GLVWG’s Geoffrey Mehl had a chance to interview Anjali Singh of the Ayesha Pande Literary Agency. Anjali will be joining us at the GLVWG “Write Stuff” Conference to take pitches from attendees (Advance Registration is Required).
GLVWG: Thank you for sharing some time with us today, and we’re looking forward to having you as one of the agents at the Write Stuff Conference in April.
Anjali Singh: You’re welcome and I’m looking forward to meeting everyone at the conference.
GLVWG: Authors are often urged not to submit until their manuscript is “ready.” Careful proofreading is understandable, but what other indicators tell writer it’s time to query?
Anjali Singh: I think it’s incredibly useful to be part of a writer’s group, to have engaged readers that you trust read and give you feedback. Even if you’re not part of a group, it’s worth asking friends and family who are avid readers to read on your behalf. Proofreading is important, but even more important is whether the first 5-10 pages grab and hold a reader’s attention (as that is what most agent’s will see first and be the basis on which they decide whether or not to read more), whether or not the characters come alive and make readers care about them and their plight, whether or not there’s enough at stake in the story to keep someone turning the pages, and to hear if there were places where the reader got bored, confused, or felt like skimming. These are all great questions to ask your early readers! An agent should never be the first person to whom you show your MS, and by the time you send it to one you should feel that you’ve perfected every aspect–opening, plotting, character development and pacing–that you can on your own. I think that’s when it should feel ready.
GLVWG: We hear a great deal these days about the demand for upmarket or “book club” fiction and narrative non-fiction. Could you clarify these expressions as they are understood by the publishing houses?
Anjali Singh: Word-of-mouth has always been what drives book sales, and publishers are looking for books that people read and feel so strongly about that they can’t help but want to tell their friends about them too; part of that involves a premise that can be conveyed in a sentence or two, and sometimes it involves a story that has many talking points, where the author has some connection to the story that makes it particularly interesting, or where the subject is related to something we as a culture are talking about (race, education, immigration) and presents it an easily digestible, or particularly new and thought-provoking, way. Or, as in the recent success of books like Gone Girl or Girl on a Train, there’s a twist in the end, or a mystery, that readers are desperate to solve.
GLVWG: Many agents prefer only a query (no synopsis, no sample pages), adding pressure to an already anxious task for authors. What’s the best length and structure for a query these days?
Anjali Singh: The best queries are short and to the point and, ideally, read exactly like a book jacket would. A clear one-line description of the book or a sentence to hook a potential reader’s attention, followed by a short paragraph summarizing the action of the book (but not giving too much away), followed by a line or two about what other book your book might sit alongside–which demonstrates to agents that you have thought a little about what kind of book you have written and who the audience might be. A line or two biography is also helpful, if you have had any work previously published, have an important writer mentor, or have an MFA is also useful–or to provide information about why you’re uniquely qualified to have written this book. That’s all we need! It shouldn’t run longer than a regular page (I’d say 350-400 words, max)
GLVWG: We sometimes hear counsel that beginning writers should practice in anthologies or small journals before attempting the larger book market “when they ready.” To what extent is that true, and how do they know it’s time?
Anjali Singh: I think getting published, anywhere, is a good test of whether what you are writing is of interest to anyone besides you. Also, a writer can learn a lot from the experience of being edited, and the bar is a little less high (and a little less driven by the commercial bottom line–not always the best litmus test for good writing) than what is demanded and expected by the big trade publishers. Having said that, whether or not you’ve published anywhere before is not a prerequisite for writing a fantastic novel or landing a publishing contract.
GLVWG: Many writers become active in the craft in later years, but the industry seems to focus on those with “career” goals. Does that present a problem for mature authors?
Anjali Singh: I think ageism is a factor everywhere, but I also think editors are always hungry for a good book with the potential to sell–so I don’t think a writer’s age would necessarily stand in his or her way. Not having a previous track (of poor sales, for example) can also be an asset.
GLVWG:In your encounters with acquisition editors, do you hear trends and themes in wish lists — as well as hints about what categories are fading?
Anjali Singh: I think they’re still riding the “Gone Girl” and “Girl on a Train” wave, and looking for page-turning psychological suspense aimed at women readers, or books that hit what publisher’s like to think of as the literary/commercial sweet-spot. Ideally this means books that meld a lyrical, accomplished prose style with an irresistibly page-turning plot–Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies would probably be a good example of a book in that category, though it skews more literary. But there are also tastemaker editors out there, who won’t know what the next trend will be until they stumble upon a manuscript whose potential they recognize–and they make it the next bestseller. I think there is also some hunger out there for diverse stories, particularly in the children’s and young adult marketplace.
GLVWG: What advice can you offer to the shy or introverted writer anxious about a face-to-face pitch? And which is better — face to face or conventional query?
Anjali Singh: Although it always helps if a writer is charismatic, well-connected or has a good story to tell about how they came to write what they wrote, ultimately it is always about the writing. I’d much rather fall in love with a piece of writing (written by an introverted author) than be impressed with the writer only to learn that their work doesn’t match up to their excellent face-to-face pitch! So I think honing your written pitch is the best service you can offer your as-yet-to-be-published work. And making that book as good as it possibly can be.
GLVWG: Thank you for your time and insight. We’re looking forward to your visit with us!
Anjali Singh: My pleasure.
Anjali started her career in publishing in 1996 as a literary scout, scouting American books for foreign publishers. Most recently Editorial Director at Other Press, she has also worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Vintage Books. She is is best known for having championed Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis after stumbling across it on a visit to Paris. She has always been drawn to the thrill of discovering new writers, and among the literary novelists whose careers she helped launch are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Samantha Hunt, Preeta Samarasan, Zoe Ferraris, Victoria Patterson, Natalie Bakopoulos, Enid Shomer and Brigid Pasulka. She is a member of the International Committee of the Brooklyn Book Festival.
As a literary agent, she is looking for new voices, character-driven fiction or non-fiction works that reflect an engagement with the world around us, literary thrillers, memoirs, YA literature and graphic novels.
Anjali will be taking pitches on Saturday, April 9, at the GLVWG Write Stuff Conference. (Advance Registration is Required).