Good morning, everyone!
This week, we’re joined by Jane Chun who recently moved to the Transatlantic Agency after spending four years at Janklow and Nesbit. Jane previously interned at Writers House and Maximum Films & Management.
Jane is open to fiction from MG to YA to adult across commercial and literary genres. She also enjoys fantasy, sci-fi, speculative and historical fiction with rich settings and lyrical writing. Across genres, Jane would love to see stories about communities, time periods or locations that are often overlooked. She is also open to some nonfiction including memoir, narrative nonfiction, cultural criticism, food and travel. Jane loves art and design and is interested in graphic novels, though she is only open to picture books by referral.
You can follow Jane on Twitter at @janechunlit or view her agency profile here. She is also participating in our Agent One-to-One service this autumn/winter, so don’t miss out on a chance to hear from her! Read highlights from our interview with Jane below…
Hi Jane, thanks for speaking with us today!
What brought you to agenting?
When I decided I wanted to work in publishing, there were several different positions I was interested in. Mainly, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be an agent or an editor, and at one point I even considered a career in book-to-film scouting.
But it was through my internships at Writers House and Maximum Films as well as my freelance work for HG Literary that made me realise there was a lot of crossover between what I was drawn to in an editorial or scouting role and what an agent does day to day. What pushed me along the agenting track were the differences between the roles: the type of editorial feedback an agent typically gives versus what an editor might focus on, when each person gets involved in the publication timeline, and what the scope of their job is. I learned through experience that I really wanted to roll up my sleeves and plunge my hands into the inner workings of a manuscript – and you don’t get to do that as a book-to-film scout.
What is a day in the life of an agent like for you?
Every day is different. I’ve just started at Transatlantic so right now I’m settling in and making sure I understand the processes here while also handling my usual work: keeping up with clients, touching base with writers I’ve been corresponding with, etc. There are a lot of emails and a lot more admin work than someone outside of publishing might expect. You cover a lot of ground, too. You can jump from discussing a marketing plan for a book, to rounding up editors for an auction, to giving feedback on a cover, to reading client manuscripts or submissions in the slush pile – all within one day, sometimes within minutes or hours.
What’s your favourite thing about being an agent?
Everything gets more exciting the closer you get to publication, once everything starts to pull together. I’m a highly visual person so getting a book cover is a big thrill – it’s fun seeing what type of art or design the publisher thinks captures the vibe of the book and will make it stand out in a bookstore. It’s a tiny part of the publication process but an important one and something I really love.
What’s at the top of your fiction wish-list?
I’m interested in a broad range of fiction, but I’m currently craving very lyrical, folkloric or mythic fantasy that feels intimate, where the conflict is mostly contained to the protagonist and maybe a close circle of people. Or at least something that starts out that way, rather than an epic world-ending war or a huge rebellion. It’s hard to describe, but I’m looking for stories set in worlds that are old or feel old, where it feels like the ground and the buildings and the environment are drenched in history.
On the children’s side, I’m in the mood for upper YA that features protagonists dealing with serious struggles, like Yolk or Patron Saints of Nothing. I’m open to anything from literary to some commercial middle grade and YA through adult fiction, though!
What’s at the top of your non-fiction wish list?
If we’re looking at specifics, I’m seeking memoirs or narrative non-fiction featuring underrepresented or marginalised communities, especially in ways they’re not typically depicted in media and ways that open conversations that haven’t been delved into much yet. That’s something I’m interested in across genres, but I’ve recently been speaking to a non-fiction writer with a project in this sort of vein and I’m keen to see more of it.
For example, stories about the Asian immigrant experience are important to me personally for obvious reasons, but I’d love to see more works focusing on Asian Americans who have been in the US for decades or Asian immigrant communities outside the coastal states and urban areas. I feel like a lot of the stories that we do see occupy a similar space and I’d like to see more variety.
As for other projects I’m interested in… I love cultural criticism. I love pop culture. I love books about travel and food. Check my wishlist – that usually has an in-depth overview of the types of non-fiction I gravitate towards.
Is there any genre you’d rather not receive?
This can always change but right now, I’m probably not the right agent for prescriptive non-fiction, self-help, or religion and spirituality. In fiction: romance, commercial thrillers and hard sci-fi that delves too heavily into the technicalities of the world. And even though I love poetry and short story collections, I don’t think I’m familiar enough with those genres to properly give feedback and champion your work. That being said, if the right project comes along, I won’t say no!
What makes for a successful author-agent relationship? How can both parties get the most out of the relationship?
I think an author-agent relationship is most fruitful when a writer is paired up with an agent who loves the work they do and has the expertise needed to navigate the submission and publication process with the writer. In any relationship, trust is an essential foundation, and that goes for author-agent relationships too. You don’t need to be best friends with your agent, but you need to feel like you’re the right person for each other – that you’re a team.
Transparency really helps with building that trust. On both sides, you want to make it clear what you’re doing every step of the way so your partner in the agent-author relationship has as much knowledge as possible and is equipped to address any problems that might come up. No one likes to be the bearer of bad news and no one likes to admit they’re in a bind, but being honest and upfront is important, even when it’s awkward or embarrassing.
