Agent Advice: Joshua Bilmes of JABberwocky Literary Agency

Publish date:

is a series of quick interviews with literary and
script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agentsabout their thoughts on writing,
publishing, and just about anything else.

This installment features Joshua Bilmes, president of JABberwocky Literary Agency, which he
founded in 1994. Having shown an early interest in publishing and
writing critique, Joshua and the publishing industry took an
immediate liking to one another. He landed a job at the Scott Meredith
Literary Agency after graduating from college (University of Michigan,
BA in History), started his agenting career in February 1986, and later
struck out on his own to establish JABberwocky Literary Agency.

He is seeking: science
fiction, true crime, mystery, horror, fantasy, thrillers/suspense,
history, sports, cookbooks, business, film & entertainment.

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GLA: How did you become an agent?

JB: In high school, I wrote letters to Analog
every month critiquing each issue. Betsy Mitchell was then Stan
Schmidt's associate editor, and when she was hired by Jim Baen to help
launch Baen Books, she decided from all of these letters to offer me the
chance to freelance for her. That was my introduction to publishing. I
decided I liked. As to the agent end of things, the first offer I got
out of college was with a literary agency, and it was just one of those
matches made in heaven.

GLA: What is a book coming out you repped that you're excited about?

JB: Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings,
Tor at the end of August, is a massively epic fantasy, some 385,000
words long. And it's a masterful achievement. So many fantasy novels
become long series on weak foundations because the author kind of gets
stuck just writing more of what worked because it's what people will pay
for. You can see in The Way of Kings that there's a clear
foundation for an epic series that's actually planned that way, with
lots of rich magic settings and settings and an entire well-created
world. And it's already out, but Peter V. Brett's Warded Man (Del
Rey) is a book I think fantasy fans should read. The "conversion rate,"
i.e., the % of people who buy the paperback of #1 who then go out to
buy the second book in hardcover, is stunningly high, and the week-in
week-out sales are stunningly steady, and that's all driven by word of
mouth. People buy Warded Man, they love it, they talk about it,
they want more. And not just in the US, but in the UK and in many
foreign markets. Like with Brandon's Elantris five years ago, I know if I can handsell Peter's first novel, I can make a fan for life.

GLA: You’ve
repped some huge names in science fiction/fantasy: Elizabeth Moon,
Charlaine Harris, and Brandon Sanderson, among others. How did you come
to work with these authors? Did they query you, or did you read their
short fiction and contact them?

JB: Elizabeth Moon, I discovered through the pages of Analog.
During my earliest months at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency she had
some great stories, I got the OK to pursue her, expected to find a
science fiction novel from an Analog writer, and instead found
myself falling in love with the 500,000-word already-completed Deed of
Paksenarrion fantasy trilogy. Charlaine was recommended to me by another
mystery writer, Barbara Paul. Brandon had read and liked some Simon
Green, and a friend of his Ethan Skarstedt introduced Brandon to me when
he found out I was Simon's agent. I read many books from him, most of
which will never be published, because back then in his mid-20s Brandon
was full of ideas more than just about any published fantasy writer but
hadn't yet mastered plotting. But I loved seeing all those ideas and was
very encouraging and very open to seeing a next book. When Moshe Feder
at Tor told Brandon he wanted to buy Elantris, Brandon was kind
enough to think of me. I read it real super quick (Brandon had been
waiting to send to me until a decent interval elapsed between the
previous book I'd seen), and I liked, not yet perfect but unlike the
earlier manuscripts with plot problems that were hard to revise out,
this one it was easy to see that Brandon could fix. Moshe and I
tag-teamed Brandon on rewrites, and the end result was a great debut

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GLA: Writers
could learn a lot from these authors and their success. What tactics
have these authors used to promote themselves and their work that you
would suggest new authors emulate?

JB: It's
still about writing a great book. If you don't write a great book,
nobody will want to read your blog, follow you on Twitter, or send you
friend requests. A lot of people think they can become published writers
first by becoming John Scalzi with their blog. But it doesn't work that
way. People will happily follow authors with interesting blogs and
still not buy their books, and will buy books by authors who've never
tweeted a single character. That being said, when you start to develop a
real fan presence, I do think the internet and social networking can be
used in incredible ways to develop a relationship between reader and
author that is deeper and more meaningful. I love to see what Peter V.
Brett does with his contests, the content Elizabeth Moon provides in her
Speed of Dark or Paksworld blogs, or to see from her tweets how Kat
Richardson's day is going. But the content—your novel—has
to be there. And don't feel you need to do everything. Different
authors have different personalities, and it's permissible to do more of
the self-promotion you enjoy doing and less of what you don't.

GLA: You
have repped a broad range of science fiction and fantasy titles. Is
there any subgenre that you would like to see more of right now? Any
that you would rather see less of?

JB: Honestly,
no. Ten years ago, I knew I really needed a great guy fantasy author,
but today I think we have a fairly diverse list and we're not looking
for one kind of great book over another.

GLA: Besides
“True Blood” being based off Charlaine Harris’ series, another one of
your clients, Tanya Huff, has had her “Blood Books” made into a
television show as well. Can you help us understand more the transition
from book to television and what that involves?

can't answer this question in a really great way. I will say that my
own experience has been that the transition happens more by people
finding material they love than by my trying to sell somebody on the
material; Alan Ball [the creator of "True Blood"] found Sookie
Stackhouse at a B&N while waiting for a dentist appointment.

the president of JABberwocky Literary Agency, one of the leading
science fiction/fantasy agencies, what is one of the biggest problems
that you see with new authors trying to break into this genre?

JB: There
are at least 100 authors who want to be published for every one that
actually is. So you have to write great work, only the very best work is
likely to be published, and even then there's "many a slip between the
cup and the lip," as that old saying goes. Good cover, your editor not
leaving or the publishing company not being sold four months before the
book comes out—stuff
like that which an author can't much control is as important as a lot
of things the author can control. But all of those problems have been
problems for my entire 25 years in the business, so I come not to see
them as problems any more. I see them as facts of life, and we try and
deal with all of them as best we can.

know you’ve had a lot of success with paranormal fantasy and others,
but what else are you looking for? Do you take children’s, nonfiction,
literary fiction, young adult?

JB: My
associate, Eddie Schneider, is looking at literary fiction and
children's/YA. I'd love to have a great cookbook or great nonfiction
book in a category like sports or entertainment or business that really
interests me, or something to appeal to my history major roots. Check
out the bios on our website.

GLA: Best way to submit to you?

We like to get hard copy queries. We are not always open to queries, so
check our website. As an example. today we are open but getting into
mid-August with various vacations planned we're going to have to close
up until later in the fall. Really, the best way to find out how to
submit, the best way to find out what we like, the best way to find out
if we're going to be at a writer's conference—all of this is in our website,
and that's the best place to go for answers on those questions, or to
my blog for a glimpse into the personal side of me, which you can link
to from the agency website.

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This interview by Jennifer Benner, 2010 summer
intern for Writer’s Digest and senior at
Grace College. She spends her time working
on a novel and talking to other writers.
Check out her blog.

Want more on this subject?

  • What's in a Pitch? Examining "Alibi Junior High."
  • How to Maximize an Agent Pitch Slam.
  • What are the BEST writers' conferences in the country?
  • Confused about formatting? Check out Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript.
  • Read about What Agents Hate: Chapter 1 Pet Peeves.
  • Want the most complete database of agents and what genres they're looking for? Buy the 2011 Guide to Literary Agents today!
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