Madeleine Milburn, literary agent, at the HWS

report by Carole Hastings

Chairman Barbara Large set the scene for an interesting evening. She congratulated Kirsty Whittle, winner of two competitions at the Winchester Writers’ Conference in 2011 and co-author of Journeys and What-not, for making it to the last eight in the Macmillan “Write Now” competition for Young Adult fiction. The winner’s book will be published later this year and is yet to be decided…

Pippa from the West Meon Festival talked about their festival of books taking place July 11-14.  The have a workshop and a great line-up of speakers – Michael Morpurgo, Kate Mosse, Elizabeth Buchan, Jane Gardam and many others.  Checkwww.westmeonfestival.co.uk for details.

Madelaine Clark publisher of the new New Writer Magazine explained how she and her partner Alison Glinn took over the magazine when the previous editor wanted to retire after 113 issues.  They have injected new life into it, extending the remit to attracting writing groups, developing it as a sister magazine to the their other publication New Books.  They gave everyone a copy and encouraged people to subscribe at a special price of £18 per year.  Check the newwriter.com and newbooksmag.com.

Madeleine&Barabara (2)David Eadsforth introduced Madeleine Milburn of the eponymous literary agency who shared a thought provoking presentation.  Madeleine started her career at AP Watts 10years ago.  The agency is the oldest in the UK and represents highbrow writers such as Zadie Smith and Sebastian Barry who are less prolific than many of the more commercial authors she handled when she made the move to Darley Anderson.  Here Madeleine built her own list of authors in the female fiction, young adult and children’s genres.  These moved with her to her own agency and she works closely with all 25 of them and is branching into crime and thrillers.

The digital age has seen a 66% increase in 2012 of books being read on e-readers amounting to £3.34 bn and just a small slippage on physical books of 1% £2.9 bn so overall more people are reading these days.

Her advice to all writers is to try to get an agent before you consider self-publishing as although self-publishers have control of their book they have no advantages that a publisher brings such as editing, marketing, publicity, advance, editing costs, advance. Also low sales of a self published book may put off prospective agents.

An agent will always fight your corner and give you editorial guidance whilst pitching, networking and negotiating rights in other media and overseas.  Publishers are interested in international best sellers and agents can facilitate this.  She recommended that all writers blog, tweet, network, constantly self promote and be prepared for editorial criticism.

Madeleine looks for a hook, the most powerful voice, authentic characters, excellent dialogue, a good backstory with the minimum “telling”.  She expects a three chapter submission to be well presented with a one page synopsis covering who, when, what, where.  Titles need to make sense or be very different e.g. The Hunger Games, Before I Go to Sleep, Lovely Bones etc.  Full manuscripts should be available if requested.  She tends to get back to writers within a day or so, if she loves their writing, but receives 30-40 submissions a day.
She encouraged writers to develop a pitch that sells their story by checking out back of book blurbs and testing pitches by tweeting to keep them succinct.  Distill a paragraph into sentence to help focus the pitch.  Think of a different angle to your book.  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a no 1 best selling thriller with an unreliable narrator that holds a reader’s attention throughout.

It is important to approach agents that you think is on your wavelength, so research is key – their websites, Facebook, bookseller, festivals etc will all help.  Send your work to 4-5 suitable agents at once.  Your covering letter needs to be positive and conversational with the aim to pitch your book by introducing yourself, saying why you think that agency is right for you.  Tell them what you are in the process of writing next.  All Madeleine’s writers produced stunning letters that accompanied unsolicited submissions!  Publishers need to know you have a book a year or at least every eighteen months in order to outlay advances and promotion funds.

Currently short story anthologies aren’t selling well but some publishers are using their popular authors to write digital shorts to build their names in between novels.  Some booksellers will not sell short story collections at all.
Key tips for successful agent catching:
Join writing groups
Attend festivals and book fairs

Follow agents on social media

Digest The Bookseller & Publishers Weekly

Read writing magazines

Go to writing retreats

Read best selling books

Study trends

She advised that poetry needs to be pitched directly to publishers these days.
The talk was exceptionally useful for anyone who seriously wants to be published.

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