Q&A with Madeleine Milburn
Madeleine is a Literary Agent and the Director of Madeleine Milburn Ltd. She formed the agency at the beginning of 2012 and it has quickly become one of the top literary agencies in the UK. Madeleine represents a wide range of bestselling authors writing literary and popular fiction including crime and thrillers, psychological suspense, literary, upmarket women’s fiction, comedy, romance, high-concept, children’s, Young Adult and crossover fiction. She represents authors based all around the world and has a reputation for growing writing careers internationally.
Here’s a Q&A with Madeleine about her career as an agent and what she’s looking for in submissions.
What do you love most about being an agent?
I love being the first to discover a really special manuscript. A manuscript that no one in the book industry has read. And then creating a monumental buzz around the submission and placing it with publishers all over the world. I also love the author care side to being an agent. I care deeply about each of my clients and I get immense satisfaction from growing their careers.
What is your area of specialism?
I represent authors across a wide range of genres both fiction and non-fiction, but to sum it up, I’d say it’s a voice-driven list. I’m looking for original voices with page-turning plots. In terms of a specialism, I have had a lot of success with psychological suspense, most recently with Fiona Barton’s phenomenal The Widow, feted as this year’s The Girl on the Train. I’m actively looking for more books in this vein – books that feel chillingly lifelike, that you can’t for a moment put down. I’d love to represent more crime, the darker the better!
Is there a particular trend or gap in the market that you think needs to be filled?
There’s no let-up in the appetite for domestic noir. I’d love to find a psychological thriller with an unusual concept – something that immediately gets under your skin as you realise how easily it could happen to you. There has been a slew of these books of late, with marriages you recognise, in homes so familar you feel you’ve been in them before. But there’s still new ways of approaching this genre, and I’m excited to see what’s to come.
I’m also seeing a trend for quirkier narrators who surprise you at every twist. Whether they’re unreliable, struggling with illness, mental-health issues, memory loss or social awkwardness, protagonists are becoming more and more lifelike and with that, more and more relatable to readers. I fell in love with the heroine in Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine as soon as I started reading it – she’s a bit of an oddball who tends to say exactly what she’s thinking and struggles with appropriate social skills, but she’s such an endearing character too. I would like a male Eleanor Oliphant next!
I think the different ways in which a story is told can be really interesting, for instance Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us weaves between three different versions of the same story. I’m looking for unique ways of telling stories, particularly given the new ways we absorb information in social media.
What are you currently hoping to find?
Aside from finding new crime and thriller writers, I’d love to find a big, sweeping love story that just wraps me up and takes me in. Something sad and beautiful that I keep thinking back to long after I’ve turned the last page. Publishers keep telling me they are looking for more inspirational stories that offer escapism. An epic story with a strong female lead is something I’d very much like to find. I am also very interested in high concept and true stories that work for film & TV.
What do you think makes a bestselling book?
Making a bestseller is a collaborative process. First of all, you need a brilliant hook, with relatable characters who feel alive and a distinctive storytelling voice. Combining these three elements is no easy feat; if you can then you’ve got a great book. Beyond that, though, it’s other people that make bestsellers happen. Agents and editors come together to champion a book and to make sure the story shines. There are all sorts of people in publishing houses working to develop the cover and marketing plan that go into a breakout book. And finally, there wouldn’t be any bestsellers without readers! The people who buy books, share, recommend and talk about them are the people who turn any book into a commercial success.
What does your typical day look like?
I check my submissions as soon as I wake up and then, when I’m in the office, I am actively pursuing opportunities for my authors. Every day is different as there’s so much going on. I’ll be submitting manuscripts, negotiating publishing deals, travelling to writing events to meet potential authors, pitching to film and TV companies, working editorially with my clients, working on publicity, liaising with editors, drawing up contracts, and so the list goes on! Very little reading is done at work… it’s all evenings and weekends.
Do you have any general tips/pointers for new writers looking to get published?
- Be as articulate as you can be in your introductory email. Agents see a huge amount of submissions, so it’s really important that you can pitch your book in as short and compelling a way as possible. We have less time than we would like to read submissions, so use it wisely!
- Know your genre – give us a short paragraph introducing the intended readership of the book. This will help agents see how to pitch your writing to publishers.
- And most importantly, keep writing! The road towards traditional publication can be unpredictable and slow – the most important thing is that you keep at it, keep coming up with new ideas, reading books and finding the inspiration that will help you develop your voice.
Apart from great writing and a fantastic book, what do you look for in a potential client?
Willingness to work editorially together on the book – books can go through a fair few edits before being submitted to publishers, so it’s important that clients are open-minded about this, and willing to do the work. We also look for writers with lots of ideas. Our emphasis is on building careers, so it’s great if an author can send us a couple of lines on the next book they’re working on, and how it would appeal to the same readers.
How important do you think it is for writers to be digitally savvy?
The world we live in is changing, and it is important as an industry that we move with these trends if we want to stay relevant and current. It is great if an aspiring writer has an online platform, particularly for non-fiction – this is an established audience they can talk about their book with. Being connected online is also a great way of building contacts and knowing your genre. It isn’t everything though. Most of all, writers need to write wonderful books. Being too connected can take away from this, even – digital culture does have the tendency to divide the attention, whereby authors need to give their all to their books. It is our responsiblity to help our authors in the digital landscape, and it’s a publisher’s responsibilty too.
Any useful don’ts to warn writers against?
As important as it is to be aware of the market, write what you love. Publishing trends come and go and are tricky to predict, so don’t try to mirror what’s already out there too much. Writing from passion and experience really does shine through. And you never know – it might just be the next big thing! So stay true to what interests you, keep being inspired and trying new things. That’s how the brilliant books come about.