At last year’s fair, Madeleine Milburn sold Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant into 27 territories, eclipsing seven figures. She explains the frenzy to Tom Tivnan.
Can you give us a little timeline about Eleanor Oliphant? How did you find author Gail Honeyman, what was the initial submissions process and how did it build?
I actually spotted Eleanor Oliphant when judging a writing competition—99% of my authors come directly from the slush pile. Gail and I worked together editorially for around nine months before submitting to UK and international publishers. Whether I submit to the UK or US first, or simultaneously, depends on each book.
A lot of the business was done outside of FBF, but many of the deals were concluded, or at least conducted, at FBF too. Is it different doing business amid the fair hurly-burly?
I feel that there’s far more energy at certain points in the year, for instance just after the long summer, or at the start of the year. I prefer to do a lot of business in the run-up to a fair, sometimes going to final rounds of an auction at the fair itself. While I’m handling the UK and US auctions, my expert rights agent, Thérèse Coen, manages all the international auctions. Eleanor Oliphant moved so quickly that we had tied up most deals by the eve of the fair. However, we’re always handling multiple submissions at once.
And when you are in the midst of big auctions, what is your strategy?
For me, the key to a successful publication is finding the right match for my author in terms of the relationship with their editor and finding a publisher who shares the same ambition and vision. I get so much satisfaction when I pair authors with the perfect editor, someone who will champion them for years to come, but I also understand the importance of having the whole publishing team behind an acquisition.
That said, when I have an exciting manuscript I want to get the most, financially, from each interested publisher. I believe that this investment will give my authors the best chance of being launched in a major way, giving their début the focus it needs in the current market.
And when the offers are piling in for a title, how do you keep its author informed of developments?
I keep my authors firmly in the loop with the UK and US submissions but they tend to get more involved as an auction progresses, when I might set up phone calls with the editors. Even when I have a strong instinct about the right publisher for an author, I want them to come to this conclusion themselves. Thérèse informs each author of foreign rights deals as and when they come in.
Can you tell when a book is going to take off? And conversely, are there times when a title hasn’t had as much interest as you anticipated? How do you manage the author then?
When a really special book comes along I feel it from the moment I start reading, and then it’s my job to make sure it is prioritised by every editor I send it to. When I started out, I took every rejection personally, but I’m far more resilient now. If a book doesn’t sell for whatever reason, I’ll keep trying. I have authors who were initially rejected by every publisher in London but are now bestsellers. I’ve also been able to launch authors on a digital platform, which has proved a huge success.
In general, what is the state of advances? Assuredly it varies territory to territory, but are any markets particularly strong at the moment—or any genres?
From what I’ve experienced, the UK, the US and Germany are very strong, but publishers in every territory will go all-out for a special book. Crime, thrillers and suspense seem to be where the big investments are made, but I’m sure if I find that big sweeping love story I will see similar high advances.
And what is your agency bringing to Frankfurt this year?
We have just sold a début called The Chalk Man, by C J Tudor, to 33 different publishers around the world (including Penguin Random House in the UK and US). It’s the fastest-selling début the agency has ever handled. We have C J Daugherty’s first foray into adult crime, The Echo Killing, which I’ve auctioned in the US (to St Martin’s Press), and an extremely moving memoir, The Electricity of Every Living Thing by Katherine May, which we’ve just sold to Trapeze. We’re going out with it internationally now. Also, Victoria Fox has turned her hand to a time-slip mystery novel (HarperCollins/HQ) that we’re out with for international rights, and we have some exciting children’s and Young Adult débuts…so there’s a lot going on.