Meet the agents: Madeleine Milburn

Madeline Milburn is founder of The Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency. Madeleine has a reputation for launching new writers internationally, her agency having a long-term vision and an international plan for each author, negotiating significant deals with publishers in the UK, the US and foreign markets.

The Agency also works to option Film & TV rights to leading production companies and film studios. Further to graduating from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, Madeleine Milburn has worked at the oldest literary agency in the UK and the most commercial agency in the UK. Prior to running her own ship, she has been a Rights Director, Deputy Managing Director of Children’s Books and Women’s & General fiction agent.

When did you come into agenting? What did you do before? And why agenting?

After graduating from St Andrews University with an English degree, I worked in the foreign rights department at the oldest literary agency in the UK. I worked my way up from there. Literary agents seemed to combine my two passions – reading and negotiating.

What sort of books do you love?

Books I simply can’t stop reading, and books that stay with me for a long time after I’ve finished. My taste varies depending on my mood and where I am in my life. I was recently asked to list ten books that had the most impact on me growing up, from childhood to now, which I think is a fun exercise for anyone. My list looked like this (excluding my authors):

  • Every work by Roald Dahl
  • Middlemarch by George Elliot
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  • The Magus by John Fowles
  • Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
  • Atonement by Ian McEwan
  • Caleb Williams by William Godwin
  • After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseni
  • One Day by David Nicholls

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Have you ever opened a new manuscript, read a single page, and thought ‘I’m going to end up making an offer on this’? What was it about that page which excited you?

This has happened with every single author I represent. I have known straight away, even from the covering letter – something about their voice had me hooked.

What’s your pet peeve on covering letters?

Being too negative or giving me far too much personal information that is not relevant to the submission. I just want to read something that introduces the story in a professional and concise way.

Of the authors who are not on your list, who would you most love to represent?

My answer illustrates how varied my taste is! David Nicholls, Khaled Hosseini, Gillian Flynn, Maggie O’Farrell, Sophie Kinsella, Tana French, Harlan Coben, and Elizabeth Haynes.

Are you most drawn to beautiful writing? Or a wonderful plot? Or a stunning premise? Or what?

What really draws me in is a powerful voice and characters that I can’t let go. I need to quickly connect to the characters – if they are likeable and I can empathise with them, you’ll have me hooked. A strong premise to the story is important, too, as I want a reason to invest so much time in reading.

Have you ever surprised yourself by representing an author whose work you had assumed you wouldn’t like?

I didn’t think I’d represent erotica or fantasy, but I do. I want to represent books that will be read by as many people as possible, not just readers of that particular genre. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t say they read erotica but have read Fifty Shades of Grey, just as Harry Potter fits into the fantasy genre but appeals to millions of non-fantasy readers.

Tell us how you like writers to submit work to you. And how you’d like them not to submit work.

I want to see a concise and professional introductory email, the first three chapters and a one page synopsis. Be as clear and specific as possible, and pitch your book in one line that will make me want to drop everything to read it. Towards the end of the letter, tell me a little bit about yourself and why you write. Just send information about one book – I’ll be interested in everything else you have if I love the main piece of work you are submitting. For my exact guidelines and advice, you can always peek at my site.

Where do most of your authors come from? The slushpile? Personal recommendation? Or what?

I don’t like calling it the slushpile because it really is my talent pool. I have found 99% of my authors in there.

Do you need good personal chemistry with your authors?

Yes, we need to be on the same wavelength. It’s such a close and personal relationship that it’s far more successful if we are as ambitious as each other and the chemistry is right.

What’s the most important part of your job? Is it editing/shaping the manuscript? Selling the manuscript? Or supervising the publication process?

All these aspects are key to a successful publication. I spend 3-12 months editing and shaping a manuscript with my clients before submitting or I won’t get the publisher or kind of advance I want. I adore doing deals with publishers all around the world – that is why I am an agent rather than a writer. It’s so important to place each book with the most passionate publisher so that they do everything to publish the book successfully. Supervising the publication process is also key – I must push each publisher for the best terms possible, for marketing and retail spend, for publicity, for my authors views on book covers, and I must monitor each edition in every country I have sold the rights.

Do you get involved in shaping an author’s career?

Yes, I have to make sure my authors stay on the right path, writing the books that will make them successful authors. I have to handle all the complicated situations, for instance if an editor leaves a publishing company, I have to make sure the next editor is just as passionate about my client’s work. I’m fighting day in, day out for my clients so that the publisher champions every single one of their books.

If you had one bit of advice to give to new writers, what would it be?

Read other books in the area you are writing. Read your own manuscript out loud to see if each page grips and engages you. Go through with a fine toothcomb deleting any unnecessary words or sentences that are repetitive. Start each scene at the latest possible point and end each scene at the earliest possible point. Only send your work to agents you’d be delighted to be represented by. And finally, persevere.

Are ebooks going to bring about fundamental changes to the publishing industry? What would you say if one of your authors wanted to e-publish their next book, cutting out conventional publishers altogether?

I am a huge fan of ebooks as they are getting people to read so much more. They are also making books accessible to people who don’t read so much. The digital revolution has created another platform to make books available on an enormous scale. I now represent a number of self-published authors, so I can take their career to the next level. I will advise my authors if I feel some of their unpublished work should be sold as an ebook, only but I’d like to orchestrate this and deal with the digital publishers. Otherwise, it’s just like putting a book on a bookshelf in a huge library. There’s so much more involved in selling a book, and there are so many rights to be sold that it would be difficult to write fulltime and handle the business side too.

Have you enjoyed reading more since becoming an agent? Or are there times it feels like a chore?

There is a lot of reading, so it makes me more selective when I read for pleasure. I tend to read all the books that are working in today’s market or are on the brink of becoming bestsellers. The amount of reading makes me more discerning as an agent – I only represent what I love reading.

The grim stats: how many submissions do you get per week (or year)? And how many new authors do you take on?

About 150 a week. I’m growing my list though so I am eager for more submissions. I have to find the stories I fall in love with.

What Unique Selling Points do you have as an agent or agency?

I run my own agency, so I’m giving 100% all the time. This is not just my job, it’s my entire lifestyle. Having been the rights director for one of the most successful literary agency’s in the UK, I have long lasting relationships with editors all around the world. I personally sell my clients’ work to UK, US and foreign publishers; I don’t pass them onto other departments to sell and I continue pitching backlist titles year after year. I believe it’s my enthusiasm and energy that gets the best deals in as many countries as possible. Like with any corporate business, a publisher has to care about the profit they make for their company so that is their main concern when doing a deal. An agent needs to have a good business head to get the best possible terms for their clients.

Do you like your authors to tweet & blog & Facebook … or do you really not care?

Yes, I think this is important in the run up to publication, and increasingly so once published. It’s also a really nice community where my authors get to liaise with other authors too. Writing can be a lonely business so Twitter can be a support network.

Which is most important: the editor, the publisher or the advance?

The editor needs to champion the book but the whole publishing team need to support the acquisition too. As an agent, I want to see that sales and marketing are equally behind the book so that they invest heavily in the publication. It’s important to have an ambitious agent with a good business head to ensure that the publisher is investing the most in your books.

Do you secretly have a book in you? And if so, tell us more …

I did a creative writing module at St Andrews University, so I gave it a go and swiftly jumped over to the other side of the fence. Talent spotting and doing deals is what makes me happy.

The secret to getting an agent

Free submission pack template