Interview with Literary Agent, Jen Chen Tran

Jen Chen Tran

Jen Chen Tran caught my attention when she asked a question during a panel discussion at the Virginia Festival of the Book in 2014. She looked and sounded so approachable that I decided to introduce myself after the panel. I’m very glad that I did!

At that time, Jen had her own literary agency in New York City. Since then, she moved to Northern California and is currently an agent at Bradford Literary Agency. It’s been a pleasure to keep in-touch and watch her career grow. I’m excited to host her on my blog today!

After dinner in Northern CA in August 2018

Amy: Welcome, Jen! Thank you for making the time to be here.

You hold both a B.A. in English Literature and a J.D. That sounds like a winning combination for an agent. How has your educational and professional background benefitted you as an agent and hence your clients?

Jen: I have always been an avid reader, and I think my background as an English major really helps me see both the artistry and mechanics behind writing. I consider myself an editorial agent and read widely, which helps inform my work with my clients.

You might be surprised to hear this, but quite a few literary agents started out as attorneys. There’s definitely a lot of overlap in terms of transferable skills, one of which is being a stalwart advocate for your clients. I am licensed to practice law in New York (and soon to be licensed to practice law in California–I passed that beast of an exam!), and I have helped review the occasional publishing contract for non-clients.

Amy: How did you find your way to agenting? What makes you stay?

Jen: It’s a long story, but basically I graduated law school in 2008 at the height of the recession. I wanted to be a government attorney, but most government agencies weren’t hiring and law firms were imploding left and right.

I did practice for a few years but found that my heart wasn’t in it. I’ve had some health issues that really made me evaluate what my strengths are and what I’m passionate about. I think it’s so important to find meaningful work since we spend most of our days working.

A few years after I graduated from law school, an opportunity from The New Press materialized–they were looking for a volunteer Of Counsel. After a successful interview, I was brought on board to help the press with their permissions, contracts, and some related publicity efforts.

That’s when I started liaising with literary agents and learned through the grapevine that one of them went to my law school. I was able to intern for this agent and his agency as well and started my own agency shortly after.

When I moved to California almost five years ago, I joined a West Coast agency, then in late 2017 moved to Bradford Literary. I am truly passionate about what I do. I love my clients, I love the written word, and I love stories. It is truly a privilege and an honor to be able to make a living as an agent. I am grateful.

I love my clients, I love the written word, and I love stories. It is truly a privilege and an honor to be able to make a living as an agent. I am grateful.” — Jen Chen Tran

Amy: How would you describe your agenting style?

Jen: First and foremost, I am a champion for my authors. I see myself as a problem-solver and creative thinker. I help my client get to the “next level” and reach their goals as an author. I’m very collaborative and try to be transparent about the process, whether that means sharing my pitch list with my client, or working on a pitch letter together.

I truly appreciate the trust that each one of my clients places in me, and I work hard to get my client what she or he deserves. I try to be extremely communicative and responsive–I’m known to text or e-mail my authors often!

Amy: How do you know when it’s time to offer representation to a writer?

Jen: For fiction, when I can’t stop reading the manuscript and am absolutely enthralled by the voice and the characters. Sense of place is also really important to me. For me, it’s either there or it’s not. A lot of the time I rely on my instincts–I have to have a visceral reaction, an emotional reaction, when I’m reading fiction.

For non-fiction, it’s a little different. If I feel that the author is an expert in his or her field, is truly passionate about what he or she does, has a message, wants to change the world, and/or wants to share entertaining information, then I’m interested. But all of these elements have to come together in a persuasive way. I’m looking for cohesion and clarity for non-fiction projects.

If our goals align, then I am more likely to offer representation. I also take the long view. Ideally, I’d like to work with the author over the course of her career and not just for one book.

Amy: What would you like to see more of in your inbox?

Jen: I’m a huge foodie, so I’d like to see more unique cookbooks in my inbox. I’m also trying to grow my list in terms of visually-driven and graphic projects, meaning graphic novels (for adult, YA, and MG) and guided journals.

I also would love to see more fiction written by underrepresented minorities and marginalized people. Publishing, as an industry, is still very homogeneous, but the world around us is not. I want to contribute to diversifying the written word, so it’s important to me to represent diverse clients.

I also would love to see more fiction written by underrepresented minorities and marginalized people. Publishing, as an industry, is still very homogeneous, but the world around us is not. I want to contribute to diversifying the written word, so it’s important to me to represent diverse clients. ” — Jen Chen Tran

Amy: You represent an eclectic range of genres including non-fiction, women’s fiction, graphic novels, and select YA and middle grade novels. How do you keep up with that range in the industry?

Jen: Good question! I’m a Gemini so I have a lot of interests. I’ve never been the type of agent who believes you should specialize in one area. I think that’s the beauty of being an agent–building your own list and not necessarily having to specialize.

It is a challenge to keep up with industry changes, and there are days when I think I should just do one type of book. But because I am so passionate and interested in a variety of topics, I think, why limit myself?

I read widely across genres and that helps. I do try to talk to as many editors in the areas that I represent so I know what the editors are looking for. It’s a challenge and I love being challenged! 

Amy: What are some books in your to-be-read pile?

Jen: Too many. I have a variety of graphic novels (MG and YA) such as Glitch by Sarah Graley, on my list. I also am trying to read more contemporary fiction–both literary and commercial. Normal People by Sally Rooney is on my list. I also read non-fiction, multiple books, at a time. I’ve been making my way through Bad Blood by Jon Carreyrou. 

Amy: Thank you, Jen! Best wishes to you and all of your lucky clients.

If you’d like to get to know Jen more and/or you’d like to query her, visit her at Bradford Literary Agency.

Until we meet again,

Amy

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