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Literary Agent Interview: Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency

“Agent Advice” (more than 170 interviews so far!) is a series of quick interviews with literary and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This installment features Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Jill Marsal is a founding partner of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and has been in the publishing industry for over 15 years. Jill also has a strong legal background and holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School. She practiced as an attorney with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati for five years.

“Agent Advice” (this installment featuring agent Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency) is a series of quick interviews with literary agents and script agents who talk with Guide to Literary Agents about their thoughts on writing, publishing, and just about anything else. This series has more than 170 interviews so far with reps from great literary agencies. This collection of interviews is a great place to start if you are just starting your research on literary agencies.

(How many literary agents should a writer send their work to?)

This installment features Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Jill Marsal is a founding partner of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and has been in the publishing industry for over 15 years. Jill also has a strong legal background and holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School. She practiced as an attorney with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati for five years.

She is seeking: On the fiction front, Jill looks for women's fiction, Southern fiction, commercial fiction, stories of family, paranormal, romantic suspense, category romance, mysteries, and thrillers that keep the pages turning and have an original hook. On the nonfiction side, Jill's areas of interest include current events, business, health, self-help, relationships, psychology, parenting, history, and narrative nonfiction.

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GLA: How and why did you become an agent?

JM: In high school, I went to a career day talk at our school and heard a literary agent describe her job. Reading and editing manuscripts, helping writers formulate ideas and structure proposals, pitching them to publishers. It sounded terrific. I have always liked reading – fiction, non-fiction, all types of books and subjects. So that afternoon, I contacted a local literary agency and as luck would have it, they offered me a job. I loved working there. It was such an exciting place with all the books in development and various projects I got to read.

GLA: What’s something you’ve sold that comes out now/soon that you’re excited about?

JM: I have a thriller coming out this summer in June, Extended Family by Patrick Kendrick. It is the story of a man who is brilliant, a doctor, but there is one detail nobody knows: he is a serial killer and has been busy donating sperm to fertility clinics across the country to breed a special type of offspring. Extended Family is a novel of unbearable suspense based on true crime stories ripped from the nations’ headlines.

On the nonfiction side, I have a book The Candidate: What it Takes to Win and Hold The White House by Samuel Popkin that just came out in May. I’m very excited about this one and think it will be a great read for anyone interested in the upcoming Presidential elections or who wants to understand the candidates and strategies that are happening in these months leading up to the election.

Finally, I am also excited about an anthology by Victoria Zackheim, Exit Laughing: How Humor Takes the Sting out of Death that also came out in May. This anthology includes top authors sharing personal stories on the subject of death and humor and reminds us that while all of us approach death in very different ways -- it is ok to find moments of levity.

(How successful should a blog be before agents/editors will take notice?)

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

JM: I would love to see more women’s fiction. I’m also looking for a good cozy mystery and all types of romance including romantic suspense, historical, contemporary, category, or paranormal. On the non-fiction side, I would love to see an advice/relationships or parenting book with an interesting/new thesis, current events, or narrative non-fiction with an interesting topic.

GLA: Have you seen any new trends on the fiction front that aspiring writers may want to jump into post-Twilight and fantasy?

JM: I tend to be cautious about trends. The books that are selling today to the traditional print publishers generally won’t see the market for 12 months (this doesn’t include epublishers). So I would caution writers about writing to trends. I think it is most important to write about something that excites you and that you are passionate about. That enthusiasm generally comes through on the pages.

GLA: I read that you practiced as an attorney for five years. Do you have a soft spot for legal thrillers?

JM: Yes, I like legal thrillers and all types of thrillers and am definitely on the lookout for these, especially if they have a strong “hook.”

GLA: For someone who wants to write a nonfiction book, you’ve stated that you’re particularly drawn to projects that move readers or leave them thinking. Are there any nonfiction books out there that you would suggest a writer read to understand this concept better?

JM: For me, this can happen in many ways. For example, Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul really moved me. It was about Afghanistan just after the fall of the Taliban and a bookseller allowed a Western journalist to move in with his family and give readers an intimate look at life there. Similarly, Lisa Shannon’s A Thousand Sisters: My Journey Into the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman also really moved me. In it, the author who had a successful business, fiancée, home, and good life, learned of the atrocities in Congo and felt called to do something. She completely changed her life and gave up almost everything to start a grassroots effort to raise money for the women in Congo and then journeyed there to meet these women and hear their incredible and powerful stories.

