An Interview With… Jordan Lees

Hi everyone, this evening I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Jordan Lees to the blog. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions as to what he looks for in submissions.

What he looks for is also detailed after the interview.

Over to you, Jordan…

1) Did you see yourself becoming a literary agent after you left school? Did you actually have any other career plans?

I knew I wanted to work with books but I didn’t really know what a literary agent was until I started looking into publishing jobs. The more I researched, the more I found agenting the most appealing, so I focused on applying for internships at agencies. One summer I interned at Jonathan Clowes, which was a brilliant experience, and from then on knew I wanted to be an agent. The only other thing I considered was doing a literature PhD after my Masters but in the end felt more excited by publishing.

2) How are you drawn into a submission – is it the covering letter, synopsis or sample writing? What can an author do to leave you wanting more?

I think the cover letter is important. It’s the first example of your writing we’re going to see so it’s worth putting time into it. It should quicklyaddress the most important questions. What genre is your book? What are some comparison authors or books? What it’s about? Why might I be the right agent for it? It’s best not to overload the cover letter, just hit the key points. You aren’t going to get an agent based on the cover letter but if it’s confused or badly-written it will raise some red flags. After that, I’d probably read the sample writing before the synopsis. Hopefully the cover letter will give me a flavour of the book without having to know the entire plot. Fromthe sample writing I want a strong voice and a grabbing opening, and I want to feel as though the writing is well-suited to its particular market. If I’m excited by the writing I’ll check the synopsis to get a better sense of the story, how original it is and how it might be pitched to a publisher.

3) How do you know that you have connected with a manuscript?

The most important thing is that I really want to keep reading it. When I’m not reading it, am I excited to go back and read on? Do I care about the characters and need to find out what happens next? Do I want to tell my colleagues all about it? These are the questions I’d think about when considering a manuscript, and help guide me when considering whether to take things further. The truth is I get sent a lot of technically good writing but if I don’t absolutely love it that’s a sign that I’m not the best agent for it – I really enjoy editorial work so I’d need to want to read it over and over, and if I don’t love it that’s going to impair my ability to sell it.

4) What, currently, are you not looking for? Do you mind if an author blends genres in their writing?

I’m open to a broad range of genres but I’m not really looking for women’s fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, YA or children’s, and that’s purely because I don’t typically read in those areas and so wouldn’t be the best agent for them. I’m interested in anything which blends genres but it’s tricky to do well – you’re trying to appeal to two different strands of readers who might have very different expectations about a book, so it needs a lot of care and thought to hit the sweet spot.

5) What would make you reject a manuscript, if you have asked to see the completed work?

There’s a lot of different reasons but the most common is simply that its hold on me fades as the book goes on. It might be that it becomes too slow and loses tension or intrigue after a strong opening. It could be that it becomes too confused and you lose sight of where the book is going or what the author wants to achieve. Perhaps the author hasn’t put as much care into the entire book as they have into the opening – that’s why it’s so important to have edited and honed the entire manuscript before sending out to agents.

6) What are your views on the crime and thriller market? In your opinion, is there a sub-genre in need of more representation?

Not so much a sub-genre but crime and thrillers from different backgrounds are still shamefully under-represented, whether that’s different ethnicities, classes or members of LGBTQ+ communities. But that’s likely true of all areas of writing, not just crime/thrillers. Generally, it’s still a dominant genre and there’s a huge appetite from publishers. I think police procedurals are tougher now because there’s so much out there and that space is dominated by some very big authors. Anything speculative or really fresh like The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle or the upcoming Eight Detectives is particularly exciting, I think, but there is still a lot of room for great crime and thrillers of all kinds.

7) Is there one book from your childhood that you still read now? If so, why are you still drawn to it? Mine is any of the Harry Potter series and the Horrid Henry books. I was a huge fan of the novels and my six year old self had nightmares about Voldermort.

I still read Alice in Wonderland every so often. I find the complete nonsense quite calming.

8) What are your views on book to film or television adaptations? Do you prefer the book or the film versions?

I guess it’s a mix. It’s hard when you absolutely love a book to enjoy the screen adaptation as much, I think. There will always be elements changed or removed that affect your enjoyment. I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy and I didn’t like the movie for The Road, but so much of what made that book beautiful to me was the writing itself. On the other hand, I didn’t love the book for No Country For Old Men but I thought the film was incredible.

9) When you leave your desk on a Friday, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/the weekend, what do you do to relax?

When there isn’t a pandemic the first thing I’d do is my lengthy commute from Central London to Essex. Usually I read on the way home and then just relax with the family.

10) If you had to choose between Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury, who would you choose and why?

I’m not a huge fan of either but I’d probably choose Freddie because Rod Stewart is a Celtic fan and I come from a family of Rangers fanatics.

What I’m looking for:

He represents crime/thrillers of all stripes (whether commercial or literary) and detective fiction, dystopian/speculative fiction, literary fiction, true crime and smart non-fiction.

He is particularly drawn to writing with a real sense of atmosphere and has a soft spot for anything dark and strange. Some of his favourite writers are Patricia Highsmith, John Fowles, Cormac McCarthy and Gillian Flynn. Some recent books he has enjoyed are:

  • The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
  • Lanny by Max Porter
  • Lullaby by Leïla Slimani
  • His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
  • Snap by Belinda Bauer

He is not currently looking for sci-fi and fantasy, women’s fiction, children’s and YA.

Thank you for letting me interview you Jordan. It has been a real pleasure to have you!

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