Interview With A Literary Agent
The BW INSIDER SERIES: Part 4
"One of the reasons we hear so much about the “doctor and lawyer” career stereotype is because those are vocational jobs that Asian parents can most easily understand with outcomes that most people can relate to. A literary (or other type) of agent is not a job that most people encounter very often and it is often a job that is shrouded in mystery."
In Part 4 of our series, we meet Mildred Yuan, a literary agent at United Agents. Mildred shares her journey to becoming a literary agent at a top agency and why being a good writer is sometimes not enough.
What made you become a literary agent?
I spent the first 5 years of my career as a strategy consultant. I advised a range of companies across industry sectors, so it gave me a solid business background as well as the financial resources to follow my dreams.
After 5 years, having paid off all of my educational debts (Harvard and Cambridge are very expensive), I decided it was time to do something creative. I always knew that I wanted to do something in the arts (I was also a professional ballroom dancer, and my degree from Cambridge was in English), but practical concerns always got in the way. And I knew from experience that creatives often had trouble dealing with the more mundane side of their affairs, which takes a lot of time and management. So, becoming an agent was the ideal intersection for my skills and aspirations.
I used the money saved up from my previous career and worked for free for nearly a year before I was offered a temporary role as a receptionist at A P Watt. I did that for a few months before being offered my first assistant role in the film/tv department, and then moved on to being Caradoc King’s assistant when we were acquired by United, one of the largest and most prestigious multi-platform agencies in Europe.
After another 9 months, I was promoted to Associate, which allowed me to start building my own client list, which now includes performers and expert presenters as well as illustrators and writers. What’s incredibly important to me is to spot and nurture talent, and to make it possible for it to reach its fullest potential. Of course, this depends as much on my client as well as on me, so I always talk about the strength of the ‘client-agent’ team and what we are able to accomplish together.
You have a BA in Economics from Harvard and MA in English Literature from Cambridge. When you take on an author, does their educational background play a factor in whether you take them on?
No, even though I was lucky enough to attend these prestigious institutions, I don’t think where you went to school necessarily tells me much about the type of person you are. Whenever I take on a client, it’s 50% about what they produce, and 50% on who they are.
An individual’s personality can have a huge impact on their success, and it’s part of the package.
You must have personal drive and vision, and make the most of whatever you have. It’s no good if you went to a prestigious university, but you don’t do anything with that. I like people who can show me that they have done the most with whatever they are handed in life.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Matilda, by Roald Dahl.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
Some sort of bird or fish!
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
Deck chair and sunglasses!
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Pragmatic, determined, kooky!
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Banana Split Sundae!
There aren’t many agents in the UK from an East Asian background. Why do think this is?
I don’t think East Asian culture necessarily encourages children to embark on careers in creative industries, because it feels risky, and also not easily understood. One of the reasons we hear so much about the “doctor and lawyer” career stereotype is because those are vocational jobs that Asian parents can most easily understand with outcomes that most people can relate to.
A literary (or other type) of agent is not a job that most people encounter very often and it is often a job that is shrouded in mystery. So, Asian parents who are concerned about their children may think, “what does a literary agent do? But how can I help my child to do something that I don’t understand?”
Agents spend a fair amount of time at book fairs, what really happens at these events?
Many people think that book fairs are a once and only opportunity for agents to sell their books. Whenever a book fair comes around, I often have clients emailing me in a panic going, “are you going to pitch my book?” even if it’s not ready. This is just not true.
We can do deals at a book fair, but book fairs are networking events, an opportunity for everyone in the industry to be in the same place at the same time, and talk about the projects we love, and get to know each other a little better.
Even if we don’t sell a Publisher something then, we might make a connection for the future. We also do this as much as we can outside of book fair time, but everyone is always very busy, and especially with American or other overseas publishers, this is a good time for us to connect and catch up!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a literary agent?
There are all sorts who become literary agents and all agents are different. There is no set path, but most people in the industry start as an assistant either in a publishing house or at an agency, and work their way up. I’m quite unusual in that I’ve come from a different industry altogether, although that has definitely served me well.
What are you looking in a client?
Do check out what it says on the United Agents website:
Mildred represents writers, artists and performers across all genres, and is particularly interested in a great story, unique talent or a fresh perspective that will appeal to a broad audience. She works closely with Caradoc King on his list of clients as well as managing and building her own list of diverse talent.
Mildred joined A P Watt in 2012, which then merged with United Agents, following on from her previous career as a management consultant. Originally from the States, she moved to the UK after completing a BA in economics at Harvard to study for her MA at Cambridge in English Literature. She once led a secret double life as a competitive professional ballroom dancer and has represented the UK in World and European competitions. In 2014, Mildred was shortlisted in the Media category for an Asian Woman of Achievement Award.
For artist and presenter submissions, please submit a CV, headshot and showreel. For book submissions, please email her your cover letter, a synopsis, and the first 3 chapters for fiction, just a cover letter and an outline for non-fiction. Email:
Many writers are introverted creatures that hate being the centre of attention. How important is it for authors to do events and be active on social media?
In this day and age, it is important to understand that the publicity and marketing around the book is also your job, as much as the writing of the book itself. People will want to buy your book as much as for who you are as for the writing. The more that you can do on all fronts, the more rewards you will reap. It’s also about working collaboratively with the publisher to help them help you. In addition to the agent-author team, there is the publisher-author team. The more you can work together with your publisher, the better the results will be.
What books are you most excited about this year?
I can’t! I don’t want to promote some of my clients more than others!! BW