What do you want to see in a query letter? And what do you dislike?
There’s no single correct way to write a query letter because as agents, we all prefer different things, but as a general rule, succinctness is appreciated. 200 to 450 words is the sweet spot, I think. What I want to see is a captivating and clear plot summary – and I’ll often skip to that section after skimming the first few lines.
We’re aware you’re querying multiple agents at one time and that it takes a tremendous amount of effort and time to personalise the letter for each agent. Some people may disagree, but personally, I don’t mind if a query letter isn’t tailor-made for me, just as long as I don’t get the sense you’re emailing dozens of agents at once. I often see authors trying to personalise their query letters by pulling information directly from my bio or wishlist. I do appreciate that this is because authors so often hear advice telling them to try making a personal connection with the agent, and they’re trying to show me they’re not just querying any random agent. That’s not bad advice, but I don’t think it helps your case to copy and paste lines directly into your letter – because that means you’re likely using the exact same lines as a lot of other writers. I’d much rather you use that valuable space to explain what’s unique about your query: the story you’re pitching and what it’s about. Unless you’re superbly witty or you’ve somehow seen straight into my heart, I prefer a brief introduction: the title, genre, word count and the name of anyone who might have referred you to me.
How do you feel about synopses? Any tips?
I want to see that the author can distil the plot down to its essence. Every line of a synopsis should move the plot along. It’s hard to do, but you need to keep it focused. What’s the story about? What conflict does the protagonist face? What journey does the protagonist take over the course of the manuscript, and where do they end up? Those are the details that are going to get me hooked.
Is there anything that would grab you in the opening pages?
It’s such a vague thing to say, but for me, it’s the voice or the sensory experience. I don’t necessarily need a high-stakes opening, and I don’t typically like gimmicks. I can tell when a writer is worried that they only have a limited amount of time to keep an agent’s interest when they thrust us into an action sequence or some terrible dilemma faced by the protagonist immediately – sometimes a writer can pull that off, but more often than not, that method falls flat. Another example that I don’t see as often now but was common a few years ago: writers using flashbacks or prologues to give a teaser about where the story ends up. Again, I don’t really need that.
If you can get me deep in the narrator’s head and the way they communicate is intriguing and intimate, or if the story is so rich in sensory detail that I can see it playing like a movie, you’ll manage to hold my interest for longer, even if I don’t know exactly where the story is headed yet.
What have you been reading recently?
I’ve been very busy with moving agencies so my ‘to read’ list has only grown longer. I’m catching up on a bunch of old manga and graphic novel series that I never managed to get around to reading. I grew up with comics and they make me happy and help de-stress me regardless of what the story is about – Slam Dunk and Monster because I’ve been craving old-school ‘80s and ‘90s manga. I read some of Akira too but took a break, so I need to get back into it. I’m also reading The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and a few more recent graphic novels; I loved Himawari House and Frizzy, and I wish I represented both of those books.
In terms of prose, I’ve been looking to escape either to another time or place in our world or to an entirely fictional world. A Gentleman in Moscow was great – it has fantastic humour and a really elaborate world even though it was contained to one hotel across decades. I just finished Demon Copperhead, which has to be my favourite book I’ve read this year so far; it hits so many of the things I want in a book – rich worldbuilding, cinematic language, and prose that makes you feel like the narrator is speaking to you like they’ve known you for years.
In non-fiction, I’ve really enjoyed two works that came out this year: Master Slave Husband Wife and Rough Sleepers. Both are the kind of non-fiction I would love to represent. The first is a fascinating historical narrative that I was unfamiliar with and frankly couldn’t believe I didn’t know about until now. It’s about a husband and wife who were enslaved in the US and fled the South pretty much in plain sight. You can tell how much research went into it and it was so vividly described; I could imagine how the characters looked, how their shoes sounded on the ground, what the weather was like… It’s a great example of a book I could easily see as a movie. The second, Rough Sleepers, is the sort of on-the-ground, intimate journalism I’m drawn to, where it feels like I’m shadowing the narrator and watching over their shoulder. It explores the unhoused population of Boston, their individual stories and the struggles they face.
Any final words of advice for authors in the querying process?
It’s very basic advice, but you’d be surprised at how often it’s not followed. I understand the desire to stand out, but stick to standard formatting. You want your writing to speak for you, not how eccentric your letter is.
Don’t get too disheartened. It’s hard to get even one rejection, let alone multiple, but try to think of it optimistically: every rejection narrows down the pool of agents to that one agent who’s right for you. By all means, if you’re getting lots of rejections, take a step back to evaluate your query letter and manuscript, but don’t stop writing – it could be that second or third book that lands you an agent.
Lastly, don’t write alone. It’s a lonely process, but finding a community can really help.
Check out Jane’s AgentMatch profile for the full interview.
If you’re struggling with your query letter and synopsis, do check out our free resources on our website. We have lots of info to help you on your way. Or, better still, if you’re a member with us, our lovely Writers Support team will be happy to offer you a free query letter review! Finally, we have plenty of fantastic agents offering Agent One-to-One Sessions in September and October – book your session now to hear their feedback on your submission pack.