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Mar 10, 2021

Agent Spotlight Series: Jon Michael Darga

A warm welcome to literary agent Jon Michael Darga! Jon has represented and edited books across a diverse range of genres, which include the forthcoming titles How to Save a Life, Entertainment Weekly reporter Lynette Rice’s oral history of “Grey’s Anatomy”; Anthony Chin-Quee’s memoir I Can’t Save You, about the hidden truths of race and survival in the medical world; and Violet Lumani’s forthcoming YA trilogy, beginning with Foretold, centered around a girl with OCD learning to hone her divinatory powers.

Darga graduated from the University of Michigan with Honors with a BA in English and Creative Writing, and later attended the Columbia University publishing program. Before coming to Aevitas, he worked as an editor at Crown, a division within Penguin Random House.

Darga represents both non-fiction and fiction as an Aevitas agent based in New York. He is most interested in voice-driven pop culture writing and histories that re-cast the narrative by emphasizing unexpected or unheard voices.

CritiqueMatch: You were an editor before you became an agent. What led you to change roles? 
Jon: A variety of things. Largely, I loved the freedom that agenting represented. Because of the way that publishing houses and imprints are set up, most editors necessarily specialize in one genre: cookbooks, or adult non-fiction, or science fiction and fantasy, or contemporary young adult, etc. As an agent, you can branch out however you’d like, and as a fairly omnivorous reader, that really appealed to me. You also have much more control over your schedule and how you spend your time, which is great, because I never really thrived in a corporate environment anyway. It’s important to me, too, to forge a relationship with my clients, which will hopefully last over the course of a career, if not a lifetime. There are so many reasons that an editor will find themselves parting ways with an author: they move to a different publishing house, or the author decides to write in a different genre than what they can acquire, or their publisher doesn’t let them buy the author’s next book, or a million different things. An agent is ride or die, by the author’s side throughout it all. As an editor, you work for the corporate publishing house. As an agent, I work for my authors. I think that makes all the difference, and I treasure all of the rich friendships I’ve made with my clients along the way. (Sometimes, it even feels too cold and clinical to call them “clients”!)

CM: That’s a fascinating perspective from someone who’s been on both the agent and editor sides! Thank you for sharing that insight! Once you make an offer of representation, what happens next? 
Jon: This varies client by client — often, in non-fiction, I’ll approach somebody with a book idea and decide to work with them based off of their expertise and a few conversations, so the beginning of the process involves sharing some sample proposals and helping them build the structure of their book from the ground up. In fiction, it often takes two or three rounds of edits (or more!) to get a book ready to submit to publishers, so the author and I will usually talk about bigger picture edits like pacing and character arcs on the phone, and they’ll go off and make their revisions before I go in and start line editing. The editing process can take anywhere from a few months to a year or more after offering representation — and I sometimes go through a few rounds of revisions with the author before offering, too, depending on how significant my suggestions are. It’s a process!

CM: How hands-on are you in the editing process before you send the manuscript out to publishers? 
Jon: Because I come from an editing background, I’m very hands-on and like to get the manuscript as finalized and polished as I can before submitting it to publishers. It will never be the final draft, of course, because every editor will have their own slightly different take on things, but I get it as close to what I consider final as I can. That often means two or three rounds of big picture edits, followed by one or two rounds of line edits that I make in the document itself. 

CM: Any noteworthy publishing trends in pop culture books in the last three years? 
Jon: I’m wary of anyone who observes pop culture “trends” and thinks that it will be smart to publish into them. The lifespan of a book — particularly and especially a non-fiction book, as most pop culture projects tend to be — can take two or three years to go from a germ of an idea to published and on the shelf, and it’s all too easy for a trend to be born, live, and completely die out in that span of time. A lot of pop culture publishing involves a big gamble; not necessarily looking at what’s big and popular right now but at what’s in its nascent fetus stage that could have the potential to be big and popular three years from now. It’s a very unscientific and instinctual skill that I don't think can quite be learned, and that is probably born in part from spending an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter.

