Literary Agent Spotlight: Q & A with Jennifer Chen Tran


First question, how and why did you become a literary agent?

I graduated in 2008 from law school but I have always loved books and reading. Before law school, I was originally a Fine Arts major at Washington University in St. Louis, but later majored in English Literature and minored in Legal Studies. When I went to law school I knew I wanted to go somewhere that was “non-traditional” and Northeastern, with its focus on experiential training, fit the bill. Through Northeastern University’s co-op program, I was able to apply legal skills in the context of where I was working, which ranged from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to In-House counsel at a multi-national corporation. Originally, when I graduated law school, I wanted to serve the public interest and be a government lawyer. But, as you know, 2008 was a rough time for the economy and the legal field in particular, with hiring freezes at government agencies across the board.

I transitioned to publishing because I encountered a great opportunity at The New Press who was looking for an Of Counsel. The position had originally been created for deferred summer associates but despite not being on the “big law boat” myself, I had previous publishing experience from my undergraduate days where I interned at Hunter House Publishers in Alameda, California, and Terrain Magazine, in Berkeley, CA, which set me apart. It was at Hunter House that I was first exposed to publishing in general, and I specifically learned more about both the editorial and publicity aspects of bringing a book to market. It was at The New Press that I was able to hone my legal skills in the context of publishing contracts and that is when I first learned about literary agents. I connected my love of reading with my enjoyment of being around creative people. I knew that I wanted to marry these two and being a literary agent is a perfect mix of both my left-brain analytical side to my right-brain creative side.

At this point, I could have gone the traditional route and worked my way up at an established literary agency for several years before developing my own list.

But I’ve always been an independent and entrepreneurial person and decided to take a risk and forge my own path. Publishing is also an extremely relationship driven industry and I knew that would be the aspect that I had to work on the hardest.

Penumbra Literary opened its doors in June 2012. The first year of operation I focused on building up my client list and had a sale within the first year. Since then I have had another sale this past July 2014 and another sale currently in the works, not to mention several very interesting proposals currently in development. It’s a very exciting time!

Are there any specific things that can make you fall in love with a piece of writing?

Every agent will answer that question differently. For fiction, I believe in character-driven stories with a plot that drives the reader forward. Dialogue is also very important to me, is it engaging, believable? The world in which the story’s characters live must be very rich and detailed; I want to feel immersed in that world. A lot of agents joke about the ‘missing my stop on the subway/ train’ test but I really have to agree with that. If I’m so into the story that I forget to get off at my stop, that’s a good sign! I also want authors to show me something new, relative, and timely. I am a future-oriented person especially for non-fiction. For non-fiction, I acquire in areas of business, psychology, science, parenting, and travel. I’m always open to new approaches to ideas.

For instance, my latest sale is the culmination of both a business memoir and a nuts-and-bolts how-to book on Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general. I had been in touch with Jamey Stegmaier, author of PEOPLE NOT PAWNS (to be released in Fall 2015 by Berrett-Koehler), for some time. He had become so successful creating these awesome and compelling Kickstarter campaigns for his board games that he was able to quit his day job and pursue his lifelong dream. The book is relevant and timely because Jamey understands relationships and how they are leveraged differently on the social media and the internet, plus he’s the person who can best write a book like this because he has an established following, regularly blogs about Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms, and is living what he is practicing. I’m very excited about bringing this book to market.

On the flip side, what are major turnoffs when someone queries you?

It’s the simple things but you’d be surprised how often I encounter them:

  • Typos
  • Grammatical errors
  • No sense of where the book fits in the market
  • Not understanding promotion and platform (especially for non-fiction)
  • Inability to take constructive criticism
  • Addressing the query to the wrong agent (this really did happen to me!)

The manuscript should be polished by the time you query. Have as many people that you trust read it, but also balance the feedback while staying true to your creative vision. There is such a thing as too much feedback.

Revisions are the hardest part. I will do several rounds of editing on a project if necessary, but by the time the manuscript gets to me it should be largely polished. I want the author to be happy with what they write. I am very much a collaborative person; I don’t want to push my ideas/thoughts onto the writer’s story to such a degree that the original vision is lost. However if you’ve written a memoir and you refuse to make any changes, well, that’s a problem and I’m probably not going to sign you as a writer when you have that kind of mentality. Like any relationship, an agent-writer relationship is a two-way street and you have to be able to communicate and have similar goals for the publication in order to make it work. Although the agent should worry about the business aspect, the smartest clients are also those who “get it” and put themselves out there by continually submitting their work to publications, broadening their platform and social influence, and constantly improving on their craft.

What do you wish aspiring authors would do better?

Again, work on your craft! Workshop your stories and focus on story-crafting. Do not be an isolated writer. Give-and-take is really important in developing a great story. You can’t be afraid to share your work and get exposure for your ideas. It makes your story stronger in the long run.

Another biggie – build your platform both off and online. Use social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook and not in a self-serving way. You can’t only tweet ‘Buy my book, buy my book’ and expect to gain followers. You have to create and give something of value in order for others to want to interact with you. It can be as simple as saying something funny or interesting.

What are you looking for right now in submissions and not getting? Are there any subjects or genres that are near and dear to your heart? What are you getting too much of?

I am getting a lot of non-fiction and genre fiction. I’m not against vampire stories but I do think that that area is a bit over-saturated and a bit passé now.

I would like to see more fiction projects especially from writers who have lived abroad. They have a wider perspective and they tend to write about themes I care about such as otherness and finding one’s place in the world. I also am interested in anything entrepreneurial and non-fiction projects that deal with social entrepreneurship.

If you’d like to query me, please send a query letter along with the first 50 pages of your manuscript to:



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