It might have been ‘Blue Monday', but we had a fantastic start to the Words Away year earlier this week with a sold-out salon, How Writers and Agents Work Together, with our guest, literary agent, Jo Unwin. It was our most popular salon to date and it began with a lovely sense of anticipation and excitement amongst the audience. The Teahouse cats were in attendance too and as usual, made themselves at home on the stage while everyone found a seat and settled in for the discussion. We had a tricky moment when we discovered that Jo is allergic. Fortunately, antihistamines were procured, the cats were allowed to stay, and so we began.
Jo has worked in publishing for nine years after a big career change. She has a background as an actress, a TV script writer, as well as a book scout for a Aardman animated features. Working her way up the publishing ladder, she now has a successful literary agency based at Somerset House. Jo looks after over thirty authors. She represents authors of literary fiction, commercial women’s fiction, Young Adult fiction, children’s fiction, comic writing and narrative non-fiction.
How does Jo know that she might want to work with a writer? When she reads a promising submission she’ll have a physical reaction. The hairs stand up on the back of her neck or her heart begins to race! This is followed by an overwhelming urge to press the book into other people's hands to read, not just potential editors but other folk too.
Next, Jo’s job is to remove all the reasons for an editor to say ‘no’ to a book. It’s a competitive business. Jo sets about working with the author to make sure the book is the best it can be. It’s vital that the author and the agent both see the book in the same way. It’s the agent’s job to worry about the market place while it's the author’s job to focus on creativity and the writing.
Jo was clear that an author’s relationship with their editor is almost more important than that with their agent. If your book attracts a lot of interest from different editors - be sure to meet them all and have long conversations. This may be one of the few opportunities for a writer to have some control. Ask questions - consider what it would be like to talk and work with this person everyday. Take the same approach when meeting a potential agent. Don’t be intimidated or scared. Be professional.
While this is the dream, what happens when a lot of people want the book? Jo suggested exercising caution when going for the most money. Some of Jo’s happier authors started small with sales from their book meeting or exceeding modest expectations. We went on to talk about second book syndrome. An author’s first book is often the outcome of a protracted, intense, insular period of writing that might have taken years to produce. The author has been honing their craft - putting in the time. This is valuable. Things can become difficult for the writer following publication as they lose this interior life. The author is subject to other people’s opinions and expectations not to mention market pressure. To help ease this problem Jo spends a lot of time talking to authors about their second book.
A huge part of the agent’s job is managing the expectations of authors. Finding out what they know, what they think they know and whether or not they are right. New authors often need a lot of support. When you are looking for an agent think about what qualities would suit you personally. Look at yourself and ask what kind of support do you need? Perhaps you don’t have a head for figures and an organised corporate set-up would allow you to flourish creatively. Ask lots of questions but don’t waste your shot - put your very best foot forward. Make sure your submission is as polished as it can be. Make your cover letter interesting - introduce yourself and the book. Say what the book is about. Display a level of professionalism and dedication. Submit your first three chapters but don’t expect feedback. An agent is very busy working. Seek feedback from a well read friend or do a course.
Remember everybody needs help. Don’t disguise that you’ve worked on your submission. Again, it shows a level of dedication. Your submission letter should not exceed three short paragraphs. Be clear about the kind of book it is, (e.g. teen fiction) and the kind of author you might be - this helps the agent to think about who she might sell the book to or who might invest in you as an author. When an agent takes on an author they are looking for potential with a view to nurturing a long term career. Finally, hold on to your creative process. Being published is important but think of it as the icing on the cake.
We all thanked Jo for her illuminating and enthusiastic take on the writer - agent relationship. Jo kindly stayed on to chat individually to a long line of salon folk who were keen for advice. I suspect there will be a few submissions winging their way to Somerset House soon!
Next month we’ll be meeting up with the author Louise Doughty and discussing Writing Literary Thrillers and Creating Compulsive Plots. Places are filling fas so do try and book online to avoid disappointment. I’m also planning some new masterclasses with Andrew Wille to take place in the spring - details to follow soon.
Until then, happy writing and hope to see you soon.
Links & References:
Dear Agent - Write The Letter That Sells Your Book by Nicola Morgan
From Emma Darwin's blog, This Itch of Writing:
THE SYNOPSIS: Relax! : the synopsis won't make or break your novel's fate, but it can help to give it the best chance. Here's how.
HOW TO PRESENT A MANUSCRIPT : these are the industry standards. They're not difficult, they exist for very good reasons, and you'd be mad not to follow them.
SURVIVING THE SUBMISSION BLUES : A post about an inevitable, but not much discussed, part of any serious writer's life.