INTERVIEW WITH AGENT CAREN JOHNSON,
PETER RUBIE LITERARY AGENCY, LTD.
By Lois Winston, KOD Industry Liaison
Caren Johnson, the 2005 agent judge for the Paranormal/Futuristic/Fantasy Romantic Mystery/Suspense category of the Daphne du Maurier Awards, is the youngest member of the Peter Rubie Literary Agency. Caren began her publishing career as a bookseller at Barnes & Noble where she spent most of her time in the stock room, sitting on crates reading Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, and J.K. Rowling. She met Peter Rubie through the publishing program at CCNY (City College of New York) and started out at the agency as an intern. She is now an assistant agent and one of only a handful of Latinas working as an agent in the publishing industry. Caren is interested in the following areas: narrative non-fiction, pop culture, Latino based fiction (particularly chick lit and mysteries) and non-fiction, new age and spirituality.
LW: What sub-genres of mystery/suspense are you looking for (historical, contemporary, erotica, YA, cozy, paranormal, inspirational, chick-lit, etc.)?
CJ: I'm looking for sexy contemporary, chick lit and romantic suspense.
LW: Are there any mystery/suspense sub-genres you don't handle?
CJ: I'm open to seeing all sorts of mystery/suspense sub-genres. What turns me off immediately is clichéd stories. This includes memory loss, secret children and stalkers. There are so many more interesting stories waiting to be told. Why rely on the usual ones?
LW: You've just read a query letter that knocked your socks off and made you want to read the manuscript at once. Why?
CJ: I'm a sucker for a well written query letter. It immediately places me inside the protagonist's head and makes me indebted to seeing the manuscript because it's such a sexy set up.
LW: What are the ingredients of a query letter that will get the author a quick 'no thanks' reply?
CJ: Never mention that you've never written anything before. If you haven't, why are you wasting my time? Why aren't you telling me that you write every day, even if it is in your journal or that you've been a tech writer for 5, 10, or 15 years. Let me know that you can sustain a career with your writing. This also applies to telling me that this isn't your best work and that you're waiting to give me your best work when I sign you up. Dazzle me from the get-go. Let me know that I haven't wasted my time giving you a chance.
LW: Based on a query letter or pitch, you ask to see a partial. You love it, ask for the complete, but eventually reject the manuscript. What are the top five reasons for a manuscript's rejection in such a scenario?
CJ: This is important because I usually can't go into the details when I send a rejection letter.
Make sure that your writing is its strongest. Every author needs to practice writing. Make sure that you have someone you trust to go over every speck of writing sent to an agent and make sure that person is objective, not just telling you what you want to hear. Make sure that you have a good spell and grammar check done before you send out a manuscript. I'm not a strict grammarian, but nothing bothers me more than not being able to tell the difference between loose and lose. Manuscripts that don't look professional in the sense that they look like you wrote the book two years ago and are still shopping it around always floor me. As a writer, you should be growing with every day, so why not look over your manuscript and see if you really need all that dramatic phrasing or excess alliteration. Lastly, if it looks like an obviously cribbed idea from your favorite writer, it's useless since the industry already has that writer to write like that. They don't need two. If your writing is similar though, make sure that you can clearly voice how you are different and better. I want something that's going to knock the socks of those editors off.
LW: What's your response time on queries? On requested partials? On completes?
LW: What's your REAL response time on queries? On requested partials? On completes?
CJ: My response times vary and are appalling most of the time. Queries are almost useless to me since I'm very much into the instant gratification and want to see a writing sample. Send partials. If I like what I see, I'll ask to see the full. It's usually three months for partials and up to six for a full. Of course if I'm really excited about what I see, it could be the next day that you hear from me.
LW: Who are some of your favorite authors? Favorite movies? Favorite TV shows?
CJ: I went to lunch with Charlotte Herscher and she brought me The Dark Queen, by Susan Carroll. This is my new favorite book. I fell in love with its prose and the sensuality of the language. If there's a writer out there who can produce work like this, I'll sign you up tomorrow.
My favorite authors are Michel Faber, whose book The Crimson Petal and the White I absolutely adore, Susan Carroll, who I just mentioned and Phillipa Gregory, whose historical romances I can't get enough of. You'll notice that I mentioned mostly literary fiction. I don't see these books as literary fiction. I see them as exquisitely written stories that were told brilliantly. I adore Lolly Winston's Good Grief because it was so brilliant and anything by Lisa Tucker because she has such a great command of language. Her stories are brilliantly written.
I watch Desperate Housewives and Arrested Development religiously. I love Everwood since it examines some crucial issues for the teen crowd, and Gilmore Girls is my guilty pleasure since I can't get enough of the characters.
I love action movies. My favorite movies in general are Bullit, Bourne Identity and Supremacy, Collateral, Payback, first Matrix and anything David Lynch.
LW: What is the best book you've read in the past year? Why?
CJ: The bet book I've read in the past year has to be that one by Susan Carroll, The Dark Queen. I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction since it takes such liberties with history, but this one transcended those barriers and made me fall in love.
LW: What haven't you seen that you would love to see in a submission?
CJ: I would love to see more submissions by creative writers. Make sure the whole package fits what you're sending. My author, who writes chick lit and paranormal, includes a cover page for each manuscript that fits its overall appeal. If it is chick lit, she makes her font flirty and fun. For paranormal, she uses a more sober font. Mind you, this is only for the first page. The rest of the manuscript is plain TNR, perfect for the exhausted eyeballs of an agent or editor.
LW: Are there any subjects/types of characters/plots/scenarios you absolutely don't want to see?
CJ: I hate memory loss. Never rings true to me and I think it's an easy way to create tension. Avoid it and if you're using it, make sure you research responses and the like until you are an expert on it.
LW: Who are some of your published author clients?
CJ: Caridad Pineiro Scordato and Lara Rios.
LW: Is there anything else you'd like to tell KOD members about yourself and/or your agency?
CJ: Though I'm the only one in the agency who will "officially" look at romance, we're all interested in good stories. If I think a story is better suited to one of the other members of the agency, I'll be sure to pass your work on. We have a philosophy that it's better to have the best and most enthusiastic agent for your work, even if it isn't us particularly. We'll pass it between us as much as possible and make sure you get the best attention ever.
Peter Rubie Literary Agency, Ltd.
240 West 35th Street, Suite 500
New York, NY 10001
7 years ago