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By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Jas Perry, literary agent at KT Literary, to the WNDB blog to discuss her career as a literary agent. Jas Perry participated in the 2018 WNDB Internship Grant Program.
Tell us a little bit about what you do as a literary agent at KT Literary. I know the question about a “typical day” is overplayed, so what are some of your favorite things about your role?
As an agent with KT, I can connect with writers very early on in the publication process. Kate Testerman hired me as part of her new agent mentorship program and encouraged me to build my client list freely. It’s a challenge to find avenues to take direct action in addressing some of the larger issues in the publishing industry. Now, at KT, I have the opportunity to represent talented writers who may have been overlooked in the querying trenches for any number of reasons.
I recently sent out my first round of editorial letters, and it’s a joy to hear from my clients that I understand their stories and visions. This seems fairly simple, I know, but writers with identities largely underrepresented in publishing are frequently turned away with the vague hand-wave of “not relatable,” or they’re otherwise expected to educate their audiences. The knowledge that my authors trust me with the manuscripts they wrote from the heart is invaluable. My clients are passionate and stubborn and all kinds of audacious, and I want to be them when I grow up.
Before this role, you interned at Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine through WNDB’s Internship Grant Program. Did you have any other internships or jobs in the publishing world?
Yes! I was actually awarded the WNDB Internship Grant during my second year at Arthur A. Levine Books. In between internships, I took on freelance editorial projects in kidlit while in college (and usually worked through my classes—yikes).
When AALB finished its run in 2019, I interned for Arthur once again as he established Levine Querido. That summer was a whirlwind; it was a true pleasure to be involved in the founding of a new independent house from the ground up. Their books are gorgeous—top-notch in form and content. I can’t rave about LQ enough.
I will say, though: I got my start in publishing because I knew what I wanted to do and, frankly, was annoying about it. In high school, I was constantly pestering publishers in the city about their internship programs for college grads, and periodically sent out updated versions of my resume. Some were kind enough to interview me, and they always ended with, “This looks great, but you’re quite young. Keep in touch though.” It was a genuine surprise when I got a cold call from a hiring manager one afternoon during my freshman year undergrad. I was offered a position with Scholastic’s summer internship program and accepted on the spot.
Tell us about your manuscript wish list. What are you looking for from querying authors? What would you be absolutely thrilled to find in your inbox?
My inbox is open to middle grade and young adult fiction across all genres. At the moment, however, I’m looking for graphic novel author-illustrators in particular. I’ve always loved visual storytelling, but my interest in representing graphic novels has grown exponentially as of late, and I’d be thrilled to sign some clients who are interested in building long-term careers as graphic novel creators.
More details about what I’m looking for are posted on the KT blog. I speak about them on my podcast episode as well, and you can keep up with my rambling, inconveniently specific wish list on Twitter @TakahashiPerry.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from the internships you’ve had that has served you as a literary agent?
My first manager as an intern was Kait Feldmann, People of Color in Publishing’s VP and Director of Special Projects. It was a formative experience to see her stand tall, often as the only voice in the room speaking up, as she championed diversity, equity, and inclusion in all facets of her work. Over the years, through WNDB, RepMatters, and POC in Pub, I’ve been able to find some really terrific individuals who understand me as I am. Without the mentorship and guidance that I was lucky enough to have, I imagine that burnout would have been swift and cutthroat.
It’s near-impossible to remain in publishing as a POC without a real support system—no competition, just honesty, sharing information, and celebrating one another. Only 4 percent of literary agents are Black, and 1 percent are multiracial; the numbers are daunting. Still, since starting at KT, I’ve received a flood of emails from POC in the industry generously reaching out, introducing themselves, and offering support—even during the chaos of this pandemic.
Hold fast to your values. There are people out there who see you.
If you could give advice to someone who wants to become a literary agent, what would it be?
With three ed internships and freelance work under my belt, I was able to hit the ground running as soon as I started at KT. I was surprised by how much I already knew about the process. My editorial background gave me perspective and insight into acquisitions and opened my eyes to some harsh realities about what it means to navigate the politics of publishing as a WOC. An internship or assistant role under experienced editors lays a strong foundation for prospective literary agents.
As for other advice:
As you continue to read and familiarize yourself with the market you’re interested in, do keep an open mind, but trust yourself and your taste. Also, give in and pay for that iCloud storage upgrade. Turn off Gmail notifications. Don’t install the Twitter app on your phone.
What are some of your favorite published or forthcoming MG and YA books (they don’t have to be books you’ve worked with in any way, just ones you’ve loved)?
Some of the books I loved assisting on were Varian Johnson’s Twins, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and Daniel José Older’s Dactyl Hill Squad, which were a few of the first projects I remember from AALB. Apple: Skin to the Core by Eric Gansworth is a killer novel-in-verse from LQ. I have warm, glowing memories associated with these; I owe it all to my first publishing family—Arthur Levine, Nick Thomas, Kait Feldmann, and Weslie Turner—for taking me in, teaching me, and trusting a literal teenager with this work. They set me on my path, gave me the tools I needed to thrive, and have been supporting me throughout my college years, and now as I start this new journey as an agent.
A few days ago, I started the audiobook for Mexican Gothic, which is brilliant! Another memorable read was You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, edited by the wonderful Maya Marlette—a fellow WNDB alum and former AALB intern. In terms of upcoming books, I’m counting down the days for Aiden Thomas’ Cemetery Boys, Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam, and the Foreshadow YA anthology, which features a short story by my client, Nora Elghazzawi, selected by Nicola Yoon.
What’s one question that you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
I wish that agents, editors, and publishers would question their own expectations surrounding comp titles—myself included. For writers of color especially, finding appropriate, recently pubbed and “successful” comps to market a novel can be a major hurdle. Too often it’s viewed as a weakness—but how can it be, when we’re still pushing for so many “firsts”? If I were to write a coming-of-age YA about a Black Asian teenager in NYC (the story I’ve been searching for my entire life) should it be branded as unsellable because it hasn’t been written before? How can children’s literature evolve if we’re not actively seeking untold stories and uplifting unheard voices?
Answer: It can’t.
Jas Perry is a Manhattan-based Associate Agent with kt literary, formerly an editorial intern with Levine Querido and Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books. Jas is a We Need Diverse Books intern grant recipient, a former RepMatters mentee, and a current Tessera Editorial mentee. She attended NYU in Florence and London before graduating with an English BA from CUNY Hunter College. Jas is Black American/Japanese and interested in representing a diverse range of strong voices—especially by disabled and/or QTPOC creators.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.