Part 4 in our Query Grind webinar series is coming up on May 19 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time with Literary Agent Saba Sulaiman of Talcott Notch Literary Services. Seeking representation can be hard for writers, especially when they don’t know the rules of the process. Saba’s session will help writers develop a formidable strategy for querying and provide suggestions for coping with the uncertainties of this phase. We are also collaborating with Saba to offer four 15-minute virtual career consultations for writers who belong to marginalized communities that have been historically underrepresented in publishing. Please read to the end of this interview to learn more about this opportunity.
In preparation for the webinar, SCBWI Eastern PA’s Equity and Inclusion Team member, Joy Ogbonnaya, had a chat with Saba in our virtual café. Here’s what they had to say:
A Café Chat with Literary Agent Saba Sulaiman, by Joy Ogbonnaya
Joy: Hi, Saba! Welcome to the EasternPennPoints virtual café! It is a cold and cloudy day in the city of Philadelphia where I am, and I have my cup of coffee in hand to help with warmth. How are you doing today, and what’s it like at your location?
Saba: Oh no, I’m sorry spring is still eluding your whereabouts! I’ve been having a busy day and I’m already feeling the screen fatigue (and it isn’t even noon yet), but unfortunately it has been raining all day so I don’t think I’ll be able to get outside either. At least it’s warm rain, though?
Joy: I hope you can find some time to take a break off screen and relax a bit today. And yes, I will take a warm rain day over a cold and cloudy day. (Laughs) Do you mind sharing a little about your career journey? How did you know you wanted to work in the publishing industry, and how did you get started as a literary agent?
Saba: Not at all! To be frank, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life for what felt like the longest time (and what I now know to be a perfectly normal amount of time), but after a couple of pitstops at various internships across industries and a short stint at graduate school, I eventually found myself interning at a publishing house and feeling as though I could be happy working in the publishing industry. My next internship was at my current agency, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Joy: Thank you for sharing that, Saba. For what seemed like the longest time, I also didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but internships and volunteering helped me find it. So, I agree wholeheartedly with you that internships can provide direction that can help us find our career path.
Writers usually feel the jitters when querying literary agents, and I have always wondered if literary agents feel the same way when they reach out to editors/publishers regarding a potential work. Can you shine some light about what that dynamic is like?
Saba: Oh, absolutely! It’s certainly much less pronounced if I already have a working relationship with the editor I’m pitching to, but I’m always a bundle of excited nerves when I reach out about a new project. It’s almost like the few moments before you jump off a plane—a mixture of adrenaline and mild panic. Except I have no desire to skydive ever again, and I love pitching new projects—which is a good thing for my clients, I suppose!
Joy: Absolutely! Your clients are lucky to have you. Do you think the pandemic has in any way affected or changed the children’s publishing industry, and how? What are your predictions for the future of children’s publishing?
Saba: It’s been a mixed bag, to be very honest. But to broadly generalize, most major houses are still acquiring as usual, but smaller independent houses, especially initially, had to either freeze acquisitions or put their staff on furlough to survive, which was unfortunate. There have been some pretty devastating and unexpected layoffs as well, but on the whole, editors are continuing to do business with agents and are insisting that they’re still acquiring as zealously as they would have pre-pandemic. I suspect, however, that the reality is that they’re being slightly more judicious but have been told to try and keep appearances up that it’s business as usual as far as possible. But this is all speculation at the end of the day. All I can say is, I’ve sold books since the pandemic began, and also been told that a book that was going to get an offer on it from a publisher has been stalled specifically because of the pandemic’s effect on their budget. So there have definitely been significant effects, albeit uncertain. I’ve also seen many houses focus on non-fiction more (with some of them even launching non-fiction imprints) because of the increased demand for educational materials for kids who aren’t going back to school because of the pandemic. And then there’s the fact that the quarantine itself (since everyone is working from home) has also delayed contract paperwork considerably because accounting and financials are tough to wrangle remotely because of all the sign-offs involved. But my hope is that this experience will make everyone (especially in editorial) realize that we can continue to function efficiently without all needing to live and work out of NYC.
Joy: Yessss! Saba, I agree. Without giving too much away, what are one or two big things you hope writers will go away with from your presentation?
Saba: I want writers to come away with a sense of comfort and be reassured that while querying is certainly a fraught process, it’s not an insurmountable challenge by any measure, and there are things they can do to mitigate the difficulties of being in the querying trenches that I hope I’ll have touched upon in my presentation. Oh, and that (many) agents are fairly reasonable (friendly even!) and are aware of our collective fallibility as human beings.
Joy: I bet we can all use that reassurance as writers. Thank you! As part of your commitment to our webinar, you have also offered to provide free Zoom career consultations to four creators from underrepresented communities. Thank you so much for your generosity. What do you hope the creators will get out of these consulting sessions?
Saba: I hope they will come away with some valuable knowledge and resources, and a sense of what steps to take next as they plan ahead for their careers.
Joy: Thank you so much for sharing this time with me, and I look forward to your presentation.
Saba: Thank you for having me, Joy!
Saba Sulaiman is an agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, a boutique agency located in Milford, CT. She holds a BA in Economics and Middle Eastern Studies from Wellesley College and an MA from the University of Chicago, where she studied modern Persian literature. Being an immigrant who is constantly negotiating her own identity and sense of belonging in a place she now calls “home,” she is committed to championing books by writers from marginalized communities 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 in both fiction and non-fiction with veracity and heart.
May 19, 2022 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time
Seeking representation is a daunting process with all sorts of unspoken rules that can sometimes feel arbitrary and frustrating. This presentation will address how best to strategize querying literary agents: the dos, the don’ts, and the don’t worry abouts of composing and sending query letters, along with some suggestions for how to cope with the uncertainty of this phase of your writing career.
For more information and to register, go to https://epa.scbwi.org/events/webinar-series-query-grind-2022/
Career Consultation Opportunity
As part of this series, literary agent Saba Sulaiman, in collaboration with Eastern PA SCBWI, will be offering four 15-minute Zoom career consultation opportunities with Saba at no charge to writers who belong to marginalized communities that have been historically underrepresented in publishing as well.
To apply, please fill out this form: https://forms.gle/rCxsP1uR4HdNXMoQA
Deadline to apply is April 15, 2022.
The four recipients will be chosen at random from the pool of applicants. Recipients will be notified by May 1, 2022.
Recipients will also receive access to Saba’s May 19 webinar.