Posts Tagged #literaryagent

Meet Literary Agent Michaela Whatnall

Michaela Whatnall, Literary Agent

Michaela Whatnall, Literary Agent

I’m excited to introduce you to literary agent Michaela Whatnall. You’re going to love getting to know them!

Michaela Whatnall joined Dystel, Goderich & Bourret in 2019 in the agency’s West Coast office. They graduated from Emory University with a degree in English and linguistics, completed the Columbia Publishing Course, and in 2023, they were selected as a Publishers Weekly Star Watch Honoree. 

Michaela’s background in school and library marketing accounts for their strong interest in children’s literature, particularly contemporary middle grade and young adult fiction of all genres. In the adult fiction space, they are particularly seeking contemporary, speculative, and historical upmarket fiction, as well as character-driven, grounded fantasy. They are also open to select narrative nonfiction for both children and adults, graphic novels, and picture books.

I know you’re ready to learn more about Michaela, so let’s get started with the interview.

 

SK: Michaela, tell us a little about your agency.

 

MW: Dystel, Goderich & Bourret was founded in 1994 and is based in New York, though I work out of our West Coast office. We are a mid-size agency full of fantastic agents who represent books across practically every genre, with a focus on helping our clients build their careers long-term. I feel very lucky to work here!

 

SK: What was your path to becoming an agent?

 

MW: I always knew that I wanted to work with books, and from my very first internship in the publishing industry, I had an inkling that working as an agent would be the best fit for me. That said, I had a bit of a roundabout path to getting here—after a number of internships, my first job was in school and library marketing, which turned out to be a fantastic introduction to the industry and also solidified my passion for children’s books.

During my three years working on the marketing side, I continued to build up my experience in other areas, from writing reader reports for a literary agency to writing monthly reviews of forthcoming kid’s books for an industry publication. That meant that when the right opportunity opened up at DG&B, I felt very prepared to dive in.

 

SK: What are the best and worst parts of being an agent?

 

MW: There are so many good parts that it’s hard for me to choose! I think my very favorite part of my job is having editorial conversations with my clients—I truly love the process of reading their work, getting my thoughts and notes together, and then talking with them about potential routes for revision. There’s something special about the creative energy during those calls and the amazing moments of discovery that can happen that really sustains me.

The worst part of being an agent, at least for me, is probably the fact that in this role, you will never feel 100% “caught up” on your work. There is simply never an end to your reading pile—as quickly as you’re able to move through it, more gets added at the exact same time, so you can never experience that feeling of being totally up to date on work (which is a feeling I crave, as a devotee of time management and checklists!).

 

SK: What do you look for in a query?

 

MW: The number one thing I look for in a query is specificity. What makes this story different from others in its category? At the exact same time, I’m also looking to see that the writer understands how their book fits into the currently publishing landscape. My favorite queries come from writers who are well-read in their category, who understand where their book will fit on the shelves (this can be communicated through comp titles), as well as what unique angle/perspective their book brings that is providing something fresh and new.

 

SK: What are the top reasons you pass on a submission?

 

MW: There are many reasons I might pass on a submission—first and foremost, most of my passes are simply because a project is not the perfect fit for me, which is an incredibly subjective thing. It’s a reality of the industry that agents have to be selective, because there’s just not enough time in the day to take on as many clients as we wish we could. With this in mind, I encourage writers to keep querying widely—a book that’s not the right fit for me could be absolutely perfect for someone else (and vice versa!).

 

SK: Here at the Mixed-Up Files, we’re all about middle grade. What do you love most about middle-grade novels?

 

MW: I love that middle grade novels are instrumental in creating life-long readers. For so many of us, middle grade books are what made us first fall in love with reading, and I feel so lucky that I get to be a part of bringing new middle grade books into the world that will find brand new readers. I still remember my days of returning again and again to the bookstore and the library, and the extreme excitement of emerging with fresh stories that I couldn’t wait to devour (shoutout to the Pony Pals series, one of the first to truly hook me!). Middle grade writers are the ones creating that experience for kids.

