Romantic Novelists' Association

Ask An Industry Expert: Madeleine Milburn

16 August 2019

Today I’m delighted to welcome Madeleine Milburn, founder, director and agent of the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency.

Hello and welcome, Madeleine. First of all, double congratulations in the realm of nominations and awards, in that one of your authors was a finalist in the RoNAs this year and also that you were namd ‘Literary Agent of the Year’ in the British Book Awards 2018. Can I start by asking you what store you set by literary competitions and awards. There seem to be a lot out there!

Awards are a brilliant way of recognising outstanding writing. Be it competitions for unpublished writers that introduce storytelling concepts to experts who can nurture that talent; or industry awards such as the RoNAs, that celebrate popular commercial writing and give authors the acclaim they deserve. It was wonderful to see Fiona Valpy as a finalist in the Historical Romantic Novel Award this year; we are very proud of this achievement for a book that readers absolutely adore.


I notice your agency deals with a wide range of literary genres. How important is Romance for your company?

As agents, we have the luxury of working with writers in any genre whose story we’ve fallen in love with. For us, romance is at the absolute heart of this. Falling in love is a momentous, life-changing experience for anyone, and I’m always on the lookout for authors who can bring these emotions to life: be it in a sweet and uplifting way; a sad, bittersweet journey; a historical adventure; a crime, thriller or mystery with relationships at the heart of it; or a quirky look at modern relationships today.


Encouraging words to us romance writers! In the romance line, what type of submissions are you personally looking for at the moment?

If you can make me laugh or make me cry, you’ll have gone a long way towards getting my attention! Readers are looking for heartwarming, uplifting fiction at the moment, with the return of the rom-com and a renewed interest in stories of community, real lives, finding love in all forms, and battling loneliness and disconnection through connection with others. I’d love to find something that feels topical and modern, with a charming and humorous edge. Aside from this, I would love to find a big, sweeping love story that makes me cry. This sort of epic storytelling is surprisingly hard to find – think THE BRONZE HORSEMAN, ME BEFORE YOU or ONE DAY.


What about that all important submission? What makes you sit up and take notice?

The key thing for me when I’m looking at submissions is a unique voice and a strong, compelling protagonist. Character really is everything for me in storytelling, so I am looking for a narrator who is going to pull me in and never let me go. I can usually tell if a story has this special quality from the first few pages of the book. Alongside this: original plotting and a strong one-line hook that captures the heart of your story and will entice readers in.


And what about the synopsis? Do you have any tips for writing a really good one?

Absolutely! A synopsis should summarise your book’s plot in chronological order with the ending included. This is a straightforward account of the most important things that happen in a story – don’t include every single detail, and try to stick to one A4 page. Also, if there are any twists or plot revelations, don’t keep them hidden. As an agent I need to see how original your plotting is compared to what is currently on the market, so this aspect can be crucial to deciding whether your manuscript is requested.


We often ask agents and publishers what they consider to be the next ‘big thing’. What do you hope to see more of in 2019/2020?

I hope to see more charming, lovable protagonists the reader can’t get out of their mind. I think there is a real place at the moment for stories that make us smile. Protagonists don’t have to be perfect – far from it, I’m looking for real and honest characters who are going on a journey in terms of the relationships in their lives. There’s a definite place for more diverse voices, and for love stories to be brought ‘up to date’ so that they feel attainable and true. We want escapism but we also want to read about characters that struggle, like we do, who have real lives and real problems and despite all of this, have their stories of great love.


Is there anything in the way of romantic fiction that you wouldn’t accept right now, perhaps because you anticipate difficulty placing it?

I always keep an open mind! For me it’s all about the strength of the voice and the characters.


Do you look for anything in an author apart from a brilliant book? (such as social media presence)

I think a profile and a social media presence can be built later down the line when there’s a publishing deal in place. This can be coordinated with the publisher to ensure all the platforms are working to engage readers. A twitter presence can be really useful to network with other authors ahead of this stage though, and to see what the publishing trade is getting excited about.


What is your typical working day like?

Answering a lot of emails! Negotiating deals, brainstorming ideas,  editing, problem-solving, working closely with my authors to ensure they are delivering the best books, working with publishers to ensure they are delivering the best publishing strategy, meeting with editors to pitch the agency’s list and to discuss the latest trends.

We are also one of the few agencies who handle our film/TV directly rather than being subject to a separate department, so I might be in contact with major studios, independent producers, writers, directors or actors themselves.


I guess many authors would love to see their book portrayed on screen. Are there any recent such successes you’d like to mention?

Most of our books are under option for Film & TV, such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Melanie Golding’s Little Darlings, Holly Bourne’s How Do You Like Me Now, Fiona Barton’s The Widow and Abbie Greaves’ The Silent Treatment, to mention just a few.


What’s the best/worst part of your job?

The best is finding new talent and seeing an author become a bestseller, or an award-winning author, after years of dedication and hard work. The worst is not being able to read at work!


So, in your leisure (if you get any!) what was the last published book you read which you really enjoyed and why?

Normal People by Sally Rooney because I became mesmerised by her characters, and it made me think of first love. It really reminded me of my other favourite book, One Day by David Nicholls, and how the gift of confidence is so important in any relationship.


Thanks so much for talking to us today, Madeleine. For more on Madeleine’s work see:


Twitter: @agentmilburn

Instagram: madeleinemilburn


Madeleine was talking with Susan Leona Fisher: Website: