Ask The Agent – Madeleine Milburn

Writing Magazine – June 2024

Madeleine Milburn taught English in Germany after graduating from St Andrews University. However, after a chance connection with a woman running a small independent publishing company, she changed jobs and learned all about the Frankfurt Book Fair and translation rights. After working for A P Watt, the UK’s oldest literary agency, she established the Madeleine Milburn Agency in 2012.

What do you enjoy most about being a literary agent?

Talent spotting is one of the most exciting parts of the role; being the first to recognise new talent and work with a writer to help shape their manuscript before matching them with publishers all over the world. I also love negotiating and fighting for my clients! Working with authors, book after book, to turn them into bestselling brands is the most satisfying part. I’ll never forget the 1 am call from the US publisher of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine to squeal down the phone that it was No.1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is classified as literary or upmarket fiction. How do you define this genre?

It’s a genre that appeals to both commercial fiction readers and literary readers. I’d define it as smarter “conversation-starting” fiction, a novel that lends itself to being discussed in book clubs. A thought-provoking story that is relatable and has a compelling plot.

What challenges do authors of literary/upmarket fiction face when seeking publication?

Like with any creative industry, competition is the biggest challenge. The market has become saturated with upmarket fiction, so the first challenge is finding a publisher that will ensure it stands out amongst the rest, and whose marketing and publicity teams prioritise the book so that it gets the most opportunities. A unique pitch or a strong hook helps the story to stand out.

Literary/upmarket fiction sometimes crosses genres. Does this make it easier or more difficult when approaching publishers?

Genre-bending books have become really popular, romance taking on a note of fantasy, thrillers with an otherworldly feel, upmarket fiction with a speculative edge, as by blending genres they’re doing something different which makes them stand out in the market even more.

How important are foreign rights for the success of literary/upmarket fiction novels?

International rights are at the heart of our agency as we want our authors to be global bestsellers. You never know where your author might become a bestseller, and it’s important that our authors have opportunities in every market. We’re passionate about every author achieving a global readership and ensuring they have multiple contracts and income streams. The President of one of the top five US publishing houses recently got in touch: ‘You seem to represent every bestselling novel in Europe’, which is exactly how I’d like to be perceived by new writers.

What common mistakes do you find in the literary/upmarket fiction submissions you receive?

I often find that the writing is strong, but the actual pitch is not different enough to get a publisher excited. Sometimes I get submissions that don’t feel tailored to me or my list. I always take extra care assessing submissions that feel personal and where the writer has researched our agency and sees a space for them on our list.

How important is diversity in the literary/upmarket genre today?

We are so passionate about increasing diversity that we came up with a new scheme, the Madeleine Milburn Mentorship, a comprehensive programme of talks and close editorial mentoring over the period of twelve months for underrepresented writers which contributed to our efforts to create a more diverse publishing landscape. To embrace diversity in all its forms, my business partner Giles also started a six-month rolling training programme, the New Draft internship, to help candidates from an underrepresented group start their career in publishing.

What other genres do you represent? What are you looking for at the moment?

I love suspense and thought-provoking upmarket fiction, but my list really isn’t defined by genre. I don’t read in one particular area. I look for a strong, irresistible protagonist and themes that celebrate human connection. Publishers are asking me for an epic love story and family dramas that spans generations, others are asking for the new Jack Reacher. I have producers and publishers in mind when I’m looking at talent, but what I really look for is a character who doesn’t let me go.

Madeleine Milburn’s Top Tip

Too many talented writers give up long before their dreams are realised, put off by rejection or early criticism. Publishing is a subjective business. You have to hit the right note at the right time to ensure that a manuscript finds the way into the hands of someone who connects with your voice. So many of my successful authors were on the brink of giving up when I discovered them. Some even had agents who couldn’t find the right publisher, but are now global bestsellers. The most important thing is that an author keeps writing, honing their craft with each book. Persevere!

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