An Interview With… Madeleine Milburn

Hi everyone, on the blog today I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Madeleine Milburn. I was really pleased when she was able to accommodate an interview. Read on for how she got into the industry and what she looks for in submissions.

A huge thank you for doing this Madeleine, it has been a pleasure to interview you!

Over to you, Madeleine…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Did you always want to be a literary agent when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

I answered a stamp-sized advert in The Guardian for a Foreign Rights Assistant at AP Watt, which was the oldest literary agency in the UK. Back then, I had no idea what a literary agent did let alone what foreign rights were, but it sounded intriguing and I loved books, so it was the first real job I applied for after university. They offered me the role in my interview, but I was hesitant because of the salary… They said ‘do you know how lucky you are? This is one of the most competitive salaries in the industry!’ It didn’t take me long before I realised the opportunity I’d been given, working with authors such as Philip Pullman, Zadie Smith and the late Helen Dunmore.

2) What attracts you to a submission? Is it the cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing?

I’ve wanted to represent 99% of my authors from the moment I read their cover letter. They had me captivated with just those few paragraphs, and their voice continued to excite me in the opening chapters of their novel.

3) How exactly is a high concept novel identified? Is it always X meets X?

Fiction that can be boiled down to a concise, compelling pitch that drives the story. It makes it very easy to position as you can use elements from different books to pinpoint the readership.

4) Are there any differences between representing authors of both fiction and non fiction?

I think there is a huge difference. My list is mainly fiction, and I’m solely concerned with an author’s voice. For a lot of non-fiction though, it becomes as much about an author’s profile as their writing.

5) Can you describe the feeling of ‘I really want to represent this author’? How do you feel when you offer representation?

My hairs stand on end, I can feel my heart beating harder, and I have this strange mix of emotions, one of euphoria and one of fear… I have a rare gem in my hands that I want to share with the world, but will the author choose me?

6) What are your views on the fiction market currently across the genres you represent? What would like to see more of, or what do you think hasn’t been done before?

I think people are looking for escapist, uplifting fiction right now including cosy mysteries, love stories, discussion-inducing suspense, anything to take our minds off lockdown. I’d like to see more genre-bending and literary fiction. An epic love story that crosses generations or a really sophisticated thriller.

7) Can you name one fiction author that you like, and why you admire their style of writing?

I recently read Anna Hope’s Expectation which I loved….it captured that feeling of suddenly waking up feeling that life is very different to how you once knew it. It captures that extraordinary transition you go through in your late thirties, and I found it strangely comforting to know that I’m not on my own in this!

8) 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?

I read to relax! Honestly, there is so much reading to do in the evenings as my days are taken up by deal making, liaising with publishers and author care. Cooking is a great escape for me though and I’ve started to learn about wine which has opened up a whole new world…

9) In lockdown, what are you currently reading? Are you going back to old favourites or reading new books?

I wish I had more time to read old favourites such as Middlemarch or The Magus! I have over fifty authors so I’m usually reading their latest drafts or something from the submissions pile. I also keep up with trends so I’m reading the books that sit at the top of The Sunday Times and The New York Timesbestseller lists…

10) In lockdown, what are you currently watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?

Oooh, I have to say This Is Us is definitely getting me through the second lockdown… I’d love to find more stories with wider casts, an original concept and a similar uplifting nature. I think we all need them right now! Aside from this, I tend to watch a lot of crime and thrillers. I love a Scandi crime series.

Thank you for your time today Madeleine, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Madeleine founded Madeleine Milburn Ltd in 2012, and it is now a major international literary agency based in the UK. Working with a network of publishers and producers based all over the world, Madeleine represents debut writers, journalists, and established authors. With her tight-knit team, she handles all rights to every book including UK, US, international and Film & TV.

In 2018, Madeleine was named Literary Agent of the Year at the British Book Awards, and was shortlisted again in 2020. She has appeared on The Bookseller’s list of the 150 most influential people in the book trade every year since 2017. 

Madeleine represents authors based in the UK, US, Canada and Australia, and has a strong reputation for talent spotting writers and launching their careers with major publishers internationally. She works across all genres and has a particular passion for smart, accessible literary fiction, that can be discussed by book clubs. She has launched the careers of multiple bestselling authors, some of them the highest-earning in the book trade. Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has sold millions of copies worldwide, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for over 84 weeks, and won the 2017 Costa Book Awards. Madeleine also discovered Elizabeth Macneal’s international bestseller The Doll Factory, and bestselling brand authors including C.J. Tudor, C.L. Taylor, Fiona Barton and Holly Bourne. In January 2021, three of the agency’s authors spent multiple weeks the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously: The Push by Ashley Audrain, Wintering by Katherine May, and The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley.

Actively looking for:

Character-led, voice-driven literary and book club fiction with a strong discussion point, moral dilemmas, family dramas with thought-provoking themes, quirky characters, original concepts, thrillers and suspense. Some of my favourite authors outside the agency include: Sally Rooney, Elizabeth Strout, Donna Tartt, Tana French, Hanya Yanagihara, Alex Michaelides, Margaret Atwood, David Nicholls, Anna Hope and Maggie O’Farrell.

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