Like our workshop, these faculty interviews focus on youth novels. To read all years’ faculty interviews, see our Directory.
Founded in 1973, Writers House aims to combine “a passion for managing a writer’s career with an integrated understanding of how storytelling works… contributing to all phases of the editorial and publishing processes.” Though Writers House is one of the largest agencies in the world, it prides itself on providing an extraordinary degree of individual client attention.
In fact, as you read Brianne Johnson’s interview below, you may notice how much attention she gives to each individual question. Her well-crafted responses inform and inspire. Crowning it all is her sensitivity and enthusiasm for writers: “It’s a joy to meet and work with writers in person… a reminder of how hard and gratifying the work of writing is for those who are called to it.”
Brianne, a Publishers Weekly Star Watch honoree, is a voracious reader with an “omnivorous” list—including a large percentage of debut authors. We’re delighted to welcome Brianne to our 15th annual workshop!
I. GENERAL TOPICS
Why did you become an agent; what do you enjoy most about the work?
I wanted to be a book editor, actually, from the age of eleven on. I was always a reader, and one night the copyright page of a book caught my attention. I remember taking down all of my favorite books and reading the addresses of all of the major publishers in New York, and knowing then that I wanted to be part of where books come from.
After college, I rather unexpectedly landed an internship at Writers House. I remember thinking that it would be a great stepping stone to becoming an editor, and I was blown away by the list of incredible authors that Writers House represents. By the end of the very first day of my internship, though, I was convinced that I wanted to be an agent, not an editor—and that I never wanted to leave Writers House! Since then, I have worked my way from intern to Senior Agent over the course of nearly a decade.
Agenting at Writers House is a particularly great fit for me because I do really love editing, and that aspect of the job is one that Writers House really values and teaches. The moment when I get back a fantastic draft from a client after working with him or her editorially and thinking, “We’re ready to go on submission!” is still my very favorite part of the job.
As an agent, I can be extremely omnivorous, taking on all kinds of different projects. I represent everything from a picture book about a teddy bear who changes genders (Introducing Teddy by Jessica Walton, illustrated by Dougal MacPherson) to the Edgar-nominated middle grade novel OCDaniel by Wesley King, to the NYT-bestselling YA historical fantasy The Crown’s Game, to Cheryl Klein’s fantastic book on writing and editing children’s books, The Magic Words. I am uniquely positioned to scout for exciting new talent and important stories, and I absolutely love that about my job.
Approximately how many MG and YA novels do you sell/edit/publish per year? What percentage (or how many) are debut authors?
I believe I sold about 15 MG and YA novels last year. Half were new novels for existing clients, and half of them were debuts.
Which novel genres are you soliciting—or not? Will you acquire crossover genres and New Adult fiction?
I represent all kinds of genres, and love stories that are fresh and surprising. Fantasy, historical, contemporary, sci-fi—you name it. Multiculturalism and authors from diverse backgrounds are extremely welcome. For both middle grade and YA, I love humor in darker settings, original premises, beautiful writing, and characters that I’d follow anywhere. My projects tend to be both commercial and literary.
I’ve personally found New Adult to be a tough sell—ever since 50 Shades of Grey blew up, it’s seemed to make the New Adult genre skew toward erotic and romantic fiction, which I don’t really represent.
I do represent adult fiction, in addition to my larger children’s list (mainly upmarket women’s fiction) but I position and pitch these projects as adult fiction. Most bookstores don’t have an NA section, so categorizing work in that genre tends to be difficult. I’ve found that you have to declare a book either “sophisticated YA”, or “adult fiction with crossover appeal” for sales purposes.
Name up to three representative MG/YA novels you’ve edited or repped in the past few years. Which aspects of each novel appealed to you from the query and/or manuscript’s first lines?
OCDaniel by Wesley King is a middle grade novel, inspired by Wesley’s experience growing up with OCD. Although it verges on the fantastic in execution in a very clever way, the book is firmly realistic. Wesley was actually my first-ever client, when I was a baby agent, and I love ALL of his work, but this book excited me from the get-go because of its more literary execution and deeply personal themes. To date, the book has been nominated for a 2017 Edgar Award, and has also won the IODE Violet Downey Award, the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Award, the Silver Birch Award, and is a Bank Street Best Book of 2016.
The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye is a YA historical fantasy set in imperial Russia. I love historical fantasy when it’s inspired by real times and places. Evelyn studied Russian and Russian literature extensively, and her love of the culture shines through the entire wonderful story. Evelyn also has a wonderful gift for developing secondary characters. Her protagonists are amazing, of course, but I was blown away by how real and three-dimensional the entire cast felt. The Crown’s Game is a NYT bestseller, for both the hardcover and e-book lists.
The Wolf’s Boy by Susan Beckhorn is a historical middle grade novel set in prehistory. An early “boy and his dog” story, the protagonist is born with a twisted foot, and must embark on his own kind of manhood rite when the wolf that he adopted as a cub is threatened by his tribe. I grew up loving historical middle grade, and this feels like a fresh twist on so many of the coming-of-age stories that I loved as a kid. In addition to three starred reviews, The Wolf’s Boy was a Kirkus Best Middle Grade Book of 2016, a ALSC Notable Book of 2017, and is a Bank Street Best Book of 2016.
Queries, Craft and Critiques
Are query letters peripheral or critical to you? Are you open to unsolicited submissions?
As an agent, I am open to submissions from everyone. I try to respond to all queries inside of eight weeks. When scouting, I skim the query letter quickly to orient myself with the project, then I frequently skip directly down to the writing sample and dive in, since a good execution is of the utmost importance. If I like the writing sample, I will then read the query letter very carefully indeed, so I consider it a crucial part of the querying process.
How many pages do you usually read in a manuscript before deciding to continue reading, request a full, or reject the manuscript?
I usually know after a page or two if I want to keep reading. At that point, I will send away for the first 50 pages. If I finish the 50 pages and want to continue reading, I will then send away for the full manuscript.
Do you read the synopsis (before or after reading a manuscript), or do you bypass it? How and when might a synopsis prove useful to you?
I always start with the writing first, as an excellent execution is hard to find, and most important. If I get a few chapters in and think the writing is strong, I do read the synopsis so that I have a sense of where the story is going.