Editor / Agent Spotlight

Meet Literary Agent Leslie Zampetti

Leslie Zampetti

Leslie Zampetti is a former librarian with over 20 years’ experience in special, public, and school libraries. As a librarian, Leslie’s focus was always on the reader, on giving them the right book at the right time. She carries that focus over into her agenting work with a knack for matching client work to editors. Having negotiated with organizations from Lexis-Nexis to the elementary school PTA, she is able to come to terms that favor her clients while building satisfying relationships with publishers. And after cataloging rocket launch videos for NASA and model rocket ships for an elementary school, Leslie welcomes working with the unexpected challenges that pop up in publishing. 

As an author herself, Leslie is very familiar with querying from both sides of the desk. Recently, she took the bold step to open her own literary agency, Open Book Literary.

Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Leslie! Before we talk about Open Book Literary, fill us in on a little bit of your background. What was your path to becoming an agent?

I had been a librarian for several years and was writing middle grade novels when I attended a NJ-SCBWI conference. At the conference, several of us were mingling and chatting with John Cusick. When he left, I commented that agenting seemed like a fascinating job, and one of the other writers – who was agented and published — replied that if I were an agent, they’d be my client. I laughed and thanked them. But once I got home, I started thinking… What skills do I have that would transfer? How can I learn to be an agent? 

I was fortunate to get a place as a reader for Jenny Bent of The Bent Agency and then a part-time job with Jennie Dunham as her assistant. After working with Jennie for two years, I began representing my own clients.

And now you’ve opened your own agency, Open Book Literary. That is so exciting! Can you walk us through the experience?

It is exciting! But it’s much like starting any small business. If you mean you’d like to know more about how I decided to open my own agency, well, sometimes the path you’re on takes an unexpected turn. Working with Monica at Odom Media Management was wonderful, and without her mentorship, I don’t think I would have opened Open Book Literary. Her entrepreneurial spirit is contagious!

How would you describe the mission and vision of Open Book Literary?

As the name implies, I believe in partnering with authors, transparent and full communication, and welcoming under-represented voices into publishing, especially those voices centering on disability, poverty, women, neurodivergence, and Judaism, Islam, and non-western religions. I also advocate for work that explores the complexity of identity and the messiness of life.

We know that publishing is a highly competitive business, and as an agent, you have to pass on a lot of queries. What are the top reasons you might pass on a submission?

Sometimes writers send work of a type I don’t represent, such as work specifically for the educational market or high fantasy. (For the adult market, it’s often political thrillers.) Sometimes, the query or pitch is excellent, but the voice isn’t strong enough, or the voice is great, but I’m not especially interested in the premise. The worst is when I get manuscripts that are really well written, but I just don’t feel the spark necessary to offer representation. Usually, I haven’t continued thinking about the story after finishing or I just can’t put my finger on what it might need. That means I’m not a good fit for that author. The second worst is when I love something but I have a client whose work is very similar – I don’t like to have clients in direct competition, and it’s so hard to say no!

As you know, we are all about middle grade books. Tell us, what do you love most about middle-grade novels?

We all have an age we’re stuck at in our heads, and I’m 12. ;-). I love the middle grade audience, and I love that MG focuses on the first stirrings of independence and a young reader’s relationships, particularly with family and close friends. Even novels about dark or scary topics usually are suffused with hope, and that’s important for readers of all ages.

Which middle-grade book(s) influenced you most as a child?

That’s a great question! I don’t think middle grade was really much of a thing when I was growing up. It was all “children’s books.” I also learned to read very early and had free range at the library, so I often read books I probably wasn’t able to comprehend emotionally. 

I loved LITTLE WOMEN, partly because my grandmother gave me her copy of the book and then the sequels. I’ve always loved mysteries and read all of Nancy Drew, though even then some of the stereotypes made me uncomfortable. ALL OF A KIND FAMILY and its sequels, Madeleine L’Engle’s books, and HARRIET THE SPY were huge favorites!

What are some of your favorite current middle-grade novels?

Tracey Baptiste’s JUMBIES books, Sheila Turnage’s Mo LeBeau mysteries, Rita Williams-Garcia’s Gaither Sisters trilogy, the amazing anthologies like YOU ARE HERE and COMING OF AGE, Ann LeZotte’s wonderful Mary Lambert books… and of course, my clients’ books!

Where do you think the middle grade market is headed?

I’m hearing from editors that it’s a little oversaturated, particularly with contemporary. But as I always say, what goes down must come up! 🙂 The reality is that publishers need to keep publishing, and middle grade readers have a pretty big appetite for books of all kinds. They’re wide-ranging, too — from tentative to confident readers, fans of non-fiction or graphic novels or scary books or verse novels, etc.

Which genres/themes/subjects are you drawn to/not drawn to?

