A Tale from the Other Side

October 5, 2015 | By | 36 Replies More

jounwin_resize-480x440My heart is in my mouth.

Nearly two years ago I went to an event where new authors read from their work in progress. One in particular stood out, and I set my heart on representing her. Her writing showed steel, and wit, and cool and I fell in love with it. Nervously I pressed my business card into her hand, and followed up with an email the following day.

A few days later she got back in touch. TEN agents had contacted her, and everyone wanted to meet her. I took her out to afternoon tea. What were the others doing? Who had offered her what? How flashy were other people’s offices? How impressive their teams? Would she think I was great – or an alcoholic – if I tried to win her over with several glasses of prosecco? Does prosecco even go with scones?

But oh, her writing! It was intense and sensuous, her story was dark and alluring. Talking to her, I knew she didn’t just have one story in her, but hundreds. Desperation is of course repulsive, so I tried to take things in my stride. I’m sure she saw straight through me.

She put me through the wringer. I said she could speak to my existing clients to get references, and she only went and emailed them all with a flipping questionnaire. But reader, she chose me. We agreed to work together.

That was quite a while ago. She’d only written a few chapters, and a novel takes time. She showed me how she was getting on. I was encouraging, sometimes had notes for her. Nothing’s ever right at first draft stage, but we could see what was working, and what needed refining.  We’d meet up every couple of months, getting to know each other, getting to the heart of what it was that her novel was. Slowly but surely it was emerging and my conviction that this was something really very special grew and grew.

In July I read a draft that knocked my socks off, and we agreed that there was no more tinkering to be done. But it was July. A terrible time to send out a debut novel. Everyone’s on holiday, nobody can get enough people on board to support an acquisition – we’d have to wait. But there were things I could do: I could show this draft to my co-agent in the US, I could ask my foreign rights manager to read it. I needed to know what potential the book had internationally. And – oh sod it – yes, I could ask for a last few tweaks while I went on holiday.

And I asked the author to write me a biog to put on my website, and to get a photo that was a bit better than the kitchen selfies she first tried to land me with.

Came back from holiday, started to think about my favourite editors. The author needs someone who can steer her through not just this book but subsequent ones. Who would best build her ‘author brand’ as it’s known in the trade?

Talking to my American co-agent, we agreed that submitting on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time was most likely to make people sit up and pay attention. And Monday was Labour Day, a public holiday in the US. Tuesday would be everyone’s first day back. But Wednesday… yes Wednesday would be just the right day to make the calls, and send the manuscript out.

That’s tomorrow. I’ve written a letter to all the editors I want to consider the book. I’ve told them what a talent I’m sending their way (as if they needed telling – the proof is right there, in the attached manuscript). I’ve also included an outline for Book 2, to show how carefully the author’s thought about her career.

I’ve got the emails ready.

My heart is in my mouth.

* * * *

Five days later. A few editors have written back saying how much they’re loving the book. I’ve heard from the US and people are into it there too, and the scouts are telling me that a lot of people are talking about it… but still no firm offers.

I won’t lie – I feel a bit sick. Can’t imagine how my poor author is faring.

* * * *

Well well well. What a fortnight. Lots of people passionately admired this book, on both sides of the Atlantic, and we ended up going to meet several editors and their teams over two busy days. This is such a passion-led industry, and it is fair to say that these editors were passionate. They had read the book so closely, knew the characters so well, they had suggestions for little improvements here and there. They showed such clarity and professionalism in their (very differing) visions for how to get this book out to the widest possible readership. And then my author had to do the same thing all over again, talking to editors in America on the phone, fitting round the time difference by calling last thing at night.

Knackered but excited, we waited for the second round of offers.

And then the next.

And finally the auction closed.


The winning bid came from a wonderful editor whose thoughts on the book, the characters and how to position it chimed exactly with the author’s. It felt exactly right. And this editor had previously worked with the brilliant editor who won the US auction, and they liked each other. So that felt exactly right too.

At last, we could celebrate and relax.

Except that while all this was going on I had read an AMAZING new book from my ‘slushpile’ and I had set my heart on representing the author. I met her last week.

My heart is in my mouth…


LITTLE DEATHS by Emma Flint will be published by Picador in the UK, and Hachette Books in the US in early Spring, 2017. It’s really, really good.

Jo Unwin became a literary agent in 2008, leaving behind a successful career as an actress, screenwriter and film scout. Jo 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 Bookseller’s Rising Stars in 2011. In 2013 she set up her own agency JULA, based at and working in close association with Rogers, Coleridge and White.  Jo represents authors of literary fiction, commercial women’s fiction, Young Adult and children’s books (though not picture books) as well as narrative non-fiction and comic journalism. Follow her on Twitter @jounwin.



