- Michael Feeney
In Conversation With Literary Agent, LESLEY SABGA
The Seymour Agency's Lesley Sabga has graciously joined us in conversation about her experiences growing up in the publishing industry, her time at The Seymour Agency, what she looks for in an author's query, and more.
You’ve been close to the publishing industry and specifically the Seymour Agency all your life. What was it like growing up so close to publishing, and how has that affected your career path?
I LOVED growing up with authors and being so close to publishing! I feel extremely lucky to have gotten to know some amazing writers and agents and see firsthand how a book comes into publication very early in my life. Everyone’s journey to getting published is so different and there’s no “right way” to do it either, and that’s something that I’ve really come to appreciate while being an agent. I love how I have a huge support group to bounce ideas off of and ask for advice. I can’t even tell you how happy it makes me to see authors that I grew up with at conferences who have known me since I was five or six, in some cases younger! However, there have been a few instances where a pitch or submission gets passed along to me and I have to awkwardly say I used to babysit their kids or that they know me way too well to EVER want me in charge of their careers, haha. So that’s always a bit funny to deal with.
As for my career path, it’s always been book publishing and more specifically agenting at Seymour since it’s been a household name for me for as long as I can remember. Mary Sue Seymour was the COOLEST person to me growing up and the same goes for our current president, Nicole Resciniti; who is basically my second mom who I call when just about anything happens in my life. Even when I tried to go the editorial route, I always made my way back to Seymour. Literally could never imagine doing anything else with my life besides being an agent.
What are your favorite things about being a literary agent? What challenges do you face?
Hands-down my favorite thing about being an agent is being able to champion my authors and go through the trenches with them. Publishing is hard enough when you do have someone in your corner so I really can’t imagine the difficulties authors face without having someone by their side. Writing is such an isolating job and the majority of authors are introverts, so I am always more than happy to be the energetic cheerleader and positive advocate for them!
As for challenges, the biggest one would be to know when to tell your author to pivot when a project just isn’t going anywhere; whether it be market timing or lack of interest even if the both of us adore it. I never enjoy those hard conversations and I know my authors like them even less than I do. But the only thing we can do is put our best foot forward and keep working and trying.
We know the hub of the publishing industry is in New York City. The Seymour Agency is also located there. You are a resident of Colorado. How has this distance affected your experience working in publishing?
I am very fortunate to be able to work remotely! I love living in Colorado and couldn’t imagine trading mountains for the city. However, being away from New York does pose its challenges. I find myself traveling way more than I ever expected starting out. Last year I went to twelve conferences and a handful of trips to New York just so I could make those face-to-face connections. Phone and zoom calls are something that I had to get used to doing right away as well. I think as long as an agent understands that they are more on their own when they work remotely, then they can find solutions to help network and connect with editors and houses. I am extremely lucky to have other agents at Seymour who are also remote to help give advice on how to do my job as effective and well as possible.
Tell us a little about your process regarding choosing clients and titles to represent. What types of books usually speak to you? Has a query ever immediately popped off the page so much that you instantly knew it had to be yours?
I’m one of those annoying agents who doesn’t know I love something until I see it, but I will say that the first thing I look for is if I have something just like it on my list already. I try my hardest to not have authors on my list compete too much against one another. Of course there are projects that overlap in genres, but the content is so different that it doesn’t make it too much of a bear to navigate pitching and submitting. I will say that an author’s personality and workability tend to be a bit more important than the book to me. At this point in my career, longevity is very important. So if an author comes off as demanding or not a team player, I’m not going to want to work with that person for years.
You’re a big fan of strong subject lines in queries. What does it take for an author to catch your eye within the book’s content?
Subject lines are so important to me because they really help projects pop in my inbox. I get around 200 submissions a week and the majority of the subject lines just say “query”, which is perfectly okay! But I will say the subject lines that have those high concept one-liners or strong comparison titles always make me click first.
For example, I acquired a book where the subject line was “The Bird Cage meets The Wedding Date” and I could not have clicked on that submission faster. I truly believe I don’t think I would have jumped on that project and author as quickly as I did if the subject line just said an #ownvoices romance, because I got dozens of those submissions with those subject lines already.
Is there any collaboration with other agents, or does everyone mainly focus on their own titles?
That’s one thing that I absolutely love about The Seymour Agency: the overall support and collaboration. We all try our best to help one another out, share contacts, give advice, offer another pair of eyes for reading or reviewing contracts. Especially when I was starting out a few years ago, gosh I think I asked EVERYONE for a second opinion and no one ever turned me down or acted like I was imposing on their already heavy workload. It’s just a big family vibe. There’s no competitiveness between agents, we all have the mindset that a sale for one is a sale for all, because it reflects well on the agency as a whole.
What is the experience of working for your clients with regards to your interaction with publishing companies? Has there been a particular book you’ve worked on that was a breeze to sell? Perhaps another that was a challenge but you fully believed in the writer’s talent?
It’s such a wonderful challenge to pitch a client’s book to a publishing house, I love pitching and sharing my excitement over a book! I think the best way to support your author is to be as open and as honest as possible. If an editor isn’t feeling the book for a specific reason, I always let my authors know; it’s the same for when I get a request as well. Just so we are on the same page at all times.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from working in publishing, it’s that the books that you think are an “easy sell” are generally the hardest. Of course I love every project that I take on, but it’s also very important to understand when it is time to table a book and pivot toward a new one. There are zero guarantees when it comes to acquisitions, all you can do is roll with the punches and adapt the best that you can.
How has working in publishing affected or changed your reading as a whole. Do you find it affects reading for pleasure?
I think the main way my reading for pleasure has changed is that I find myself gravitating more and more outside of the genres that I represent, just because they’re so new and different from what I normally see in my inbox and on my list. When I do read for fun in the genres I represent, it’s more for research and knowing where my authors’ books can fit in the market. I will say that there are some weeks where I can’t even imagine reading a book for fun just because I’ve read so much from my list and submissions already. That’s always been a bit of a struggle for me; finding that balance between reading for work and reading for enjoyment.
ABOUT LESLEY SABGA:
Lesley loves intricate and vivid world-building and character driven plots. She is acquiring MG, YA, and Adult fantasy and she is always down to read a dark and twisty suspense or thriller featuring strong, female protagonists. She also loves a classic happily-ever-after romance or curling up with a good mystery. She also has her eye out for book club fiction and women's fiction.
When she is not rescuing animals or searching for her next debut author, Lesley is a constant occupant at local bookstores in Colorado Springs and is a self-proclaimed coffee aficionado.