Ask the Agent – John Jarrold

Writing Magazine – June 2023

The June 2023 issue of Writing Magazine sees the start of my new bi-monthly Ask The Agent column.

The John Jarrold Literary Agency specialises in science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for the adult market, and now represents over forty authors. Prior to that, John worked as a Senior Fiction Editor at Simon & Schuster, and was Editorial Director of Legend Books at Random House.

Since establishing your agency in 2004, how have changes in the publishing industry altered the way you work as a literary agent?

Audio is a much bigger deal now, and self publishing is a totally viable alternative to traditional publishing—as long as you deal with it as a business. I receive far more diverse submissions in all terms now, which is a joy! And then there’s Amazon…

What do you enjoy most about being a literary agent?

Since I started working in publishing in January 1988, I have loved working with authors above all. It’s wonderful to be involved with writers, to see their work and ideas gestate, to work with them editorially and in all other ways. And since I was a publisher for fifteen years before setting up the agency, I can hopefully be helpful, explaining the nuts and bolts of publishing to new writers.

And the least?

I don’t think any job is a pleasure 100% of the time. But you have to get your head down and get on with it. I see around forty submissions a week—I only deal with SF, Fantasy and Horror fiction—and I take on maybe three clients a year. So, I’m very aware how many authors I’m disappointing. But that is part of the job, and that’s an average percentage.

What are traditional publishers seeking these days, in the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres? How keen are they to take on debut authors?

Again, this has widened hugely in the last twenty years. And in the last few years it’s become varied, though a number of publishers have told me recently that they want authors they take on to have ‘crossover’ appeal—the possibility of selling outside the core genre audience.

Finally, thank heaven, there are far more female writers, far more non-Anglo writers, far more LGBT+ writers. The genre is reinvigorated by all of this evolution, despite the fact it’s taken too long. In fantasy terms, there’s a much wider backdrop that doesn’t feature western European settings and mythologies, too. 

Debut novelists are definitely of interest—but again, an editor might see thirty submissions a week and only take on two debuts across a full year. In January 1988, on my first day in publishing, my boss—the late, great Richard Evens, who was probably the most author-friendly publisher with whom I ever worked—said to me: ‘If you have any doubts about a book, ANY doubts at all, say no’.

So no one should think this started with corporate publishing. If you’re not jumping up and down with enthusiasm, it’s a no. 

You’ve recently taken on self-published author A C Cobble, and will handle all translation rights. How did that come about?

As with everyone, he emailed me about representation—in this case specifically for translation rights. I also work with other very successful self-published authors, including Ryan Cahill, Ben Galley and Rob J Hayes. I’m selling their translation rights, but in some cases we are talking more widely. That depends on the individual author, of course. I am seeing more submissions on this front—but first and foremost, I have to love the author’s writing. If I don’t, I say no. I never want this to become a cold, emotionless business. I want to be 100% enthusiastic about the writing of each and every client.

When you consider taking on a new client, what do you look for in their writing?

Ha! There’s an old answer, which is still true: I’ll know it when I see it. Sorry. No absolutes.

As well as being a literary agent, you’re also a freelance editor. What common errors do authors make, particularly those writing SF, Fantasy and Horror?

Don’t start with an info-dump—thread necessary background information in over the first thirty or forty pages through POV thoughts and dialogue. Then, of course, expand it through the book. Be aware that dialogue should not sound exactly the same as descriptive prose. In a third-person narrative (and this is true of most but not all editors), don’t head-hop within a scene, stick with one specific point of view.

What advice would you give to a writer looking to break into the science fiction/fantasy/horror market?

Be aware there IS a market, but think about what YOU want to write. Be aware that when a publisher’s Sales Director speaks to Waterstones or WH Smiths head office to pitch a debut, they need to have a couple of recent comparisons to mention – probably successful debuts from the last three to five years.

John’s Top Tip 

Follow the submission guidelines on the home page of my website (visit—that’s true of any submission to any agent. Research is always a good starting point.