Literary Agent Janet Reid: Rules for Writers

Updated: Jan 19

Guest post by Janet Reid

Janet Reid, New York literary agent and Query Shark queen shares many invaluable Rules for Writers on her professional blog. These rules are drawn from the depths of her vaults of experience in the publishing industry over many (cough, many) years. With Janet’s permission, this incredible resource now holds a revered guest spot on my blog!

It is a fine, fine read for any writer who is researching the ins and outs of traditional publishing! These words of wisdom are many, and are best savoured over a receptacle of your favourite beverage! So, get boiling, popping, or swizzling, and be prepared to be Yoda‑fied by the end of your read.

Click on the heading of each rule to dive into the comments section on Janet’s blog, where you'll find several more morsels of experience and shared stories.


Querying after another agency member said no to a full

There’s no right or wrong answer to this since it depends on the individual agent and agency involved. My advice is always to Query Widely. That means if they don’t say “don’t do it” then go right ahead.

I’m always looking for good projects. If one of my colleagues was short-sighted enough to miss your brilliance, well you should have queried me first, but at least query me second.

Don’t be afraid of offending agents. There’s no black list, there’s no such thing as the Query Police. There are a couple of ways to shoot yourself in the foot by querying stupidly but you’re clearly not in that category.

If you spend a lot of time fretting about doing the right thing, you’re going to miss out. Be bold. Query like you have the answer to my prayers.


The Two Parts of Brave

You want to be a writer. You want it a lot. There's a whole other life that keeps your attention most hours of the day but in those spare moments and snatched hours, you write.

You want to be published but you're not sure how the publishing biz works. You've heard writing conferences are a good place to learn. You've heard people talk about them on line. You've heard agents and editors complain about them.

You hear about a conference in New York. One with lots of agents. You save your money. You find someone to watch the kids. You cook up enough dinners to freeze for while you're gone, even though everyone will eat at MickeyD's anyway. You make your reservations. Maybe you've never been to New York before. Maybe you've never travelled on your own before. Maybe you've never invested this much time and money in something that's just for you.

And you come. To a conference where you don't know a single soul. You bring some of your pages. You bring all your hopes. You pray you won't get lost, or mugged or have to ride on the subway.

That's the first part of brave. It's bravery that's never mentioned and seldom rewarded. That neglect doesn't diminish the scope or value of the bravery in the slightest. What you did remains an act of singular courage.

Then you come to the conference. You sit in a circle with ten other people and three agents. Someone reads your pages out loud. It might be the first time anyone else has seen your work. It might be the first time you've heard your work read aloud. You sit and listen to your words.

Then the agents tell you what's wrong with it. They don't like anything. All they do is pick at things. Yours, everyone else's. How does a single book ever get sold if they don't like anything. But you take notes. And you listen. Mostly in shocked silence, but you listen.

And here's where the second part of bravery comes in. You don't collapse into tears. You don't give up. You go home and you look at those notes and you remember that you want to write, and you want to be published and no one, not even a snotty New York agent dressed in black is going to stand in your way. You start in again.

You are one of the bravest people I've ever seen. Even if no one else ever knows it, you do. And don't forget for even one minute that I know it too.

Now get back to work.


Blog commenter: I feel like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway. My remote and deserted island is the belief that the machinations which brought forth the sudden rise of the independent self-publisher will collapse like the housing market because it cannot support its own weight. Yet, I am surrounded by an ocean of self-publishing hype and hysteria where waves of mediocre authorial success—marked by an ability to quit one’s day job (for now)—and the snake oil salesmen that are “gurus” and “industry insiders” touting the next get-published-quick scheme pound me into a pus of submission where I almost believe there is no other way to publish.

This blog (your blog) is my Wilson, offering me a tenuous tether to the kernel of hope that the reality I hold dear—that those publishing professionals who have lived and breathed the industry for decades actually know what they’re doing and will be around long after the collapse of Everything from A to Z’s publishing platform—isn’t just a dream.

Still, I am desperately trying to build the raft that will carry me to home, to the professional community dedicated to spreading as much fervor and zealotry in the world of the traditionally published author as I see in the self-publishing world.

Other than the obvious: write the best book you can, query wide, publicize the hell out of your book once you are published, rinse, repeat … can you (or the Reiders) offer any direction to the community I’m seeking? (You know, those who have also not given up on the world of traditional publishing, those who understand the patience and dedication required to commit to a craft and business such as ours.)

