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:


9 Tips Where & How to Query to Literary Agents

This is a great post about Literary Agents and how to navigate trying to obtain one.

Savvy Writers & e-Books online


A typical literary agency receives close to 5,000 unsolicited query letters/book proposals per year – or approx. 150 per working day. On average these agents accept only 10-12 new clients – only one out of every 500 submissions… Do you want to learn how to write a query, and how to approach the agent?
Do you want to get to know more about the person before hand – after all, she or he will be your partner for a long time?  My best advice: Read their blogs to get informed about the process and find out more about how they work and what they are like before you approach them. And have a “business plan” for your book ready: Who will be your readers, who is your competition and how will you market your book. You will be asked for this! Here are some examples…

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How to Find a Literary Agent

This is a topic that is widely discussed amongst writers and novelists-in-the-making.  It’s a topic that very relevant now because of the precarious relationship between traditional publishing and e-publishing.  Many still feel that traditional publishing is still the way to go because you still will have the veneer of success stamped on you because a traditional publisher accepted and published your work.  This is the epitome of the author having arrived.
However, with so many success stories of independent writers who are making a name for themselves and selling their books through their own marketing efforts (John Locke, Amanda Hocking, Richard Phillips to name a few…), you wonder if it is possible for the average writer.
John Locke has a book that describes how he sold one million books in 5 months.  It gives step-by-step details – but do you have the time, patience and tech/software savvy to handle all of the simple steps and the ongoing promotions and marketing required?
Well, that’s something only you can answer.  However, even if you don’t self-publish, creating a brand and a platform in social media is becoming increasingly more important even when in contract with a traditional publisher.  Publishers want to know that you can engage a decent amount of readers and are not clueless in today’s new publishing arena.
So, if you think your manuscript is polished with tight grammar, spelling and punctuation let’s move on with acquiring a literary agent!
Step #1: Make sure the literary agent you are submitting to is not the first person to read your completed novel.  Have a dry run editor and/or beta readers who provide feedback on your work.  And then, make sure you listen to this feedback and get some other opinions to ensure that you know from a few readers what are the high points and low points of your story.
Step #2: Once your manuscript has gone through the beta readers and/or editor and gets a green light go ahead and begin making the edits/changes suggested from the feedback.  Re-read, or have others re-read again to ensure that you’ve fixed the items that needed clarifying, expansion, contracting – or whatever was needed.
Step #3: Begin creating your query letter which will be your book’s introduction to the literary agent(s) of your choice.  The query begins with an introduction detailing why you chose the agent to pitch your book to and to show that you know something of that agent.  Research and read as much as you can about the agent and incorporate what you’ve learned in that first paragraph.
The second paragraph is your book’s synopsis.  Tell what your novel’s about in 250 – 400 words – less if possible!  Give them sizzle and pizzazz.  Make the agent want to read what you’ve written.  You can compare your book with a similar set of books so they get the idea quickly.  Give them a titillating blurb that will make them want to ask for more pages of your book.  You must also tell them where your book will go on the shelf of a brick-and-mortar store, or where it will be cataloged in an online bookstore.  Is it a psychological thriller?  Is it a historical romance?  Is it a Christian Western romance?  Let them know!  How many readers are in this market?  If you know, you can share that!
The third paragraph is your bio – why are you the right person to write this particular book?  Who the heck are you???  Let them know of your quirky personality through eclectic language that is uniquely you.  This is the time to showcase your ability as a writer!  If you’re having trouble writing about you, pretend you’re writing about someone else!  Be as objective as possible but funny as all get out if that’s who you are!
Step #4: Get another pair of eyes on your query to ensure you didn’t omit something important!  When trying to condense we sometimes overlook extremely important pieces.  While you’re at it, have them check for typos and any other glaring mistakes.
Step #5: SPELL THE AGENT’S NAME RIGHT!  Yeah, I know this is silly but it is extremely important.  If you read the blogs and follow agents’ social media accounts, you will see that simple things like not spelling their name right labels that author as ‘sloppy’ or worse – lazy.
Step #6: Send out that query according to the specifications of the agent’s blog or post.  If they ask for a query with 5 pages of your book – give them what they ask for!  Do not give them more or less.  If they ask that you paste it in the body of the email – DO THAT!  If you send an attachment, in most cases, they will not open it and your query will be discarded without being read.  Following instructions at the outset (and throughout the process) is important.
Step #7: Repeat steps 3-7 until you acquire an agent!
There’s no magic bullet or pill that will find you an agent in 10 days.  The average amount of queries one needs to send out before beginning to even expect to get an agent’s interest is 100 queries.  I recently corresponded with one writer who sent out over 200 queries and had 3 agents request to see the full manuscript.  As you can see, the percentages are not in the writer’s favor but if this is the road you want to pursue be persistent.
To help your chances, you should attend literary events in your area to get up close and personal to a living breathing literary agent.  Know that the agents will be inundated with hopeful authors such as yourself throughout the literary event.  However, having met an agent face-to-face, you can make an impression that can make the request of seeing your manuscript come much more quickly than if you had simply sent your query via snail mail or email.
To help you find agents, please check out these links:
About this Guest Poster:
Rochelle Campbell is a Brooklyn-based writer who has written two full-length novels and over 25 short stories.  Chambray Curtains Blowing inthe Wind was published in 2009 by Bartleby-Snopes Literary Magazine.  You can buy her short story collection, Leaping Out on Faith, on Amazon for 99-cents (  She is also on a quest to acquire a literary agent.