Anjali Singh started her career in publishing in 1996 as a literary scout. Formerly Editorial Director at Other Press, she has also worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Vintage Books. She 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 and Saleem Haddad. As an agent, among the many authors she is very proud to represent are Bridgett Davis, author of the acclaimed memoir The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers; Susan Abulhawa, bestselling author of Mornings in Jenin and Against the Loveless World and Nawaaz Ahmed, author of the debut novel Radiant Fugitives. Her graphic novel list includes Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez’ Wake: The Hidden History of Women-led Slave Revolts and Gillian Goerz’ Shirley and Jamila Save Their Summer as well as forthcoming works by Deena Mohamed, Steenz, Salman Toor, Fouad Mezher and Tessa Hulls. She is on the lookout for character-driven fiction or non-fiction works that reflect an engagement with the world around us and graphic novels for all ages. She grew up between New Delhi and Alexandria, VA,, graduated from Brown University and holds a diploma in French language and literature from the Sorbonne. She is a devoted New Yorker but still manages to spend a great deal of time in Rhode Island.
Why did you become an agent?
There’s a really long answer to that question, but I will try to keep it short. I have worn other hats in the industry, first as a literary scout—scouting American and Canadian books for foreign publishers– and then as an editor. I was very conscious of being one of very few editors of color, and of the power of being a gatekeeper—but I also found myself working within a system that didn’t feel healthy or equitable or particularly humane, and I think as a woman, and a woman of color, and then when I became a mother, I kind of hit a wall within that system. I longed, on the one hand, to feel more valued and seen in this industry and also for more agency and control over my work life, which is something that agenting offers. It also happened that at the moment, in my early 40s with two young children, that I came to this crossroads in my career as an editor that Ayesha Pande—who was an old friend and someone who I had long admired for her taste but also the values that she lived by—was looking to expand her agency. I may have become an agent anyway but being an agent at APL has allowed me to really grow in my career, and to come back to comics in a big way since now I can work across both the kids and adult book spaces and follow my passions and take on projects that I just really want to see in the world. I realized that being an agent also allows me to be a gatekeeper, and really at the front lines—and to mentor other young people of color who want to work in this industry, and to be on the side of artists, which is a much better fit for my temperament and politics than working for a corporation.
What does daily life look like for you as an agent?
Every day is a little bit different, and often full of surprises—most of them really good surprises, like opening an email from an artist I had a conversation with a year ago and with whom I shared some sample proposals and finding that she’s come up with the most brilliant idea for a graphic novel! My day is usually divided between calls or Zoom calls with clients that I am representing, checking in on their progress on projects that we are getting ready to shop, or that are already in the publishing cycle, or speaking to the editors of these projects—about marketing, publicity, pricing, cover design, etc. as we get closer to pub date, speaking to editors who I don’t know to find out what kind of projects they’re looking for, reading proposals my clients have delivered to give them feedback in anticipation of our submitting a project. I also spend time following up with editors who might still be considering projects I have on submission, drafting submission letters, having check-in meetings with my fellow agents or my interns (I usually have two remote interns at a time who are helping me with various projects while being given just this kind of insight into the daily life of an agent)—oh, and negotiating deal terms and reviewing contracts on behalf of my clients, which is a very important part of what we do.
What do you like the most about being an agent? What is most challenging about being an agent?
I really like that I have a lot of control in how I spend my days and what projects I take on—so basically where and how I give my time and energies. I love being able to be an advocate for my clients and I love how I am always, always learning in this job—from my clients and who they are in the world, and also because there is just never a dull day in publishing. There’s always some new situation coming up that you’ve never encountered before and you have to figure out how to address. Probably the most challenging piece, at least initially, is having faith that it will work out, that you will someday make a living at this (because it is true, the way the publishing cycle works, that it takes 5-7 years to generate something you could call a “living”). The other challenging piece, and this speaks a little bit to the question about how being a BIPOC affects my job, is that publishing is a little bit of a club, and a pretty white and elitist club, and I feel like that absolutely affects what publishing can see, what projects it thinks will sell, and how it values those projects. I can translate the marketplace and I can try to do the hard work to bring projects to that marketplace that another agent might not have taken on—but I can’t make an editor fall in love with it, or see its merit—and even when you find one editor who loves a project, they are dependent on their bosses and team to love it too. So I can’t help fantasizing about what publishing would feel like if those editors and teams really truly brought more of a diversity of lived experience and identities to the table.
How does being a BIPOC affect your job?
