Query.Sign.Submit.Debut! with Janet Sumner Johnson


Janet is a middle grade author and her debut, The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society, is now available from Capstone Young Readers. She is represented by Victoria Marini of Gelfman Schneider/ICM Partners.

Final Cover.PBJSocietyConnect with Janet . . .

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Get the book . . .

Amazon * B&N * Indiebound



Query into


What resources and websites did you use when querying?

There are so many resources out there for querying authors! When I first started querying, I got a hard copy of Writer's Market to learn about agents and publishing houses just to figure out the lay of the land. Once I knew I wanted an agent, I relied heavily on the blog Literary Rambles. They put in so much work to research agents, and compile all the interviews and information about each agent. It was wonderfully helpful! I learned so much!

Querytracker.net was another great resource. Not only can you use this amazing site to track the queries that you send, but they have compiled lists of agents that are searchable by genres they represent. SO helpful! They also include up-to-date information about what each agent wants in a query. And of course the forums and chats on each agent's page made the waiting that much easier because we could both commiserate and celebrate together. I highly recommend this site!

What was your method for querying?

I queried in small batches. I would query 10 at a time, and as I got responses, I would send more out so I always had 10 out at a time. In between sending out queries, I would research more agents so I was ready to send as requests/rejections came in.

If I wasn't getting any requests with a batch, I would revisit my query and make adjustments. I used forums like the blue boards (SCBWI), querytracker, and writeoncon to get feedback and refine my query letter.

What helped you get though the query trenches?

Writing friends who were also querying definitely helped me the most getting through those trenches. It's really hard to get rejection after rejection and still move forward with a positive attitude. I read tons of inspirational posts about how long it took others who then later had success, and that helped, too. But having someone to commiserate with . . . someone who really understood . . . by the end, all the rejections felt like a badge of honor. Like, I'd paid my dues. I worked hard to get published, and it was all the more satisfying to have reached that point with friends. In other words, you don't have to be an island!

It took me a while to follow the "write another book" advice, and I wish I'd done that sooner. That was definitely the best way to get my mind off of my pending query letters. And this is even more important now for when I go on submission!


What was the week surrounding your offer(s) of representation like for you?

This question totally made me laugh! It was all random screams and grinning for no reason. It was a bustle of sending e-mails to agents who still had partials and fulls, or even my query. It was a great shrug of indifference when more rejections came in, because they no longer mattered. Emotion. Lots of it. And mostly the happy kind.

How did you know your agent was the right one for you?

The very first indication that my agent was right for me, was her email response asking to set up a phone call. She referenced a humorous spot in my book that I particularly loved. She said, "You had me at 'We don't traffic in body parts in this household, young lady!'" If she got my sense of humor, I knew we'd be okay.

And speaking with her on the phone sealed it. At the time, I'd had a lot of writing friends who were breaking up with their agent because their agent didn't like their second book. So we talked about this and how she dealt with this as an agent. Also, we talked revisions, and everything she recommended was something I agreed with. We had the same vision. That was super important for me.

Once a writer has signed with an agent, what’s the next step?

I'm sure this varies depending on your agent, but for me it was revision. About a week after I signed I got an email of notes about changes she thought should be made. It all went along with what we talked about on the phone, so none of it was a surprise to me. I revised for about a month, and then she sent me my submission list and boom! We were off!

At what point do you share new story ideas with your agent?

So we went on submission in November, and I sent the next book to my agent in January. That's when I was ready. I actually sent an email to my agent asking about how this process should work, and she basically said, send me stuff when you have it. No rush. My agent prefers to see the finished work, but when I'm about to start a new book, I usually send her several ideas and get her input on what sounds most interesting to her and what would be most marketable in her opinion. This really helps me focus on a project that has the most potential to sell. That said, I only send ideas for books that I really want to write.


What is a typical first round like once a writer goes on submission?

My agent sends me the submission list, which I love. Then I can do my stalkingresearch to find out more about them. Then I pretty much sit back and wait. (Actually, I work on the next book). My agent forwards all responses to me, so I can see exactly what they had to say . . . why they chose not to make an offer on my book, or that they're interested and what needs to happen next.

With PB&J Society, I actually went to acquisitions a total of five times. I always imagined "acquisitions" as some big important meeting, and sometimes it was, but I learned that other times it just meant that the editor sought approval from specific individuals within the company. It was pretty interesting to see the process for so many different publishers. A couple asked for alternate titles. Another two asked if I'd be willing to make it into a series. One editor even asked for a resumé. Fascinating process!

What do you suggest a writer does while out on submission?

Forget that you are on submission!! Seriously. This is one of the really great parts about having an agent. Once my manuscript goes on submission, I can move on. I don't have to worry about follow-up, I don't have to do anything except write the next book. Enjoy it.

Can you check in with your agent if there hasn’t been any news in a while?

I can check in with my agent whenever I want, but I try to limit myself because I know my agent has many other clients and is very busy. So if I'm on submission and a month has passed and I haven't heard anything, I usually send a quick email to ask about it. Also, I often have questions about other things, and I can always piggyback a submission question with that. I think the key is respect along with open communication.


What is the best thing about being a debut author?

Everything is new and exciting. There are all these benchmarks that you get to experience, and they are all exciting and special. The first edit letter. The first time you see your cover. The first time someone asks to interview you. The first time you see your book mentioned out in the wild by someone you don't know. The first Skype visit. The first classroom visit. The first time you sign a book for someone! So many firsts! And even though my debut year was full of crazy (2 moves!), I enjoyed every second of it. I seriously felt like Cinderella at the ball.

What’s involved in promoting a book?

SO. MUCH. This is probably the thing that surprised me the most about getting published. I had no idea how much time promotion would take. And with social media being what it is, there are a lot of things an author CAN do. Honestly, getting to the basics of it all, promoting a book is about being outgoing and friendly. But instead of being that way in your own small group of friends, you have to learn to step out of your box and be that way in extended groups.

It's about reaching out to people. Reaching out to other authors. Reaching out to schools. Reaching out to media. Reaching out to book stores. This has been a huge area of growth for me, and thankfully I've been involved in a group of other amazing debut authors who have coached me, answered my questions, shared their knowledge, and encouraged me. And my take away is that promotion is always more fun with other people.

Have you done any conferences, book festivals, or events as an author? What was it like?

In March, I was able to go on a book tour with three other debut authors, Ava Jae (Beyond the Red), Kathy MacMillan (Sword and Verse), and Laura Shovan (The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary). We did library panels, book store signings. We participated as faculty at the MD/DE/WV SCBWI conference, and we did Skype/school visits. It was a whirlwind of activity, and it was amazing! SO. FUN.

I was nervous going in because it was my first book tour, but being with the other three was absolutely awesome. We took turns moderating the panels, and we used questions we'd prepared in advance. The fun part was getting to know the other authors. By the time we presented our final events, we were pretty hilarious together. In short, it was a real joy to talk about books and answer questions that people had about the publishing process. I very highly recommend group events, especially for starting out!

What advice would you give to writers who are working hard to get to their own debut year?

Keep working! It feels like it will never come, but if you keep working and don't give up, you will get there. For real. And when it comes, it will zip by. You will blink, and suddenly your book will be out in the world. Don't wish away all the excitement leading up to publication. All the sweat, blood, and tears you are putting in now will only make the experience that much sweeter. I am super proud of every single one of my rejections. Because each one is a reminder that I'm stronger than that. You are stronger than any rejection, too!

Thank you, Janet!

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  1. Dee, thanks so much for having me! I've enjoyed reading these for years, so it is pretty awesome to get to be on the other side! :D


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