The women behind many of your favourite books including Holly Bourne's 'How Do You Like Me Now?' and Gail Honeyman's 'Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine', literary agent, Madeleine Milburn spoke to us about her career to date, her career advice for young women and who inspires her the most.
Tell us about the journey to your career.
It wasn’t until after uni that I discovered there was a job that combined my love of reading with that of negotiating – like an estate agent for books! I then found my dream job as an assistant for the oldest literary agency in the UK, working with authors such as Zadie Smith and Philip Pullman. I’d hit on my chosen career, but I couldn’t afford to live in London on that salary alone, so I started an events company on the side. By night I was organising speed-dating events and language-exchange parties; I even became responsible for three marriages! Little did I realise that I’d use this small-business experience to start my own literary agency one day. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to combine all of these skills.
Are there any cultural moments that have impacted your work?
I think it’s the news-worthy moments that inspire authors to write and explore ideas. I mainly represent fiction, but I am struck by a manuscript when it’s exploring something that hasn’t been addressed before, or it’s approaching a subject from a different angle. For instance, Gail Honeyman shines a light on loneliness in 'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine', yet she handles it in a way that I hadn’t seen before – a young woman with a 9-5 job in Glasgow who leaves work on a Friday and doesn’t speak to anyone until the following Monday. Loneliness is such a huge problem that I knew people would be able to empathise with and relate to this character. As it happened, the public fell completely in love with this fictional creation who has struck an undeniable chord.
Books like this have been a turning point for my career and the agency, as we’ve been able to grow, take on more agents and rights professionals, and become a major player in the book industry.
What aspects of your work give you the most gratification?
Finding manuscripts that go on to become global bestsellers all over the world is truly exhilarating, for instance Fiona Barton’s The Widow, C.J. Tudor’s The Chalk Man and Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory.I also love building authors into bestselling brands with many books behind them, guiding them to write what will appeal to readers and working with their publishers to invest more of their resources and time. I’ve seen this positively impact so many of my authors including C.L. Taylor and Holly Bourne. It's an incredibly satisfying part of my job.
I’m naturally always trying to solve the next problem, but the talent-spotting side is hugely exciting as you never know what you’re going to find next. My proudest moment was seeing Gail Honeyman win two Nibbies at the British Book Awards in 2018. I don’t think you can beat moments like that.
Have there been any particular high points in your career?
Starting my own literary agency in 2012 was in a way the biggest turning point for me, because I wanted to create an agency that was friendly and approachable, and where the relationship between author and agent was truly a partnership. Doing my first million-dollar deal for an author was a very big moment; having my first No.1 Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller was another; winning the Nibbie for Agent of the Year in 2018, and working with my partner, Giles Milburn, to grow the agency into a major international player have undoubtedly been highlights for me.
What five words would you use to describe your career path?
Five words to describe my path: passion, perseverance, ambition, energy and intuition. I left uni not knowing what I wanted to do, which was really frightening as everyone had something lined up. I got so worried that I frantically researched everything to do with publishing and luckily spotted an advert in the Guardian for an assistant at a literary agency. My role was pretty basic back then, and it took years of climbing the ladder, but I was at a place where I had huge admiration for those at the top.
Are there any particular female entrepreneurs who inspire you and why?
Michelle Obama! And Phoebe Waller-Bridge who wrote Fleabag and Killing Eve.Her writing is incredible. I don’t know anyone who can make an audience laugh and cry before they take their next breath. These sorts of women are a huge inspiration for me - if I can represent similarly inspirational, comedic and yet deeply profound voices, I can be part of a process of delivering words that can literally change people’s lives.
Do you have any career advice for young women?
First of all you need to decide what you want to do - which is by no means an easy task in itself! - but from that point I would say it is so important to focus and really work hard. Follow in the footsteps of the person who is the best in that field - you can learn so much from the people who’ve come before you. Stick with it, don’t jump around too much, even when things can seem tough. Steve Jobs once said ‘Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.’ So it’s about love first and foremost, a belief in your work - but to overcome setbacks and build something truly special, hard work and dedication really are key.
How would you like to see female entrepreneurs helping each other?
I think we should be offering more mentorships. I naturally do this by growing the business from within and guiding younger agents, but I’d be keen to teach more young people about what it is to be a literary agent. There are so many misconceptions about working with books. People think I read all day, when I’ve never had time to read a novel at work! I think it is so important to share information about what jobs are actually like, and open up access to people from all walks of life. Mentoring, Q&A sessions and advice from female entrepreneurs can I think open industries up much more widely and help inspire others to take a leap towards doing something they truly love.