Joanna Volpe

Joanna represents all brands of fiction (commercial, literary and genre) and has a soft spot for speculative and/or fantastical elements. On the non-fiction side she tends toward all things geek-related, general pop-culture, pop-science and narrative non-fiction featuring interesting and powerful women. Across the board, she’s looking for anything that highlights under-represented voices, both real and fictional.
Why did you become an agent? 

To be honest, I didn’t even really know what an agent did until I took a class at NYU called “The Role of the Literary Agent.” But when I did learn about this job, I realized it was the perfect one for me. It’s a combination of creative development, business strategy, negotiation, advocacy and networking. I love working with people—I invest deeply in them, and this job allows me to do that for my work. I feel very fortunate!

What do you like the most about being an agent? What is most challenging about being an agent?

I like being an advocate and strategy partner for my clients. When we achieve one of our many goals, it is such a victory! But sometimes achieving those goals can take a long and winding road. The challenge is keeping a positive outlook and an eye on the prize, even when the hurdles seem insurmountable (and the hurdles will come—they always do). 

Do you have to navigate the industry differently when negotiating on behalf of a BIPOC author?

Yes. I wish it weren’t so, but it is very much the reality. At a baseline level, what I’ve had to train myself to be better at is spotting the systemically racist thought patterns and processes that are present in publishing at every level and get out ahead of them in negotiations to ensure my clients have a voice at every stage of the process, that they have protections in place in the contract. I’m still training myself in this way and likely always will be. But beyond the contract negotiations, there are other interactions throughout the publication process that I keep a very close eye on as well, such as the editorial interactions, the cover conversations, the marketing and publicity planning—at every stage it requires vigilance in this. And I’ve had to have a lot of very uncomfortable and difficult conversations with publishers to address problems directly. But that’s one of the things I’m here to do, so my clients don’t have to. 

What’s the most important thing to you in a query letter?

For fiction, it’s simply the story pitch—it needs to introduce the main character(s) and the conflict. For non-fiction, it’s a clear indication of why the author is the exactly right person to publish that book. 

What is on your #MSWL? What kind of stories are you looking for, particularly from API creators? 

I’m taking on very little these days, but from API creators I would really love to see grounded speculative stories—contemporary, historical or near future.

How many new authors do you sign annually?

I only take on 1-2 clients a year at this point. However, I do sign several new clients per year as a co-rep and strategy partner with other agents at New Leaf. In those instances, I am not the primary agent, though I am very involved in all levels of strategy and planning.

What are the trends in the industry at the moment? How do you think API creators should navigate these trends?

There are less trends these days. We live in a time of binging and micro-markets, so trend behavior has changed dramatically from what is used to be. What I can say is that there is a re-emergence of paranormal, and horror seems to be having a moment. But otherwise, there isn’t much in the way of trends that I can see. And I find that to be creatively freeing.

How do you see the Big 5 becoming the Big 4 impacting API creators? Smaller publishers have produced many blockbusters this summer; do you foresee the merger changing that?

It’s always worrisome when two big companies merge. It begs several questions, the first being “How does this affect competition in the market?” Less competition isn’t good for creators. That being said, while the Big 5 becomes the Big 4, new companies are emerging and publishing some fantastic books, too. Levine Querido launched in 2020 with one of the best launch lists I’ve ever seen—I bought every book on it. Little Bee has been quietly building an incredible list as well. And Emily Meehan (formerly at Disney) just took over Sterling Publishing and has big plans for the future there. So where one door closes, several windows open. Look for the open windows—they have the better views!

What are the Dos and Don’ts for creators when querying an agent?

Do: Make sure to introduce the conflict of your story in the body of the pitch. 

Don’t: Write more about yourself than your book! Focus on the pitch.

Do you have any advice for API creators when choosing an agent?

There are a lot of great resources online about what questions to ask agents on The Call, but the questions I never get asked, and I wish I would be asked are: What is the agency’s process for negotiating client contracts? Who handles it? What is the agent’s involvement in the contract negotiation process? Your contracts are the foundation of your relationship to the business and the industry. Editors move houses. Companies merge. People leave their agents. Your contracts stay with you for term of copyright (which the life of the author + 70 years). Make sure they are being given the upmost care and that the foundation is strong for you to stand on solid ground thereafter.

After signing, what does the relationship look like between you and a client? How often/how do you communicate? What can a client expect?

This is highly dependent on the client, whether there are any urgent matters and what their preferences are. But normally we communicate with clients frequently and as needed. I have three assistants, and they are also in touch with my clients with administrative matters, follow ups and check-ins. I will admit that during the pandemic my communication styles have changed several times, adapting to varying needs. And my own eyes are in pretty rough shape from all the screen time (I suffer from a chronic eye condition), so I’m doing Zoom’s less and less these days, even though I desperately miss seeing my clients!

What is one thing you wish querying API creators knew before sending their query letter?

That they shouldn’t fear rejection. Every single one of my clients has received rejections in the past, and it’s a subjective business. Please keep at it!