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!

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