SCBWI Exclusive with... Leslie Zampetti, Agent, Open Book Literary

After much experience as a librarian and writer, Leslie Zampetti became a literary agent. Her client books include TWO THOUSAND MILES TO HAPPY (Shapiro, Muddy Boots), A FEW BEAUTIFUL MINUTES (Fox, LBYR), THEN THERE WAS ONE (Cross, Penguin UK) and HART & SOULS (Schmid, Andrews McMeel, 2024). Leslie represents picture books through young adult, fiction & nonfiction. Stories by underrepresented voices are a priority, especially disabled writers. You can find Leslie on social media @literarylesliez or at


What was your path to agenting?

My path to agenting was both usual and unusual. I majored in English in college; after that, I got my MLIS and was a librarian for over 20 years, starting in special/corporate libraries, including a stint as a cataloger for NASA. I became a public librarian so I could work part-time on evenings and weekends, to avoid needing outside childcare. I fell in love with children's literature all over again at that job when I had to start catching up on kidlit helping out at the children's desk. I'd also been writing during that time and began working on picture books, eventually shifting to middle grade novels. (I'm too verbose for picture books!) Obviously, I became a member of SCBWI.

During this time, I attended an SCBWI-NJ conference. A group of us were chatting at a mix n' mingle with a well-known agent, and when he left, I mentioned that being an agent sounded fascinating. A published author promptly replied that if I were an agent, they'd be my client. Very flattered, I thanked them and brushed it off. But later, I began to think about what I could bring to the table and what it would take to change careers. I interned with The Bent Agency as a reader while I continued working as a school librarian. In 2016, I was fortunate to get a position as Jennie Dunham's assistant at Dunham Literary and realized that I couldn't juggle librarianship, writing, and agenting. Two jobs at a time, but not three! 

I started representing my own clients in 2018 and after a great year with Odom Media Management, I launched Open Book Literary last fall. So, a usual path in that I was a reader, writer, and librarian - unusual in that I changed careers in middle age.

What elements does a manuscript need to have for you to consider offering representation?

I tell editors and potential clients that I'm looking for the sweet spot in the Venn diagram between strong, immediate appeal to the young reader and appeal to parents, teachers, and librarians. I look for a distinct, individual voice. Finally, I seek manuscripts by under-represented authors and stories with hope and joy, even if the story is about difficult or painful topics. I believe strongly that every book has its reader and every reader their book - and that every child deserves both to be a hero and to see themselves in everyday stories.

How do you work with your clients?

I partner with my clients for their career, so I encourage writers who may want to work in another category or genre I represent. For example, one of my clients also writes for adults, and several of my middle grade clients also write picture books - which is partly why my PB list is so full. I'm an editorial agent - my job is to help you get your manuscript in the best shape for submission and to recognize that your editor will have a vision for it, too. Publishing traditionally is a collaboration! I also work with my clients on strategies for their career, including brainstorming and/or evaluating new ideas. Transparency and timely communication are important to me, and I accommodate disabilities as my clients need, for example, by using a particular technology or changing the frequency or style of my communications.

On the business side, I partner with a contracts consultant, Jennifer Uram, and The Rights People for translation rights, and I focus on actively administering my clients' contracts and helping them exercise the rights they hold. 

What's on your manuscript wish list?

As much as I love picture books, my list is pretty full. I can't help looking at author-illustrators, though - any chance to enjoy someone's wonderful art! Mysteries for all ages are always top of my list, and I love both YA romances and middle grade first crush stories. I'd love to find a YA interfaith romance or one exploring different denominations in the same religion, say a teen who's an Orthodox Jew falling in love with one who's Reconstructionist. My white whale is a YA book about the Challenger disaster - in the vein of the MG novel PLANET EARTH IS BLUE. I'm a fan of historical fiction for periods and places outside the usual - especially Hawaii - but it really needs to have a strong connection to the time period, and not just nostalgia for it. I'm also seeking "young YA" and middle grade, particularly twisty mysteries with a unique setting. 

SCBWI Members can query for the month of April 2024: