Writing for Children & Young Adults alumnx and literary agent Lori Steel has had a long career in all aspects of books—a career that eventually led her to being one of the three VCFA alumnx working at Raven Quill Literary Agency (RQLA). Formed in 2020 by founder Jacqui Lipton (’16), RQLA is an inclusive literary agency focused on acquiring projects from picture books up to young adult novels that “share new messages, create a sense of joy and wonder, and make a difference in the world.”
In this interview, Lori Steel shares with us her journey to her dream job as an agent, and what it has been like working with her VCFA community at RQLA.
ON HER JOURNEY TO HER CAREER AS A LITERARY AGENT
Like most journeys in the literary world, becoming a kidlit agent has been full of twists, turns, and time—lots of time! I was a late bloomer, coming to books as a young adult. Being the first in my family to graduate from college, books weren’t a huge part of my childhood. I found story through music and my getting-up-to-no-good adventures—and, yes, the stories I told to get out of them! It’s when I became an educator and a parent that I truly discovered books for young readers. After many years of classroom teaching, I transitioned into a school librarian position. Dipping my pen into the kidlit inkwell led me to SCBWI—and Jill Santapolo’s (’08) pitch for VCFA! After the MFA, I taught writing at my local indie, Politics & Prose, and worked as a freelance editor whilst interning at The Bent Agency and assisting at Greenhouse Literary. And, of course, how can I forget the amazing experience coordinating the Oxford/Bath Spa Residency with amazing faculty, students, and alumnx! This meandering journey took 25 years of working with kidlit in some capacity before I landed my dream job as a literary agent at RQLA.
ON STARTING HER ROLE AT RQLA
A serendipitous conversation with RQLA founder and VCFA alumnx Jacqui Lipton opened the door to me joining the team. We crossed paths a few times through VCFA events, and our time as interns at The Bent Agency overlapped [along with RQLA/VCFA alumnx Kelly Dyksterhouse (’14)]. So when I learned that Jacqui was starting a kidlit-focused literary agency, I reached out to learn more about her journey. By the end of the call, Jacqui invited me to join the team as Assistant. A few months later, I stepped into a full agenting role. Alighting in the Nest, as our community is affectionately called, alongside the amazing team Jacqui assembled (Kelly, Kortney, and Stuti), felt like coming home. For the second time in my professional life, I knew I’d found my tribe. The first, of course, was VCFA!
You know, I stepped into the role of literary agent merely weeks before the pandemic. Now that we’ve turned the corner on 2020, I look back at the tumultuous year and see my work with RQLA as not simply a silver lining, but a shining light. At times, it was the work that kept me going, kept me optimistic about the world. Finding and signing clients whose words will inspire, and transform young readers’ lives is such important work. Each day, I’m grateful to be part of their journey. I’m forever changed by it.
ON CHAMPIONING HER AUTHORS AND HER UPCOMING PROJECTS
My current client list consists of mostly debut authors. Knowing that their stories will be in the hands of young readers is the best part of championing the creators I work with. Making that call to say that we have a deal in hand is absolutely the highlight of my work! From my perspective, transparent communication, a supportive environment, and honest feedback form the basis of productive agent-client relationships.
While none of these four deals have yet been announced, I can share that two are PBs (picture books) about Black joy and flipping gender stereotypes, one is a stunning lyrical nonfiction PB told from the perspective of the Sahel dust, and the fourth PB stars a big-hearted pirate defending her ship from sea monsters, told in sea shanty verse. All are debut projects from talented writers I’m lucky enough to represent.
ON WORKING WITH FELLOW VCFA ALUMNX AND THE IMPACT OF VCFA
A dream come true! Jacqui, Kelly, and I came to this profession as writers first, so we intimately understand the challenges and the frustrations, the magic and the joy, of tackling the blank page. Community building is an important part of the RQLA culture and is based, in part, on the warmth, inclusivity, and traditions we first experienced at VCFA. Integrating these ideals into a new community of creatives who hail from a vast array of experiences, identities, and heritages has created a unique agency home for all.
The VCFA MFA laid a strong foundation of both craft and the editorial process that led to subsequent professional opportunities, eventually paving a path to an agenting career. But it is the professionalism, mentorship, and high bar exacted by our WCYA faculty that I hope to emulate as an agent partner with my clients. And a shout out here to Sharon Darrow, Julie Larios, Sarah Ellis, and Martine Leavitt, my advisors who embody those high-bar aspirations!
ON HER ADVICE FOR ASPIRING AGENTS AND AUTHORS
Agenting is the unique intersection of understanding both story craft and the kidlit market. It’s a strong desire to build community, the ability to act as cheerleader and coach when needed, along with a business acumen and a doggedness to get the best deal for your clients. Building a network of kidlit folks, expanding industry knowledge through webinar/class attendance, and reading widely are great places to start. Search out Reader and Intern opportunities at various publishing houses and agencies—many are available remotely, especially in this new landscape of the home office. Above all, don’t give up. Like writing—or anything worth doing—it takes perseverance to land your dream job.
The number 473 hangs above my desk. It’s the number of submissions Kate DiCamillo made before landing her first deal—a reminder that our stories are important, that they are worthy of being read by the most important audience. A persistent writer becomes a published author—so send your work into the world! I look forward to seeing more VCFA titles on the shelves in the years to come.
Read more stories about our Alumnx through our Alumnx Success series. Interested in an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults? Visit our program page for more information on our VCFA graduate degrees.