This week we were grateful to have a chance to fire some questions at literary agent Jo Unwin.
Jo joined Conville and Walsh Literary Agency in 2008 and took to being a Literary Agent ‘like a duck to water’. She was part of a shortlist of three for the Bookseller Industry Awards Literary Agent of the Year in 2010, and was picked out as one of the Bookseller’s Rising Stars in 2011.
Jo now runs JULA (Jo Unwin Literary Agency), working in close association with Rogers, Coleridge and White. Here’s what she had to say!
Photo credit: Jonathan Ring
Your background is in acting and scriptwriting. How helpful were those experiences in preparing you to become an agent?
Even the most successful actors have a lot of time off, and I used to read and read and read. Knowing what’s being published, and knowing what you love to read – those are the most useful things for an agent. And yes, I wrote scripts, and so I got very used to being on the receiving end of the editorial process. I know what it’s like to have your work picked apart, so I hope I do it relatively kindly.
What advice would you give to young people that aspire to be literary agents?
Read read read – as above. And if there’s any way you can read some unpublished work – for example by interning at a literary agency – you might get used to spotting talent that still needs work.
What’s your opinion of Creative Writing courses? Do you feel writing can be taught, and do you notice any difference between submissions that have been developed on Creative Writing courses and those that haven’t?
There are so many different types of writers, and they work in all sorts of different ways. And people discover their joy in writing at different stages of their lives. So, Creative Writing courses are the right thing for some and not others. As for whether I notice the difference… well, no, but I certainly look at people’s submission letters, and am encouraged by authors who can show that they have dedicated significant time to their work. ‘I left my job a month ago so decided to write a novel and here it is’ doesn’t fill me with confidence as a rule…
What are your top 3 pet hates when receiving submissions?
Please read my fiction novel…
Dear Jonny Geller…
I think I could give JK Rowling a run for her money…
What are your top 3 tips for submitting to an agent?
Read their submissions guidelines very carefully, and only send what they’re asking for.
Do your research – try to show why you want that specific agent
If submitting fiction, only submit when you have finished your book, and have rewritten and rewritten until you simply cannot improve it.
For any reason, what’s the strangest submission you’ve ever received?
I was once sent a teddy bear to accompany a children’s book. When you pressed its tummy it said, in a strange American baby voice ‘Please read my book; please love me’. We found it very sinister and hurled it out the window (but then I retrieved it and gave it to my goddaughter)
You started the writers’ dog walks, which give people a chance to meet you and discuss writing/submission processes/the weather and anything in between. What gave you the idea to start the walks?
It seems to me that the publishing world can feel very distant and intimidating. We are just people who love books, and I feel we need to be accessible. Within reason. I don’t want people turning up at my front door, necessarily.
How much time do you dedicate to reading new submissions?
As long as it takes to assess them. Sometimes I can tell very quickly – if they’re in a genre I don’t represent, or I find the writing hard to get inside, it may just take a few minutes. It takes much longer if the writing’s good, and it’s one I should clearly consider carefully.
Tell us your top 3 favourite books of all time. They can’t be by your authors!
I honestly don’t think I can!
Are there certain things that stand out to you as ‘bad’ writing?
YES!!! All sorts of things – but most commonly cliché. You can really spot authors who aren’t taking care with their word choices.
As an agent, have you noticed trends in the submissions you receive? Are there certain types of story that appear regularly?
Of course, and sometimes it’s a coincidence. But it’s never wise as an author to chase a trend. Books take up to two years to be published from the moment they land on an agent’s desk, so if you try to chase a trend, you’ll almost certainly be too late.
What has been the most exciting moment in your career as an agent?
It’s unbelievably exciting ‘discovering’ a new author, it’s exciting when an editor shares your enthusiasm, even more exciting when several do. It’s exciting to see a proposal for a jacket, it’s exciting ro see a final copy. It’s exciting when an author is shortlisted for a prize. Oh and it’s exciting when they win!
We’d like to thank Jo for taking the time out to answer some of our questions, and wish her all the best in her bid to find promising new writing!