Litdish: Anjali Singh, Literary Agent
Anjali Singh, literary agent with Ayesha Pande Literary (APL), started her career in publishing in 1996 as a literary scout, and later worked as an editor with Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Vintage Books, and as Editorial Director at Other Press. She is best known for having championed Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, after stumbling across the original French version on a visit to Paris. Always drawn to the thrill of discovering new writers, Singh has helped launch the careers of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Samantha Hunt, Preeta Samarasan, Zoe Ferraris, and our own Victoria Patterson. When she visited Antioch University, Los Angeles in December of 2019, Singh told us she was temporarily closed to submissions. When she is open, she’s looking out for character-driven fiction or non-fiction works that reflect an engagement with the world around us. After her visit, Anjali Singh answered these ten questions for Lunch Ticket’s beloved readers:
- You mentioned in the seminar that you only recently became an agent. What led you into this work and is it as you expected?
The road to my becoming an agent was both unusual and pretty predictable. Many editors become agents when we hit the end of the road in our editorial careers—because we’ve been downsized, or just lost faith and patience with the big corporate bureaucracy. Agenting makes sense as a next step because we bring so many of the same skills to bear: a nose for the market, a love of reading, skills as an editor, and relationships within the book business. In my own case, I got laid off twice, both times soon after having a child. The second time in particular left me feeling very cynical about the industry, and also very clear that I didn’t want to work for a corporation again and that I would be happiest being my own boss. I also knew that being an agent would give me both the kind of flexibility that I think most working mothers need, and also allow me to choose where I directed my time, to be able to take on authors and projects that might not at first glance seem like “big” books but that might over time—like a Persepolis—really contribute to the culture and to changing the culture. I realize that sounds pretentious, but part of my journey from being an editor to an agent was realizing it wasn’t the fact that Persepolis sold really well that made it such an important book to me, in the story of my career, but that I had felt such a sense of agency in “discovering” that book in Paris and conviction that it was a story that would resonate widely. It felt like an important book on so many levels, not just in telling the political story of Iran through a human lens. Here we are, twenty years later, turning Iranian students away at the border: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/25/us/iran-students-deported-border.html?searchResultPosition=1. I think it’s fair to say that Persepolis was a game-changer for the book business, that it opened up publishers’ and readers’ ideas of what kind of stories could be told in graphic form, and what kinds of stories mainstream readers might be interested in.
Being an agent allows me to feel like I’m more on the front lines, helping writers, especially those on the margins, to navigate the book business. I do feel a sense of mission in being a gatekeeper. I realize being an agent allows me to get in on the conversation even earlier—to not only be an important gatekeeper in terms of what a single publisher publishes, but to be a gatekeeper in terms of encouraging certain kinds of stories to be told. We help writers find the knowledge and tools to present their work to publishers. Of course we ensure their work gets in front of editors.
Being an agent is even better than I expected. My colleague Ayesha Pande (another editor-turned-agent) says it often: “This is the hardest job I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding.” Four years in, as my authors’ books are beginning to come into the world, I’m getting to taste that rewarding piece—and it’s so satisfying! Agenting is the first job I’ve had in publishing that’s allowed me to be fully myself, and that feels pretty amazing.
- How do you find a good balance between work and family?
I feel like much of my journey was predicated on having children intersecting with bumps on my career path—and the real upside was that I got to spend real, unfettered time with my kids when they were really young, and I got the opportunity, especially after the second one was born, to think hard about how I wanted to be in the world, how I wanted to be a parent, and how I wanted to work. I love that I love my job and that both my daughters know it (and, at eleven and eight, are turning into readers themselves), and for me the navigating has everything to do with feeling like I have landed in a place, or made a place for myself in the industry, where my family can come first but that I also get a huge amount of both emotional and intellectual satisfaction from my work. Agenting is one answer—and taking on more comics projects is another, because where I am both as a parent and financially—starting out as an agent in my forties—means that I have to be mercenary in what I give my time to, and fiction, especially the kind I am drawn to, is never going to pay the rent. I feel lucky to have my love for graphic novels and the conviction that we need more stories of girls, more international stories, more different kinds of comics as a motivator—and that there is now a growing market for graphic novels, all of which allows me to focus here and there on the novels that speak to me, which I can then take on and champion without feeling that they have to sell for a six-figure advance right off the bat.