I’m drawn to mysteries, historical settings such as Hawai’i or Puerto Rico, books that explore difficult topics with heart and humor and hope. I’d love a young YA about the Challenger disaster along the lines of PLANET EARTH IS BLUE… I also would love to see books about interfaith families. I’m not a good fit for hyper-commercial books, fairies or high fantasy (though I love fabulism and magical realism), or stories of WWII / the Holocaust.

Are there any current projects you’re excited about?

I’m very excited about Lisa Schmid’s forthcoming HART & SOULS, a slightly spooky ghost story with an anxious drummer as its hero. I’m working to find these wonderful client projects their publishing home: a fabulist story set in Florida, a contemporary about the heroine trying to use her grandfather’s stories to make sense of her own experience and fight his dementia, and a historical about two children who emigrate from Kyiv to America through Galveston, Texas, and find that the Golden Land has its share of heartache, too.

Leslie Zampetti with Reynoso-Morris

Leslie Zampetti (right) with author-friend Alyssa Reynoso-Morris after a trip to Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia

Would you describe yourself as an editorial agent?

Yes! (With the caveat that I am not an editor.) My job is to polish your manuscript so its potential shines for an editor who will have the vision for shaping it into the brilliant gem it’s meant to be. I do love brainstorming and working out character/plot puzzles with clients. That’s the fun part of agenting!

What advice do you have for authors who would like to send you a query?

I’ve found nearly all of my clients through my slush pile. It can feel intimidating, but the query is really just a business letter telling me about your story and a little bit about you. I also advise writers to make sure their full manuscript is ready and polished. I don’t mind waiting to get requested fulls, but it’s so disappointing when the first several pages are wonderful but then the rest is obviously a very rough draft. 

Do you respond to all the queries you receive?

I respond to all queries, but it often takes me some time, particularly if I’m considering requesting. Since I use QueryManager, it’s likely I’ll start being open to queries one week per month (and closed the other three) in the New Year, in hopes that I can  be more efficient and timely in making and reading requests.

We’ve learned a lot about Leslie Zampetti, the agent. Now tell us about some of your favorite things to do that have nothing to do with being an agent.

Walking around the neighborhoods of Philly and admiring the murals and street art, discovering new bookstores (used or new!), and enjoying delicious meals or snacks as I wander. I also enjoy baking. I’ll never be a contestant on GBBO, but my cookies and cakes are yummy if not fancy.

Leslie, it’s been so great chatting with you today. Where can our readers learn more about you?

I’m @literarylesliez on Instagram, Threads, Bluesky, Twitter, and Facebook. I’d love to be able to stick with just one, but the writing community is all over the place! (I usually repost the same information on various platforms.) You can find a link to my MSWL and submission guidelines at https://www.openbooklit.com/submissions.

Leslie, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure getting to know you. Please know that we at the Mixed-Up Files wish you the best of luck with Open Book Literary!

Meet Literary Agent Dani Segelbaum

Dani Segelbaum agent headshot

Dani Segelbaum was born and raised in Minneapolis and grew up as a voracious reader. She’s a graduate of Boston University’s College of Communication, where she studied journalism and political science. 

Early in her career, she worked with established and debut authors as a literary assistant at New Leaf Literary and Media. Her career in publishing began when she became an editorial assistant at HarperCollins Publishers, where she focused primarily on highly designed non-fiction titles. 

Now, Dani is Vice President, Literary Agent, and Subsidiary Rights Director at the Carol Mann Agency. And she’s stopping by the Mixed-Up Files to tell us a little bit about her journey, the work she currently represents, and the kind of manuscripts she wants to find in her inbox.

 

Hi Dani. Welcome to the Mixed Up Files! 

Hi, Susan! It’s great to join you today.

 

Can you tell us a little about your path to becoming an agent?

I started my career as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins. After a few years, I realized I wanted to be an agent instead of an editor. From there, I went on to work at New Leaf Literary as an agent’s assistant and slowly started to build my list. I then joined Carol Mann in 2021 and am now Vice President, Subsidiary Rights Director, and Literary Agent for the agency.

 

Please give us a little background on the Carol Mann Agency.

The Carol Mann Agency was established in 1977 and has long been home to highly-regarded writers of fiction and non-fiction. We are a boutique agency that prides itself on giving individual attention to all our clients and regularly placing projects with leading publishers both in the United States and overseas. Our broad range of tastes, our experience guiding authors and their manuscripts through the publication process, and our industry relationships make us on of New York’s top literary agencies. We are privileged to work with a number of bestselling and award-winning authors.

 

It sounds like you’ve found your niche in the publishing world. Tell us what you find to be the best and worst parts about being an agent.

Best: I’m always learning something new from my authors! Each book teaches me something exciting and different.

Worst: Rejections! Although, it is a regular part of the publishing process.

 

Can you describe what you look for in a query?

