guys reach your full potential.

i can help you

Why I’m awesome:

I’m an intern for Pam Howell at D4EO Literary. I’m learning publishing from the other side of the desk, and I know what catches an agent’s eye. I was also an editorial intern with Entangled Publishing last year, and I picked up lots of nifty editing skills.

A previous mentee, the lovely Linsey Miller, signed with Rachel Brooks from L. Perkins, AND she has a book deal! She’s rad. Be sure to check out her bio too.

I’m extremely competitive. I will throw down for you.


I’m wildly queer. I’m in this thing to make marginalized voices louder and important stories impossible to ignore.

I’m a martial arts instructor and weapons specialist.

I once successfully baked macarons. They had legs and everything.


What you can expect from me:

Bluntness, for the sake of clarity. I don’t think it’s helpful for you if I sugar coat the things that need work.


But SQUEEING. Lots of squeeing. If I pick you, it’s because I love your book! And I want to help make it the best it can possibly be. I will not hold back on the squeeing.

We’ll work on everything that needs work, big picture to line edits. I’m good at spotting writing crutches and bad habits. Microtension, plot holes, and character development are also strengths of mine.

I will read through your full manuscript and give you an edit letter. Ideally, I will have time to read your ms again, but this depends on how long revisions take! I will also help revise your query and we’ll come up with a pitch for the agent round.

Books I loved recently:

SIX OF CROWS, Leigh Bardugo
ON THE EDGE OF GONE, Corinne Duyvis

What I’m looking for:

  • Young adult, only. Don’t waste your entry here if your manuscript isn’t YA!
  • Excellent LGBTQIA+ representation
  • Fantasy that feels fresh, and the darker the better
  • Edge-of-your-seat science fiction, hard or soft
  • SOLID world building. I want settings with atmospheres that cling to me.
  • Love interests and romance so intense they hurt
  • Sex positivity

What I’m not looking for:

  • Literally anything with an all-white, all-cis, all-straight cast.
  • Thrillers, horror, or contemporary works
  • Books about religion
  • Predictable stories that rely heavily on tropes
  • Stories about rape
  • Passive main characters
  • Anything slut-shamey

For submission guidelines, go here. Remember, if you have a spare $20 to donate to Pitch Wars, you can submit to TWO extra mentors. This money helps support this massive contest and the people behind the scenes who work around the clock to make it happen. Mentors won’t know if you donate or not, and it will not affect our decisions, so please don’t feel bad or worry if you cannot make a donation at this time.

Be sure to hit me up on Twitter! I’d love to connect.

Oh. And I suppose you can check out these other mentors if you have to. 😉

Alright. Let’s do this.

rock this bitch

On the hunt? Have a letter!

d is for devine

Accurate Representation

I think we need to have a discussion about “accurate representation” versus “non-damaging representation.” Remember the whole “do no harm” adage? Okay. We’re not doctors. We’re writers. But we can probably all agree that when we write a story, we don’t set out to harm our audience. God no. But when our stories about underrepresented characters become echoes of the same story, over and over, that’s exactly what we do.

I first started thinking about this pretty recently actually, during a conversation with a writer friend about a book with a genderfluid main character. The friend said some things that made a lot of sense to me. I’m still thinking about it and still learning, but the sort-of-conclusion I’ve come to is this: with writing diversity, there’s a fine line to walk between “accurate” and “damaging.” It’s true that real, bad things happen to minorities. We deal with obstacles that white cishet able neurotypical thin beautiful people never even have to consider. Sometimes we internalize these things and we sometimes then develop harmful relationships with ourselves. Not writing about these things creates inaccurate and bad representation. However, ONLY writing about these things leads to (in my opinion) a worse, more insidious problem.

Let’s say we’re talking about trans stories. I’m going to talk about transness because I’m trans and I can speak from the heart. It is very very accurate to write a story with a transgender character who is a victim of a hate crime, sexual assault, bullying, harassment, threats, violence, murder. That is a WILDLY accurate representation of reality. Trans people deal with these things every day. But writing stories only about these things leads all people, trans or not, to believe that these are the experiences that we should expect to have. Of course that transgirl was raped. They always get raped. We always get raped.

