Robin Jones on The Power in Simplicity and All Things Literary

After studying Russian and Philosophy at university and translating the catalogue for the Hermitage and the State Inquiry into Chernobyl, Robin Jones has had a varied career in publishing including campaigning for freedom of expression as the Co-ordinator of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and as a Russian researcher for Index on Censorship. For many years he was an international literary scout involved with the global breaking of such names as Z.Smith, M. Ali and the like. He has a literary agency in London and is co-owner of Unthank Books and Unthank School. He has been a reader and editor for The Literary Consultancy for ten years and now consults for Fiction Feedback.

Why did you decide to become a literary agent? Are you a writer too?

I moved from human rights for writers, and freedom of expression campaigning (International P.E.N. Writers in Prison Committee and Index on Censorship) to an unusual and rare but critical part of the mainstream publishing industry called literary scouting. Without going into too much detail about it, as that can be found online these days, that particular role demands maintaining an overview of UK publishing, in particular what scripts agents are selling and editors are buying- the book commissioning process essentially. From this vantage point I could see that the logical next step for me in my career was to become either an agent or editor. For circumstantial and personal reasons that turned out to be agenting.

No. I don’t write myself. I’ve never found anything like the self-discipline and determination. I’m hugely admiring of everyone who completes a piece of creative writing, and in total awe of those who can finish a recognisable novel.

Which parts of your job are the most and least satisfying?

The most satisfying is seeing and believing there is potential in a work and managing to have that validated by firstly selling it to a serious publisher and thence to a receptive public. The least satisfying part of the job is seeing the previous and not being able to sell it.

What do you look for when you first start reading a manuscript? What makes you keep reading and still get excited about new work? There have always been apocryphal stories of certain literary agents reading a first sentence or paragraph and discarding the rest of the novel.

It is not apocryphal and a perfectly valid way of assessing material, although I’m happy to say that natural compassion prevents me from chucking after one sentence. We are all human…. I think. There is far too much material available and sadly too little of great interest. If the author cannot write a better paragraph or sentence than I can myself why should I consider representing them with a view to both of us carving out a small but ongoing income from our collaboration? There is no point. It has to be really good – all of it – from start to finish. Gaining a mainstream publishing deal is the equivalent of a classically trained professional pianist who has worked with top orchestras suddenly deciding they are good enough to go for a solo at the Wigmore. Writing is no less serious a craft in my opinion yet seems to be considered so by too many.

What key advice would you give to a writer when they are considering approaching a literary agent? 
Be certain they are at their peak and the product is at its most perfect. If there is even a shadow of doubt in your mind, seek the services of a professional editor or consultant.

What sort of books do you read for enjoyment? Who is your favourite author and why? 
I read mainly literary fiction and thoroughly enjoy a wide range of it. I seem to be more impressed by American ‘greats’ at this stage of my life. I’m a huge DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy fan and have just had the distinct pleasure of reading Kent Haruf’s ‘Plainsong’ trilogy or the trilogy that begins with PLAINSONG anyway. Haruf’s I think are exquisite works of simplicity that carry an incredible power. My favourite author if pushed is probably David Foster Wallace.

I see from your biography that you are deeply involved with Unthank Books – a publisher that has produced some wonderful anthologies and novels over the last few years. How did you come to be a part of the group, and can you tell us more about the Unthank ideology? 

Thank you for the compliment Daniel. I co-founded it six years ago with a client of the agency Ashley Stokes because we saw too much quality literary fiction which appealed to our taste struggling to find a home and decided to get it out there ourselves. He’s very much Norwich based and I loved it there so with the great UEA and Norwich literary tradition in mind decided it was criminal that there was no actual publisher in the city at that point.

Are there any areas in the modern book trade that you believe could be exploited more effectively – such as local independent bookshops fighting back against the behemoth that is Amazon?

I love the idea of that but people in publishing tend not to collaborate en masse very effectively I feel. For example, I don’t “get” the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs though I’ve been dozens of times. They seem so flat and uninspired. Not the equal of the books they purport to promote. I don’t see why we haven’t thought of better or different yet. It’s the same in the commercial trade – we seem to be unable to stop nonsense that other industries just laugh at. Sale or return???

Do you believe – as a couple of literary agents have told me – that literary fiction is dying?

If they have they must mean in the trade. The stuff itself will exist as long as people can construct sentences. In the trade only the commercial survives but that in turn as we know has meant the growth of independents, self-publishing, digital solutions et al.

Who or what is your greatest influence and why?

Out of the big boys I like the Buddha’s message and from the mortals I like Dr. Luther King Jr, Marley, Hesse, Chomsky, Tolstoy, Corbyn. I like to think of myself as not much into following but we’re all influenced, like it or not aren’t we?

What are your thoughts on North American fiction being allowed into the Man Booker Prize? Do you feel that certain literary awards should exclude some people or that all awards should have a ‘come one, come all’ policy?

I think we should protect our own literature. The US does just fine without us in book terms. Anything that dilutes the ‘British’ voice is a shame. Global homogeneity is heading our way irrespective – why rush it?!

Thank you so much for talking to us.

Daniel David Gothard (@GOTHARDDANIEL)