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Meet the Agent: Joanna MacKenzie of Nelson Literary Agency

Originally from Poland, literary agent Joanna MacKenzie loves novels that deal with the themes of identity and the immigrant experience, as well as those that probe relationships—like those with parents, siblings, best friends, and first loves.

Originally from Poland, literary agent Joanna MacKenzie loves novels that deal with the themes of identity and the immigrant experience, as well as those that probe relationships—like those with parents, siblings, best friends, and first loves.

In 2002, she got her start in publishing at a Chicago-based literary agency. She successfully placed numerous manuscripts that have gone on to become critically acclaimed, award-winning, and bestselling novels.

Joanna joined the Nelson Literary Agency in 2017. She represents a variety of writers, from YA (Kristen Simmons) and romance (Shana Galen) to mysteries and thrillers (John Galligan).

Joanna loves working with authors who embrace the full publishing process and love revisions. She is committed to the stories her current clients want to tell and is looking forward to launching the careers of authors of the future. Joanna is currently looking to expand her list in both adult and YA.

How did you become an agent?

I stumbled into agent-ing, actually. After graduate school, I found an internship with a literary agency in Chicago. I had no idea what agents did; I simply knew that I loved to read and to think critically about what I was reading—about why stories worked and why some characters stuck with you—so it seemed like a cool thing to try. Luckily, I fell in with fantastic mentors (Jane Jordan Browne and Danielle Egan-Miller) who taught me the ins and outs of the business. That was almost 15 years ago.

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Are you open for submissions? If so, help writers understand what kind of fiction and nonfiction projects you take queries for.

I am open for submissions. I am looking to build my list both in YA and adult. I’m drawn to contemporary YA about the relationships the make us who we are. On the adult side, I’m looking for more mysteries and thrillers, as well as up-market women’s fiction. Generally, I don’t represent nonfiction.

Do you have any tips for writers on opening and closing a novel well?

NLA actually did a series, as part of our newsletter, on openings to avoid! Personally, my advice would be to make sure your characters are doing something. I see so many submissions that set the scene for way too long, and I find myself trapped in a character’s head as they ponder something, for example, and tend to get bored. In terms of closing, make sure all loose ends are tied up and the reader is satisfied—even if your project is the first in a trilogy.

Besides “good writing,” what are you looking for right now and not getting? What do you pray for when tackling the slush pile?

On the YA side, I’m looking for strong, confident voices and characters I can’t stop thinking about. I’d love to find a Veronica Mars-ish character I could really sink my teeth into; or be swept away into a Bone Gap world; or be enthralled by characters like those in I’ll Give You The Sun. On the adult side, I’d love to find a great, Tana French-esque mystery and also a book featuring Sarah Paulson’s character from Ocean’s 8, aka a seemingly perfect suburban mom with a secret life. Think the first season of Weeds.

What are you tired of seeing?

Personally, I’m over girls on trains and wives between us.

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What makes a manuscript stand out on a first read?

Hands down, an author’s confident voice combined with a cool hook—something that makes me think “huh, I’ve never seen that before.”

Do you have advice for new authors on creating compelling characters?

Make them nuanced, and make sure they’re interacting. I don’t want to spend the opening pages of a novel stuck in a character’s head; I want them out and experiencing the world.

Do you have any tips for emerging authors on all things writing and publishing?

Keep at it! Publishing is built on rejections, both for authors and agents, so keep writing and keep honing your craft. Make sure you’re connecting with other writers, both published and emerging, so you have a community to support and encourage you—and who will come to your book launch!

What do many emerging novelists often get wrong, and how could they correct it?

Going at it alone. Being part of a critique group or a writers’ group or a professional writers’ organization allows you the opportunity to better your writing, to know when and how to query, to get agent recommendations, and to be better able to navigate all parts of the publishing process.

Do you have any tips for querying authors? 

Make sure you’re approaching agents that represent the type of project you’ve written. Also, make sure your query reflects your voice. I know it’s really hard to write a paragraph description of your work—my published authors still struggle with it—but it is worth your energy and time to make sure you have the best possible description of your work. (If you need inspiration, read the jacket copy of your favorite books).

What genres or types of novels are selling the most?

I think the projects that are getting the most traction are those with compelling hooks, something that offers a fresh take on a known story.

What markets do you believe are over-saturated or are not selling as well?

The market for traditionally published romance continues to be difficult.

Are there any other trends in publishing that writers may want to be aware of?

I hate answering the trend question because everything in publishing changes so fast—and, remember, we’re selling books that will be published a year or more from now. My advice is to write the book you want to write; don’t think about trends.

What questions should an author ask an agent when they call to offer representation?

Oh man, there are so many. Generally, you want to make sure you’re a match on communication styles and, most importantly, that you share a vision for your project and career. I also think it’s important to ask about length of contract negotiation, how many support staff there are at an agency to help with things like auditing royalty statements, and how transparent the agent is. The NLA newsletter can provide more helpful hints on this subject, as well.

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What's up next for you?

I have an incredible YA novel dropping next week, called Pacifica, by Kristen Simmons; a super sexy romance called No Earls Allowed, by Shana Galen; and, later this year, a fantastic Comic-Con-set mystery called The Frame-Up, by Meghan Scott Molin. Meantime, I have lots of submissions that, fingers crossed, all find great editorial homes soon.

Will you be at any upcoming writers’ conferences, where writers can meet and pitch you?

Yes. I will be attending the Loft Pitch Conference in Minneapolis in April.

And finally, any last piece of advice for writers seeking an agent?

Don’t stop writing!

How to Submit: Send a query via email to Please remember:

  1. In the subject line, write QUERY and the title of your project. This will help ensure that your query isn’t accidentally deleted or caught in our spam filter.
  2. In the body of your email, include a one-page query letter and the first ten pages of your manuscript.
  3. No attachments Because of virus concerns, emails with attachments are deleted unread.

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