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Category: Agents, Contemporary Women Writers, On Publishing, On Writing

Comments (36)

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  1. Robin Botie says:

    Hi Jo. I started out on Twitter and followed some thread to this article. In other words, I don’t remember how I found you but I loved reading about the agent’s side of querying. It has definitely set me in a more positive, less squeamish direction as I begin to search out agents and query my first manuscript. Can you share with me the name and agency of your American co-agent as I’m in New York state? Thank you again for this glimpse at the other side of the query adventure I’m about to embark on.

  2. What a fab inspiring post and how apt I’ve found it as I’m ‘taking stock’ of this year…

    Very new to the industry – with very naive, ill-conceived assumptions & expectations (fear even) of literary agents being superhuman and possibly a tad superior in nature – I was delighted to see you speak, Jo, at Newcastle’s New Writing North Day in June; I’m delighted to share your professionalism, enthusiasm & passion were just as obvious there as they are here.

    While there you advised about what was needed to ‘grab’ your attention with submissions, this really helps appreciate not just the tentative nature of the next step(s) but how beneficial, and for me essential, it is to find an agent who is enthused about the story, the writing and the writer; as you say, someone to form a strong collaboration … and of course, scoff Proseco & scones with😆

  3. Ann Hirst says:

    If I could find an agent one tenth as compassionate and supportive as you, Jo, I will be one very very happy lady. Your clients are very lucky and I envy them. Keep up the brilliant work. You are a credit to the industry.

  4. This article is so inspiring, It’s give a writer the feeling that agent is not going to be someone who is there in this world to make you feel horrible! On the contrary, it’s the opposite. An agent is going to be the Father of the book, if the writer is the Mother of the book.

  5. I really enjoyed this perspective for a couple of reasons. I think, as writers, we assume that editors and agents or anyone other than us, have it all together and have all had their anti-angst vaccine. I learn so much when the curtain is pulled to the side and and I get a chance to poke my head in and “see” what really transpires behind the scenes.

  6. Colleen Goth says:

    really enjoyed this

  7. Hugh McCusker says:

    For unpublished authors the anxiety always feels one way. It’s nice to see that there’s some contraflow. Of course, the key for the writer is to grow a stellar manuscript.
    So, back to writing…

  8. Aine Greaney says:

    What a great essay and a unique look at agent-ing done well and with the author’s career and goals and talent playing center stage. Can we clone you on this (U.S) side of the Atlantic? Yes. I know. That probably *did* sound a touch snarky, but based on some hard-won experience on my part. Lovely story written with warmth and humour. Now I’m going to check Emma Flint’s book. Thank you again.

  9. This might possibly the first time i’ve ever read anything on twitter. No, hang on, the second. But i’m glad i did. You are a bloody fabulous inspiration Jo Unwin and i miss seeing you. I will look out for that book when i jump off the eurostar this spring! bises

    • Jo Unwin says:

      Hello!!! Loved your photo of all your glorious children – and thanks for calling me an inspiration!!! And sorry anyone who’s reading these comments that I’ve found an old friend through this website. Please don’t feel excluded. (I hate it on twitter when people start arranging to meet for coffee and everyone else just feels like they’re not part of the gang!)


  10. trudy says:

    The way you built this story up, I thought you were going to tell me the author found someone else instead. Or died. Glad you got a happy ending. All of you! All the best!

  11. Debra Brown says:

    My heart is in my mouth also now!
    I shall await this debut with much anticipation.
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful insight from the other side, Jo.

  12. This was a great article and gave me an intimate insight into an agent’s perspective. Your passion and excitement for the book and the process was so evident. Sure wish I’d had (or will have for my second book) an agent like you. Good luck with Little Deaths.

  13. Beth Moulton says:

    What a great story! And a reminder that agents need writers as much as we need them. Also, Prosecco goes with everything.

  14. Sheila Good says:

    The excitement and passion you displayed makes me anxious to read the book and bookmark this as an agent worth remembering. Thank you for sharing.

  15. AJ Flowers says:

    Wow! I sincerely hope I find an agent as passionate about my own work. So inspiring.

  16. As Clare wrote, from the writer side it feels like agents have the power. Your story shows so well the human and vulnerable side of being an agent. thanks for sharing.

  17. Clare McVey says:

    Fascinating to hear the agent’s side of the story. Naive of me but I had never imagined agents having similar emotions to first time authors. It always seemed to me that they are in the position of power. Having just had my novel pitch tweet favourited in #PitchCB, I’ve submitted to Jonny Geller and my heart is also in my mouth and will be until I hear back.
    One question occurs to me having read to the very end – why will this amazing novel not be published until spring 2017? It seems such a long time away!

    • Jo Unwin says:

      Sorry – only just seen this response. There’s a lot to think about – it needs to be edited and designed, and there are times of year which are good for debut fiction and times when they’d sink without trace… But most of all, if it was published tomorrow, NOBODY would have heard of it. The publicity and marketing that build your awareness of a book so that you find yourself buying it is a complicated brilliant part of the whole publication process!

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