The Book of Contention everyone is talking about has to do with weight loss and mental illness, but the same ideas apply. I believe it is probably accurate to tell a story in which a fat girl becomes thin and finds love. I’m actually POSITIVE this accurately represents real experiences because thin people are treated like intelligent, capable humans and fat people aren’t. But why is this the story we’re telling? Why do we want another book that says, “Hey, fat teenage girl, you’ll be worthy of love if only you lose weight”? It’s just so damaging. Especially if a kid goes into a book with their guard down, looking for a mirror, and gets slapped with the same narrative again and again. They’re going to start to believe it. Everyone is subconsciously trained to believe it. This is why the status quo is maintained.

This conversation gets lost in “It’s that author’s prerogative to write anything she wants” and it’s even more difficult for the conversation to gain traction when the representation is technically accurate. But what if I’m tired, guys? What if I’m tired of trans people only being interesting when we’re dead? Of fat people only being worthy once they’re thin? Of mentally ill people only being acceptable if it’s made clear that they’re broken? And when? When is it okay for us to ask to stop being represented in this way? When is it okay to say enough?

Second Position by Katherine Locke

Four years ago, a car accident ended Zedekiah Harrow’s ballet career and sent Philadelphia Ballet principal dancer Alyona Miller spinning toward the breakdown that suspended her own. What they lost on the side of the road that day can never be replaced, and grief is always harshest under a spotlight…

Now twenty-three, Zed teaches music and theatre at a private school in Washington, D.C. and regularly attends AA meetings to keep the pain at bay. Aly has returned to D.C. to live with her mother while

trying to recover from the mental and physical breakdown that forced her to take a leave of absence from the ballet world, and her adoring fans.

When Zed and Aly run into each other in a coffee shop, it’s as if no time has passed at all. But without the buffer and escape of dance—and with so much lust, anger and heartbreak hanging between them—their renewed connection will either allow them to build the together they never had… or destroy the fragile recoveries they’ve only started to make.

District Ballet Company #1

New Adult, Contemporary Romance




Some things you’ll never erase from your memory. In front of me, the ice-blond braid swinging on a primly dressed woman’s back makes me sway on the spot. I know that braid, and it doesn’t belong here. Not where I am. Anywhere but here, here where it brings with it a tide of memories I’ve worked hard to bury. Images, bright and sharp and very red, slam around in my head, and I curl my fingers into my palm, hard. The pain pushes the memories back where they belong.

My first thought is, It can’t be her.

My second thought is, Oh, God, please don’t let her see me walk.
It might not be her. Lots of women have blond hair, and a lot of women dye their hair to get her particular shade of gold. Three people between us, and I can’t see her profile. I study her neck, her shoulders, the way she stands. I’m almost positive it is her. A certain unmistakable, accidental grace to the way her hands shake when she unsnaps her wallet.
“Small tea, one orange tea bag, one vanilla. I’ll pay for both.”
Her tea order hasn’t changed in the four years since I’ve seen her, or the eleven years I’ve known her. Her voice is a little smaller, a reflection of her body. But she still likes to taste things vibrantly. And she’s the only one ordering a hot drink in the late July heat.
In the last memory I have of her, she’s stretched out next to me in bed, wearing nothing but a smile. She glowed, on and off the stage. This girl, at the counter now, is anything other than bright. She moves dully. She used to lean on counters and flirt, regardless of who was at the register. She hasn’t flipped her hair once. Everything I know is in the past tense.
I almost say her name, almost call out to her against all my better instincts. Then they ask her for the name for the cup, and I hear her say, “Aly.”

About the Author

Katherine Locke lives and writes in a very small town outside of Philadelphia, where she’s ruled by her feline overlords and her addiction to chai lattes. She writes about that which she cannot do: ballet, time travel, and magic. When she’s not writing, she’s probably tweeting. She not-so-secretly believes most stories are fairy tales in disguise. She can be found online at katherinelockebooks.com and on Twitter: @bibliogato.


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Silence Isn’t Okay

I’ve seen a lot of people in the last few days waving around the word “ally.” What does that word even mean? Good ole dictionary.com says it’s “a person, group, or nation that is associated with another or others for some common cause or purpose.” When we’re talking about diversity and marginalization, an ally is someone who stands by you. An ally is someone who listens to your needs and makes your voice louder. An ally is someone who celebrates your victories, mourns your defeats, and fights by your side as if your battles were their own.

I’ve seen many examples of great allyship in the last few days. I’ve also seen some really, really terrible examples from people that I previously admired.

I’m about to postulate. Here goes.

If you are in a position of safety and you are unwilling to rock the boat for people who aren’t in a position of safety, you are not an ally. Nope. Don’t care. You can argue with me until we both drop dead. I will never, ever, not believe that.

