Skip to main content

How I Got My Literary Agent: Jackie Copleton

Debut author Jackie Copleton, A DICTIONARY OF MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING (Dec 2015, Penguin) shares how she obtained her agent and published her novel.

“How I Got My Agent” is a recurring feature on the Guide to Literary Agents Blog, with this installment featuring Jackie Copleton, author of A DICTIONARY OF MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING. These columns are great ways for you to learn how to find a literary agent. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at and we’ll talk specifics.


Column by Jackie Copleton, debut author of A DICTIONARY OF
 (Dec. 2015, Penguin Books). Jackie

Copleton's novel is inspired by her time living in the beautiful city of
Nagasaki in the 1990s. It is a Richard and Judy book club pick for
summer 2016, was long-listed for the Baileys Women's Prize for
Fiction 2016 and was a BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick in 2015.
Follow Jackie on Twitter

A long hard road
Boil a packet of desperation. Dollop on some panic. Add a sprinkle of shame. That’s how I landed my agent.

In 2010, I’d given up a journalism job in London to do a writing course in Scotland. By the time I’d finished I had 25,000 words of what I thought I could turn into a novel. I then moved from Glasgow to the Middle East, where the heat left me trapped indoors for most of my time. You can get a lot of writing done when you can’t walk in the sun.

(Why you should only query 6-8 agents at a time.)

Those 25,000 words grew to 200,000. I thought I had the beginnings of three novels when in reality I had none – and no off button. My inner editor was snoozing by the pool.

In 2012 I was back in the UK, working from home as a subeditor for a press agency, which left me with free time to write in the mornings. The words were still flowing but I knew they weren’t right.

Onwards I typed, slowly, keenly, sadly, and with each passing month fewer people asked me, ‘How's the writing going?’

My job took me down to London to do contract work with my old employer in 2012. Have you ever returned to a working environment where you are miles lower down the food chain than when you left? Tends to focus the mind. The inner critic had a rare old time.

Moving forward
I had to act! I printed off three chapters of the book in the business centre at my hotel. The sun bounced off the glass skyscrapers and canals of Canary Wharf as I stuffed envelopes and licked stamps during my lunch break, my hands shaking. This decisiveness felt like a big deal. More a confession than a statement of intent.

When I finished my shift, I went to one of the pubs where the journalists drank – and left the envelopes. I had to retrieve them the following day with the horror that maybe a former colleague had looked inside and discovered my secret: I wanted to be a published writer.

I chose two agents, both of whom had done talks during my course. The first was a well-respected former Penguin editor based in Edinburgh.

For some reason I decided to include an experimental piece of writing to ‘show my range’, with an opening paragraph that included as many slang terms for vagina as my imagination could summon. I have no idea why. It will not surprise you to read she sent me a rejection letter, where she had changed the title of this piece from ‘Pud’ as in pudendum to ‘Mud’.

I had been named the joint winner of a now defunct prize during my writing course at Glasgow University and sent my second submission to the agency who had sponsored the award. One of their agents wrote back saying my style was too formal for her but she saw I could write. She advised me to get back in touch when I had something new to show her.

I had a choice: throw out the book and start again or ignore the only professional feedback I had received about the novel. I couldn’t dump the work. I knew there was a tale somewhere hiding within those reams of words. I just had to figure out who the narrator was.

Image placeholder title

Join the Writer's Digest VIP Program today!

You'll get a subscription to the magazine, a
subscription to, discounts
on almost everything you buy, a download,
and much more great stuff.

Rewrite, revise, retry
I then spent about a year rewriting what would become A DICTIONARY OF MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING. I decided to tell the story from the perspectives of four women, before figuring out I only needed to focus on the relationship between the mother and daughter. Still I stumbled around, killing off the wrong character before a moment of clarity made me realise Amaterasu, the mother, was my narrator. The plot crystallised from that point on and late in 2013 I decided to send the book out again.

