Jo UnwinThe Jo Unwin Literary Agency
Jo Unwin set up her eponymous agency in 2013. Prior to becoming an agent, she had a career as an actress and television script writer (writing credits include Byker Grove and My Parents are Aliens). She worked her way up the publishing ladder by starting out as a book scout for Aardman animated features, moving on to become a bookseller, and finally becoming an agent at Conville and Walsh in 2008.
Jo has given us a great interview packed full of information about her literary tastes and we’ve highlighted a few choice bits below:
•Represents narrative non-fiction (Charlie Brooker), comic writing, commercial women’s fiction, literary fiction, young adult fiction (Abigail Tarttelin ‘Golden Boy’) and fiction for children aged nine years and above.
•She isn’t a big fan of sci-fi and fantasy and doesn’t take on horror, poetry or screenplays (with the exception of work by existing clients)
•Favourite authors include Anne Tyler, Sarah Waters and Barbara Kingsolver. She likes stories about outsiders.
•Stories need to have ‘warmth or tenderness’. She is interested in non-fiction ‘that reads like a novel rather than an essay, so with pace and character’.
•Jo’s agency works closely with prestigious literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge and White and her office is based there. She represents her own authors in the UK and US and RCW handle her clients’ foreign rights.
•Jo has told us that she only takes on a small number of authors per year, however, her list is still relatively small. We think she would be a good agent for women’s commercial fiction, particularly in the romance and comedy genres. Notable success stories include Jenny Colgan (Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams) and Louise Lee (The Last Honeytrap)
•She prefers postal submissions and likes an interesting cover letter which will give her an insight into what you are like
As a child my head was always in a book, but as a teenager I wanted to be an actress, and at university I started to write things for myself to perform. Gradually I found myself straddling two careers: I was acting a bit, and writing a bit. I wrote for TV (Byker Grove, My Parents are Aliens) and acted in theatre, commercials (remember We Want to be Together?) and TV (mostly comedy: Fry and Laurie, Lee and Herring, a series of Casualty). But then one day I had the blinding insight that what I really loved was talking about, and being around, books. So I became a scout for Aardman Features, looking to option books that could form the basis of animated feature films, and I went to work at a bookshop. The wonderful woman who ran it suggested Id make a good agent, and I was lucky enough to meet legendary agent Patrick Walsh soon after the idea had started to take root. I joined Conville and Walsh Literary Agency in 2008 and took to being a Literary Agent like a duck to water. I was in a shortlist of three for the Bookseller Industry Awards Literary Agent of the Year in 2010, and was picked out as one of the Booksellers Rising Stars in 2011. Ive now set up JULA, based at and working in close association with Rogers, Coleridge and White. I never like to define what Im looking for, as you just dont know whats round the corner. Suffice to say I dont represent poetry or screenplays (unless written by my established clients). I represent authors of literary fiction, commercial womens fiction, Young Adult fiction and fiction for children aged 9+ but not younger (picture books again only if written by established clients). I also represent comic writing and narrative non-fiction.
By Jo: I've always been a reader, and love nothing more than browsing in a bookshop just following my nose. Reading unsolicited manuscripts is a little like that; it's often a matter of chemistry, so it's hard to be too prescriptive about what I'll like. But for what it's worth, I'd never miss a book by Sarah Waters, Ann Tyler, JK Rowling, or Barbara Kingsolver. I loved Property by Valerie Martin, I'd like to think I'd spot Charles Dickens if he came through our unsolicited pile, and it wouldn't kill me to represent Jonathan Franzen.
The books which really excite me are beautifully-written and tell gripping stories. If an author can make me laugh or cry (or both: laughing through tears is better still), I know I will enjoy representing them. Warmth helps too, as does a sense of humour - and that goes for the writers as well as the manuscripts. I love securing the best deals for my authors, but I also get huge pleasure from helping them edit and shape their work, and get it ready to show to publishers. There are a few things I can't imagine representing: magical realism and Science Fiction, and as far as children's writing goes, I'm not looking for new picture book authors or for very early readers.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JO UNWIN
Q. What books/authors do you love in commercial fiction? (Crime, women’s) Give us some examples and say why you liked these books/authors.
