Leslie Zampetti discusses her experience as a literary agent and tells us about the exciting decision to open her own agency, Open Book Literary.
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 (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.