CM: What areas of the market do you think are in high demand right now? 
Jon: I think that there’s been a recent push — and rightly so — to see stories that are not centered around cisgender, heterosexual, white experiences. It’s a wonderful start, but publishers are, in my opinion, too focused on finding diverse stories that are still catered towards a white audience. I’d like to see more hunger for stories that aren’t necessarily published under the assumption that the baseline reader is going to be white. There’s also a lot of focus right now on publishing stories about racism and diversity, and I’d love to see that trend shift more to allow diverse writers to tell whatever stories they want, even if those stories aren't linked to a plot that centers around their identity.

CM: Can you share a client success story, from their query/introduction to you all the way to publication? 
Jon: (Trigger warning ahead for depression and suicide attempt.) Yes! I found Amy Watson in the slush pile, with a sparkling little gem of a novel that centered around a young woman who had been committed to an inpatient facility after a suicide attempt and found herself struggling to balance her personal journey with chronic depression with her budding relationship with a handsome, charming man she meets shortly thereafter. I loved the characters and the nuanced way that Amy wrote about mental health (and food), but wanted the structure to adhere a little more closely with the sorts of love stories that I respond most strongly to. Thus, I forced poor Amy to edit her manuscript not once, not twice, but three times before offering her representation. (I told her that I knew I had to work with her after realizing that, even after reading her book three times, I still couldn't put it down.) After one more intensive round of line edits, we submitted it to publishers… right as the world shut down in March 2020. Talk about timing. We had trouble finding the right publisher who understood exactly what sort of book this was — romance-heavy editors found the character's journey with depression a bit too dark, and non-romance editors found the book a bit too romance-focused. (Yes, this is a constant struggle agents have in finding the exact right home for their book! I tell all of my clients that in the course of the submission process we will almost certainly receive two passes in the same day that directly contradict one another.) Finally, we found an editor who understood exactly what Amy was trying to do; her book, Closer to Okay, will be published in October 2021 by Alcove Press. (And I’m happy to say that Amy’s editor only asked for one round of light edits, so my multiple rounds of pre-submission edits paid off!) And we already have some film interest!

CM: Name a book you recently read and can’t stop thinking about. 
Jon: I actually just read Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming over the holidays and thought that it was one of those rare books that actually lived up to all of the hype. (I know, I’m years late to the party — I worked at Crown when it was being published and had so much Michelle Obama saturation that I needed to put it aside for a few years. On the plus side, I saw her in the office twice!) The way that she handled all aspects of the job with such grace and dignity — and prioritized being a mother to her daughters even while being FLOTUS — was just incredible, and the book was gorgeously, lyrically written in a way that so few memoirs are. As far as books that might actually help querying writers get a sense of my taste, I’m also finally working my way through Curtis Sittenfeld’s catalog. (When I read for fun, I find I either read books that were published years ago or ARCs for books that will not be published for many months… there is no in-between!) While I found Prep fantastically written but too awkward and cringey to truly dive into (I did not need to revisit my high school psyche with that much accuracy and intimacy), I am obsessed with American Wife and Sisterland, both intimate and beautiful psychological portraits of two women who find themselves changing over the years into something simultaneously unrecognizable and horrifyingly true to who they’ve always been. The rest of her backlist is sitting on my TBR now, and I can’t wait to slowly work my way through and immerse myself in her oeuvre. I love the way that Curtis writes characters who are so completely human, unaware of their own pitfalls in such a way that it surprises the reader when that climactic moment comes — yet, in retrospect, it all seems so inevitable. 

CM: How is your agency addressing the need for diversity and inclusion in publishing? 
Jon: This is a great question — thank you for asking. One of the diversity initiatives involves several of our agents reaching out to predominantly non-white schools (ranging from high schools to HBCUs to everything in-between) across the United States and offering their students informational sessions about everything that publishing entails and the life cycle of a book, as well as packets which include various resources for job listings, connecting with industry professionals, and learning more about the industry in general. We’ve found that a lot of students aren’t even aware of the publishing industry or the jobs available within it, information which has traditionally been offered primarily through the prohibitively expensive publishing courses. We’re hoping to disseminate that information a little more freely and allow students who aren’t based in or near NYC the opportunity to connect with publishing professionals in all departments. As an agency, this is just one of several diversity initiatives, but this is the one that I'm spearheading, and thus the one that I’m most equipped to speak about!

