Thursday, 1 November 2012

You asked my agent...and she's answered!

Back in August I invited questions for my agent Madeleine Milburn and you asked some brilliant ones. Here, a bit later than planned (Frankfurt Book Fair got in the way), are her answers - as well as a few questions of my own.

So, without further ado, here's Maddy...

1. Most people I know, excluding writers, have ended up in their career by accident rather than design (when I left Uni in 1995 with a degree in Psychology I never imagined I'd end up as an E-Learning Manager, for example). Did you always plan to become a literary agent? What was it that drew you/continues to attract you to the job?

On graduating from St Andrews University, I went to Germany where I found work with a small independent publisher. Every evening I researched literary agents and what they did. The role of a literary agent combined my passion for books with my love of negotiating, so I knew it was for me. I actually got my first official job with the oldest literary agency in the UK, A P Watt, where I worked in the foreign rights department – this is what has given me an international outlook for the authors I represent today (for instance C.J. Daugherty of the NIGHT SCHOOL series, now sold to 20 foreign publishers). I love helping my authors become successful – this is what drives me each day.

2. What qualities do you think a literary agent should have?

A successful agent needs to be a good talent spotter, an excellent networker and an ambitious negotiator. Author care is also extremely important.

3. What should an author expect from his/her literary agent?

Someone who will handle the business side of their writing career and also guide them editorially – I explain exactly what I do as a literary agent on my Agency home page:

4. You recently ran a couple of competitions to attract authors to your agency. One was an open call for submissions (taking into account the preferences you state on your website) and the other was for crime/thriller writers. What genres are you looking for at the moment?

I launched a crime and thriller competition to show writers that I was expanding into crime, thrillers and psychological suspense. As I represent a lot of women’s fiction, I was only getting submissions in this genre. I look at every genre though. If I think I can sell something and I believe that it will be successful, I will offer representation.

5. Is there anything you're seeing too much of? Either a genre, a plot or certain type of character?

I see a huge mixture of genres now – I get about 50 submissions a day. I am getting a lot of erotica due to the current trend!

6. What makes your heart sink when you read a synopsis/first page?

A synopsis that is far too long and complicated, or a first page that doesn’t hook you in.

7. And what makes you sit up with excitement?

A fantastic title, a really strong pitch and an opening chapter that grabs you by the hand and won’t let you go!

7. I know it's impossible to predict trends in publishing (and whatever is hot now will probably be out of favour next year) but is there anything that editors are crying out for at moment? (and if you've got an inkling what the 'next big thing' is, do share!)

Editors are crying out for psychological suspense and crime. Books like INTO THE DARKEST CORNER by Elizabeth Haynes and BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP by S.J. Watson. The great thing about this genre is that it’s universal and usually sells all over the world. A lot of publishers are jumping on the erotica bandwagon simply because FIFTY SHADES OF GREY is the biggest selling book of all time. I’ve just had an erotic title published by Penguin, THE PLEASURES OF WINTER by Evie Hunter, but I also had huge success with two psychological suspense novels at the Frankfurt book fair this year, including your latest AN END TO SILENCE. The big high concept, accessible literary books are still selling really well, too.

8. Last year the media was full of stories about falling sales in women's fiction. Is chicklit dead?

Publishers rarely offer for new chicklit titles unless they have a fresh edge and a fantastic selling point. There is so much chicklit about so I find it very easy to spot chicklit that is fresh and original. I’m looking for more realistic books about women; something that would sit nicely next to the American sitcom GIRLS. Hodder is publishing the romantic comedy NEVER GOOGLE HEARTBREAK by my client Emma Garcia in March next year, and it’s going to be their biggest women’s fiction début of 2012, so women’s fiction is very much alive! MIRA (part of Harlequin) is also investing heavily in growing Victoria Fox, my fabulous author of bestselling bonkbusters.

9. How healthy is the publishing industry at the moment? We hear every year that it's getting harder and harder to a) get a publishing deal as a debut author and b) hang onto your career as a midlist author. Do you think that's true?

Yes, it is more challenging to sell a début author so I am much more selective when I offer representation. I look for authors who are going to work on an international level. A midlist author has to be driven and ambitious. There will always be hard times in a writing career but those who get to the top are able to ride the storms.

And now some questions from my blog readers:

10. From Sarah: What is the usual sequence of events from someone submitting a manuscript to it being published. Assuming of course it is good and warrants publication. How many people read it etc?