I don’t know if I can answer this succinctly, because identity is a layered and complex thing, though the older I get the more I do reflect on how my identity has shaped every aspect of my life, including my career. I know that it informed how and why I fell so hard for Persepolis as a young editor, and I know it probably also affected the kind of submissions I received when I was trying to establish myself as an editor. It informed the publishing friendships and bonds I made and how lonely I felt in certain environments—but it has given me such a strong sense of mission, for which I am incredibly grateful. And of course now I have finally found my people, and it feels incredible to be part of this amazing team of brilliant and collaborative BIPOC women at APL.
What’s the most important thing to you in a query letter?
This might seem like a strange thing to say, and might really be only true for me, but I really like to have a sense from the letter that the author knows exactly why she wrote this book, why it was important to her, and who she wrote it for. The other thing is to know how to describe your book succinctly, in a way that piques my curiosity.
What do you look for in a Twitter pitch?
Okay, this is where I admit I don’t really read Twitter pitches. . .you can always find me via the submission form on our website
What is on your #MSWL? What kind of stories are you looking for, particularly from API creators?
I think I operate a lot on instinct, I know what I like when I see it, and I absolutely want to see more stories centering the experiences of BIPOC folks across adult and kids literature. But the best books surprise me!
How many new authors do you sign annually?
I probably take on only about 1 or 2 fiction writers a year, but because I can sell GNs on proposal, I might take on anywhere from 5-8 new clients in a given year.
What are the trends in the industry at the moment? How do you think creators should navigate these trends?
I don’t think any artist should pay attention to trends, publishing moves so slowly that if you try to shape something for a trend, the chances are that by the time you shop that project and the book comes out, there will be a new trend. Plus I think one of the definitions of an artist is marching to the beat of your own drum. . .meaning you cannot pay attention to anything besides your own inner voice and the story that you feel it is most important for you to tell and that you feel the world needs. Having said that, it is good to know what is happening in the larger world and what other work and artists your own work is responding to and in conversation with.
How do you see the Big 5 becoming the Big 4 impacting BIPOC creators? Smaller publishers have produced many blockbusters this summer; do you foresee the merger changing that?
I think consolidation is bad for the industry over all, it just means less diversity of perspective and fewer bidders and without competition it is hard to get healthy advances. And if we’re talking about BIPOC in particular, whose works have been historically undervalued by the industry, there’s definitely an extra challenge. But there has been some very high-profile hiring of black and brown publishers and editors who have been given real power and that is a huge, welcome and long-overdue sea change for publishing. But it is of course just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what still needs to happen. So in this moment where things are looking very grim, there is also some hope. . .and I think this only means more room for independent presses and it’s an ecosystem I’m very happy to see thriving. Though I really would love to see a BIPOC-led small press collective one day soon!
What are the Dos and Don’ts for creators when querying an agent?
Dos: Be respectful, be intentional, know who you’re querying and why, polish your pitch. Don’t query before your project is done!
Do you have any advice for BIPOC creators when choosing an agent?
Listen to your gut, and only move forward if you trust that the person you are in conversation with shares your vision for your project and your career.
After signing, what does the relationship look like between you and a client? How often/how do you communicate? What can a client expect?
Usually after we sign, the client has some homework to do, so there are long stretches of time when we are not in regular contact. Whenever they have a new draft, they email it to me and either I’ll just email back notes or we’ll set up a time to talk through what I think the MS or proposal still needs. As a project gets closer to being ready to send out to potential editors, then we are in a lot of contact over the course of that week or two-week period of tweaking the proposal and honing the submission list and letter. Then there is a lot of quiet again while we wait for responses. If there is a flurry of interest from prospective editors we will be talking a lot and I’ll be facilitating phone calls with those potential editors and talking my authors through the process of selling the book—but then once the deal is done, I basically step out of the way so that the author and editor can bond and also get down to business. My role usually only kicks back into gear if issues come up with the editor or publisher regarding vision for the project or the delivery timeline—and then again about 6 months before the book comes out, as I begin to help navigate that process for my client. I do think you can and should expect clear and consistent communication from your agent—we are overworked and it may take us some time to turn around an edit, however once we have sold your project, we work for you, the author.
What is one thing you wish querying BIPOC creators knew before sending their query letter?
Your query is your introduction, it’s a chance for you to share a little bit of yourself and your vision with a prospective agent—I know there’s a formula and it is important that you think of it as a sales tool, but part of that tool is telling me a story about yourself so that I might want to start a conversation with you. It is a little like getting married when you get into this relationship, so we agents are evaluating both whether this is a project we think we can sell and also whether this is someone we want to be in a relationship with. . .