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Interview

#SLWC17: Meet the Speakers: An Interview with Literary Agent Saba Sulaiman

by Maria Gagliano

As a writer, it can be nerve-racking to imagine a team of editors talking about your work behind closed doors. You get to hear their final decision, but you’re rarely in the loop on their discussion about what they think of your work. Literary agents often get a detailed account of the conversation if they have a good rapport with the editors, but even they may not get the full story.

We chatted with agent Saba Sulaiman about the mysterious process of submitting work to editors. She also shares powerful insight on what writers can do before editors see their work. We’ll hear more from Saba at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn on September 9, when she joins us for our panel, “What We Really Talk About in Editorial Meetings.” Conference attendees can also sign up to pitch their work to Saba in person at a one-on-one meeting.

You’re moderating our panel, “What We Really Talk About in Editorial Meetings.” As an agent, how privy are you to what goes on in those decision-making meetings? And how much do you then share with your clients?

SS

There’s no standard decision-making process—every imprint, sometimes even within the same house, does things differently at editorial meetings. I’m aware of what happens at certain houses where I’ve developed relationships, but I also know from personal experience (having worked in editorial myself) that each book comes with its own set of concerns that the acquiring editor needs to address while making a case for it to their team. So it’s rarely a streamlined process, which adds to how enigmatic it seems to anyone looking in from the outside.

I give my clients the option of being as informed as they wish to be during the submissions process, and this includes whatever I know about acquisitions. That way, they have control—they can choose to learn what they want to, and avoid being told anything that will affect their productivity or make them nervous. My clients trust me with their careers, so I consider it my responsibility to offer them access to everything I know about how their book may be received at every stage of the process.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for emerging authors hoping to connect with an agent? Are there any blind spots writers tend to miss, or common mistakes they make, that hurt their chances of getting ahead?

SS

Honestly, we are all looking for the next best thing in our inboxes so traditional querying is still the best way to go about finding an agent. Twitter pitch contests like #PitchWars, #PitMad or #DVPit are a fantastic alternative to get agent interest, and if writers can carve out the time and afford it, writing conferences are also great because there’s nothing like pitching to an agent and making a personal impression on them. But I think both of these methods tend to be most effective for a certain personality type (ie, writers who are comfortable with social media and networking), so it’s always best if writers play to their strengths while assessing methods of finding an agent.

A common mistake I see is when writers spend more time pitching and attending conferences and “doing all the right things” and not enough time perfecting their projects or actually working on their craft. A lot of them jump ahead to querying and pitching before their books are polished enough. It’s important to remember that in the end, it’s all about the writing. Getting an agent’s attention is easy if you have a snappy pitch, but sustaining it is hard if the execution isn’t quite there.

Do you have any memorable stories about connecting with a client in an unexpected way?

SS

I don’t have any crazy stories (yet!) but I signed one of my clients after I asked for a major revision which he absolutely nailed. I love our story because he actually turned down an offer of publication at a small press in favor of working with me to improve his book, with no guarantee that it would lead to an offer of representation. This kind of situation would normally make me a little nervous, but he was so grateful just for the chance to work on his craft and polish his book that it was an absolute pleasure being able to help him take it to the next level. Here’s to hoping he doesn’t regret his decision!

I love the point in your bio when you say you’re looking for “stories that demonstrate the true range of perspectives that exist in this world.” What is on your project wish list at the moment?

SS

I’m building my list in a variety of genres (see here for details).

In general, I’m most drawn towards character-driven narratives that familiarize me with the inner workings of characters in unique (and preferably high stakes) conditions, and stories that explore complicated relationships and morally gray situations. In terms of themes, my taste runs the gamut, but here are some that come to mind: I enjoy stories that involve, explore, or meaningfully engage with feminism and the way we think about gender; the increasing pervasiveness of technology on society; the quest for individual power and control and how it affects one’s personal relationships; how methods and styles of communication and popular culture have evolved over generations, and its effect on the widening generation gap; and the process and consequences of migration, particularly with respect to how one reinvents and renegotiates one’s identity after being displaced from a familiar environment, whether by choice or by necessity.

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Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, and co-founder/Business Director of Slice.

Saba Sulaiman is an agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, a boutique agency located in Milford, CT. She holds a BA from Wellesley College and an MA from the University of Chicago, where she studied modern Persian literature. Being a first generation immigrant in the process of negotiating her own identity and sense of belonging in a place she now calls “home,” she is committed to highlighting more diverse voices with compelling stories to tell; stories that demonstrate the true range of perspectives that exist in this world, and address urgent and often underexplored issues with veracity and heart. Follow her on Twitter @agentsaba.

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