Jenny Luithlen, who was my agent for more than thirty years, died the Sunday before last, aged 80, after a long illness. She specialised in Children’s and Young Adult Fiction, with a warm but insightful eye, taking no nonsense from publishers or her authors, most of whom viewed her with affectionate respect. Born in Ipswich, where her father was stationed during the war, Jenny worked for the publishers Hodder and Stoughton for 22 years before forming The Luithlen Agency in 1986. Her clients including the pony-story writing sisters Josephine and Christine Pullein-Thompson, taboo-breaking YA novelist Robert Swindells, Pete Johnson and Alison Prince. Jenny and Lutz’s daughter, Penny, joined the agency after graduating, soon bringing on board her former school-mate, prize winning author Bali Rai, and forging links with a younger generation of agents and publishers.
Most agents put up their fees to 15% in the 90’s, as agents began to take on more initial editing, but Jenny never raised her rates for old clients and nor did she edit, though she would point out potential concerns and defend her authors to the hilt when problems arose – which, in my case, writing about controversial areas affecting young people, happened several times. ‘She fought like a tiger for her authors,’ Julia, my Point Crime editor said. Jenny could be both stern and motherly when giving advice: I remember early on she told me to change my telephone manner and stop answering the phone with a terse ‘Belbin.’ When I insisted on challenging a former children’s laureate who had recycled both the title and much of the plot of one of my novels, she took it right to the top and I won the moral victory, but Jenny warned me that, if I went after the author any further, my career would be over. Children’s Fiction was, when push came to shove, as brutal a business as any other.
In the late 90s the Harry Potter era halved YA sales in the UK and the main series I wrote for was shut down. Jenny helped me diversify into other areas – reluctant reader and historical fiction – along with the edgy YA fiction I’d gained a reputation for. Without her support I doubt that my last two YA novels, ‘The Last Virgin’ (dedicated to her and Penny, ‘a higher agency’) and ‘Denial’ would have been published. When, twenty years ago, I told her that I planned to move into adult crime fiction, she warned me that I might get more attention but would almost certainly make a lot less money. Which proved to be true.
I stayed on Jen’s list nevertheless and we remained friends, as agents and authors rarely do. I even wrote another four YA thrillers under a pseudonym, Harry Edge, who got good advances but never sold in the same quantities as the more controversial books under my own name. That Jenny and I stayed in regular touch was made easier by the fact that, unlike the vast majority of agents, she chose never to move to London, but lived in Leicester, with her academic husband, Lutz, who she’d met a tennis club dance in 1970, on the same street as the late Sue Townsend, with whom she was friendly.
Jenny expected to die last summer and took her long decline from cancer with forbearance and her formidably robust sense of humour, appreciating the loving support of her family. She was always more interested in asking about my partner’s health than she was in talking about her own. I took the photos above and below in the garden of her and Lutz’s lovely home in 2016. My condolences to Lutz (pictured with Jen) their children Phil and Penny, and their three grandchildren. Publishing won’t see her like again.
There was no funeral, as Jenny didn’t want one, and the family don’t want obituaries but are happy for me to publish this brief blog celebrating her life. I’ll always remember her with affection and gratitude as part of the luck I’ve had in my career and my friendships. I’m sure many others will feel the same.