But, but, one person can’t possibly take up every cause!!

No one asked you as an individual to take up every cause. That would be exhausting. But when something shakes your industry and a particular group of people in it to the core, that is not the moment to step away from the soap box like, “Nah, not my cause. Too tired. Takes too much energy.” If typing out a statement, or providing a retweet, or signal boosting marginalized voices who don’t happen to be your marginalized voice takes up too much of your time and energy, you probably need to reevaluate your definition of ally.

But, I’m an activist! Look at all the positive work I do over here!

It’s not enough. I’m sorry. It’s not enough. To quote Ellen Oh, “Hate is that thing that won’t go away if you ignore it. Hate doesn’t work that way.” You can’t claim to be an ally if you fight things that misrepresent and/or damage your own group, but ignore things that damage other groups in favor of posting happy books and butterflies. Or, I suppose you can, but let’s be honest about our intentions, please. If you are an ally in support of one group only, just say it. Let’s stop pretending to be something we’re not.

But if I talk about negative things, aren’t I just signal boosting them? I want to be a force of positivity!

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this nonstatement as an excuse to ignore things that make people uncomfortable. You think you’re uncomfortable? Imagine how unfuckingcomfortable the people are who are literally being attacked, directly, by the thing you are ignoring.

I’m just worried if I make a statement about something from my professional platform that it might send the wrong message.

You might want to reconsider the message you’re trying to send.

Silence isn’t neutrality. Silence is apathy. Silence means you have taken the side of the oppressor.

One more time.

If you have safety and privilege and you don’t fight for those who don’t have safety and privilege, do not call yourself an ally.

Pitch Wars Mentor Bio!

PitchWars - YAToday’s the day! It’s time to decide which #PitchWars mentors are going to fight over your submission.

But wait, what’s Pitch Wars???

Here is an answer!

I love Pitch Wars because agented writers help unagented writers realize their potential. I also love it because it’s a catalyst for friendships that last forever! I also also love it because I get to throw down.

Why I’m awesome:

I’m represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary. She’s the coolest person ever. I write what I’m requesting, and I have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t. I’m also an editorial intern for YA at  Entangled Publishing, and I know how tough it is to work through feedback sometimes. We can talk it out.

This is my second year mentoring! Last year my mentee was the lovely Linsey Miller, and she signed with Rachel Brooks from L. Perkins. Ready to make it two for two?

I’m wildly queer and an unshakable advocate for the trans community. I’m also a We Need Diverse Books team member. I’m in this thing to make marginalized voices louder and important stories impossible to ignore.

If I pick you, I will give you feedback on your entire ms, big picture and inline.

I have a squishy-faced dog named Pickles. Meet your mascot:

sleepy pickles

I’m a martial artist.

I’m super competitive.

I once sang Fall Out Boy live at a drag show.


Books I loved recently:

What I’m looking for:

  • Young adult, only. See that coffee cup up there? I will be just as grumpy if you send me non-YA as I am when there is not enough espresso in my Americano.
  • Excellent LGBTQIA representation. This is a requirement.
  • Fresh, smart contemporary
  • Exciting sci-fi with relatable characters (think THE LUNAR CHRONICLES)
  • Fantasy that feels new.
  • Character driven stories that stick with me
  • Romance and love interests that make me swoon
  • Tough choices
  • Snappy voice
  • Sex positivity

What I’m not looking for:

  • Literally anything with an all-white, all-cis, all-straight cast.
  • Anything that’s not YA
  • Genres I didn’t request
  • Books about religion
  • Predictable stories that rely heavily on tropes
  • Passive main characters

Alright. Show me what you’ve got. For submission guidelines, go here. And I suppose you can check out these other mentors if you have to.😉

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My daughter, Caitlyn Jenner, and Laverne Cox

“Transgender is beautiful.” – Laverne Cox


As the mother of a young transgender child, my response to Caitlyn Jenner’s headline-grabbing announcement is a visceral one. Yes, I’m kind of put off by the hype. No, I’m not a big fan of celebrity culture or reality television. But when I look at the cover of Vanity Fair, and read the news articles that respectfully use Jenner’s new name and female pronouns, I’m overwhelmed by this new state of affairs, and by a world that might just be ready to accept my daughter. And that knocks me off my feet with awe and gratitude.

I called my friend Alice, a member of our support group whose trans daughter is a few years older than mine. “Did you see it?” I said. She knew what I was talking about.

“Of course,” she said. I could hear her shaking her head over the phone, as overcome as I was…

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