Dream of being a writer? Got a novel you’re working on? Then a talk on how to submit your work for publication could be for you. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

EVERYONE has a book in them, goes the old saying. “And for some people, perhaps that’s where it should stay,” says Jo Unwin.

She’s joking, of course – but only partly.

If people gave up on their dreams of writing she, as a literary agent, would be out of a job.

But the cruel fact remains that of the 8,000 or so unsolicited manuscripts that landed on her desk last year, there were only a handful – “three or four or five” – that she could take forward, she says.

It’s hard getting published.But there are ways that you can increase your chances, Jo says.

Jo is one of three top literary agents who will be presenting a session at next month’s York Literature Festival on how to submit your work for publication.

There are things you can do that will increase your chances of success, says the former actress, screenwriter and film scout, who is sister of Julia Unwin, chief executive of the York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

• Sweat blood and tears over getting your book right. “And when you have crafted it and sweated blood over it, craft it some more, sweat some more,” she says. “Work it until you think that there is no way it could be made any better.”

• Write the first draft imagining in your head that no one will ever read it, Jo says. You’ll feel freer that way to express yourself. But once you’ve worked it, and sweated it, and polished it, show it to a friend who you know will be prepared to be honest with you. “It should be someone who is on your side, but who you feel you can take criticism from.” It is notoriously difficult to judge your own work: so listen to what they have to say – and then re-work your book again.

• Learning to write is like learning to play the violin, Jo says. “When you first pick up a violin, you can’t get a distinction at Grade 8. It is the same with writing. You have to keep at it. There is a big gap between your intentions, and the finished draft.” In fact the average book, by the time it goes through the initial stage of drafting and redrafting, then rewriting, then being edited by your agent, your editor and your proofreader, goes through an astonishing 22 drafts, she says. So be prepared to work it.

• Once you have crafted and polished your book, shown it to a friend, then crafted and polished it some more, you are in a position to send it to an agent, Jo says. But if you are to stand a chance of success, you must choose the right agent.

Some specialise in romantic fiction; some in thrillers or children’s books. She doesn’t ‘do’ military fiction, for example, so there’s no point sending her an Afghan War novel, no matter how well written.

Decide what type of book it is you have written; think about where it might sit on the shelves at your local bookstore; look at the acknowledgement page of other books in that section and see which agents represented those authors; and then make a list of those agents.

Once you’ve done that, look at their websites, to see how they want you to submit your manuscript. Some accept paper submissions only: some email submissions only.

Some want the full book: some just a precis and a couple of chapters. If you want to increase your chances, submit your book in the form they want.

• Finally, there’s your covering letter. It – and the first few pages of your book – need to stand out from the crowd. They need to be impossible to put down, Jo says.

So don’t make your letter too formal. But don’t make it cutesy, either. “No emoticons!” Jo says. “It needs to be professional, writerly. It needs to come from a person I might want to spend the next ten years having a very intense working relationship with...”

Above all, Jo says, be prepared for rejection. And when it comes, rework your manuscript again, find a new list of agents – and start the whole process again. Nobody ever said getting published was easy...

• Jo Unwin is one of three literary agents who will present The Submission Process: Literary Agents in Discussion at the Temple Hall, York St John University from 11am-1pm on Saturday March 28 as part of this year’sYork Literature Festival.

Tickets to the event are £27.95 from

The ticket price includes a copy of the latest Writers and Artists Yearbook.


• This year’s York Literature Festival, from March 19-29, boasts a glittering line-up of speakers, including Woman’s Hour’s Dame Jenni Murray, historian David Starkey, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, York writer Matt Haig... and former York City legend Chris Jones.

Here are a few highlights:

• Thursday March 19, 7.30pm, Temple Hall, York St John University. Cameron’s Coup: Polly Toynbee and David Walker discuss what the Coalition government has done for Britain

• Saturday March 21, 7pm, St Peter’s School: An Audience with Dame Jenni Murray

• Sunday March 22, 2.30pm Grand Opera House: Music and comedy special: comedian and poet John Hegley plus York folk band Blackbeard’s Tea Party

• Sunday March 22, 7pm, Grand Opera House: David Starkey: York’s Place In History

• Monday March 23, 7pm, Waterstones: York author Matt Haig (author of The Humans) on ‘reasons to stay alive’

• Monday March 23, 7.30pm, Quaker Meeting House: An Evening With The Minster Men. A celebration of York City Football Club, with former City legend Chris Jones, York Press sports reporter Dave Flett and Radio York’s Sharon Shortle

• Thursday March 26: Historian Tracy Borman discusses Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s right-hand man (currently being played by Mark Rylance in the BBC2 series Wolf Hall)

For a full programme of York Literature Festival events, visit yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk