We’re delighted that the Bookseller’s special Frankfurt edition features CEO and Founder, Madeleine Milburn, on celebrating ten years of the Madeleine Milburn Agency! Have a read here:

After more than a decade of trading, Madeleine Milburn Agency is on a hot run of form at the German book fair – and its founder puts it down to the personal touch and a tightly curated roster.

Some people survive the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF), some thrive at it. Madeleine Milburn says she is the latter: “I love seeing what’s hot, what’s going on at the stands and connecting with international colleagues. Then it sets me on fire to find something new. Usually I find the best talent just after a fair, as I’m obsessively looking.”

FBF has been a fertile ground for Milburn since she left Darley Anderson to set up, alongside husband Giles Milburn, her own agency. This period has included several “book of the fair” shouts, not least in 2015 when Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine rampaged through the Messe, eventually selling into 43 territories. There is a sort of FBF-tinged agency 10th-anniversary celebration this autumn, although Milburn admits this is a little fudge: she left Darley Anderson in 2011 and the celebration might have happened two years ago, but for the pandemic – “though it’s been 10 years since we have been a limited company, so I think it’s OK”. The anniversary brings a subtle rebrand, from the somewhat large mouthful of Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency to the more streamlined Madeleine Milburn Agency (MMA).

Part of the reason for the to-do is to recognise the scaling-up MMA has gone through of late, with a doubling of the head-count to the current total of 20 staff over the past five years. It’s 21 if you include the aggressively affectionate “wellness officer” Maple, a King Charles cavalier spaniel, who greets me when I arrive at MMA’s swish Clapham Common office. During those past five years, MMA says it has brokered 14 seven-figure and 123 six-figure deals, and around 2,000 overall. Milburn also won the Literary Agent of the Year Nibbie in 2018 and has been on The Bookseller 150 for seven consecutive years. Staff who have joined in this period include Children’s and YA director Chloe Seager, head of books Olivia Maidment, ex-Head of Zeus editor-turned-agent Hannah Todd and Maddy “the other Maddy” Belton, who is building a list in the children’s/YA/SFF space.

I am told a gong is rung when a deal is struck, which makes me apprehensive for Maple’s ears as Milburn says “everyone is at auction”, including associate agent Rachel Yeoh with début author Charlotte Imrie’s “Fleishman is in Trouble with the feel of Yellowface” début, What They’re Saying About You; and Ayala Panievsky’s look at post-truth populist politics, The Fight to Know, brokered by non-fiction specialist agent Emma Bal.

From the ground up

Building an agency is in many ways a different skill set than agenting, Milburn says. “I did stop taking on authors for a while because the management and growth was so all-consuming,” she explains. “But I found that I really missed the nurturing of authors and finding talent.”

So the Milburns adjusted, with Giles relinquishing his own clients and now handling the systems and much of the overall management. Madeleine Milburn is conscious that it is her name over the door, but stresses it is a co-production: she would not have left Darley Anderson without her husband’s encouragement and the two built the business together. Incidentally, the childhood sweethearts married in the same year they launched the agency. She adds: “The success [of MMA] is as much down to Giles’ hard work as my own. And while Giles spends more of his time behind the scenes, he is central to our success and it really wouldn’t be where it is today without him.”

That may be a good segue to the rumours. If you are not familiar with the rights-trading world, its engine may be deals but the petrol is gossip – sometimes not kind, often wildly inaccurate. There may be more shade thrown in FBF’s LitAg and the Frankfurter Hof in three days this October than there is in an entire season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. Several rumours have bounced around the agenting world about Milburn – like that she wrongly took credit for discovering hit début Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, for example. Maybe this is par for the course: you get the noisy deals and others snipe.

At any rate, the hot rumour that gripped the International Rights Centre at this year’s London Book Fair was that the Milburns were splitting up. I had wondered how to tactfully broach this, but Milburn brings it up soon after we start chatting: “Oh, did you hear that Giles and I were divorcing? You know, there are rumours that go around about me every six months or so – like I didn’t discover Eleanor Oliphant – that are all completely wrong. I used to ignore them, put my head down and the only response was to do another deal. In some ways this actually drove me a lot. But this ‘divorce’ one was so particularly horrible because we found out through a family friend and it’s like, ‘Who made that up?’ So I’ve started to try to call people out and find out who the source is.” Why, then, does she think these things circulate? Milburn shrugs: “Maybe because I’m a woman in a senior position? But the latest one was with all these mergers and acquisitions of agencies and people wanted to create this fiction: ‘Oh, they are going to sell up because they’re getting divorced.’ Absolute rubbish.”

The German job

Milburn was born in London and from the age of nine grew up in Somerset. She studied English at St Andrews, during which time she went on an EU-funded training scheme to a German publisher – it’s where she got her first taste of Frankfurt. She loved books and selling, so agenting appealed, and later bagged an international rights department assistant role at AP Watt after university, before moving to Darley Anderson’s rights department while also building her list.

That rights background undoubtedly aided Milburn, “as I’ve always thought internationally”, and in many ways the first breakthrough for the agency came stateside when Fiona Barton’s The Widow hit the New York Times bestseller list. “When that happened, instead of me harassing American publishers, they actually wanted to see me. That really turned things around.”

Back to America, then: have any big US/Hollywood agencies come to discuss an acquisition? Milburn says: “We’ve had approaches. But it has been so much work to get the agency to this stage – we have built this thing up to support other agents and I love that we are quite female, with strong, powerful women. [Giles Milburn is the only male employee].

“So what would be the point of selling to an American agency? We have so much happening in film and TV – around 50 books in development, three shows about to be released. We already work directly in the US and Canada – more than half our business is there. If anything, we might set up a US office. All I see in these bigger companies is that your authors get less attention from the rights department because there is too much content. I don’t think flooding the market just to see what works is the right way to do things anymore. So we are going to stay boutique. Selling would be tragic.”’

Read the Bookseller article here.