I want to see that the author has done some initial research on what I’m looking for and that they followed my submission guidelines.

 

What are the top reasons you pass on a submission?

The number one reason is that the query is not in the genre I work on.

 

Here at MUF, we’re all about middle grade. Can you tell us what you love most about middle grade literature?

Stephen Colbert said, “As far as I can tell, a young adult novel is a regular novel that people actually read.” I feel the same applies for middle-grade novels. They take real-life issues and make them understandable for all ages!

 

What kind of middle grade books do you enjoy?

The middle-grade landscape has changed drastically since I was a kid. Now, there are all types of middle-grade books available that weren’t around when I was young. It’s really incredible to see.

Matt Sprouts and The Curse of the Ten Broken Toes cover

My author Matt Eicheldinger’s book MATT SPROUTS AND THE CURSE OF THE TEN BROKEN TOES is such a delight. It’s funny, relatable, and entertaining. He’s fantastic to work with and has such a creative mind. Kids will absolutely love this book. I promise!

 

What types of queries would you like most to see in your inbox right now?

I’m interested in seeing both fiction and non-fiction. In fiction, I’d really like to see literary and upmarket adult fiction including debut, historical, rom-coms, and women’s fiction. In non-fiction, I’m looking for proposals with an emphasis on politics, women’s issues, popular culture, and current events. Oh, and I love memoir, narrative non-fiction, lifestyle, and cookbooks, too!

In both fiction and non-fiction, I hope to work with authors from diverse backgrounds to tell the stories that are important to them. Overall, I’m really drawn to compelling narrators and writing that is voice-driven, highly transporting, and features unique perspectives and marginalized voices.

 

Where can authors learn more about you? 

You can follow me on Twitter (X) and Instagram at @danisegelbaum and check out my MSWL.

 

Now that we know all about Dani the agent, tell us what you like to do when you’re not at work.

When I’m not working, you’ll most likely find me baking, making homemade ice cream, or walking my dog!

 

Thanks again for joining us, Dani.

Thanks for having me!

Editor/Agent Spotlight: Agent Ali Herring of Spencerhill Associates

Hi Ali, I’m so excited to welcome you to our Editor/Agent Spotlight here on the Mixed Up Files, thanks so much for joining us!

Ali Herring of Spencerhill Associates Literary Agency

Thank you for having me on the Mixed Up Files blog! I’m excited to have a chat with you and your readers.

What was your path to becoming an agent? Did you always represent children’s books?

My path to becoming an agent started when I won a writing contest in first grade, which gave me that write-and-read bug that sometimes bites us early. I confess to many nights spent reading with a flashlight under my covers where my mom would enter and slowly tiptoe her retreat. After all, if the most terrible thing I was doing was defying bedtime for Little Women, things were going alright. This led me to a journalism degree in college and a job in communications for a small non-profit in Atlanta where I served as a trade magazine editor, among other in-house communications roles. Fast forward to a move to New York, then Connecticut, a set of twins and a third baby later, and I found myself a stay-at-home mom for ten years who read voraciously in her free time and fell in love with a book called The Lightening Thief. This led me to an attempt at writing a book, where I realized I was a better editor than writer. Landing an internship at an agency in CT was the key that opened my door to agenting when I decided to go back to work. And, yes, Rick Riordan’s voicey, funny adventurous worlds made me fall in love with kidlit, so children’s books have always been my passion.

 

What were some of your favourite middle grade books to read when you were growing up? Would you say that has influenced what you look for in terms of representing MG books?

My favorite middle grade books were Hatchet and Box Car Children. I loved the adventure and seeing kids surviving on their own.
Reading these books made me feel a sense of safety, that even in dire circumstances with enough willpower and ingenuity, you could overcome something bad, even young. I also loved Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia. Charlotte’s Web, in particular, was the book that taught me that not every story has to end happily or how you want it to for it to mean something. That sometimes the ones that hurt are the ones that stay with you, and mean something more.  Last one, The City of Ember was my descent into dystopian fiction.

  

Would you say there is any common denominator among all the authors and books you represent? Either within children’s books or across all the genres you represent?

I think most of my books are what I’d call “upmarket” though I do have some very commercial or very literary (on the adult side) titles on my list too. Upmarket to me means a very commercial concept, a fairly fast-moving plot, but an emotional heart with something to say. For instance, my client Lora Senf’s The Clackity is a middle grade book in which a pre-teen living in a haunted town with mostly friendly ghosts goes to an otherworld haunted by an evil ghost to save the last adult left in her life, her aunt. But she suffers from anxiety because of the loss of her parents, so the book is a lot about overcoming and finding hope in darkness. I love that horror teaches kids how to be brave! Another client title, is an upcoming YA “toxic friendship” novel called Dead Girls Don’t Say Sorry by Alex Ritany that asks the question, “What does it mean when your best friend dies and your reaction is relief?” It’s told in alternating timelines, unfolding a tale of layered deceptions culminating in her best friend’s death. On first read, it feels a bit like a thriller, but it’s ultimately about finding yourself and loving yourself and others after being subjected to an unhealthy friendship.

