Friday, June 10, 2011

Agent Interview: Molly Jaffa

I met Molly Jaffa at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI October conference last year when she critiqued my first ten pages. She was so nice, and helped me get over the shaking-voice syndrome (you know, the thing you get when you pitch your work to an agent?). 

I was impressed by her knowledge and found her super personable, so I was thrilled when she agreed to do an interview with me. First the blurb from her website, then on to the interview:

Molly has been working closely with Folio authors’ projects since 2008, and is now aggressively and selectively building her list of clients. She is thrilled to be part of the recent launch of Folio Jr., a division within the agency dedicated to developing and nurturing the careers of YA and children’s authors. In addition to agenting, Molly utilizes her editorial background, previous work experience in the e-publishing industry, and intimate knowledge of the Folio list in her position as Subsidiary Rights Associate. She actively pursues sales of all unsold subsidiary rights, helping Folio clients’ books reach wide audiences in as many formats as possible. Molly is an avid reader, and when she’s not devouring manuscripts, she can usually be found camped out in the aisles of her local bookstore (until they kick her out at closing time).

For a list of what she is and isn't looking for, please see her agent page at the Folio literary website.
When did you first realize you wanted to be an agent, and why?
Molly: I always knew that I loved books, but until I started interning at Folio several years ago, I didn't know exactly what career path I'd take. In general, there's not a lot of awareness about what a literary agent does outside of the industry; when most people think of publishing jobs, they only think of editors and writers.

While assisting agency partner Jeff Kleinman, I was fortunate enough to work on some really fantastic projects that went on to be very successful, both commercially and artistically. I had the opportunity to really dig in to manuscripts, to help authors transform their work line-by-line, and to make sure it reached the audience it deserved. Playing a part in that process, however small, amazed me. I fell in love with agenting and never looked back.

For me, and agenting is the perfect marriage of business and creativity. So when a full-time position opened up at Folio, I jumped at it, and I've been there ever since.

Recently, you helped launch Folio Jr. What drew you to MG and YA?
Molly: It's such a cliché, but really, books were my childhood. As an only child, book were my best friends, my source of inspiration; my guides to navigating the complicated worlds of child-, tween-, and teenhood. And I know I'm not alone in feeling that way! I'm passionate about getting books into the hands of young readers, because I know what a difference they can make.

I think that when compared to many adult titles, MG and YA novels often seem to have higher stakes and a greater sense of urgency behind them. There's something about a story that's set during a character's coming-of-age period that makes it feel especially vital. There's very little room for a meandering, passive story in MG or YA. The protagonist's age means that everything happening to him or her seems like it could have a profound effect on shaping who he or she is as a human being. Every emotion is amplified; every choice holds extra weight. On a pure storytelling level, that's really gripping.

I've also found a real sense of community in the children's book world. The agents, editors, and writers are all a pleasure to work with.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see in queries?
Molly: Queries that are too long (if I have to scroll through it, it's too long); queries that are too short (if your query just tells me to read your sample pages, I probably won't); queries with improper or missing salutations (if we're going to start a professional relationship, let's start it off on a professional note); queries that don't follow my guidelines (these are clearly stated on the Folio website, and it's important that authors be able to take direction); queries that throw the kitchen sink at me ("It's going
to appeal to kids AND teens AND their parents and it will sell a million copies!"), because those show me that the author doesn't know the market very well.

On your Folio Agent page, you say you are looking for Edgy YA. What makes a book edgy in your opinion?
Molly: "Edgy" is one of those words that gets tossed around a lot, but can mean different things to different people. It definitely doesn't mean tossing in lots of cursing, sex, or blood and guts just because! Those things can be great, but in moderation, when they feel organic to the characters involved and the world the author's created. I'm looking for projects that are frank, honest, and straightforward.

What types of submissions would you like to see more of? Less of?
Molly: I'm seeing a lot of dead people right now: dead narrators, narrators with dead friends, narrators with dead parents, narrators who really wish they were dead. It's getting a little morbid in my inbox, so I'd like to see less of that! I'd love to see more manuscripts with endings that surprise me (not a twist, necessarily, just something that's not predictable).

