At the start of the year, we were delighted to welcome Jess Leeke to the MMA team as a new Literary Agent. Jess was formerly a Fiction Publisher at Michael Joseph where she acquired and edited a list of stellar authors who have celebrated Waterstones, Sunday Times, and New York Times bestsellers, Booker, Costa, Desmond Elliott, Irish Book Award and HWA shortlists and enjoyed Richard & Judy, Radio 2 and US TV book club picks in both fiction and non-fiction. Just a few months into her new role as an agent, we’ve quizzed Jess on her journey into agenting so far, the experience she is bringing from the publishing side and her perfect submission find.

You’ve recently made the move from being a Fiction Publisher at Michael Joseph to starting a new career journey as a literary agent at Madeleine Milburn. What part of the transition from being a publisher to becoming an agent are you most excited about?

Ooh, so much. Definitely the relative freedom to pursue projects that might not have fit the remit of my previous role. Every ping of the submissions inbox is exciting. And the agency that comes with the job, too. I’m so used to collaborating closely with colleagues from the earliest stage that I feel like I’ve jumped out of a plane without a parachute. The team here is brilliant and we consult with each other, but it’s not quite the same as putting a P&L together to invest financially in something as a group like we do in publishing. I’m particularly excited about working with different publishing teams too – seeing how one will bring a book to market versus another will be hugely interesting after working for a long time with one publishing division.

You obviously have an incredible amount of experience on the publishing side! What knowledge and expertise do you look forward to bringing to your new role as an agent for your authors?

I do – but it’s also great to see relatively young agents and editors absolutely bossing it in certain thriving areas of the market and that’s a hugely positive thing for our industry. I am looking forward to making great use of my editorial experience: that ability to see past a project in its early form to where it could end up if it meets the right kind of editorial work. It’s important to help writers realise that full potential in their own way, true to their own vision. I think experience helps in knowing when to take that leap of faith and how to make sure the editing experience is exhilarating rather than daunting. The right editorial collaboration can push a book from being good to being great, or help it pivot to suit a more buoyant area of the market.

I know I can be of real help once the deal is done. When I was a publisher my authors would ask me, ‘what can I do to help, what should I be doing.’ Publishers need their authors to connect with their audience, even in small meaningful ways, but authors don’t necessarily know what that looks like and publishers don’t always have time to show them. The more an agent can help authors understand the nuances of the publishing landscape for themselves, the more confidence they can have in it and in the team around them. Then they can concentrate on their writing and spend less time and energy navigating the rest, especially things that we know will have relatively little upside.

Agents are matchmakers, but we can help that subsequent relationship flourish over time, and knowing what both sides need to work best together will be my superpower, I hope. We all want what’s best for the book in hand, but so too for the author’s career in the longer term, both things can be true.

What is your best memory/ proudest achievement from your role as a publisher?

Seeing a once-interview-shy author being interviewed on a national TV book club here or in the US was always really exciting, or seeing a novel gain another life on screen. I have a project currently filming as a major film that began unagented and in a raw place so I was heavily invested in that as its editor and publisher and feel so proud of every inch of its success. The author was new to the business and helping them navigate so much that was unexpected and exciting was a privilege and a learning curve.

But truly my best memories are from when things came together as a team. If you don’t know much about publishing, know that nothing really happens without a team of super committed experts. The magic really happens when you get in the room with a publicist and a marketer and that sales colleague who know they can make a difference to a book’s success. They use their hard won relationships with booksellers and gatekeepers to say ‘this is the one you should back.’ So when something flies, it’s that team high-five I always loved. Or when people went that extra mile. I never forget the effort people make for a book I’m working on or am pitching for. The Marketer who carried a giant Love Island birthday cake across London to deliver it to Waterstones Head Office, the Publicist who took a proof on holiday to Australia with her to hand deliver to an author we wanted to blurb it. The Sales colleague who worked so committedly to get a treasured author in front of the Waterstones fiction buyer. The creativity that used to pour forth from our Comms team into a pitch. Nothing happens for a book without the team that’s backing it and making those matches is something I’m really looking forward to. Even if I will be high-fiving from the other side of the table!