 

Do you ever ask authors for a revise and resubmit? If you do, what is the difference for you between offering representation knowing that you’ll want to make editorial changes before going on submission, and asking for a revise and resubmit?

I have offered Revise and Resubmits, though fairly rarely. R&R’s typically require a far more in-depth revision than what would happen editorially before one of my signed authors go on submission. There’s usually something more major wrong, and I need to see if the author can pull off a good solution.

 

Have you seen a difference in what kind of queries and material you are getting since Covid—whether that’s topic, theme, volume, polish…?

I just see a lot more queries flying into my inbox in huge batches as soon as I reopen. I think I had 644 after three weeks this time. Maybe it’s that agents are closing and opening more frequently, and people are waiting and ready when we reopen so it’s an influx. I typically see people following hot trends, so I’m getting way more middle grade horror in my inbox than I used to and far less YA fantasy. As to level of polish across the board, that’s fairly similar to year’s past.

 

How important is the query for you? Is there anything in a query that makes it an automatic “no” for you? Do you generally look at sample pages regardless of the query?

The query is initially far less important to me than the sample pages. Your writing is the most important! If your writing isn’t up to par, then the concept, even a brilliant concept, won’t get you a request. I used to read part of the sample first, and if that was engaging, I’d go back to the query to read. These days, on my Query Manager form, I ask for a high-concept pitch of a few sentences. I read that first now because it’s time-saving for me and it shows me if you understand what a good concept, hook, quick plot summary and stakes are. I’m also better oriented after reading it, so then I read the sample. I’ll go back to the query if the sample is good. You might get an automatic no if you send me something I don’t represent or if your word count is so far outside genre conventions, it will never work.

 

What are some of your current favourite MG novels, either from clients or non-clients?

Client books, you say? I mean, I’m super, super biased, but I think The Clackity is brilliant; it’s Bram-Stoker nominated. But I also happen to have read book two of that series, The Nighthouse Keeper, which comes out in October, and Lora’s pulled some sort of magic move, because her sophomore novel might even be better. We’ll see what the readers think, but I’m just amazed at how much hope she packs into middle grade horror! Also, I’ve got a MG novel called Henry Higgs and the Tangle-Hedge on sub, and that’s more speculative fantasy with an autistic hero, and it’s both hilarious and darkly beautiful and so real, and I can’t wait for that one to find a home. Kurt Kirchmeier’s MG debut The Absence of Sparrows is beautiful and is my Charlotte’s Web in that it stays with you because of how real the ending is. And I’d be remiss not to mention Ally Malinenko’s middle grade horror work as well; Ally’s repped by Rena Rossner.

 

What are some of your current as well as all-time culture faves—TV shows, movies, music etc—that might give querying authors a sense of your overall aesthetic?

Oh gosh! Dateline NBC, The 100, Twilight, Hunger Games, Divergent, Virgin River, Castle, The Rookie. These sort of speak to some of the things I rep – thrillers and suspense, speculative fantasy, scifi, dystopian, romance, women’s fiction, stuff with humor or adventure. Stuff with high stakes. For books, I read a lot of SFF in my downtime. Recent favorites are Project Hail Mary and my most favorite this year, the Murderbot series. I’d love to rep something like Murderbot, humorous, smart scifi that deals with what it means to be human. I love Mainak Dhar’s SFF work. Tau Zero is awesome. Seveneves challenged me but was expansive and fantastic. Erin Craig’s work in YA horror is next-level and ignited something in me. In music, I’m a big fan of Imagine Dragons, REM, Evanescense and the Cranberries. And I have to add Big Bang Theory to the list of TV shows. That’s so random but it does say A LOT about me…

 

 

What are you loving about representing children’s book authors these days?

I love the idea that I might contribute to the canon of literature that touches and changes kid’s lives like those early books did for me.

And finally, where can people find out about what kind of projects you’re looking for and how to query you?

There’s a couple places to try: my agency’s website www.spencerhillassociates.com. Look at my bio and the submissions page for wish list items. And of the submission page, you’ll find the link to my Query Manager page. This is the only way to query me, no emails please. On my personal website, I post a wish list under the #MSWL tab, and my deal announcements under the Deals tab, so authors can see what I’m placing: https://aliherringwrites.wordpress.com. And I post a lot of #MSWLs on twitter. My handle is @HerringAli, where I remain active and uber chatty, so come say hi.

Ali, it’s been an absolute pleasure doing this spotlight with you and I can’t wait to check out some of the books you mention.

Thanks again for having me!