I can't wait for you all to read one of my latest signings: Louise Lee gave up her career as a geography teacher to become a private investigator (as you do) and her first book comes out in spring 2015. The Last Honeytrap is the story of Florence Love - a private investigator who is beautiful, brilliant and intuitive, but deeply flawed. What I love about these books (it's a series - The Last Bigamist and The Last Serial Killer follow) is that they are commercial fiction that breaks the mould. It fits the genre perfectly but is utterly original (and HILARIOUS)
Q. What books/authors do you love in literary/historical/book group fiction? Examples and reasons, please!
I love all the authors I represent, and I'm trying to think if they have anything in common! I like close psychological understanding and detail which isn't at the expense of plot or pace. So Anne Tyler is a bit of a favourite, Sarah Waters is just exceptional, Barbara Kingsolver gets under my skin… And I do love a great voice: when I read Pigeon English for the first time (in the 'slush pile') I recognised the voice - I felt I knew the main character and that he'd had tea with my kids at my kitchen table.
Q. You don’t represent fiction for younger children, but otherwise you represent authors up to Young Adult and New Adult. Are there particular passions of yours within that range? What kind of books or authors do you really adore?
Someone once observed that I like stories about outsiders, and I think that's fair - I'm more likely to respond to a book about people who don't belong than ones that do… And I do like a laugh and a bit of warmth or tenderness in stories that move me.
Q. How about sci-fi/horror/fantasy/paranormal/YA dystopian/erotic? What would you be interested in, and what’s a big no?
I'm never drawn into elaborate worlds without a really strong connection to a character first and foremost. And I do like warmth and wit - and none of those genres are particularly characterised by warmth. I don't mean mooshy sentimentality, but I do like to be moved.
Q. On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?
I'm looking for humour, and also memoir. Non-fiction that reads like a novel rather than an essay, so with pace and character.
Q. And are there any areas of zero interest to you in non-fiction? What would you NOT want to see?
I don't think I want to represent any horror. Too scared to read it, so can't assess it!
Q. What (very roughly) is the balance of your list between literary fiction / commercial fiction / non-fiction?
Q. Is there anything in particular you’d love to see at the moment?
Oh PLEASE someone send me an original, heartbreaking love story.
Q. What’s your biggest turn-off in a covering letter? What would you really hope to see?
Never that chuffed to open the envelope and see Dear Johnny Geller. I like a well-written INTERESTING letter! It's important to be professional, but it's good to see the kind of person you are too.
Q. Dog walks for writers? Agent Hunter is proud to declare that anyone who likes dogs is a friend of ours, but how did this particularly furry & four-legged idea occur to you? And how is it working out?
I walk my dog every day, and thought that I would sometimes like company, and I thought how intimidating agents used to seem when I was looking for one myself. If I can help a writer on their way, then I'm delighted. And it's pretty unlikely that I'll find a new client that way, but who knows?! There are so many things that we in the publishing industry presume is common knowledge, and we forget that some of our experience can be really useful to a new writer. It's no skin off my nose to share my experience!
Q. What are your biggest peeves in an opening page or opening chapter? And what do you love to see?
Given how writers can so desperately want an agent, it's surprising if they make a lot of spelling mistakes, typos and so on in the opening chapter. What do I love to see? Well, genius, ideally.
Q. Do you have any unpredictable loves?
I am a real sucker for a child's eye view on the world. Or a dog's.
Q. You’ve been a performer. Do you see writing as a kind of silent performance? Do you need an author who’s happy to be on stage in public?
Yes I have. No I don't and Nope.
Q. Actor, publisher, agent: why have you ended up as the last of those?
Because it's what I love, and what I'm good at (I was a TERRIBLE actress)
Q. Would you take on an author who had self-published? What kind of self-pub sales would make you sit up?
I haven't yet. I wouldn't take on any author on the strength of their sales. It's all about the writing.
Q. What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?
Keep going. Keep reading, and keep writing. All the keeps.
Q. How many submissions do you see annually? And how many of those submissions will end up on your list?
I want to answer all the questions on the list, but I actually don't know. Both vary, but it's a very small percentage.
Q. Do you look for social media and online presence? Do you care?
I've met a few authors through twitter, but some of the authors I love best don't do anything on line. It's horses for courses.
Q. When people are pitching the concept for a book to you, what do you find is the most common failing?
Less is more.
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