Book Broker – an interview with Soumeya Bendimerad Roberts
Agent: Soumeya Bendimerad Roberts at HG Literary
Preferred genres: Literary novels and collections, upmarket fiction, book club fiction, narrative nonfiction, memoir, select realistic YA, as well as prescriptive nonfiction in the craft, lifestyle, health, wellness, maker/do-er space.
Bio: Soumeya Bendimerad Roberts joined HG Literary in 2017 after agenting at Writers House and the Susan Golomb Literary Agency, where she was also Foreign Rights Director. Prior to representing authors as a literary agent, Soumeya was a book scout at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. Soumeya is also the Vice President of Foreign Rights at HG Lit and handles international translation licensing on the agency’s behalf. She is a member of the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA) and serves on their International Rights Committee, a member of the Women’s Media Group, and serves on the Center for Fiction’s debut fiction prize celebratory committee. Originally from the California Bay Area, Soumeya began her career in the editorial department of an independent publisher in San Francisco, and is still drawn to the editorial process and the independent West Coast spirit. She now lives in Brooklyn with her family.
1) What stands out in a good submission?
My three S's: Style, Structure, and Setting. A unique writing style that's well-controlled, an organizational format that helps the writing sing and supports the author's intent for the plot, and a setting that is so real I can see the characters in it.
2) What's a typical warning sign that a manuscript isn't ready for representation?
Sometimes you come across writing that still has "scaffolding" around it—places where the author has written something to help develop the novel, but hasn't smoothed it out yet. Particularly noticeable when the author is doing a lot of telling and not showing, including information twice (for example, in dialogue and then in exposition), or giving the reader information all at once (in an "info-dump") rather than allowing it to unfold in a narrative. Sometimes you see the lack of scaffold—for example, when a draft feels like it's ALL voice, and the reader doesn't have context for what is happening around them, or they have a central concept around which their manuscript is based and all their characters are unnaturally tied to that concept.
Another tell-tale sign is a query that's very chatty, self-depreciating, funny (for a book that isn't meant to be humorous), or just otherwise not very professionally written.
3) How do you feel about personalization in query letters? Can you give an example of effective personalization?
I like when writers are readers, so anything that is genuine will come across. Generally, I'm always interested in seeing how people get my name, so I like it. But sometimes it doesn't give me much to go on. I think the best personalization is usually thematic or general—just saying you liked a book on an agent's list is nice, but if you can genuinely describe what it was that really resonated with you as a reader or a thematic link between those books is great. I like when someone mentions offhand something we might have in common gleaned from an interview, my bio, or even my Twitter, but I'd warn against becoming too familiar or coming off as a stalker. One personalization element to avoid completely: don't say your book was referred by someone if it wasn't. If someone suggested you query me, that's great to say, but a referral is something that I'll be able to follow up on because it's a connection I have. The industry is really small, so don't try to bluff here.
4) What are the three most overused opening scenes that you encounter in submissions?
If I had to generalize: someone waking from a dream, or waking up in the morning; an overly expository description of the protagonist in some kind of distress; a very voice-heavy first person stream-of-conciousness type scene. But those aren't necessarily deal-breakers, if they're done well.
5) For writers without prior publications, what can they say in their "about me" query paragraph to catch your attention?
I'm always looking to champion writers that don't have access to the usual avenues of success, so a note about passion and commitment to the craft catches my eye. Education and any relevant activities they do outside of their day-to-day life that has to do with writing or the literary arts is always interesting. Any connection at all—a volunteer position with a literary festival, a writers workshop they took with a notable writer, certainly any awards, residencies, or fellowships they received. A note or two giving some background about the manuscript's origin is always helpful and interesting. For example, if your protagonist is an arsonist, it would be interesting to know if the author is a firefighter, or something along those lines. A succinct but genuine line about the author's inspiration is always welcome.
6) If you could change one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be and why?
I wish we as an industry put more resources into developing market research, publicity, and marketing. I think if publishers invested more in this they'd see why it's important to publish a more diverse array of books and have unique marketing strategies to different markets. So many books are allowed to die on the vine because the publishing industry still sees one type of book-buyer as its main or only reader. I think so many more people would buy books if we had more flexibility around pricing, format, publicity strategies, and if more communities felt their voices were being represented accurately and published respectfully.
7) What's the best (non-client) book you've read recently, and how did it hook you?
I loved The Lying Lives of Adults by Elena Ferrante. She has such an amazing way of describing a character's point of view. She's a master of voice and craft. I loved that the book was in a child's point of view, but was so filled with nuance and sophistication and authenticity of experience.
8) Can you tell us about an exciting author you're working with at the moment?
Jasmon Drain's Stateway's Garden is a wonderful coming-of-age narrative told in short stories set in a housing project in Chicago in the 1980s. It combines so many elements I love and is just so well written.