I think Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, and Susan Shirk’s China Fragile Superpower are also all good examples of books that make you think about subjects in ways you might not have previously.

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GLA: You’re a founding partner of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and you have over 15 years of publishing experience in the industry. How have you found the role of agent to be changing as the industry changes?

JM: First, I think it has become even more important for agents to help authors edit their novels. As publishers are buying fewer books and being ever more cautious in the current market, the bar for manuscripts is even higher. This means it is critical for a good agent to be very active in editing manuscripts and helping authors really put their best work forward.

Agents also have to be aware of the changing options out there. In the past, while there were a few traditional houses and places to take a manuscript, in the current industry, there is a whole new world with epublishers, smaller publishers and other digital opportunities that did not even exist a few years ago. As an agent, it is critical to know about these and to stay on top of these changes as the publishing world continues to evolve on a day-to-day basis. A good agent will be able to discuss all of these options with their authors and know the pros and cons to help authors determine the best opportunities for their projects.

(Can writers query multiple agents at the same agency?)

GLA: In response to the rise in popularity of self-publishing, I think a lot of aspiring writers are considering this route more and more. For those who are weighing the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. traditionally publishing, how exactly are agents valuable to writers?

JM: An agent can help with many aspects of the publishing process. First, a good agent will help shape a proposal and edit a manuscript. They can strategize with an author about plot issues or areas that can be strengthened in a manuscript so that a book doesn’t just get sold or “self-published” but “sells well” on the market. Also, for many authors without a platform, the self-publishing route can be a hard way to reach a large audience. You may get your book up on an eplatform, but how do you market it and how do people find out about it? A good agent can help writers strategize about publicity, marketing, and p.r. issues and can also help find publishers who will partner with authors to reach a broader audience and have wider distribution than self-publishing.

GLA: What do you think of self-publishing?

JM: For some authors, self-publishing may be the answer, and as an agent, I certainly have authors who I advise to self-publish some of their work (and some of it goes to traditional publishers). But this decision can vary from author to author and project to project. Finally, for those who think self-publishing is a route to a traditional publisher, this is actually very difficult. If you self-publish a book, traditional publishers will generally not want to consider it, unless it has sold a substantial number of copies (probably close to 5-figures). So I would not suggest taking the self-publishing option if your ultimate goal is to find a traditional publisher.

GLA: What do you expect from an agent-author relationship?

JM: I think good communication is critical to a successful agent-author relationship. Whether it is phone or email or both, it is important for the agent to understand the author’s goals and vision for his or her work, and equally important for the author to hear what the agent thinks is needed to get there. I think it is also important to be timely and responsive, on both sides.

One of the primary complaints I hear from authors that may have been previously represented is that they often did not know where things stood with their agent or the submissions process. I work hard at keeping my authors fully informed of my timing on the submission preparation and the process itself.

GLA: Can you describe your ideal client?

JM: My ideal client is one who wants to have a long term writing career and is open to hearing advice and considering suggestions. For new writers, this might mean edits and feedback for improving manuscripts. For more established writers, this might mean suggestions for career strategy, growth, and development. I want to work with writers who are passionate about their work and committed to making it as strong as possible.

GLA: Will you be at any upcoming writers conferences where writers can meet and pitch you?

JM: I will be at the Dallas Fort Worth Writer’s Conference May 18–20, 2012 and then at the Romance Writers of America Conference July 26–29.

GLA: Best pieces of advice we haven’t talked about yet?

JM: Read and share. I think it is critical to really read and analyze published books that are similar to what you want to write and really study them to see how the successful authors are doing it. Are there “rules” for the genre? How do the successful authors in your area develop characters? Give backstory? Create tension? Keep pacing up? POV? Voice? Develop setting? Then, if possible, share your manuscript with a critique partner or group to get feedback from others who are writers.

This agent interview is by Brittany Roshelle Davis, a
freelance writer and aspiring author. You can visit her
blog, The Write Stuff, or follow her on Facebook.

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