Literary agent Saba Sulaiman helps fulfill writers’ dreams
The ideal literary agent makes a writer’s publication aspirations come true while allaying their uncertainties. Saba Sulaiman is one of them. The Pakistan-raised mom, a senior literary agent for Talcott Notch Literary Services, was swept into the realm of books when her sister’s ever-expanding bedroom library found its way to her bed.
When Sulaiman immigrated to the U.S. to study further, she discovered publishing as her calling while working as an intern. We spoke to Sulaiman about her journey.
While you were born in Sri Lanka, your formative years were in Pakistan. Tell us about growing up there.
It was all I knew, honestly! I think kids all celebrate and struggle with the same things no matter where they are in the world, more or less (barring extremely traumatic incidents, which I’m grateful I didn’t have to contend with). Much of the scaffolding is definitely different, as I realize on a daily basis when I confront raising my own kids in a radically different environment, but I think I’d be over-indexing on how different my life should have felt as a kid growing up in Pakistan vs. anywhere else. I didn’t think very deeply about how exceptional my life was back then. And I don’t think it was exceptional thinking back on it now, either. I was content and glad for the securities I had.
Did you encounter culture shock when you moved to the U.S.?
It was definitely overwhelming, but not because I wasn’t familiar with the culture (thank you, cable TV!). Being thousands of miles from everyone I cared about was hard, but I found solace with other college students going through the same thing. We navigated the idiosyncrasies of “how the Americans do things” together. I eventually settled into a rhythm. It was also much easier because I came to the United States on my own terms. It was a choice I made under peaceful circumstances. So many immigrants do not have that privilege.
Tell us about your experience as an intern at Sourcebooks?
Sourcebooks was an incredible experience. I would say it was the turning point, when it became clear to me that publishing was the industry I wanted to be a part of. I’m so glad I just happened to stumble upon the internship listing on a local community college job board! I loved learning about the ins and outs of publishing, being part of a book’s journey, and sitting in on meetings where important decisions were being made about how to break out an author, how to strengthen their manuscripts, and how to manage a growing list. Then I interned at Talcott Notch, and I’ve never looked back.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I love helping my clients make their writing dreams come true and watching them grow as they improve their craft and better understand the impact they want to make with their careers. People also send me free books. That never gets old either.
What is the most challenging element of your job?
There isn’t a lot of financial security since I work on commission, and I put a lot of work into projects that often never see the light of day, which is also hard (I wish I could wave a magic wand and ensure all my clients’ projects sell, but alas!). With time, however, both of these things have become less challenging. I supplement my agenting income by teaching workshops and attending writing conferences, and I enjoy doing both, so I feel at ease with where I am in my career overall.
What are the most important factors you consider while reading an author’s manuscript?
As cliche as it sounds, I have to fall head over heels in love with a project to want to take it on. This business is all about passion and being able to communicate it to others, so I can’t fake enthusiasm for a manuscript I don’t absolutely love in every way—the concept, the characters, the writing, all of it.
It doesn’t have to be perfect for me to fall in love with it, but I have to sense that the author has immense talent and has the chops to deliver on revising the book to take the shape that I can clearly envision in my head. Oftentimes, I’ll pass on a brilliant project I know will sell just because it’s not quite there yet and I don’t actually know how I’d help the author get it to where it needs to be. This is such a collaborative business that I know if I can’t do my job well, I should step away from the table.
But yes, in short, I only take on projects I feel very strongly about, and it’s a very organic, instinctive process for me.
What is your favorite genre to read?
I like reading contemporary realistic fiction, both for children and adults — anything character-driven that has to do with messy relationships and self-knowledge, anything that makes me reconsider the world and my own relationships in a new way.
What steps do you take to broaden your genre horizons?
This is a great question, and one that I think everyone (especially in the publishing industry) should consider. I try to read out of my comfort zone as regularly as I can, and to keep myself accountable, I make sure every third or fourth book I pick up is in a genre I don’t typically read or enjoy. I follow and admire many book professionals who work in areas I don’t read or work in, and I take notes when they recommend books.
