Agent Jo Unwin has been an actress, a literary scout, and a literary agent. She now runs her own agency.
The agency has been running since 2018, and represents debut and bestselling authors including Shelley Harris, Kit de Waal, Nina Stibbe, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Richard Ayoade and Jenny Colgan, publishing in the UK, US and internationally. So we chatted to Jo about her genres preferences and her advice for writers.
Q. What books, genres, authors do you love in commercial fiction? Give us some examples and say why you liked these books or authors. I can’t wait for you all to read Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce. It is everything I ever want in a book – funny, sad, deeply touching. And A.J. Pearce is the author we all dream of, seriously good at what she does and ridiculously good fun. I also love Louise Lee’s work. She gave up her career as a geography teacher to become a private investigator (as you do) and her first book came 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 each other) is that they create commercial fiction that breaks the mould. They fit a genre, perfectly but utterly original (and hilarious).
Q. What 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 that 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 dystopia/erotica? 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 and non-fiction? Always changing!
Q. Is there anything in particular you’d love to see at the moment? Someone send me an original, heartbreaking love story! Though generally I never like to define what I’m looking for, as you just don’t know what’s round the corner.
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? How did this particularly furry and 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 literary 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. As long as a similar sense of confidence comes through in the writing, that is what matters.
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 online. 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.
To send a submission to the Jo Unwin Literary Agency (JULA), follow these guidelines. For more information about Jo, have a look at her profile or her Twitter page.