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Paths to Publication: Associate Literary Agent Nour Sallam on the Perfect Query and Book Trends

By Rosemary Twomey 

As writers, we spend months, years even, working away on manuscripts, hoping that one day they will make it into the hands of readers. Associate Literary Agent Nour Sallam sat down with Erato Magazine to discuss book trends and the perfect query letter.

Photo: Nour Sallam

Nour Sallam is an Associate Literary Agent at P.S. Literary Agency, representing adult fiction and nonfiction, after first joining the PSLA team as an intern. She first got her start at the University of British Columbia where she studied English Literature and Political Science, and has previously worked in editing, podcasting, communications, and journalism. She then got her publishing certificate at Toronto Metropolitan University. As an Arab woman and an immigrant, she loves books of any genre that feature BIPOC characters, complex and nuanced histories, power dynamics, or social and political issues. 

“One “no” doesn't mean it's a “no” forever. The publishing industry can be very intimidating and challenging and competitive, but you just need one person to say yes to you. Keep writing. Keep creating, keep going.” – Nour Sallam

Personally, I first learned what a literary agent was when I became interested in novel writing. It sounds like a dream job, sitting and reading manuscripts, always on the hunt for the next best seller. Full of burning questions, I sat down with Sallam. 

What made you want to be a literary agent?

“I've always loved books, writing, and editing, and knew that I wanted to work in that realm. When I was still in my undergrad, a career in publishing wasn't something that was often talked about. The closest thing that I knew I could make a living out of was journalism, so I decided to go to journalism school. I was in my Master's of journalism at TMU (Toronto Metropolitan University) for maybe three months before I decided that it wasn’t for me, and that I actually just want to work with books."

"Because I was at TMU, I was aware of the publishing program that they had. I also did a mentorship at Transatlantic that opened up for BIPOC aspiring agents and I learned what agenting is and how many hats you get to put on. That for me was the moment I thought ‘Okay, I definitely want to be an agent’. I wanted to work with books and I wanted to advocate for authors that I really care about and make publishing a little more transparent.”

Agenting is a career where you get to wear many hats. From admin to editing to print rights, there are numerous facets to the job. What does your day-to-day look like?

“It's different every day. I'm still in the beginning of building my (client) list so my day-to-day is a lot of emails and a lot of reading. I do most of my manuscript reading at night, but I do try to go through the query inbox as much as I can during the day and do that with my morning brain. There's a lot of editor calls that you get pulled into too. Sometimes I edit during the day, although it depends, I feel like everybody's a little bit different. My editing brain is working, even when I'm reading a manuscript at night, so I do a bit of both.”

What's the best part of your job?

“The best part is when you find something that you really enjoy reading and think that it should be out there in the world. Then you get to meet with the author and they're just as psyched. You get to be a tastemaker. I just find it very rewarding to collaborate on projects. It's a very collaborative job even though sometimes it sounds very isolated. I think that's my favorite thing, how rewarding it feels to say ‘Let's try and publish your book’.”

Undoubtedly, query letters are one of the more important things for a writer to know about. Exactly what does a good query look like?

“It's a query that follows the standard format of "Here's what the book is about, here's who I am, and here are the things that you need to know about this book." It's short, it's sweet. It's sales-y. it hooks me and it shows me that you understand the market that you're selling into, which is such a big thing. I look at querying as a huge departure from writing. A good query understands that it’s trying to sell into a market.”

Are there any common mistakes writers make when querying agents?

“In terms of querying, I think one of the biggest mistakes authors make is not reading an agent's manuscript wish list, which means they aren’t getting the right eyes on their work. I also see a lot of people misspelling agents’ names. That's not necessarily a good look to start with, because that's the first sentence in a query letter. Authors will often also include a synopsis instead of a hooky paragraph. Agents want to like the story from  a reader’s perspective as well and we don't want everything given away.”

Many writers worry that they don’t have enough published work under their belt to write and pitch a novel, but Sallam says writers don't need to have previously published work to stand out.

“You don't need to have previous bylines or published short stories. Everybody has to start somewhere, right? For most agents, a lot of our clients are debut authors and we are hoping that we get to work with them on their first published book and their next one and their next one.  I likely won’t read the previously published short story that you mentioned in your query letter. I’m trying to sign you based on whatever you're showing me right now. Then I may ask you about what else you are working on, and what else we would be working on together during your career. Your past is your past. It's fantastic that you were published in a literary magazine, but it's not a mark against anyone who hasn't been and it's not something that I'm looking for. I'm not specifically looking for authors who have an MFA or who've signed up for writing courses or something like that. Good work is good work and it stands out.”

If someone has previously self-published or published with a small press, would that affect her decision to represent them with a new project?

“So the short answer is no, unless they're trying to query something that already exists out there. Then that's a different discussion. But if it's a new project, it wouldn't necessarily affect my decision to represent them. Of course, I would be looking at their sales record for their previous book and at how many units got moved on their Amazon if it’s self-published. It's different to position someone starting with a fresh slate versus someone who's had something published and reviewed before. So it doesn’t necessarily affect my decision to sign them based on their new work, but it is something that I will look into more.”

For all of us in the trenches of querying – what is one piece of advice that you would give to an aspiring author?

“I think the one piece of advice I would give, and I've given this before, is to just keep writing and keep creating and keep going. If you write, you're automatically a writer, but you become a published writer by being resilient. A lot of people don't get their first book published. That's usually not the one that signs with an agent or the one that you get to publish with a small press. A lot of authorship comes with being dedicated and resilient. One “no” doesn't mean it's a “no” forever. The publishing industry can be very intimidating and challenging and competitive, but you just need one person to say yes to you. Keep writing. Keep creating, keep going. If this is not the book, what's your next idea? Honestly, I think that's something that Taylor Swift said in one of her speeches when she accepted her Woman of the Decade award.”

With the rise of Booktok, viral books have become a major part of the industry, and social media is a massive marketing tool for authors. Do you foresee any upcoming trends or trends that are already here and that think will stay?

“Right now romantasy is really hot. Sports romance too. I think the rockstar and athlete rom-com is coming too, especially when looking at how many people are invested in Taylor Swift's new relationship. I think that the discussion on trends is really interesting because from an agent's perspective - we may sign a client today, but the book is not going to be out on bookshelves until two years from now. So, for us predicting trends and trying to acquire things just based on trends can be really murky water. You don't know if that trend is still going to be around once the book hits the stores. You can get lucky when you publish into a trend, but you can't really predict what the zeitgeist is going to be two years from now.”

What is your philosophy in terms of the authors you want to work with or the books you want to represent?

“I really want to champion BIPOC authors, especially in certain genres where we don't see enough representation. For me, that’s mystery and thrillers. I hope I get to work with those authors in that space. This also ties into my philosophy about what sorts of books I want to bring into the world. I think ultimately I want to be a good advocate for good books, good writers, and good writing. It's as simple as that. I appreciate a good book no matter the genre or the author’s background. That’s what stands out at the end of the day.”

You can learn more about Nour Sallam here and find her on Instagram and Threads @nourhasbooks.

To read more interviews from Erato visit the News & Culture section. 



About the Writer:

Rosemary Twomey is a writer based out of Montreal, Canada. She fell in love with character writing and development during her time studying professional writing at the University of Toronto. She can often be found reading with a cup of tea in front of a sunny window.


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