An interview with John Jarrold

John Jarrold is a name that is respected throughout the publishing world. Working predominantly with new and established science fiction and fantasy authors, John uses his extensive knowledge and skills to help guide writers on the road to publication. Amongst those full of praise for his work are Michael Moorcock, Guy Gavriel Kay, Ian R MacLeod and Christopher Fowler. John very kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in September 2009.

John's website:

You have an obvious passion for books and the written word. Can you remember the exact moment when you first fell under their spell?

I owe a great deal to my parents. They gave me a love of reading, so that by 7 I had a reading age of 11. I devoured books from an early age – fiction and non-fiction. And since I worked in public libraries from 1972 onwards, before joining publishing in January 1988, books have been my life for over thirty-five years.

Has a manuscript ever landed on your desk and, within a short time of reading led you say, “Wow, this is magnificent”? (or words to that effect!)

It's what one lives for! As a publisher, I never forget seeing the typescript of Ken MacLeod's debut, The Star Fraction. I knew from two pages in that is was truly wonderful, and that I was going to publish it – which I did in 1995, to coincide with the Glasgow world SF convention. as an agent, that buzz is vital, so I can pass the enthusiasm on to prospective publishers.

How should an author present their book to a literary agent and what help should they expect to receive if taken on?

Read the agent's submission guidelines on their website and comply with them. If they ask for the first three chapters and a synopsis, that is what you should send. Don't think 'oh, but my best writing is in chapters 9, 17, and 35, so I'll send them.' Don't send artwork, which can take ages to download and is a waste of time. The words matter, nothing else. And research the agents who deal with your area of fiction or non-fiction before you approach them. You'd be amazed by the number of submissions I receive from authors of romance novels or non-fiction self-help books (for example) – despite the fact that it specifically says on the home page of my website that I only deal with SF and fantasy. I'm afraid I just delete those submissions now. I can't afford to waste time pointing out the obvious. You are expecting an agent to deal with you professionally. Extend them the same courtesy. As an agent, you act as sounding board, cheerleader, business advisor, contracts guru, editor, sometimes a shoulder to cry on and you fast-track work to the correct publishers, with whom you have long-term working relationships…amongst many other things!

An author is confident that their work is as good as it can possibly be. How should they present it to a publisher?

I'd suggest going to agents first. Many publishers will no longer look at material from unagented authors. So everything I said above applies.

Do you think that the respect you have earned within the publishing world has led to manuscripts being accepted when possibly they may have been rejected from another source?

Certainly not! It's the prose that matters, the story-telling, the characterisation, the invention. When you look at a book – as an agent or an editor – you have to think about someone walking into a bookshop on a wet Wednesday afternoon, looking for a good story to read. Hardly anyone buys a book because it's published by a specific company (I can hear your readers disagree, but those of us who regularly read specialist websites, go to SF cons and so forth aren't average book buyers, on whom publishers depend) – nor do publishers take on a book because it's come from a specific agent. All publishers have better relationships with some agents than others, that's human nature, so it may mean your submissions are looked at more quickly, but it certainly won't mean they are taken on unless the editor is in love with them, personally and professionally, and can persuade their senior colleagues how wonderful this book and writer are. And of course I have to feel that love before I agree to represent an author – I've taken on just over forty clients and turned down over 6,000 submissions. But just because I love a book and can see it working commercially, that doesn't mean it will definitely be published. Publishing is a subjective business – we aren't just selling another can of baked beans, every SF writer, every fantasy writer, is different. Over the fifteen years I ran SFF imprints in London, I took on many books that others turned down and published them successfully – and vice versa. There are no absolutes.

Can you give us a scoop on any new, fantastic fantasy books that you think may shine brightly in the future?

Ha! Check out my client list on the website! I'm also a great fan of Joe Abercrombie, amongst the newer fantasy novelists.

If you were put on the spot and asked to name your favourite fantasy book of all time, what would be your immediate response?

The Lord of the Rings. It led to me joining the Tolkien Society then going to conventions, which led to reading for agents and publishers and getting my first job in publishing in 1988, running Orbit Books in London (which was a steep learning curve). I owe it all to Tolkien.

Authors are known to respond to criticism amazingly well, sometimes verging on the masochistic. Have you also found this?

Mostly, yes – though I don't think masochism is the right word, after all an editor is trying to make the book better, so it isn't 'criticism' as such. Some 'critics' reviews are deeply solipsistic and lacking in common sense or empathy, on the other hand. Authors are individuals, so everyone responds differently, but one certainly sees less ego in SFF than in general publishing.

You have recently read Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials omnibus and George RR Martin's A Feast of Crows – was this for business or pleasure?

I must update the 'recently read' list in my CV! But everything there is read first and foremost for pleasure – or because I'm interested in the subject, in non-fiction terms. Of course I want to keep up with new writers in SF, fantasy and horror – that's being professional. But most areas of fiction and many areas of non-fiction also fascinate me. I can't imagine ever reading in one area or genre alone.

What does the remainder of 2009 hold for John Jarrold?

Personally, a few days away in new Orleans, my favourite city, later in the year. Re-charging the batteries is very necessary. Professionally, there are new books or editions by various agency clients being published, including Philip Palmer, Stephen Hunt and Robert V S Redick, as well as books being delivered by Philip and Robert, Ian Cameron Esslemont, Suzanne McLeod, Hannu Rajaniemi and others, for publication in 2010. And the deals continue to come – I'm sure there will be some very interesting press releases on that front issuing from Chez Jarrold between now and the end of the year! Keep watching the skies.