Today, we are interviewing Brianne Johnson of Writers House! Welcome, Brianne!
Me: How did you become an agent?
Brianne: When I first got to NYC I was lucky enough to land an internship position here at Writers House. My initial goal was to become an editor, but once I understood the agenting process, I was hooked. I’ve been working my way up from intern, to assistant, to Junior Agent with my own list, over the last several years. It’s been an exciting time.
I’ve always known that I wanted to work with books, even when I was a kid. I got a job at a beautiful indie bookstore the moment I got my working papers at sixteen, and went on working in bookstores throughout high school and college. I love books—both the solitary pleasures of sinking into a wonderful story and in the community that springs up around them. People who read tend to be kinder and more empathetic, something I can say with conviction after hand-selling in the retail sector for so many years, and I loved the feeling of satisfaction I got from listening to what a reader wanted out of a book (tell me what you love to read!) and finding the perfect fit for them, something I now do with editors. Good bookselling is like matchmaking, and it felt like a very natural step to continue my bookselling in publishing.
Me: What are three things that elicit automatic rejections from you when reading the first 50 pages of a manuscript?
Brianne: If I don’t NEED to keep reading after 50 pages, I won’t request the full. By the first 50 pages, your conflict, or whatever it is that your book is about, should be introduced, or at least alluded to. If after the first 50 pages, I’m not desperate to know more, it’s over. It sounds harsh, but I get 70+ query letters a week. If I can take it or leave it, I’ll leave it.
“Info-dumping”—when we’re told too much backstory about a character or a situation before we’re invested in the story. No need to explain everything up front! A little intrigue goes a long way.
This is a tough thing to articulate, but if there’s no “voice” in the story—if it reads a little generically, like anyone could have written it—that’s a turnoff for me. If the storytelling itself is masterful it can be enough to overcome it, but I am really looking for special work that has a unique and recognizable style to it, something new to bring to a crowded table.
Me: What are you looking for right now in fiction submissions and not getting? Are there any subjects or genres that are near and dear to your heart? And on the flip side, what are you getting too much of?
Brianne: I’m hearing a strong call for contemporary, realistic YA, and seeing the industry move away from dystopian and paranormal. That all said, if you can find a truly original story, you should write that. I’m wary of talking about publishing trends because I feel like people can tell when writers “write to the market”. No matter what you write, it should come from a personal and inspired place. And if you write fantasy, make sure it’s coming from your own weird and wonderful brain, and not piggybacking off another writer’s mythology, which always feels derivative.
I love that thrill of discovery when I stumble across a gem in my slush that grabs my attention—something that surprises and delights me and makes everything else fade away for a moment. My projects have been pretty across-the-board, really. I tend to choose them intuitively (do I WANT to read it?) and the technique has worked very well so far. For more specificity on what I’m looking for, check out my Publisher’s Marketplace page, which I update regularly.
Me: What is one thing about you that a writer would be surprised to learn?
Brianne: I’m a devoted, lifelong potter. If I’m not sleeping or reading I’m probably at the pottery studio, elbow-deep in glorious mud. It’s an essential counterbalance to everything else I do.
Me: Best piece(s) of advice you can give a writer we haven’t talked about yet?
Brianne: Read your work out loud. Especially after you’ve gone over things a million times—the ear will pick up what the eye skates over.
Me: Are you open to submissions? If so, how should a writer go about submitting?
Brianne: Yep! E-mail only, please. A standout letter (tell me why your work is different from everything else out there!) and the first five pages pasted below—no attachments, please.