Soumeya Bendimerad Roberts on the Day-to-Day Job of a Literary Agent
“One of the things I enjoy about my job is that my days can really vary.”
Guy Bigel: What led you to agenting?
GB: What does a normal workday look like for you?
GB: What’s one thing you think people should know before they get into agenting?
GB: You mentioned that you also handle foreign rights. What does that process usually look like?
SBR: There are a bunch of different subsidiary rights to every book deal, and that can be stuff like audio rights, film/TV rights, and large-print rights, and all those subsidiary rights are sold separately from the deal. Translation rights are one of those things. We essentially work with a team of coagents across the world in every major territory where translations are significantly sold. Not all agencies use coagents, but the majority of them do because of cultural specificity, and because the market and the landscape are always changing.
We prepare materials and submissions on behalf of our coagents, and we talk to them at book fairs. There’s a big book fair in Frankfurt every year, and a big book fair in London, and there’s one in Bologna, Italy, specifically for children’s books. There are additional ones, but those are the three major foreign-rights fairs. Our coagents then go out into their individual markets and they do the actual submissions and sales, and we work together as a team to pitch those books. During the book fairs we have an opportunity to meet the international editors face-to-face, so it’s a really enjoyable job. It allows me to work closely with my agent colleagues on their projects because I handle it on behalf of the whole agency. Any opportunity to share ideas and literature throughout the world is always a really special thing.
GB:Are there any common issues with international versions that sometimes need to be addressed, like covers that your clients don’t feel comfortable with or weird translation choices, etc.?
SBR: Yeah, I mean, we take it pretty seriously, but at the same time, we also know that each territory has its own reasons for doing things, especially with covers and titles. If you require somebody to translate a title verbatim, it can lose most of the nuance and the meaning that it has in English. We also recognize that translation is expensive and publishers have to pay not just for the translator, but also for the right to translate the book, and they’re not doing so lightly, so we have to treat them with respect. But we do a lot of things in the contract that protect the author by giving them approval over things, so the author is always ultimately the person who has the last word. But yeah, sometimes you do get a cover and it just seems absolutely strange, or like, “What is this?” But usually, as long as it’s not offensive or the author doesn’t feel that it’s misrepresentative, we try to understand that things that feel natural to us may seem strange to them too. One thing we do require in all of our contracts is a full complete translation, so there can be no additions or no removal of text. We require them to translate as closely as possible to the meaning of the author’s original work.
GB: Regarding querying, what’s the most common mistake or issue that you see in query letters?
SBR: I think my number one is querying too soon or taking the querying process too informally. You should treat it pretty much almost as seriously as job searching. It shouldn’t just be like, “Oh, I just finished the draft, why don’t I just send it out?” Or writing a query letter that’s too conversational, too familiar, doesn’t really give me anything to go by. ’Cause, you know, I come to work every day. It’s a profession for me, and I think for everyone I take on, and although I don’t expect them to not have a day job, I do want my authors to treat [writing] as if it is their profession—or at least that they hope that it will become so. The number one thing that I see authors do that is kind of an automatic no is treating it like a conversation rather than an application.
GB: What’s the fastest it ever took you to offer representation to a writer, and what’s the fastest it ever took you to get a client a book deal?
SBR: I can’t totally recall off the top of my head, but I know that I’ve offered representation overnight. And then the fastest book deal . . . I think if you’re talking about a debut submission, maybe within a week. I’m thinking of one specific instance where we had a very high preempt, which is when an editor attempts to take a book off the table before other editors can have a chance to make an offer. So that’s always very exciting. Yeah, I think that like within a week was probably the fastest, although that is by far not the average experience.
GB: Do you feel MFA programs prepare writers well enough for publishing, and specifically for querying?
SBR: It seems to vary widely between programs. I know that’s not a very satisfying answer. It also seems to vary a lot on the student, because sometimes people start their MFA program pretty early and they may not query for several years, so anything that they might have gathered as information about the publishing process or the querying process might not be as fresh. I think, overall, MFA programs are much better and more welcoming to introducing the concepts of querying than they used to be. The focus used to be so much on craft that even the mention of something as crass as making money was really looked down on. Now there’s a big change in that mindset, but I do think it relies a lot on the initiative of the students to seek out and ask questions. Some places open doors and really focus on it, while others are just much more concerned with craft and writing critique.