Agent Spotlight: Kayla Cichello Interview and Query Critique Giveaway
Today I’m thrilled to have agent Kayla Cichello here. She is a literary agent at Upstart Crow Literary.
My path to agenting was a bit serendipitous. I was working for SCBWI in Los Angeles and met several agents and editors at the SCBWI Summer and Winter Conferences each year. One of the agents that I became friendly with was Jennifer Rofé from the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. I was picking her brain about agenting, and she offered to let me shadow her one afternoon to see what an agent does on a day to day basis. After that afternoon, I was hooked. Soon after, I had the opportunity to become Jennifer’s assistant, and worked with her for three years until I joined Upstart Crow in 2020. Since then, I’ve been actively building my list of clients, which means reading queries every day and working with my small list of clients.
About the Agency:
2. Share a bit about your agency and what it offers to its authors.
Upstart Crow is a boutique literary agency focusing on children’s and adult fiction and nonfiction. We are a small team, and with that comes a collaborative environment, which I love. All of the agents are editorial, and we share ideas, questions, and advice constantly. One of the best aspects to the agency is the wealth of industry knowledge that comes from our various backgrounds. There is a collective effort to always focus on what’s best for a project and a client. And as a newer agent, I appreciate the veteran experience my colleagues have and their perspective.
What She’s Looking For:
3. What age groups do you represent—picture books, MG, and/or YA? What genres do you represent and what are you looking for in submissions for these genres?
I represent picture books through YA in both fiction and nonfiction, and I also represent illustrators. The number one thing I look for in submissions is voice. If I connect to the voice of a character and the writing, then anything else that might need adjusting can be adjusted. If I’m not drawn to the voice, it’s not the right submission for me, and that’s okay. This industry is subjective and there may be another agent who does connect to that voice and style.
4. Is there anything you would be especially excited to see in the genres you are interested in?
In YA, I’d love to find an intricately plotted thriller, like the Truly Devious series or A GOOD GIRL’S GUIDE TO MURDER. I’d also like to find a fresh take on the enemies to lovers trope, something like the recent THE SEA IS SALT AND SO AM I. I’m also on the lookout for contemporary middle grade with an honest voice and a unique perspective, something like THE YEAR I FLEW AWAY by Marie Arnold or SMALLER SISTER by Maggie Edkins Willis. In picture books, surprise me!
What She Isn’t Looking For:
5. What types of submissions are you not interested in?
I’m not the right agent for sci-fi, high fantasy, or chapter books. I’m also not a fan of ghosts, even cute ones!
6. What is your philosophy as an agent both in terms of the authors you want to work with and the books you want to represent?
I’m looking for authors and illustrators that are looking to build a partnership with me, and hopefully have a long-lasting career in publishing. I’m in this for the long haul, and I want clients that want to be as well. I’m looking for worker bees; those that are continuing to work on their craft, learn, and are open to feedback. This is a slow industry and there is more rejection than not, so I’m looking for clients who can take that rejection in stride, and perhaps learn from it for the next story.
In terms of the books I want to represent, I’m looking for stories that are going to have an impact on their audience. I want to help shepherd stories that can fill a void for someone; maybe it’s seeing themselves in a character or story, or maybe it’s a story that gives a reader a moment of escape that brings a smile to their face, no matter what’s going on around them.
7. Are you an editorial agent? If so, what is your process like when you’re working with your authors before submitting to editors?
Yes, I am an editorial agent. I love brainstorming with clients and talking things through. The process is different for each project in terms of how many rounds of revision something may require before going on submission, and it’s also dependent on what shape something is in when I see it. Usually, there are two rounds or more of feedback before something is ready. There may be times where a project is ready to go out on submission and then based on editor feedback, another round or two of revision is beneficial.
Query Methods and Submission Guidelines: (Always verify before submitting)
8. How should authors query you and what do you want to see with the query letter?
Please use the submission guidelines on www.upstartcrowliterary.com and include the first twenty pages of your manuscript in the body of the email. Author/illustrators with dummies can include the dummy as an attachment. Illustrators please include a link to your portfolio and Instagram.
