What kind of books are you looking for?
In short, everything! I’m looking for all types of accessible literary and commercial fiction, crime and thrillers, young adult, children’s, and popular non-fiction. When I read a submission it’s usually very clear within the first few pages whether the voice and concept are strong enough. No matter what the genre, if I’m instantly drawn into the writing or hooked by the characters, it’s usually a good sign!
What can I do to make my submission more attractive?
Submission letters that are professional and concise really capture my attention. I receive over 50 submissions a day by email so I simply don’t have time to read anything that’s not relevant to the book being submitted. If I love the manuscript, I will be interested in the writer behind the work, but initially I am looking for an excellent pitch that compels me to open the chapters and start reading. I can usually determine how serious the writer is about becoming a successful author from their introductory email / covering letter. In fact, with all of the authors I have taken on from the submissions pool, I have known instantly from their covering letter that I’ve wanted to offer them representation.
Can I submit you a proposal or a half-finished manuscript?
If you are submitting a work of fiction you should have completed the manuscript before approaching an agent – I need to know that you are capable of finishing a book. So many books can fall flat halfway through, so I need to know that it sustains my attention right to the end. If I love the first few chapters, I will ask for the rest of the manuscript immediately, so it can be frustrating if it is unfinished and is going to take another few months to receive. My attention might be on something else at that point. For non-fiction, there are very different rules as I can submit work to publishers on proposal.
How much money will my book make if you take it on?
This varies so much depending on the manuscript and the marketplace at the time of submission. It depends whether there is a lot of competition from publishers for the rights and whether I can take the book to auction in different territories. If you don’t get a high advance, you are very likely to earn out your advance in royalties, so you have to think long-term. I do everything I can to get as much income as possible for my authors though – I like to create income streams from all over the world by negotiating US and translation rights deals separately with each publisher for different rights. Some of my authors are published in over twenty languages, and each deal has been negotiated with a separate advance against royalties. Every deal is important to me.
Do you work editorially with your authors?
Yes, I make sure that the manuscript is in its very best state before submitting to publishers to make sure we can generate as much interest as possible in the UK and negotiate excellent deals around the world. Nowadays, editors simply don’t have the time to work extensively on a debut, so they expect a really strong standard from new writers. If it is needed I’ll do a structural and character edit, and also have an extensive in-house edit before submitting any work to publishers.
How is your agency different to other London agencies?
We are a boutique literary agency working directly with publishers around the world. Before setting up my own agency, I was the Rights Director for one of the most commercial literary agencies in London where I built up an extensive list of international contacts. Here, I sell all the rights to my authors’ work myself – I do not pass them on to a rights agency or department to handle because I believe that, as their primary agent, I can pitch my authors’ books more passionately than anyone else. With rights it also means I can keep submitting my authors’ backlist to publishers year on year. It also means that I only take on books that I love and believe in, enabling me to give all of my authors a lot more individual attention.
Should I submit to you exclusively?
You shouldn’t submit to any agent exclusively, even if they recommend that you do! If you have written a strong covering letter and your chapters are compelling, your submission will be given my full attention. There is no point in waiting for months for a response from one agent – give yourself a better chance by submitting to a handful that you would like to work with.
What are the next steps after being offered representation?
I like to meet each writer I offer representation, or at least have a long chat on the phone to make sure we are on the same wavelength. I need my clients to be as ambitious as me and also have a similar editorial and international vision. Once the writer has accepted the offer, the book will be edited and I will devise a tailored-made submission strategy before pitching to publishers. For instance, I might decide to submit to American publishers first, or I might submit simultaneously to UK and US publishers before submitting to foreign publishers. I might even try to option the Film rights ahead of submitting to publishers. There are so many different tactics to ensure the best possible deals depending on the type of book being submitted and the marketplace at the time. When an offer is accepted from a publisher, I work to promote your interests through the entire publishing process and make sure your voice is heard.
Can I resubmit to you in the future?
Yes, of course. Timing is everything in this business – genres go in and out of fashion. You may not be successful with your manuscript if you are submitting at the end of a trend as publishers’ lists are saturated with that particular genre. However, a few years later, that trend might come back into fashion. And just because your first book wasn’t quite right for my list, your second one may well be!
What should I expect from the agent-author relationship?
A great business partner who will sell as many rights as possible in your work.
Guidance, editorial help, support, and someone digitally savvy who is going to exploit the way books are sold today. Someone to offer publicity advice, help with online promotion, push the publisher to work hard on every publication, pitch your books day in day out to publishers all around the world and for translation, American, audio, Film & TV and even merchandising rights.
How often will you be in contact with me?
We will have a lot of contact when you deliver a manuscript (whether this is your first or subsequent books), during the editorial process when we are preparing it for submission, and at the time of the book’s publication. I am constantly working on my authors’ behalf and informing them of new deals. The majority of my work has to be proactive – submitting to editors, pushing publishers to do more, trying to get Film & TV, and translation rights deals – so I won’t be in contact daily throughout the year. But as your agent, I am always here when you need me.
Do you read all submissions in the slush pile?
Yes, I personally look at everything that comes in. I’ve found 90% of my authors in the slush pile/ submissions pool. I love talent spotting, so this is one of my favourite aspects of being a literary agent.
How useful do you think writer conferences are? Should I attend them?
I think they give you a much better understanding of the book market and what publishers are currently looking for. It’s a rare occasion to be able to meet people in the industry and discuss your work face-to-face. It also provides an opportunity to meet with other budding authors, to share tips and experiences (and check out the competition!) However, there is a lot of information online now so it just depends on what you’d find most helpful.
Should I do a creative writing course before writing my novel?
This is a very subjective issue; some writers find the courses really useful as they force you to set aside time to write. They can also help you make contacts in the industry, and meet with published authors. I am a great believer that writing is a trade, and as with any trade, the more you write the better you get. I don’t believe that it is essential to do a course, though you may find feedback from a group helpful. There are actually a lot of online creative writing courses and people can actually find it easier to be more honest if they are not sitting in front of you! When a submission comes in to my inbox, regardless of what process has been undertaken to write it, the writing will speak for itself.
How important is it for me to blog/ self-publicise?
This is really important in the run up to publication and when you are eventually published. I’m really only interested in your profile if I’m looking at non-fiction. For fiction, though, the main thing to concentrate on is writing a great book!
If you would like more questions answered, please tweet me your question @agentmilburn and, once I have ten or more questions, I will follow-up with a new post. Remember to use the #askagent as other writers might be interested in your questions too.