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Author & Agent Interview: Kalena Makanui and Katie Gisondi

Today, we are thrilled to be interviewing Kalena Makanui, a Kanaka Maoli children’s writer, and her literary agent, Katie Gisondi. You can learn more about Kalena on her twitter/X or website, and more about Katie can be found on her agency’s website.

We started this Author & Agent blog series to spotlight Pacific Islander creators and their agents for Asian and Pacific Islander month. Our hope is that this series will inspire other Pacific Islanders interested in pursuing traditional publishing as creators or as agents. As we learned in the creation of our website, there is not a single Pacific Islander agent, and we hope to see that change.

Thank you for joining us!

Kalena's interview

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and the project for which you've found representation? What inspired you to write it? (If you're now working on something else, you may talk about that project instead!)

I’m a Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) writer who grew up on Hawaiʻi Island. My latest two projects have been MG contemporary fantasy, and I’m working on my first adult project.

I've always enjoyed storytelling and started my first novel in college. It took me a few years to finish, and I queried one agent with that project. I realized at that point that the manuscript wasn't good enough to get published, but the agent rejection was encouraging and so I started a new project. 

The manuscript that I found representation with was my third. Both my third and fourth projects were heavily inspired by the death of my dad and my longing to reconnect with Hawaiian culture. I’ve really enjoyed researching moʻolelo and writing Kanaka characters.

What resources did you use to compile your list of agents to query? What criteria did you use to build your list? 

MSWL is very helpful as is looking at which agents/agencies rep my favorite books in my age category and genre. Many agency websites have lists of recent deals that can help creators to see if an agent/agency is legitimate. I also highly recommend Alexa Donne’s YouTube channel for additional criteria to use when building your list.

Some agents have a lot less information about the kinds of books they’re looking for. Don’t hesitate to query some of these agents as long as they rep your age and genre. Your book doesn’t have to perfectly match an agent’s MSWL before you query them. Just make sure the agent/agency is legitimate.

For people with more financial means, Publishers Marketplace and Query Tracker are very helpful as well. PM helped me to verify an agent’s sales or their agency sales for new agents. You can also see if they are selling to the types of imprints that you’re interested in (Big 5, major publishers, respected small presses, etc.) Query Tracker has quite a lot of agents listed in their database, though it’s important to do additional research to make sure the agent has the connections and knowledge to help you get a deal. Query Tracker also has a free version!

Did you tailor your query to each agent?

I had a few different personalizations depending on the agents’ MSWL. For example, if they mentioned mythology, I included a line about my book featuring “ghosts, gods, and grandmas.” I don’t think personalization is required unless an agent specifically mentions appreciating that extra thought.

What about Katie made you query her?

The first thing that tipped me off to Katie was that she belongs to a reputable agency. Before taking on clients as a literary agent, she worked for LDLA as a subsidiary rights associate selling foreign rights for the agency’s clients. Also, her MSWL featured many categories that lined up with my project and future projects.

When Katie offered, what made you decide to sign with her? What criteria did you consider?

I loved Katie’s energy during our call. It felt like she really understood the story and the characters. Her suggestions for my manuscript were in line with my vision for the book. While I deliberated, I kept coming back to her contagious enthusiasm. I enjoyed my conversation with her so much that I forgot to take notes during the call!

What advice would you give to Pacific Islander creators looking for agents?

A lot of it is persistence. I queried 120 agents over 10 months before I got my first offer. Agents open and close to queries frequently, so there are always legitimate agents opening to queries. My strategy was to send my letters in batches, which gave me the opportunity to tweak my query package if needed. 

When writing your query letter, I suggest reading the Query Shark archives (if they're still available) as well as the Books with Hooks sections of the Sh*t No One Tells You About Writing Podcast. The critiqued query letters give you a good sense of how to hook an agent and get them interested in reading your pages. Though I didn’t submit my query, the pub tips subreddit has a free query critique program.

The We Need Diverse Books Mentorship Program is a great program to apply for. Even though I didn’t get in, the 2022 program connected finalists for a manuscript critique, which I took a break from querying to complete. This critique by a professional was invaluable and pointed out weak points in my writing and plot for me to focus on (shout out to Nathan Bransford). 

Good beta readers can help point out the same issues in a manuscript. Taking critique of your work is difficult, but that’s how we can make our manuscripts and our writing better.

I recommend connecting with other Pacific Islander authors wherever possible. The Pacific Islanders in Publishing Discord has been a great place for interesting conversations and finding community.

How long have you been signed together? What’s your favorite thing about Katie?

Katie and I signed together about a year and a half ago. Her feedback is really insightful, and she’s always open to discussion about her comments. She’s a fast communicator and is really passionate about books!

Katie's interview


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