Updated: Jan 19
Introducing Janet Reid – literary agent extraordinaire and ruthless Query Shark. Her wealth of experience as a literary agent spans over an impressive career and she currently works at New Leaf Literary and Media Inc. But Janet is probably most renowned as the Query Shark for her brutally honest and often humorous critique of real-life query letters.
Janet, we follow one another on Twitter and you very generously tagged me in a post about how one of your clients learned a lot from me on how to build her Twitter presence. You may also have noticed that I am a huge supporter of giving new writers in Twitter’s writing community a leg up to grow their platform, particularly those with fewer than 1000 followers. I do this because of how terrified and inept I was at it myself in the beginning. If I can save others that angst, then I consider the investment of my time and energy well spent. I also found once I eventually reached 1000 followers, my Twitter account took on a life of its own.
Chewing the Fat with The Shark
EL: Considering that so many of my followers are brand new or inexperienced in the writing community, could you please explain what a query letter is and why you need one?
JR: A query letter is how you introduce your work and yourself to a prospective agent. It gives me an idea of the story you're telling, and a little bit about yourself.
You need a query because it has information in it that the manuscript by itself doesn't have. Word count, category, comps, your bio.
It's also better for me to have an idea of the story, rather than just reading the first page cold.
EL: Is there a set formula for new authors to follow for writing a solid query letter?
JR: Sure. But that's NOT the letter you're going to send to an agent. A formula gets the right events in the right order. But that's like the framing on a new house. What you add ON to that formula is what makes the house stand out from all the other houses on the block.
Here's the formula:
A Who is the main character? B What does she want? C What is keeping her from getting what she wants? D What must she risk or sacrifice to get what she wants? How will she change?
EL: Is there anything you suggest writers DON’T put in a query letter?
JR: Almost anything that isn't about you or the book.
EL: In your 2015 audio interview for DIY MFA, with Gabriela Pereira, you mentioned being overwhelmed by the number of positive comments from published writers who have listed you and Query Shark in the Acknowledgments of their printed books. You mentioned that you are profoundly proud of helping a lot of different kinds of people, yet you also stated you have a reputation of being ‘a crusher of dreams’ due to the frankness of your feedback. Is this raw honesty intentional on your part to prepare querying authors for the world of critique and criticism they will inevitably face throughout their career?
JR: That "crusher of dreams" line is a way to poke fun at a picklepuss who pointed fingers at agents; calling them "gatekeepers”, who crush writer's hopes and dreams. Given I spend a substantial portion of my working day trying to help writers, I thought it was obtuse. Also, hilarious.
I don't think I crush dreams and I certainly don't do it on purpose, and I REALLY don't do it as some sort of tough love.
What I try to do is tell the truth about what I see.
Writers don't improve unless they can figure out what doesn't work.
EL: As an agent, what kinds of questions do you appreciate prospective clients asking you before signing?
JR: Well, I'm glad when they ask what brand of vodka I drink. Ok, I'm joking.
I want to work with clients who are willing to ask questions, even if they're afraid they sound stupid.
Saying "I don't understand what you just said" is probably one of the things writers don't say enough.
I want to work with clients who want to build their careers. So, questions like "what more can I do here to help you as you sell the book" are great.
EL: New authors can sometimes struggle with figuring out what genre their manuscript fits into. What’s your suggestion for how they can figure this out?
JR: Find three books like theirs, and look on the back cover. The category or genre is listed there.
Alternatively, don't worry. Call it the broadest category you can think of: crime fiction, romance, women's fiction, science fiction, book club fiction, and leave it be.
EL: New authors might not know that there is a hive of activity that goes on behind the scenes for an agent once they’ve become a client. Could you please run us through your process?
JR: I audit their social media presence.
I get an inventory of their work published or unpublished.
We work on a five-year plan.
We often work on the manuscript through a couple rounds of revision before sending out on submission. That does NOT mean you should send me something you don't think is ready to go out.
We always work on the proposal for non-fiction clients. Sometimes that can take a year or more.
EL: You are an editorial agent who offers editing suggestions for an author to revise their manuscript before you offer it to a publisher. Why are some agents editorial and others not?
JR: I have NO idea why any agent would not take steps to make sure the work she sends out with her name and her agency's name isn't as close to perfect as possible.
On the other hand, I've heard tell of "agents" who just send stuff out and hope something will stick to the wall.
EL: I personally have used a bevy of beta readers to help me enrich my manuscript through its development. What’s your take on beta readers or critique groups?
JR: They can be terrific, and if my authors use them, I'm supportive.
That said, they are NOT working in publishing, and an author who says to me "well my crit group loves this" and I've asked them to change it, well, that's a discussion about whose opinion matters (mine.)
EL: Is using these avenues enough or do you recommend professional critique services too? For many new writers, budgetary constraints restrict paying for professional services. Do you have any suggestions how writers can source these services for free?
JR: Well, there's QueryShark of course.
The archives of how to revise query letters is pretty solid.
If an author doesn't have money for an editor, it's entirely possible to write a publishable book on your own. I have 30+ clients who did so.
That said, going to writing conferences and getting your pages in front of an agent can be a good thing.
EL: Building buzz is an important element of setting up an author’s career. How much work do you recommend an author undertake to create their own platform through social media, an author website and/or a blog, both pre- and post-publication?
JR: It's a huge focus now.
Each writer and each book is different, so I have individual plans for each client.
EL: In your interview with Gabriele, you mentioned having your own set of ‘Rules for Writers’. Would you please share them with us?
JR: Be bold
Janet’s ‘Rules for Writers’ is worthy of its own whole blog: check them out here.
EL: You’ve held query writing workshops in the past. Do you have others coming up in 2019?
JR: Writers Digest in August in NYC will have two: one for those getting started. The second for those tearing out their hair.
EL: And lastly, are you currently open for submissions at New Leaf Literary and Media? What kinds of books are you looking for?
JR: I am!
Non-fiction history and biography for kids and adults.
Crime novels of all sorts.
But honestly, I don't get all huffy about someone querying for anything they want. What's the worst thing that will happen? I'll say no.
Subscribe to Emma Lombard's newsletter for book publication news and swag giveaways.