Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Q&A with Literary Agent Jill Marsal

By Linda Lovely

Today, agent Jill Marsal, a founding partner of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, answers questions about publishing trends in the mystery/thriller/suspense genres. As a publishing professional with more than 15 years of experience, Ms. Marsal has the broad editorial contacts and experience to help writers put publisher requests, rejections and sales in perspective.

LL: New sub- and cross-genre categories seem to spring up every year. How important are such labels/niches to editors? At the moment, what seem to be the easiest—and hardest—types of novels to sell?

JM: I think, as always, the most important things are good writing, strong characters, interesting “hook” and plot, and good voice – the sub- and cross-genres are secondary. However, if you are writing in an area that is a strong selling sub-genre, that can help because editors tend to be buying a little more in the stronger selling areas. In terms of what is “easiest” at the moment, paranormal still seems to be going very strong. Many editors are asking for it, and it continues to sell well. For mysteries, cozies are also doing well. Romantic suspense for debut authors seems to be one of the tougher areas right now so, if that is your area of interest, make sure you know what is working in the genre. Editors are looking for more spicy, strong heroines, and different plotlines.

LL: Given your longer-term publishing perspective, do you believe current editorial hot buttons are cyclical? Will we see any sub-genres that have lost ground regain popularity in the near term? Have any categories hit peaks and started to decline?

JM: I absolutely think it is a cyclical market. Genres and subgenres that are popular right now can change fairly quickly, and stories that editors are not currently buying can come back in favor in the next cycle. I have seen this over and over in the past, where things go in and out of popularity and then seem to come back. Right now, as far as mysteries go, noir mysteries seem to be a little tough, though there are some smaller houses who are starting to acquire them. Mainstream suspense seems to be picking up, and cozies seem to be holding strong. And, of course, paranormal is very strong.

LL: If cautious editors are buying fewer titles in select categories than in years past, they must be rejecting novels they previously might have purchased. Can you share what editors give as primary reasons for passing on submissions in these main categories—mysteries, romantic suspense, thrillers?

JM: For thrillers, editors are saying they want a “mega hit” book. A few years ago, they would acquire midlist thrillers, which meant it was easier to break into the thriller market, and there were more spots on each editor’s list. Now, it has to have blockbuster potential for most thriller editors to be interested. For romantic suspense, editors are saying that it is not selling very well. They continue to publish established authors, but it is more challenging to break in if you are a debut author. For debut authors, I am finding romantic suspense – where the story really sizzles and is very sexy – is more popular now, as well as stories with strong heroines. Editors are a little tired of storylines where a woman is victimized or has to escape an abusive husband in this genre.

LL: Are editors asking for any types of manuscripts?

JM: Paranormal romantic suspense seems to be a strong area that editors are looking for from debut authors. And a good cozy with a fun, quirky main character seems to be a strong contender with editors. Also I have a few editors asking for traditional suspense stories with lead women characters.

LL: How has the growth of digital and small publishing entities affected purchasing decisions at the larger publishing houses?

JM: I think more and more of the traditional publishers are starting to consider digital options and, in the coming year, I suspect you might see a big trade house or two try and enter this area a bit more competitively.

LL: Does an author’s sale to a digital or small house improve or lessen the opportunity to sell a future manuscript to a larger publisher?

JM: I think selling to a digital publisher can help an author break in and establish a readership. At our agency, we have had an author publish digitally and her book was such a success she received an offer for the print version of her book. Over the next few years, this seems like an area for continued growth, which can provide additional outlets and opportunities for new writers.

LL: What advice would you give to a mystery author in search of an agent?

JM: First and foremost is good writing. Good writing, a strong voice, compelling character, and interesting “hook” or storyline are what it is really about. Beyond that, you could go to the bookstore and look at what is selling so that you know where to position your book when you approach an agent.

Linda Lovely is the author of Dear Killer, a mystery set for release in June 2011 from L&L Dreamspell. Her novel, Counterfeit, was a finalist in the Romantic Suspense category of the RWA's 2010 Golden Heart contest.


Polly said...

Another great interview, Linda. Lots of good information on trends and genres.

Ellis Vidler said...

Interesting! I'm especially interested in the paranormal aspect of romantic suspense since that's what I'm working on. I'd make the heroine a bit spicier thought.

Donnell said...

Linda, great questions and Jill, thank you for being here. I'm very excited about your response on digital and small presses. There's a lot of terrific books out there that I've judged firsthand in contests. I would love to see them find a slot and these avenues provide the perfect opportunity.

Linda, I cannot WAIT to read Dear Killer. Happy New Year to both of you!

Rita said...

The industry is changing a warp speed. Without excellent blogs like this I know I would not be able to keep up. Thanks Linda and Jill.

Donna said...

Thanks Jill and Linda for the excellent information. It really helps to hear firsthand from professionals.

Linda Lovely said...

Many thanks to Jill for taking the time to answer questions for our blog. Outside of conferences, it's difficult to find solid trend information.

Howard Lewis said...

Linda, Good interview.
Jill, I appreciate the info. It's good to know that cozies are back. I have one gathering dust waiting for me to develop more skill.

Jean said...

Especially interesting is the effect digital publishing can have for a first time author. Great questions and timely answers. Thank you for sharing your conversation.

Cindy Sample said...

Hi Linda and Jill. Thanks for the pertinent questions and answers. Wonderful information. It's also good to know that cozies are still as comforting to the editors as they are to their readers.


Thanks for the insights!