9. Do you have any specific dislikes in query letters or the first pages submitted to you?
Many queries I receive don’t put the name of the manuscript or the genre in the subject line, and it’s not that I dislike it, but something like “query” as the subject doesn’t get me excited to read the sample pages.
Sometimes with first pages, especially in fantasy, the worldbuilding and the rules to how the world works are not clear and it can create confusion as a reader. It’s hard for me to get a solid footing in a story if I don’t have knowledge about how a world works or where we are starting in the story. This can apply to any opening scene; if there isn’t enough context presented to know where I’m starting with a character, then it can be difficult for me to feel engaged in the story rather than confused.
10. What’s your response time to queries and requests for more pages of a manuscript?
This really depends on what I have going on with my current clients. Some days I have more time to read queries than others, but I try and look at my query box each day. I wish I had the time to respond to every query I receive, but generally if I haven’t responded or requested more pages within twelve weeks, it’s most likely a pass.
Self-Published and Small Press Authors:
11. Are you open to representing authors who have self-published or been published by smaller presses? What advice do you have for them if they want to try to find an agent to represent them?
I am open to authors or illustrators who have self-published in the past or have been published by smaller presses. Sometimes that is the right choice for a specific story. I will say that querying with a story that has already been self-published is not preferable because it’s very rare, if ever, that a publisher will buy a manuscript that has already been self-published. If someone has self-published in the past, I’d like to know that information in their query letter, but please do not query me with a story that has already been self-published. Self-publishing gives complete creative control and freedom, so if someone is looking to go the traditional route and query an agent, I would suggest being open to feedback and being willing to let go of total control, because traditional publishing is a team effort, and ultimately the publisher has a lot of say in the final product.
12. With all the changes in publishing—self-publishing, hybrid authors, more small publishers—do you see the role of agents changing at all? Why?
An agent’s role has many facets, at least in my opinion, all centered around guiding a client’s career and helping them achieve their publishing goals, but also being an advocate for a client. This is ever present in contract negotiations; an agent is constantly working to make sure an author is getting a fair deal and that their rights are being protected in a contract. Even with the increase in publishing options, that part of the role doesn’t change, and is even more critical. Everything changes eventually to some degree, so the smaller roles an agent play may change, but I don’t see the major roles changing.
13. Who are some of the authors you represent?
Ana Otaru, author/illustrator Kirbi Fagan, and Lupe Ruiz-Flores.
Interviews and Guest Posts:
14. Please share the links to any interviews, guest posts, and podcasts you think would be helpful to writers interested in querying you.
This one is so helpful for picture book writers: https://katemessner.com/picture-book-math-and-why-you-should-write-something-new/
A podcast series I think is helpful in understanding the acquisitions process to any writer is Sarah Enni’s Track Changes: https://www.firstdraftpod.com/trackchanges
Links and Contact Info:
15. Please share how writers should contact you to submit a query and your links on the Web.
Please use the submission guidelines on the Upstart Crow Literary website: https://www.upstartcrowliterary.com/submissions
Writers can submit by following the instructions listed.
16. Is there any other advice you’d like to share with aspiring authors that we haven’t covered?
Keep writing, keep learning, keep making connections. You never know when a connection might turn into the spark that helps revise a manuscript, land an agent, or even sell a project. And, we all need friends that understand the need to write and create.
Thanks for sharing all your advice, Kayla.
Kayla is generously offering a query critique to one lucky winner. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower (via the follower gadget, email, or bloglovin’ on the right sidebar) and leave a comment through June 25th. If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, you must leave it in the comments to enter the contest. If you do not want to enter the contest, that's okay. Just let me know in the comments.
If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry. This is an international giveaway.
Have any experience with this agent? See something that needs updating? Please leave a comment or e-mail me at email@example.com
Note: These agent profiles and interviews presently focus on agents who accept children's fiction. Please take the time to verify anything you might use here before querying an agent. The information found here is subject to change.