On a weird note, I just saw "Bridesmaids" and loved it. It would be great to see some YA with similarly multifaceted, funny female characters that talk about something other than boy issues. If it passes the Bechdel Test (Google it!), I'm interested.

What makes you stop reading a partial or full submission?
Molly: I'll stop reading immediately if the caliber of the partial or full manuscript doesn't match the query. This happens more and more these days, as writers are perfecting their queries at conferences and in on- and offline critique groups, but neglecting to polish their manuscripts. A killer query also needs a killer manuscript.

Beyond that--and this sounds harsh, but bear with me--it's boredom that makes me stop. If something inside me isn't compelling me to scroll down to the next page, then I'll pass. It's a very subjective thing. If I'm not totally captivated by a manuscript, then that author should be free to find an agent who is.

And just for fun: You open a query that looks to have been written on ancient papyri and . . . POOF! . . . out pops a Literary Agent Genie who will grant you three agent-related wishes. What are they?
  1. More time in the day! I need more time to read all the fabulous submissions I get. 
  2. More fabulous submissions, of course. I know, it's a vicious cycle. 
  3. A crystal ball that would allow me to see the future of publishing. If people want to know what it's telling me, they can pay me in Starbucks cards.
On my blog I have a fascination with personalized plates. What would yours be? You have 8 letters.

I'm from Texas, and my whole family's back there, so my heart is in two places.

***You can query Molly at Please include your query and the first ten pages of your manuscript in the body of the email, and the word “query” in the subject line.

Thanks so much, Molly, for your time and your great responses! I would definitely be purchasing some Starbucks cards for a look in that crystal ball. :D

Best of luck to all you queriers!


Stina said...

Great interview and love the personalized plates.

Nice point about the emotions. That's the trickest thing about YA. The emotions have to be there, but there's always the fear that you've pushed it too far.

Joanne said...

Hm, I think that crystal ball should be an eCrystal Ball. So much of publishing is trending that way.

Thanks for the interview Molly and Janet, it's always nice to get an inside glimpse at the industry.

Angela said...

Love this interview Janet, especially the part where she talks about urgency and why MG and YA books have more of it in them.

I owe you an apology too, as I haven't had a chance to mail Liar Society this week. My plan is to mail it today.

My yahoo mail ate your address when it malfunctioned this week. But now that it's working again I can get back on task and get the book to you.

As always, I love reading your blog. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Great interview!

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Great interview! I really really like agents. :)

Chris Phillips said...

Great interview. Liked the point about polished queries outshining manuscripts. I'm far too lazy to edit my manuscript thoroughly, so instead I think I'll go throw some typos into my query.

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

What a great interview! Thanks.

Lana Krumwiede said...

Terrific interview! If I may be allowed to gush, Molly is my agent and she is absolutely fabulous to work with. Super smart, always positive, quick to return emails, I can't say enough good about her. I feel so lucky!

Janet Johnson said...

Thanks everyone!

And Lana, so glad you stopped in! Congrats on snagging Molly as your agent. I'm happy to hear your gushings . . . it's always wonderful to hear such praise from an agent's clients. :)

Theresa Milstein said...

Molly is so personable. We may be soul mates because I'm pretty sure store owners think I'm stuffing books down my shirt because I spend so much time in there.

I looked up Bechdel, and I think I've passed the test!

When my manuscript is polished, I'm going to query her.

Thanks for the interview, Janet. I know the shaking voice syndrome all too well.

Theresa Milstein said...

I meant to add, my license plate would read "MAtoNY"

Margo Berendsen said...

Awesome interview! I loved her paragraph describing YA and how the age means that everything could have a profound effect on shaping a life. And I'm googling Bedchel test right now!

Kelly Lyman said...

Great interview! And, loved the part about YA and emotions. I'm revising now, so this is great to remember as I go through them.