Illustrator and author K-Fai Steele won the Mentorship award at the 2015 Summer Conference. Shortly after attending the 2016 Summer Conference, she signed up with agent Erica Rand Silverman of Stimola Literary Studio. Sarah Baker, SCBWI Director of Illustration, asked K-Fai and Erica a few questions about the journey to signing with an agent, and what comes next!
What led up to the 2015 conference, where you won the mentorship award? Had you come to any SCBWI conferences and events before? Had you been a member long? Were you already set on wanting to create children’s books?
It took me about five years before I joined SCBWI and went to a conference. In retrospect, those five years where I dragged my feet were very much a time of creative incubation. I credit the Free Library of Philadelphia for much of my preliminary picture book education. I was introduced to William Steig, Tomi Ungerer, and Virginia Lee Burton through building archival enclosures for the dummies for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Crictor, and for hundreds of Virginia Lee Burton’s sketches for Life Story. SCBWI is an amazing professional development network, and you learn a ton about the publishing world. I’m sure I could have tried to be more efficient about getting the ball rolling for myself professionally a few years ago, but had I done that, I wouldn’t have been as prepared as I was for joining the SCBWI community and attending conferences.
In the year after receiving the mentorship award, what kind of changes and progression did you make with your work? How did you decide what you wanted to bring to the 2016 summer Conference? Did you have any specific goals for the conference?
The SCBWI national conference can be a firehose of information. After the conference it took me a long time to process my notes and the feedback I received (a lot on book layout design and narrative aspects of drawings) and I moved my focus to book dummies. I had so much momentum and investment going from the 2015 conference that I went to the 2016 NY conference, then the 2016 LA conference, but it wasn’t until my second LA conference that I felt like I could do some planning beyond my portfolio, dummy, and postcards. I looked up agents and other faculty members that I was interested in, with an eye towards their breakout sessions. These conferences aren’t one-and-done knowledge acquisition; I learned so much over different conferences about, for example, what agents do and why you might want to have one. I also started to feel much more comfortable with and trust the community as I started to make friends and see familiar faces.
You met your agent, Erica Rand Silverman, at the summer conference. How did you meet? Was she someone you were interested in for representation before you met her? Is there anything you’d like to share about the process of signing with an agent?
I was definitely interested in her as an agent and wanted to meet her at the LA conference. I found that Twitter was a useful way to see agent interests and get a sense of their personalities. It resonated with me that Erica engages regularly in conversations about equality and access, and the Black Lives Matter movement. I see books as cultural artifacts that engage with the world, and it is important to me to connect with people through SCBWI who have questions about the way things are in the world, and how books fit into that conversation. I loved Erica’s session; she was so clear and smart and treated the attendees with respect. I awkwardly said hello and told her that I liked her twitter feed. Luckily she recognized my postcard and reached out to me after the conference to have a phone conversation. We exchanged a lot of emails and phone calls before I got the amazing opportunity to be represented by her, and a few more conversations before I accepted.
Getting a representation offer is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying because it feels like one of the biggest decisions of your career, and that’s because it is. You have to make a decision that’s the happy result of your gut instinct with some evidence and knowledge. I solicited a lot of folks for advice. When you query agents you encounter so many closed doors, so when you get a first opportunity it’s hard to not say yes immediately without thinking about it. I’d recommend to anyone to not rush into it, and have several conversations and think honestly about what your needs are, and how that agent will be able to support you as you grow.
Now that you’ve signed with an agent, do you have any new goals and what are some new challenges?
One thing I talked to Erica about was the different challenges, phases, and themes that arise over an author-illustrator’s career. I have a vague sense of what some of those challenges might be, but Erica knows the roadmap; she can identify common beginner mistakes, what generally happens in year one, what happens after your first book, etc. My goal, as well as my challenge, is to establish a longterm vision as best I can, and to pace and plan projects on the micro level. I’m also working full-time, so managing my time, my life, and space for inspiration in a sustainable way is critical so I can do my best work.
What is your best piece of advice for SCBWI illustrator members who want to find an agent?
Much as in finding a significant other, there isn’t one way finding an agent happens/a way that it’s supposed to happen, but being in the same space where multiple agents will see your work is a helpful place to start. Go to conferences. They don’t have to be the national conferences, but those tend to have the largest faculties. Pace yourself when you’re there. They’re professional development opportunities, which means that they’re best when you participate in the community and you’re not just in it to land an agent then leave. Be patient with others and be kind to yourself.
K-Fai Steele lives in San Francisco. See more of her work at www.k-faisteele.com