Interview with literary agent Jill Marsal

Welcome to round 3 of the interview series: THE TRUTH ABOUT SLUSH PILES!

So far, literary agent Jenny Bent from the The Bent Agency and Jessica Faust from BookEnds, LLC answered a ton of questions for us. If you missed their interviews, you can read them by clicking their names. Today, my guest is the wonderful and lovely Jill Marsal from the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency! Hear what she says about her job, pitching to publishers, and what you can expect from her, once she offers you a contract. 😉

Welcome, Jill!

jilll photo jpeg


Anna: What is your daily routine in your job? How much time do you spend for what?

Jill: In the morning, I start by going through my emails and catching up on what has come in during the night. I also make a list of the reading I would like to get through during the day – which will include full manuscripts, partials, and query letters, though often incoming phone calls and emails and issues that come up during the day end up pushing some of the list to a later time. I also spend time going over edits with authors, talking with editors, and negotiating contracts.


Anna: In most submission guidelines, you find the sentence: We get hundreds of queries each week. I believe this is for the entire agency. How many queries do you personally get each day?

Jill: This can range from five to twenty.


Anna: Do you prefer people to use your first name or last name when sending you a query letter?

Jill: Either is fine.


Anna: How should a writer structure his query? Begin with a cheesy line to break the ice, tell you about the book like word count, POV, and genre, or rather get straight to the point with a tagline and the blurb of the book?

Jill: I like query letters where the first two paragraphs describe the project and then the next paragraph is about the author and any author bio that is relevant to the book/project.


Anna: How high is your slush pile right now? How many unread queries?

Jill: I try to stay on top of my slush pile. Generally, I try and keep it under 50 and if it starts growing beyond that then I often will set aside a specific reading time to go through slush, but I like to get back to people in a timely manner.


Anna: How many queries can you process in one day?

Jill: It varies from day to day. Some days I read them as they come in and other days I might go through a big batch in several hours.


Anna: Many agents have a “no reply means no” policy. Does it really take that much time to send a rejection letter? Rejections are hard enough to stomach for authors, but no reply at all is just frustrating.

Jill: We try and respond to every query that comes in because I do think it is important to give an answer to authors who have taken the time to send a query. And I personally read every query that is sent to me.


Anna: With so much conflicting query advice out there… what really catches your attention and leaves you wanting pages?

Jill: A strong story hook or good story concept, interesting characters, strong emotional appeal, and, of course, strong writing that often comes through even in the query letter.


Anna: How much control does the writer give up when they have an agent?

Jill: A writer shouldn’t have to give up control. You want to find an agent who shares your vision for your book and partners with you to help you make it as strong as possible. Ultimately, though, it is the writer’s decision where their story goes.


Anna: What’s your submission process to publishers?

Jill: I typically will put together a list of the editors who I think are most likely to be interested and then contact those editors and pitch the project to them. Often, I will go on multiple submission.


Anna: How soon after you sign a contract do you start pitching to publishers?

Jill: As soon as the project is ready. If it is all set when we sign, then I start pitching the next business day. Otherwise, if we need to do some editorial work, I start pitching as soon as it is ready to go.


Anna: Do you expect significant edits with manuscripts before you start submitting?

Jill: It really depends on the author. Some authors come in with manuscripts in very strong shape and might need just light edits whereas others may need more editorial feedback.


Anna: Do you keep your clients in the loop about all the steps you take?

Jill: Yes, I let them know who I have pitched the project to and which publishers are reading it and then forward all the responses as they come in from the various editors.


Anna: How often do you communicate with your clients?

Jill: I am available by email or phone and will contact them whenever something comes up. There isn’t a set time table- it may be some days we speak several times that day and then not for a while depending on what stage in the writing process we are at.


Anna: Do you believe traditionally published books are better than self-published ones – not for bad editing but because the publishers are so very selective?

Jill: I think there is a place in the market for both. And we have many authors who are taking a “hybrid” path and are publishing both with traditional houses and also self-pubbing. It creates additional opportunities and often lets authors publish books that traditional houses might not have been willing to try but that end up doing very well.


Anna: Most agents’ average response time is about 2 to 4 weeks, sometimes 8 to 12. Why so long? What happens with a query in that time? Do they just sit in your inbox, waiting to be read, or do you sort through them once and later get back to them a second and maybe even third time before you make a decision?

Jill: I think it really depends on all the other things going on in the agent’s schedule. I like to try and get to queries each day, but sometimes there are a lot of urgent matters that come up or manuscripts that have to be read that have pressing delivery schedules or p.r. issues that might come up or any of a number of things, and so sometimes they do end up sitting in the query folder until there is time to go through them.


Anna: When you read a query, are you foremost interested in publishing that book, or do you consider its potential for movies straight away, too?

Jill: Our film agent works with “book to film” people so they do like to have the book deal in place before shopping it to the film producers (and that also makes it easier to sell to film/tv).


Anna: Is it possible to sell already self-published books to big publishing houses for a re-release? Did you ever do that?

Jill: Yes, we have a number of self-published authors who have sold their books to publishers and rereleased them. We also have a number of self-published authors who have released new series with a trade publisher and continue to self-publish their other works.


Anna: When agents ask writers for material and give a turnaround time, they very often don’t make it. Are you likely to miss deadlines, too? If so, what are the reasons?

Jill: No, I think it is important for everyone to meet their deadlines. Typically, I ask my writers to set their own deadlines rather than giving them turnaround times for revisions. And I generally try and give reasonable estimates of when I can get things done so I don’t miss deadlines (and so far so good J).


Anna: With all the reading you have to do for your job, is it still fun for you? Do you still have time to read and enjoy a book that hasn’t been submitted to you?

Jill: I love reading and absolutely enjoy reading for fun. Most of my time is spent reading work from my authors, but I do think it is also important to stay on top of the market and know what is selling and being published.


Anna: How many book pages can you read in an hour?

Jill: It varies depending on what type of book, how much dialogue there is, whether the pacing is fast, etc. But I am definitely faster than I was back in college when I had to read just academic books and homework seemed to take so long!


Anna: What do you advise your clients – to go for a big advance payment or rather for higher royalties?

Jill: This really depends on the author’s situation and is their decision. Personally, I think the higher royalties is better because they will make more in the long run if the book sells well, but sometimes, authors’ financial needs make it important to have a big advance up front. Also, you do want to make sure the advance is big enough that publishers will pay attention to the book and give it the full press in marketing and sales.


Anna: Once you land a great book deal, what happens with the book? How long until it’s being released and how does the payment work? Advance payment in little bits?

Jill: It depends on when the book can be delivered and which publisher is working with it. It used to be about 12 months to publication from delivery, but these days there is more flexibility with that and depending on the publisher’s schedule, they are often trying to release books closer together. The payment is usually divided – either into 1/2s at signing and delivery or 1/3s (signing, delivery pub) or some publishers 1/4s.


Anna: Did J.K.Rowling pitch to you? 😉

Jill: I wish!


Thank you, Jill, for granting us a glimpse into your daily routine. It was a pleasure to get in touch with you!


Find out more about Jill on her Website

Check out her Submission guidelines

or follow her on Twitter



2 thoughts on “Interview with literary agent Jill Marsal

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