Meet the Agents: An interview with Madeleine MilburnHarry Bingham
This is an interview with literary agent Madeleine Milburn. Prior to having her own Agency, Madeleine was the Head of Rights and a Literary Agent at the Darley Anderson Literary, TV & Film Agency where she built a strong list of authors over five years. She was also Deputy MD of the Children’s Literary Agency. Her Agent Hunter page is here, her Twitter feed is here and finally, her agency page is here!
Q. What books/authors do you love in commercial fiction? (Crime, women’s) Give us some examples and say why you liked these books/authors.
I think Lee Child is fantastic because he has created one of the greatest series protagonists I’ve come across. A truly modern antihero, Jack Reacher is the main hook for each of Child’s books, and pretty much guarantees fans for the whole series.
David Nicholls is one of my absolute favourite authors. I love his conversational voice and how he manages to get to the heart of a relationship, exploring how people think and what makes them tick. I also thought the tragic twist in One Day was one of the best tools for word of mouth publicity.
I always love a good tearjerker – for instance Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You. I like books that enable me to really empathise with the characters. John Green is another author who had me sobbing into my pillow recently!
I read a lot of popular commercial fiction including books by Gillian Flynn, S.J. Watson, Harlan Coben, Jo Nesbo, Liane Moriarty, Kathryn Stockett, Mark Haddon and so on – basically the books that are working in today’s market. I’m interested in books that sell widely. There’s nothing more depressing than sales figures not reaching the thousands given the time and investment from the author, agent and publisher.
Q. What books/authors do you love in literary/historical/book group fiction? Examples and reasons, please!
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and The Goldfinch (though I think the latter could have had a tighter edit!) I love everything written by Maggie O’Farrell and Ian McEwan (the audio edition of The Child in Time is truly fabulous), and Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is one of my favourite books. I love books that have a strong talking point; that leave you desperate to discuss with and recommend to other people.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels made a huge impact on me when I was still at school. It was the first time I’d written to an author, and she sent me a wonderful letter in return! I’ve been a fan ever since. That moment made me realise the power authors can have over their readers, and how important it is for authors to engage with their fans.
Q. How about sci-fi/horror/fantasy/paranormal/YA dystopian/erotic? What would you be interested in, and what’s a big no?
I really like YA books because they tend to be genre-bending, not fitting neatly into a specific category. A lot of the big bestselling ones also have that highly immersive, accessible voice that lends itself to effortless reading. They tend to be really filmic and offer complete escapism.
I devoured Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, John Green, R.J. Palacio and Annabel Pitcher. Right now, I’m looking for gritty realistic teen fiction tackling issues that teenagers are facing today, particularly women’s issues. I’m also looking for a terrifying ghost story / horror novel. My favourite horror movie is Stephen King’s The Shining. I’d love to represent something like that.
Q. On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?
A complete mix actually – I love more serious memoirs and some quirky narrative nonfiction. On the commercial side, I absolutely love Caitlin Moran’s books, and I’m really interested in anything to do with human psychology and the difference between the sexes. For instance, I’ve been looking for a modern Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, and I’d love to represent something as inspiring as The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.
I think mindfulness will soon become a strong trend so I’m looking for books in that area, and also innovative dieting books that promote healthy and safe weight loss (like the FastDiet by Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer).
Q. What (very roughly) is the balance of your list between literary fiction / commercial fiction / non-fiction?
I represent a lot of commercial fiction but I’m currently building a literary list: sweeping, epic stories with huge international appeal – beautifully written, but still accessible. Things like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Book Thief, The Kite Runner, Life of Pi and The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Q. Is there anything in particular you’d love to see at the moment?
I am actively seeking upmarket adult fiction that has a strong talking point and is suitable for book club discussion. Also a strong series crime thriller and, as always, commercial fiction that combines a fresh voice with memorable characters. But I’m always open to anything!
Q. What’s your biggest turn-off in a covering letter? What would you really hope to see?
When the focus is on the writer rather than the book that is being submitted. I am interested in people, but because of the sheer volume of submissions I receive, I want to get straight to the point and read the pitch first. If I love the opening chapters I’ll request the rest and will then want to know everything about the writer behind it!
Q. What are your biggest peeves in an opening page or opening chapter? And what do you love to see?
I’m a bit of an impatient reader because I read SO many submissions (and this is often done in snatched moments between meetings, on the train – all outside of typical working hours), so I just love to be gripped instantly by a voice or by a character. I don’t want a single excuse to put down a book when I start reading. Sounds brutal, but the industry is so competitive that something needs to be truly excellent to make a splash in the pond.
Q. Would you take on an author who had self-published? What kind of self-pub sales would make you sit up?
Yes definitely, I represent a number of self-published authors for instance Mel Sherratt, Talli Roland and Janet MacLeod Trotter. We recently sold Russian rights in a book by Janet and it has sold 150,000 copies over there! I handle international and Film & TV rights for self-published authors but also strive to take self-published works to new levels in the UK & US, thereby reaching a much wider audience. Where appropriate, we also help our clients to self-publish through Amazon KDP, who offer significantly higher royalties than traditional publishers for ebooks.
Q. What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?
Read other books that are working in your area. First you need to prove that there is a market for your book and second, that your book is different and better. A big ask, I know. But by reading books that have been a huge success, you can see what publishers are looking for and it will really help you position your work.
Q. How many submissions do you see annually? And how many of those submissions will end up on your list?
I get between 30 and 60 submissions a day. So we’re looking, at the very least, at 10,950 submissions in a year. I might take on ten new writers a year, but I have no set limit. Some months I don’t find anything, but then I might spot a couple of exciting manuscripts in one week!
Q. Do you look for social media and online presence? Do you care?
No, not to start with. This is something I discuss with my clients in the run up to publication when we need to create a buzz and pave the way for a wide-reaching launch.
Q. When people are pitching the concept for a book to you, what do you find is the most common failing?
Not being specific enough or not having a hook that immediately wants to make you discuss the story with the person next to you. As the best tool in publicity for books is word of mouth, it’s the books that really have a strong talking point that travel the most widely.
Q: Which 3 famous people (alive or deceased) would you invite to a dinner party and why?
I think it would have to be the people who really inspired me to start my own literary agency:
Steve Jobs with his mesmerising commencement speech at Stanford University saying ‘The only way to do great work is to love what you do….’ Watch the rest here: http://www.ted.com/talks/steve_jobs_how_to_live_before_you_die
Jordan Belfort because I recently went to one of his talks and found him one of the most inspirational salesmen! Being a great agent is about finding the talent but it’s also about pitching and doing the best deals possible with publishers and film companies all over the world.
I am a tough negotiator for my clients because I really care about each and every one of them and I believe that the higher the investment publishers make from the outset, the more commitment they have and the better the publishing.
Oh, and Oscar Wilde for his wit and wisdom…. ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’