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Nov 12, 2020

Agent Spotlight Series: Jill Marsal


A warm welcome to literary agent Jill Marsal! Jill is a founding partner of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency and has been in the publishing industry for 20 years. Previously, she worked as a Literary Agent with the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency and at Dorchester Publications and Tudor Publishing, editing women’s fiction and suspense/thrillers. Jill also has a strong legal background and holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School. She practiced as an attorney with Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

Jill enjoys working with both new and experienced writers. A few of Jill’s represented books include WITH LOVE FROM THE INSIDE by Angela Pisel (Putnam), THE CHALLENGER SALE by Wall Street Journal bestselling authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson (Portfolio), ONE POISON PIE by NYT bestselling author Lynn Cahoon (Kensington), SEE HER DIE by WSJ and Amazon Charts bestselling author Melinda Leigh (Montlake),  LIMITLESS MIND by Stanford Professor Jo Boaler (Harper One), MIDDLE SCHOOL MATTERS by Phyllis Fagell (Da Capo), and FEELING AT HOME: THE BRAIN AND WHERE WE LIVE by John S. Allen (Basic).

CM: How did you become an agent? If you were not an agent, what career would you have pursued?
Jill: In high school, we had a career day, and a literary agent came and spoke to my class.  I had never heard of the profession before, but I thought wow, reading for a job! I went home and got out the yellow pages (this was before the internet) and contacted several local literary agencies and got a job assisting one of the local agents. She encouraged me to apply to New York for an editorial position, and several years later, I did that and worked for Dorchester Publishing.  Later, I joined the Dijkstra Agency and after that co-founded the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.  

I love reading and editing and working with authors to make their manuscripts as strong as possible.  It is such an exciting process to be able to work on a manuscript and take it from idea/concept to completed book.  And I love taking a manuscript on submission and getting “the call” from an editor and then making “the call” to an author.  It’s great being part of the process which brings readers books that can impact their lives, offer intriguing stories, take readers to places they would never otherwise experience, and entertain and inspire.  If I wasn’t an agent, I would love to stay in the publishing world- either as an editor, bookseller, or somehow find another career related to books and publishing.

CM: An agent-author relationship is all about the people. What attributes do your best client relationships share?
Jill: I think good communication is critical to a successful agent-author relationship.  Whether it is phone or email or both, it is important for the agent to understand the author’s goals and vision for his or her work and equally important for the author to hear what the agent thinks is needed to get there and for the two to be able to strategize, partner, and work toward achieving those goals. I think other attributes of a great agent-author relationship include being timely and responsive, on both sides. 

CM: How hands-on are you in the editing process before you send the manuscript out to publishers?
Jill: It really depends on the manuscript.  Some authors come in with manuscripts in very strong shape and might need just light edits whereas others may need more editorial feedback.  In the latter case, I am hands-on and will go back and forth to try and make the manuscript as strong as possible.  For a debut author who has never written before, there tends to be more feedback and editorial focus whereas a bestselling, experienced author might need more help with career building, marketing, and branding rather than editing. 

CM: How do you pitch books to publishers in a world that requires social distancing?
Jill: Social distancing hasn’t had much impact on pitching.  I can pitch to publishers on the phone and through emails. Pitching is really about the long-term relationships an agent develops with editors.  A good agent will know what specific editors are looking for, what are the editor’s areas of interest, which editors are likely to connect with a project, etc. so the agent can target the right manuscript or proposal to the right editor.  

CM: Can you share with us a client success story, from their query/introduction to you all the way to publication?
Jill: I had a query come in from a mystery author on a Friday, read her pages over the weekend, and called her and then sent an agency agreement on Monday.  She had a terrific voice and really strong writing and plot. I couldn’t put the manuscript down.  On Tuesday, we went on submission with the manuscript, and she had her first offer come in the following Saturday, one week from sending her query!  While the process is not usually that fast, it was incredibly exciting and very rewarding to see a top manuscript get picked up so quickly. The author has also branched out and is now writing for another publisher as well under a pen name.

CM: Name a book you recently read and can’t stop thinking about.
Jill: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

CM: How important is voice in a query? 
Jill: While it is great if a query does have voice in it, it often can be tough for voice to come through in a query.  However, a strong/distinct voice is critical for the actual manuscript.  I think this can really make a manuscript standout, and a good writer can make any subject come alive with a strong voice. For the query, it is generally more of a summary- I want to know there are interesting characters- people who you want to find out what will happen to them.  They might introduce you to an unfamiliar world or they might be people you identify with and relate to.  I also think it is important to have a great “hook” or emotionally compelling situation that will intrigue editors and readers and make them want to read the manuscript- ask yourself what about these characters or their situations is compelling or interesting or will make readers want to stay with them for 300+ pages?

CM: Please describe the kinds of books you want to agent.
Jill: I am looking for all types of mystery/suspense/psychological suspense, as well as cozies and thrillers that keep the pages turning and have an original hook. 

I am also looking for commercial fiction, all types of women's fiction, historical fiction, stories of family, friendships, secrets, interesting relationships, Southern fiction, or multi-generations.  I welcome a dramatic storyline and compelling characters in interesting situations or relationships.  If you have a novel that has a highly original concept or voice, I would love to see it.

On the non-fiction side, my areas of interest include current events, business, health, self-help, relationships, psychology, parenting, history, science, and narrative non-fiction.  I am particularly drawn to projects which will move readers or leave them thinking, which make provocative arguments or share interesting research, or which offer useful, new advice.

Wish List

Genres/sub-genres you’re looking for:
  • Fiction: all types of commercial fiction, women’s fiction, stories of family, interesting relationships, Southern fiction, or multi-generations, and romance. 
  • Mysteries, psychological suspense, cozies, and thrillers that keep the pages turning and have an original hook. 
  • Dramatic storylines and compelling characters in interesting situations or relationships, or a highly original concept or voice.
  • Non-fiction: business, current events, health, self-help, advice/relationships, psychology, parenting, history, science, and narrative non-fiction. 
What you’re not interested in:
  • Memoir, picture books

2 Client Examples
(This list includes affiliate links)

Montlake - 2020
Ballantine - 2020

Query Tips
I would suggest opening your query identifying your name, the title of your book, and the genre.  This way, as agents read your query letter, they can focus on the summary of your project instead of having to try to figure out what type of manuscript it is.  
A good query will generally have one to two paragraphs summarizing the book and also one paragraph about the author describing all relevant writing experience, prior publications, writing awards, and author platform. 


Submission Guidelines
Send a query letter by email, with the word QUERY in the email’s subject line, to: