In her nearly 30-year career in publishing, Anjali Singh has worn many hats. Before joining Ayesha Pande Literary as an agent in 2015, Singh was the editorial director at Other Press, and prior to that had worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Vintage Books. And before all that, she got her start as a book scout. She's perhaps best known for her work in world of graphic novels, having acquired and championed Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis after stumbling across it during a trip to Paris. She later went on to help launch the careers of such authors as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Samantha Hunt.

Now Singh is making yet another exciting pivot: launching her own literary agency.

At Anjali Singh Literary, launching this month, Singh will continue to represent literary fiction, nonfiction, children's literature, and graphic novels. She will bring her entire list over to the new boutique agency, comprising roughly 55 authors and illustrators. Her literary authors include Susan Abulhawa, Nawaaz Ahmed, Zara Chowdhary, and Bridgett Davis, and her graphic novel clients include Joel Christian Gill, Tessa Hulls, John Jennings, Deena Mohamed, Steenz, Salman Toor, and Ivy Noelle Weir. She will also offer consulting services through the agency.

PW spoke with Singh about striking out on her own, how editing and scouting have informed her agenting, and what this next—and, she hopes, final—chapter of her career will hold.

What inspired you to launch your own agency? Why now?

The origin story would probably go all the way back to my start in publishing in 1996 as a literary scout, feeling very much like an outsider (which is what scouts are, operating a little outside the system) and in a very non-corporate space—all of which it took me a long time to recognize is actually where and how I feel most comfortable. But while scouting gave me a bird’s-eye view of the publishing world and international publishing, it didn’t give me a sense of ownership over anything. Being an editor at Vintage books and then Houghton Mifflin (later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and Simon & Schuster did give me that sense of ownership and allowed me to feel that I had a “voice” in helping to shape the industry through the authors I acquired, such as Marjane Satrapi and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. But I also found myself at the mercy of all kinds of corporate expectations. I learned a lot about who I was and what I liked and didn’t like in a work culture through those experiences.

My last editorial job was as editorial director at Other Press—and again, it represented the antithesis of corporate life. It was there, in publishing international fiction and books that I believed in, that I began to recalibrate and get back in touch with what made me want to be in the industry in the first place. But I still found myself searching for a way to put my energies towards supporting the work I most wanted to see in the world, and at the same time to have the flexibility and control in my work life that would allow me to be in the world, and be a mother (to, at the time, small children), in the ways that were important to me.

Becoming a literary agent then was in many ways the ideal next chapter. Starting at a small, mission-driven boutique agency in Harlem, Ayesha Pande Literary, gave me the freedom—for the first time in my career—to follow where my passions led me. It turns out that was to build a list of writers and artists—mostly writing in English and from Egypt, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine, and South Africa—working on everything from literary fiction to picture books to graphic novels for adults and children. As an editor, I struggled so much to be able to integrate the various sides of myself, as someone who loved postcolonial literature and history and comics, who was half-Indian and also lived in France, into this one role as an adult literary fiction editor. Becoming an agent allowed me to move through the world with a freedom to be my full self, while drawing on all my many years in the industry, the various relationships I’d forged, and the hard lessons I’d learned along the way, to create a community for myself—and hopefully for my authors as well.

I think we all want to keep growing, and founding my own agency at this point in my career (28 years in!) feels like the inevitable next step. I can get back to my roots of working in a small, intentional organization, but this time I get to make the rules, create the culture, and determine the values.

What categories will the agency represent?

I’ve always been a literary fiction person and I will definitely continue to represent fiction—I am particularly drawn to books that have an international setting and tackle politics in some way, overtly or through the characters’ experiences. I also have this strong pull towards artists, and building my graphic novel list has been another way to pull in and make accessible a wide range of stories; comics have always been subversive, and I like to say graphic novels are a very effective way of getting subversive content into the mainstream!

Are you planning to hire staff?

For the next few years at least I know it will just be me. There are pragmatic, economic reasons for this, of course. I am building it from the ground up, and I’ll need to do everything myself and figure out my own systems. But mentorship is important to me, as is building a culture within publishing that, hopefully, offers a different model of what a work and agency culture can be. So while I know I want to stay small, I hope that one day I will be able to make space for more than just me.

As you start to take on clients, what kinds of authors and work are you looking for? What excites you these days?

I’m drawn to books that move me in some way, that speak to questions that I’ve wrestled with, that help us question our cultural norms or assumptions, and that remind us of how truly big the world is and also how much we all share. I’m sure what motivates me is also a product of my hybrid identity; as someone who has always struggled with what it means to belong, I’m deeply invested in pulling people in, in making the circle bigger, in going against the grain in an industry that has sometimes prided itself on its exclusivity. I don’t know if it’s my own sense of privilege or just my own stubbornness, but while I’m conscious of the market as all agents have to be, what I’m most interested in is trying to champion stories that are doing something new, and that might—as Persepolis once did—change our industry’s idea of what people will read and care about.

How have you found your history working as an editor and a scout informs your agency work? Has your experience as an editor and/or literary scout at all shaped your approach to agenting?

When I was leaving all those various jobs and figuring out my next move, I couldn’t have known what a strong foundation I was building for this new chapter. So yes, unequivocally, my experience as a scout and then getting to be an editor in big, medium, and small publishers has helped me enormously to understand what’s going on from the publisher’s perspective, to try to translate that for my authors and also to know what is worth fighting for, and when. It feels much more right to take that knowledge and use it on behalf of the artist, and in advocating for their needs.

You’ve been an agent for nearly nine years. In your estimation, how has the publishing landscape changed in that time? Has your approach to agenting changed in that time?

While I do think it’s important to know what is happening on a macro level—for example, as someone who sells into this industry and advocates for authors, I mourn the loss for all of us of the midsize independent publishers Houghton Mifflin and Harcourt—I also feel that, given the many periods of rebuilding I’ve undergone and especially over the course of the past nine years, what has helped me most is to keep my eyes on the road ahead and my faith strong. The culture is changing around all of us all the time—and in terms of what is now considered mainstream, that is all for the good—and I’m hopefully reading those changes right in my various interactions with editors and publishers and my agent peers. At the same time, this business is so very hard, that you just have to not worry too much about what you can’t control, and put your time into what you care about.

As you launch your agency, do you have any goals for its first year? Any long-term goals?

My short-term goals are also my long-term goals: to build an agency from the ground up on a strong foundation, to find the right international publishing partners, to make sure my authors feel that they are well-supported and part of a community of care, and to do what I can to counter some of the systems and structures that were built to keep people out. Ultimately, my goal is to find and work with my people—writers, artists, publishing colleagues—who believe in justice, who are actively working to change unjust systems, and, corny as it sounds, striving to make the world and our publishing landscape a better and more open place. And really, coming out of the pandemic and about to embark on a new, and hopefully my last, career chapter, I’m looking to find more joy in work and in life!

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.