- When you’re not closed to submissions, what would be the book you would like to find in your inbox?
I would love to find a great love story that’s also political and trying to say something important about our times. The great publisher Sonny Mehta, who we just lost very suddenly at the end of last year, spoke about how great fiction engages with the issues of its day—and that’s always what I’m looking for. But if you could combine that with a love story… I’d be beyond thrilled. I don’t mind taking on books that need editorial work, as long as I feel a strong sense of conviction that this is a book we need in the world. Sonny was my boss for four years, during the time I published Persepolis, and a very important and inspiring mentor. Since we should all be remembering Sonny this year, and the irreplaceable qualities he brought to US publishing, I highly recommend this interview he gave in 1993, that captures him very well: https://charlierose.com/videos/19878.
- There are so many agents and so many clients! What would your advice be to prospective authors who have a finished project and are ready to go?
I can’t say it enough: be intentional. The more you know who you are as a writer and what kind of book you’ve written, the better you’ll be at describing it, and that should point you in the direction of an agent who has similar tastes and similar concerns. You’ll know where to look.
- Do you ever give unsolicited advice when a submission catches your attention and then loses you?
Absolutely, though more usually if the query comes via a referral of some kind. But yes, if I’ve actually had time to give attention to the work, then I often want to find a way to be helpful, either by directing a writer to a small press or a freelance editor. I also—though I think this can be controversial—sometimes ask writers if they’d like to see our in-house reader’s report, since I know how very difficult concrete feedback can be to come by, even though I know how painful it can be to receive, especially when you don’t know yet if there’s going to be a happy ending to your own publishing story.
- Ayesha Pande Literary (APL) is considered a “Boutique Agency,” with a smaller staff than the typical full-service agency. In your opinion, why are these boutique agencies on the rise?
I don’t know if I can speak to the general trend, only that for me it was really what I wanted—after several corporate jobs, to work in a place that felt human-scaled; we also work in a house in Harlem, full of light and plants, with two rescue Jack Russell terriers and a cat. We work really hard but we also laugh a lot. I think we bring that very personal touch to our relationships with our clients—the joy and sense of mission in what we do. While we are very much aware that this is a business and we are there to protect our authors’ interests, we do this work because it feels important to us, that these stories get out into the world.
- Are there publishing houses that you miss? Is it an American tragedy to lose a variety of publishing houses?
I miss Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt (they are now one company), but on their own they were two mid-size independent publishers whose bread and butter was in educational publishing, so their literary trade lists could—and did—take risks. I miss them. I’m also sad that we are down to so few publishers; it’s not good for authors to have so many imprints owned by the same parent company.
- Do you believe that all the books that should be published get published?
Oh my gosh, no! I think we see a lot of the same kinds of books get published, and I’m going to point to the very relevant conversation and critique happening around the publication of American Dirt and its anointing by big publishing. I haven’t read the book and I am not saying it shouldn’t have been published, but what I think some of the detractors are trying to point out is that as long as publishing remains a closed, elitist club that continues to center whiteness and white readers, it is going to make missteps and perhaps not even recognize the huge economic costs of its exclusionary culture. All this to say that I think there are many stories and works by talented writers that don’t get published because of this, and publishing’s blind spots, and for the same reason, books that don’t have anything particularly new or interesting to say do get published, because a writer happens to be connected in all the ways that make them seem “relevant” to New York publishers.
- Do all the authors who deserve representation by a literary agent get one?
No, absolutely not! This is one of the ways I think the industry can be really unfair. As members of the AAR (Association of Author’s Representatives), we can only receive compensation via commission, which means we have to make a financial calculation when we commit to a project—will this be worth my time? That answer—for me anyway—usually means, will I be able to sell it to one of the “Big 5,” or do I feel it has a shot there? I do often see worthy projects but just don’t think I can afford to take something on when I know it will likely only receive a very modest advance. I do have projects that I’m very proud to be representing on small press lists, but it means I have to be careful how many of those I take on. But EVERY author who gets published can benefit from having an agent and it feels like a catch-22 whenever I recommend that a talented writer approach a small press directly.
- If you had one word of advice to offer a writer getting started today, what would it be?
Have faith (two words!)