CM: These are great initiatives, thank you for sharing them with us! What is a common myth about agents? 
Jon: That we’re all robots! Because we’re so often seen as the gatekeepers of the publishing industry, I think there’s an instinct to think of us as these sort of inhuman and emotionless entities. We feel every pass note that we have to write, and I think that we feel the sting of every pass from a publishing house just as sharply as our authors. Though I’ve been fortunate so far, I know a lot of my colleagues who have received various abuse from aspiring writers for turning down their projects, or not reading manuscripts quickly enough, or for closing themselves off to queries to prioritize their signed clients. We have the same amount of time in the day as everyone else, and it’s just as important for us to take time away from work, too. I often have frustrated writers ask me why I don’t respond to every query I receive with at least a short, semi-personal response so that they get some emotional resolution to the querying process. I completely understand that desire — but if agents were to respond personally to every single query they received, it would take up at least an entire workday, every week! I agree that it would be ideal to reply to and thank every person who queries me, but I need to prioritize managing the clients and projects that I already represent.


Wish List

What you’re looking for:
  • Voice-driven pop culture writing and histories that re-cast the narrative by emphasizing unexpected or unheard voices.
  • Contemporary young adult — specifically diverse rom coms that are as queer as possible.
  • Commercial fiction — again, diverse rom coms are great, the queerer the better!
    What you’re not interested in:
    I wouldn’t say that I’m not interested in anything — for example, with all of the topics below, I can think of at least one book in each category that I would love to represent! But in general, these genres will have the lowest success rate from me, so I would recommend querying another agent at Aevitas who might be a better fit first.
    • Hard sci-fi and fantasy — I’m interested in low genre, but if it takes place in another world or outer space, I’m probably not your guy (I enjoy reading it, but don't have the strongest editorial instincts when it comes to shaping a genre book like that.)
    • Genre commercial fiction, like thrillers.
    • Literary fiction — this isn’t a hard line, but I generally lean more commercial than literary in my sensibilities.
    • Memoir — I do represent memoir, but it’s becoming a harder and harder genre to sell without a “celebrity” platform, and thus I’m becoming more and more reticent to take it on.
    • Non-fiction about politics — despite my “I love all things” disclaimer above, I really don't have much interest in this.
    • Self-help, business, and how to — same as above.
    • Middle grade and children’s/picture books — I love young adult, but don’t quite know what to do with middle grade!

    2 Client Examples
    (This list includes affiliate links)
    Atria Books - 2021
    Harper Leadership - 2021

    Query Tips

    Please provide a couple of tips for querying authors.

    • Make it personal if you can — I love hearing that you enjoyed one of my other clients’ books, or that you like my Twitter account (seems suspicious that anyone likes my Twitter account, but it strokes my ego so I let it slide). And be sure to look up several examples of query letters online. I see a lot of one-paragraph queries that rely on a “just read it and find out” hook. Study jacket and back cover copy for books similar to yours that you enjoy. Even they use a few paragraphs to tell the reader what’s up!
    • Use huge, unrealistic comps. If I see one more query that says their book is the next Lord of the Rings, or Da Vinci Code, or the Bible… And don’t try to contact an agent with a query outside of work, like on Twitter or their personal email. Sometimes I’ll even receive a query directly to my Aevitas email address, rather than sent to me via the online form. That tells me that the writer either hasn’t done the bare basics of looking into me (my submission form and preferred way of receiving queries is, I think, pretty easy to find), or they just don’t care and feel like they’re exempt from the rules. Both a bad start!

    Submission Guidelines:
    Query Jon by clicking the “Contact Jon” button found under his profile: