Essex Book Festival: Birth of the Book Live Blog! – Jo Unwin

Join us as we liveblog the ‘Birth of the Book’ event at Essex Book Festival featuring critically acclaimed author Kerry Hudson, Literary Agent Jo Unwin and Picador Editor Francesca Main.

Scroll down below for the live updates! We move on to Literary Agent Jo Unwin.

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We’re just taking a break and will moving on to the next session soon.

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Next up is literary agent Jo Unwin.

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Jo is introducing herself and how she came into the business.

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Left university convinced she was going to be an actress. Being an actress and a writer is tough.

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Got very low and in a tough place. Wished she’d acknowledged that what she really loved was reading and books.

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Thought it was too late to work in the industry – aged 44 with no track record. Decided to go work in a bookshop.

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Loved talking about books and discussing them with customers. Really enjoyed it.

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Loved the business side of being a bookshop and selling books.

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Met a literary agent and was offered the chance to look through a slush pile. If she found anything good, they would split the commission.

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Had an amazing start – found a book shortlisted for the Booker.

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Had no idea at the beginning what a literary agent does!

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Jo is opening it up to the floor – what does a literary agent do?

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Finding things to be published.

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The link between the author and publisher.

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The first person to read a finished manuscript.

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Keeping in touch with their writers. Not much reading during the work day.

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Agents do an increasing amount of tweeting to get their authors recognised. 

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Finding new writers – trawling through the prizes, flash fiction, short story prizes.

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Divide time into thirds – third is finding new clients, dealing with new clients and running a business.

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Works on behalf of clients – e.g. book has had no PR etc and goes to the publisher.

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Going back and forth between author and publisher.

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When looking for new clients – after something different, something they can sell.

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Agents can only make money if the author is making money.

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One approximate statistic is that a book will be edited about 12 times before it reaches a bookshop.

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Really helps if you do a bit of work for the agent for them. It’s a very competitive business – think of how many books there are in the world.

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We all read slightly differently – no one has the same books on their bookshelves.

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All agents are different – each have their own tastes and passions. It will help to have a think about exactly the type of book you have written. Think about your book and what style it is.

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The more clear you can be in what your book is the easier it will be to target an agent.

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You’ll get rejected – and people do get rejected. Even when you have an agent you’ll possibly be rejected.

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Minimise the chance of rejection by being very clear what your book is.

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When a book is sent to an agent, it can start a snowball of a process. From author, agent, editor, sales, book buyer, bookseller to person buying it in a shop.

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How are you going to avoid rejection?

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Follow the agency submission guidelines.

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Last year Jo had 6000 submissions. From those, she got 4-5 books published.

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She may get books from recommendations from other authors as well.

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Reading of manuscripts happens in the evening and weekends. Friends and family and normal life all have to take place.

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There are things that can put you off reading a submission straight away. Spelling and grammar will put them off (although a dyslexic author was taken on recently)

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Be professional: no winking emojis! Joked once she liked Curly Wurlys and got inundated with them!

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Unsolicited offers come in but priorities have to be with existing clients. They are delivering whole complete books.

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Would always say send the first chapters – no one starts a book in the middle.

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Send first 10k words or first three chapters. Each agent will want something different.

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A good synopsis is important. People really struggle writing these.

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Will read first three chapters in a row. Will then look at the synopsis to check that the author has a story to tell. It may veer off in a different direction than expected.

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Don’t worry too much about the synopsis. It’s to give a sense of the story.

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Covering letter is important. Keep it short and professional but that you are also a real person. Don’t use bullet points as it doesn’t show that you can write.

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An appealing letter will help greatly as it shows they have researched an agent. Comment on authors they represent.

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Show in the covering letter that you have done your research. Get their name right!

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Covering letter should tell a little about you: how long have you been writing? Love hearing about you as a writer.

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The more you write the better you get.

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Most important thing in the letter: can you summarise your book?

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Some people use vey abstract notions of the book in the letter. Keep it short and to the point. The more specific the better the sense of what the book is.

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Difference between a summary and a synopsis? Synopsis is a technical tool – everything that happens in the book. A Summary is much shorter. A blurb will have a sales focus.

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As an agent it can be useful to say ‘it’s X meets Y’ as a sort of book. Use the comparisons and say it will appeal to readers of XYZ.

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With so many agents – how do you start? Have a sense of what you’ve written. Go to Waterstones and start looking at the back of books for the acknowledgements. You’ll see agent’s names there.

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Look at the UK based authors first and make a list. Start Googling them. If they have a large list, that agent may not be for you. But they may have assistant who has more time and it building a list of their own.

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Also use Writer’s and Artist’s Guide. A great resource.

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About approx 40 agencies in London alone. Each will have their own sense of taste for books they like.

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The Bookseller will tell you about books being sold and the agent who sold it.

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Website called Agent Hunter. Can use that. Share the subscription in a writer’s group between you.

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Would never tell an author what to write. But has to look long term. Will work with an author to work out ideas.

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Sometimes books will sink without a trace. It is heartbreaking but it happens.

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You can’t make someone write differently to how they write. You can shape and structure but not to write differently. 

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Will sometimes pass manuscripts on to other agents more suited. Will consult the author first.

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YA has genres within it – same as adult fiction.

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That’s it for now! We’ll be back after lunch.

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