I chose three agents, which I suspect is not best practice, but I was in a hurry once more. I felt the same urgency I’d experienced down in London. I sent one submission to an agent who was also a guest speaker at my writing course; another agent in London based on her warm bio on her agency’s website; and Mark Stanton, of Jenny Brown Associates.

Mark, or Stan as he is known, had worked with a friend of mine on a short story collection that sadly didn’t make it into print. His name popped out while searching through the literary agencies listed in the Writers’ Handbook. He had been shortlisted as agent of the year in the 2011 Bookseller awards, which impressed and intimidated me.

The London agent emailed a couple of days later and asked to read the full novel. Within a week she had sent a no, saying she had to really a love a book to take it on. I never heard from the other agent. Stan had also emailed me, wanting to read the full manuscript, and within a week or so he suggested we meet up for a chat.

Slow and steady wins the race
I was living in Newcastle in the north-east of England at the time, and he was based twenty miles away. We met in a pub a couple of hours before I had to start work. Many of his clients are sports writers, which happens to be my husband’s job, so the conversation flowed. We were around the same age, he was dressed casually, it all felt nice and relaxed. I didn’t mention my friend. I didn’t want to put him on the spot.

We ended up talking about my main character and Stan gently confirmed what I had feared: she just wasn’t sympathetic enough. Rather than curl into a ball of embarrassment at this critique, I found myself thinking, ‘Yippee, he’s not some stuffy school master fellow who’s going to terrify me with his opinions.’ At the end of the 90-minute meeting, he said these lovely words: "I’d like to represent you."

(How many markets should you send your novel out to?)

That was just before Christmas in December 2013. During the summer of 2014, after Stan had helped me work on a couple more drafts, he sold the novel to Hutchinson. On July 16, 2015 the book came out in the UK, two days after GO SET A WATCHMAN. I couldn't begrudge the timing or Harper Lee. The years of panic and desperation had paid off.


Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers' Conferences:

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.39.23 PM

Your new complete and updated instructional guide
to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book
GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more 
than 110 literary agents who share advice on querying, 
craft, the submission process, researching agents, and
much more. Filled with all the advice you'll ever need to
find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to
the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

A Conversation With Baron R. Birtcher On Social Media

A Conversation With Baron R. Birtcher on Social Media: Bestseller. No Website. No Me. (Killer Writers)

Killer Nashville founder Clay Stafford continues his series of interviews with mystery, thriller, and suspense authors. Here he has a conversation with bestselling novelist Baron R. Birtcher about author websites and social media.

How a Book Distributor Ended Up Selling Her Own Book

How a Book Distributor Ended Up Selling Her Own Book

Davida G. Breier’s publishing story is certainly one for the books. Here she discusses how, as a books distributor, she ended up selling her debut novel.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Submitting Your Work

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Not Submitting Your Work

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is not submitting your work.

Making Your Fiction a Place You Want To Be

Making Your Fiction a Place You Want To Be

Author Janet Key shares the feeling of not wanting to revisit the world she was creating and the tools she used to help make her fiction a place she wanted to be.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Backstory Change

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Backstory Change

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character's backstory change.

Writer’s Digest Official Book Club Selection: Portrait of a Thief

Writer’s Digest Official Book Club Selection: Portrait of a Thief

The editors of Writer’s Digest are proud to bring you the first book club pick, Portrait of a Thief, to read along with us.

6 Ways To Fight Your Inner Critics

6 Ways To Fight Your Inner Critics

For many writers, self-critique gets in the way of making much progress. Here, author Julia Crouch shares 6 ways to fight your inner critics.

Writing Allegory: A Convenient Place to Hide

Writing Allegory: A Convenient Place to Hide

Where realistic fiction felt both too restrictive and too revealing for author Susan Speranza’s transition from poetry to fiction, she turned to allegory. Here, she shares examples of famous allegories throughout history and how allegorical writing helped shape her novel, Ice Out.

Instagram: An Underutilized Tool for the Freelance Writer

Instagram: An Underutilized Tool for the Freelance Writer

In this post, author C. Hope Clark shares tips on how freelance writers can use Instagram as a tool to find more freelance writing connections, assignments, and overall success.