How do you typically safeguard the best interests of an author?
My priority is to listen to my clients, understand their needs, figure out if there’s anything I can do to help meet them, and execute on a plan to do so in the most congenial manner possible, especially if other parties are involved. Keeping communication channels open and easy for everyone to cross is incredibly important, as is the trust my clients have in my intention to support them and do what I can to ensure their voices are heard through every step of the publishing process. So I check in with them when needed and make sure they are aware of the rights they have. I wish there were any typical cases so I could be more specific, but that’s one of the beauties of being a literary agent — every contract, every publishing deal, and every day brings its own unique challenges. I love that about my job.
Negotiation abilities are essential in your field. What do you consider your strongest negotiation and networking skills?
My biggest strength is that I have so much support from my fellow agents, specifically from our boss, Gina Panettieri. She is warm, kind, tenacious, immensely knowledgeable, and so very generous with her time and expertise. Her fierce and unyielding support is pretty much why I’m here doing this job today. Other than that, when it comes to negotiations, I’m not afraid to ask questions, to push back when I feel the need to, and to stand my ground when my gut tells me to. When it comes to networking, I love a good long chat about pretty much anything. So if books are involved, I can talk and talk for hours (fair warning)!
How do you keep abreast of the newest publishing developments?
I read a lot of industry newsletters, keep in regular touch with other agents, editors, and other publishing professionals. I attend conferences and webinars, and read as many recently published books as I can. In some ways, the business is slow to change. But in others, certain practices (or even kinds of stories) can feel dated very fast. I have to keep up with what readers are responding to, to help my clients sell their manuscripts.
You are a member of the People of Color in Publishing steering committee. What exactly does the organization encompass, and what role do you play within it?
People of Color in Publishing is a grassroots organization (founded by fellow literary agent Patrice Caldwell) dedicated to supporting, empowering, and uplifting racially and ethnically marginalized members throughout the industry. I run the mentorship program, a volunteer-based initiative to create mentorship relationships between entry-level and experienced-level industry professionals of color.
Our goal is to provide our mentees with a personal resource for support, guidance, and encouragement. I’ve been helping run this program since its inception. I find it incredibly rewarding. We’ve helped dozens of people find jobs in publishing, and the community we’ve created is a wonderful, vibrant one.
Have you ever collaborated with any South Asian authors? If so, who are they, and what genres do they write in?
Yes, I have! And I hope to collaborate with more in the future. My first ever picture book client was Saira Mir, whose debut, “Muslim Girls Rise,” will always have a special place in my heart. She also has another book coming out this year called “Always Sisters.” Shelly Anand has written a number of books, most notably “Laxmi’s Mooch,” about a little Indian American girl who rocks a mustache with confidence and flair. Shirin Shamsi also writes picture books. Our first project together was “The Moon from Dehradun,” about a child’s experience of the Partition of British India. I also have one client who writes adult fiction. Her name is Namrata Poddar, and her debut novel, “Border Less,” came out last year. I also represent Pooja Makhijani, Preeti Gopalan, and Lina Chopra Haldar. All of them have exciting projects cooking that I can’t talk about yet.
You’re a mom. How do you strike a good work-life balance?
Has anyone figured this one out yet? Jokes aside, I manage with a lot of help (from my husband and my family), as well as the privilege to decide my working hours and how much work to take on. I also try to accept that there will be days where the balance tips on either side. But in the long run, it’ll all even out. The slight frenzy of not knowing what each day will bring productivity-wise is worth it. Working makes me a better parent, and being a parent makes me better at my job.
What is your favorite self-care routine?
I like to run. I find it relaxing and invigorating to push my body to its limits, especially when I need a mental break. And a nightcap involving chocolate in some form is the perfect end to my day.
Do you have any words of encouragement for budding authors out there?
Your favorite author was a budding author once, so why not you? Writing well is an acquired skill. If you want to make the plunge, it’s never too late, especially if writing gives you joy and sharing it with the world feels like the right next step. Plenty of other people have been in your position and have found success. Don’t shortchange yourself or your dreams, and good luck!