 

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

 

MW: One of my very favorite books as a kid was Absolutely Normal Chaos by Sharon Creech, and I still have so much affection for it. It has a really fun premise—it’s about a girl named Mary Lou who has been assigned by her teacher to keep a journal over the summer, and her journal gets very personal very quickly (it even opens with a note to her teacher imploring them not to read it!). The journal chronicles her life in a large and hectic family (something I strongly related to!), her thoughts as she reads The Odyssey for the first time (which inspired me to read The Odyssey as a kid), and all the wacky adventures she gets up to over the summer. There’s something so relatable and engaging about Mary Lou’s sarcastic sense of humor, and I reread that book many times.

 

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

 

MW: A more recent middle grade novel that I loved was The Line Tender by Kate Allen (full disclosure, Kate is represented by my colleague Michael Bourret!). It deals incredibly thoughtfully with the topics of loss and grief, and follows a girl named Lucy, who is grappling with life after the death of her mother. The book perfectly balances both sorrow and hope, and it moved me deeply.

 

SK: What is your best guess on where the middle-grade market is headed?

 

MW: Ooh, this is a tough one. The market is having a tricky moment, but middle grade as a category is evergreen, and agents and editors are going to continue to champion these books. I’m not sure that I’m able to make a strong guess about where we’re headed, but I will say that now more than ever, something that helps a book find its footing is identifying a strong hook that sets it apart.

 

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

 

MW: In middle grade, the books I’m most drawn to are the ones that I might have worked on in my school and library marketing days. This means that I like books that could find a good home in classrooms and libraries because they grapple with interesting themes and can spark a discussion with kids after they’ve read it. This could mean a book dealing with a real-world issue that kids face, or it could mean a super fun fantasy or adventure book that manages to weave in themes relevant to kids’ lives. Across the board, I like specificity—subject matter that’s relatable to kids, but that I haven’t seen on the page before.

 

SK: Are there any current projects you’re excited about?

 

MW: A good example of the kind of books I look for and something that I’m very excited about is my client Jasminne Paulino’s recently announced book, The Extraordinary Orbit of Alex Ramirez, which is coming from Putnam next year. It’s about a boy who attends school in a self-contained classroom and yearns to attend mainstream science class, and it dives into his relationships with his family, friends, teachers, and bullies as he learns how to advocate for himself. Before reading Jasminne’s book, I had never read a story about a student in a self-contained classroom, so it immediately caught my attention. From there, the execution of the manuscript made me fall in love. Jasminne is a poet, and her free verse style, which smoothly incorporates Spanish to reflect Alex’s bilingual upbringing, really makes this story stand out.

 

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

 

MW: If you feel we might be a match, please do try me—I’m eagerly seeking more middle grade right now! I know that querying can be an intimidating, slow, and often stressful process, but something I like to tell writers is that on the other side of the screen, I am a reader eager for a good story, so I’m excited to receive and read your query. Looking through queries is one of my favorite parts of my job because I always have that feeling that the next story I’ll fall in love with could be just a click away!

 

SK: Okay, we’ve learned so much about you as an agent. What are your favorite things to do that have nothing to do with being an agent?

 

MW: I’m a big theater fan, so I love attending shows, especially musicals. I’m also lucky to have very creative friends, so I often find myself swept up in helping to make all kinds of projects, like short films and narrative podcasts. I adore story in all its forms, so one of my favorite things is exploring the storytelling possibilities of different mediums. In my downtime I love cuddling with my two cats and settling into a cozy armchair with a good book or podcast and a warm mug of tea.

 

SK: I know that so many Mixed-Up Filers are going to want to connect with you. Where can authors learn more about you? 

 

MW: 

Agency website: https://www.dystel.com 

MSWL: https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/mswl-post/michaela-whatnall/ 

Instagram (where I’m most active): https://www.instagram.com/michaelawhatnall/ 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/mwhatnall

 

SK: Before we close, let’s have a little fun with favorites! What is your favorite…

 

Dessert? Key Lime Pie

Type of weather? A complete tie between a perfect sunny day and a cozy drizzly one

Genre of music? A chaotic mix of showtunes and alternative/indie folk

Season? Summer

Game? Stardew Valley

 

Thanks, Michaela, for a great discussion and a lot of fun facts. Mixed-Up Filers have definitely become your fans!

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!