The Desmond Elliott Prize is all about helping to give debut authors their ‘big break’. In the second of our My Big Break series, literary agent Juliet Mushens, who represents last year’s Desmond Elliott Prize longlisted author Jessie Burton, told us all about the magic moment that felt like the ‘big break’ in her career.
I had been working in publishing – at a publishing house, and then at an agency – for four years when I joined The Agency Group (now United Talent Agency). TAG was then the biggest independent music booking agency in the world, and had one literary agent in its New York office. If I joined I would be leaving behind an agency with a foreign rights department, film rights department, books department and contracts team to go somewhere which had never had a UK literary agent before. I knew as soon as I met CEO, Neil Warnock, that I would fit in there. Whilst our businesses were different, our ethos was the same, and if he was prepared to take a risk on a relatively junior twenty-six-year-old agent, then I was up for the challenge. It was terrifying, yet elating, to be given a refreshingly broad remit: ‘sign and sell books you believe in.’
Being the literary island in a music empire was challenging at times: I remember being incredibly insistent about having book-shelves built, and my invites to book launches in Daunt were certainly not as exciting as the gigs and festivals the music team were used to. But over time I built a great relationship with my colleagues, who are now enthusiastic champions for my authors. Recently, the 11-year-old son of our CFO attended the book launch for my client, New York Times bestseller Taran Matharu, and was overwhelmed when Taran gave him a miniature figure of a character from the book.
I had to work hard to attract submissions to an unknown agency, but I relished the challenge, and hit the ground running, speaking at numerous publishing workshops, creative writing classes, and hosting a weekly #askagent on twitter.
Within six months at TAG I had signed Jessie Burton for her debut novel The Miniaturist and sold it in 37 countries, signed Francesca Haig for her debut novel The Fire Sermon and sold it in 26 countries as well as a film deal with Dreamworks, and done a new three-book deal for Sunday Times bestseller James Oswald. I’d also spotted social media account @SoVeryBritish, who at that time had 100,000 followers, and sold his book at a 7-way auction to Little, Brown. He now has 1.4M followers, two books, two TV series, a T-shirt range, board game and a range of greetings cards. I was nominated that year for the Kim Scott Walwyn prize for excellence in young women in publishing, and for the Literary Agent of the Year Award. I’ve since been shortlisted twice more, and hope to one day take home the trophy…
TAG was excitingly acquired by United Talent Agency in August 2015, and in the years leading up to the acquisition we expanded the team to include two more agents, Diana Beaumont and Sarah Manning. Whilst joining in 2013 was a risk, it absolutely became the biggest break in my career, and I will always be grateful to Neil Warnock for taking a chance on me.
Juliet Mushens is an agent in the UK office of United Talent Agency. Amongst her authors are New York Times and Sunday Times bestsellers including Jessie Burton (The Miniaturist), James Oswald (The Inspector McLean series), Debbie Howells (The Bones of You) and Taran Matharu (the Summoner trilogy). You can find her submission guidelines here: http://www.theagencygroup.com/departments/literary/submissions/
Find out about the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize longlist, which included Jessie Burton’s debut The Miniaturist. Jessie Burton’s second book, The Muse, is published on 30 June 2016 by Pan Macmillan.