How would you define your reading taste and what area of fiction are you most drawn to?

I can enjoy a great novel from any genre but I specialise in book club and accessible literary fiction and am often seduced by the promise of a great character or cast of characters. The novel I read most recently that I really can’t stop talking about is OUR WIVES UNDER THE SEA which is literary fiction, but achieves such strong narrative tension I couldn’t put it down. I so enjoyed its clarity of vision – it’s a beautifully designed, beautifully crafted novel which will stay with me for its powerful imagery.

I love fiction – contemporary or historical – that adds nuance to conversations we’re already having, that helps us make sense of the world around us. I enjoy a voice-driven novel from any genre, I love the intimacy that comes with a first or close third person narrator, especially an outsider perspective. I just listened to GREEN DOT on audio and found Hera Stephens to be great company. I was lucky enough to publish ASK AGAIN, YES and BLACK CAKE in the UK and a beautifully crafted family or marriage story is for me too, always. HELLO BEAUTIFUL and the Padavano sisters stole my heart last year, as did Ann Patchett’s novel TOM LAKE. I love a story told from a moment of crisis in the present that sweeps back over a life lived to cast relationships and events in a new light. And I’m always saying this but cloistered settings (like Julia Armfield’s submarine!) always draw me in. I missed my stop on the way to work this morning reading Katy Hays THE CLOISTERS. I love Gothic fiction which feeds my appreciation of strongly realised settings. And the older I get the more I’m drawn back to my countryside roots – I love fiction that brings the natural world to life. I like smart social commentary but as a reader I do like to make that emotional connection, too. SUCH A FUN AGE is so impressive in the way it explores complex, nuanced ideas of race and privilege in such an accessible way.

What can a prospective author do to make their submission stand out to you?

Clarity of pitch. Imagine browsing in a bookshop, looking for a book to fall in love with, but all the books are face-down. That pitch has to really stand out from the rest and often that’s about clarity as much as anything. If you can draw me in over the course of a paragraph then you can tell a story and that’s a great start.

For me the icing on the cake is the inspiration behind the novel. Why must you tell this story. I’m looking for fiction that can ignite conversation and provoke discussion or that readers can really respond to emotionally and usually authors in this space have a great sense of purpose or connection to the story they are telling. Is it based on a true story, or inspired by a real life event or something from your past or your day job? I’m always keen to hear what’s driving your writing and see evidence of you being really committed to your craft and style.

What would be your perfect submission find?

Right now publishers want clarity of pitch and position. A high concept, a stand out voice, or a sweeping emotional narrative, beautifully told. I’d love to find an epic, multigenerational sweep of a story to get really immersed in – think PACHINKO or ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE.  An upmarket story of family and resilience. I’m always looking for a warm, eccentric family stories, upmarket Gothic fiction with highly realised settings, and small town dramas with a crime or mystery at their heart – today’s TWIN PEAKS for example. And I am very specifically looking for a tense, unstated, beautiful, literary horror at the moment too – like the film THE BABADOOK as well as a  boarding school or prestigious university-set novel about class. I also realised when I read ROMANTIC COMEDY recently that it combined two things I love: a mid-life love story and a workplace setting.

I think submission wise I’m always chasing a feeling as much as a particular story. I want to feel like I did when I first read TOMORROW AND TOMORROW AND TOMORROW on submission as a publisher, or LESSONS IN CHEMSTRY. I want to know I’m at the beginning of a publishing journey that could take me round the world with a novel so special it demands nothing less. It’s the biggest privilege. I am no less ambitious than that which is why I joined an agency with such a brilliant international rights team. The great Toni Morrison once said that an editor should be ‘cool and dispassionate’ so it’s a good thing I’m now an agent because I’ve never been cool or dispassionate about books.

What’s next on your reading list?

There are a few new releases this year I’m excited about: Charlotte Mendelson’s new novel THE WIFE (I loved THE EXHIBITIONIST) and Julia Armfield’s PRIVATE RITES. I’ve just started Katy Hays THE CLOISTERS which actually made me miss my train stop this morning. I try and keep up with books I’ve missed every so often too so I have ASSEMBLY on my bedside table and I just finished WRITERS AND LOVERS which I loved.