I will always work with a writer editorially before I submit their manuscript to publishers. I also get one of my Agency editors to offer feedback. There are not set rules when I submit. It depends whether I want to submit to UK or US publishers first, or to make a simultaneous submission. I usually target the top 10 UK publishers and the editors I believe would be the best match for my author and their work. I will pitch the book to them long before I submit to get them excited and prepare them for the submission. If I get more than one offer, I can take the book to auction. The most important thing is finding one editor who simply loves the book and will champion the author in-house year after year.

12. From Yasmin: As a literary agent, are you ever able to negotiate cover control on the writer's behalf as part of a publishing contract deal? Meaning the design is co-planned and they get final say in the process. It's something I feel really strongly about.

I do make sure that my authors have a say over their cover design. It is important that my authors feel ‘ownership’ of their novels. That being said, the publisher does know the market best, so it’s important to make the author aware of their vision too, and why they want to use a particular cover. They have to fight for retail space so their sales team needs to love the cover too.

13. From DJ: Maddy, if one of the authors on your list sent you a MS (of theirs) in a genre you didn't represent would you still read it with a view to passing it on to another agent / agency?

I receive some really good manuscripts and I sometimes make recommendations but, to be honest, I receive so many submissions that I can’t justify getting into correspondence with writers I am not going to represent as I need to give this attention to my own clients. I am open to all genres – even if I don’t represent a particular genre now, if something screams out at me as being a success, I will definitely consider representation.

14. From Karen: How long have you been a literary agent and what is your favourite genre?

I have been working in publishing for over eight years now. I have been a Literary Agent for the last five and a half. Before that I was the Head of Rights and the Deputy MD of Children’s books at a leading literary agency. I don’t have a favourite genre – I fall in love with a voice or a character.

15. From Helen: Agent Kristin on the PubRants blog recently admitted that she is far more likely to take on a new author during the winter months.
And I imagine agents have far less time to look at new submissions whenever there's a big book fair on. So is there a 'best time' to submit to the Madeleine Milburn agency?

I look at submissions on my Blackberry so if something instantly catches my attention, whatever time of year, I will request the full manuscript. It does get extremely busy around book fairs though, and that is why my responses can be slower, but I am always looking and reading at the start and end of each day.

16. From MamaJ: The covering letter is the first thing an agent sees from a submission. What is the most important element you're looking for and what would make a covering letter stand out?

My advice is to be as clear as possible in your covering letter. When writing this letter, imagine you are talking to the literary agent in person about your book. Pitch your book in one line that will make people want to read it immediately and tell the reader a little bit about yourself and why you write. Do tell us why you have chosen us. Keep your synopsis under a page in length – this is good practice to make it as concise as possible and as interesting as possible. I think titles are really important too as a strong one will grab a reader’s attention.

17. From Captain Black: When seeking representation, new writers are advised to consider only literary agents with proven track records. How does a relatively inexperienced agent go about improving themselves and gaining their track record?

By selling lots of books! You can find out if an agent is active by researching online. It is important to find an agent who has the time and energy to make you a success.

18. From Susanna: Would it put you off from representing an author if his/her work was good enough but too similar (or on a similar theme eg supernatural romantic comedy) to another writer you already represent?

Even if the genre is similar, the voice is usually completely different so it wouldn’t put me off. There are lots of publishers who are looking to publish similar genres to another publisher, especially if a particular genre has been a hit.

That's the end of the questions! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer them Maddy.

Huge congrats to Sarah who wins the signed copy of HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, the tote bag and the bookmark for her question. Let me know your address and I'll get them in the post to you ASAP.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Anonymous said...

Thanks Cally and Maddy.

The Wandering Wordsmith said...

This is a really interesting and insightful Q&A, thank you for sharing it.

Karen said...

An interesting read :o)

Mama J said...

Brilliant interview and very helpful. Thank you to both Cally and Madeleine!


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D..J. Kirkby said...

This was such a good idea for a post, and the questions and answers were all interesting. Thanks everyone!

Cynthia Bond said...

I wanted to drop you a quick note and tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. I've recently gotten an amazing agent, and after turning in the third draft of my book, I started a literary blog. I think that your site might be very helpful to my followers--right now I have about 1000 page views. (Small but building slowly.) Would you be interested in having a link to your site on my blog? I hope you get a chance to visit my blog at

I am now following your blog and a follow back from you would mean a great deal.

Thanks so much-

Cynthia Bond

Joan Ark said...

I love your blog!

A Writer's Nakama