Thanks again for everything you do.

That community is right here.

And it’s at author events in bookstores.

And book cons with authors, cons like Bouchercon, Malice Domestic and book festivals where readers meet writers.

Your people are the authors in the trade publishing trenches. They are suffering like you are; hearing the siren call of all the self-published authors who think their way is the One True Way.

Go to those places, and support authors there. You build community by participating.

Talk about and review books by authors like you.

Offer them the support you will need later.

I remember when Amazon reduced the barrier to publishing providing a marketplace for almost any kind of book, and people gleefully told me it was The End of Publishing As We Know it.

Well, it wasn’t.

Any more than the arrival of mass markets assured the death of hardcovers.

Any more than ebooks signalled the death of print.

Publishing is a VERY old industry and it moves glacially. That’s not a selling point these days, but it means that it’s weathered more than a few storms and most likely will weather this one.

To give yourself some perspective on the passage of time, read the wonderful book An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Klein Maguire about the Carthusian monks at Parkminster (in England). The Carthusian order was established in 1084, and has changed little in the intervening thousand years. Carthusians make the pace of publishing look like a jackrabbit.

To fend off despair: Be the voice you need to hear. You’ll be surprised how many people believe as you do. Commit yourself to being part of the community you need.


Let your writing do the talking

What are you?

Pre-published? Multipley published? Award winning? Cantankerously represented?


You're a writer. Even if your books have not been published. Or if they have. Or if there is more than one. You may have won an award (congrats!). You may be agented, not-agented, soon-to-be-separated from the agent from Hell.

But: you're a writer.

That's all you need to tell me, and you don't need to tell me even that. Let your writing show me you're a talented and amazing writer. Show me. Don't tell me.

I'm cantankerous, sardonic and perpetually annoyed enough at this stage of my career that I don't believe anything anyone tells me.

"I was nominated for an Edgar" means I look up the Edgar list for that year.

"I have been published before" means I look you up on Amazon.

"My agent slithers" means I call up Barbara Poelle and ask why she's letting you go.

All you need to do is tell me about a novel I want to read. And I'll read it. Have confidence enough to let your writing speak for itself. You're a writer. I'm a reader. That's all we know, and all we need to know (sorry Keats, couldn't resist.)


Make MORE mistakes, not fewer

I attended the NYCIP writing conference on Friday (I got roped into moderating a panel, and try as I might, I had a lot of fun, and learned a lot).

The lunch keynote speaker was Lincoln Child and since he's a big time thriller guy, I was interested in what he had to say. He's really funny and charming by the way if you're ever looking for a good author for a conference.

One thing he said that struck a chord was "I'll tell you this so you won't make my mistakes." That made me think how often I've put a blog post up here (the entire category of annoy-mefor example) in hope that you won't make mistakes.

But I also hear those voices in the comment column, here and in other places, that say how hard it is to get this stuff right, and how terrifying it is to think you're doing something wrong.

Ok, then, here's the best advice I'm ever going to give you probably:

Make Mistakes.

Make LOTS of mistakes. Give yourself a dollar for every stupid thing you do.

Now, why on earth would I say this?

Fear of mistakes leads to paralysis. If you're so afraid of making a mistake or annoying me that you don't query, or don't write, or don't finish, the result is still the same: nothing.

So, do it, even if it's wrong. It's not going to kill you, and (more important) it's not going to kill me if you make every mistake in the book and invent a few new ones.

Here are some benefits for making mistakes:

  1. You'll develop a thick skin, ‘cause you'll get a lot of rejection. Rejection will not kill you.

  2. You'll learn what works (because you'll figure out what doesn't)

  3. You'll have moved off the starting point, even if you're going in the wrong direction, and the reason to do that is: Even if you're standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, opportunity might knock. You have to come out of your safe little cave for the opportunity meteor to hit you.

So, what kind of mistakes should you make?

  1. Query everyone. Forget that crap about honing a list and researching what agents like. Query everyone. If they say no, so what. Maybe just maybe you'll find an agent looking to branch out, looking for a fabulous new voice, looking for you. The cost of querying right now is damn near zero since you can query almost everyone by email.

  2. If you don't hear back in 30 days, query again twice more. Don't assume silence = no until you've tried three times.  As more and more agents follow the loathsome No Reply means No, writers have no way of knowing if the first query was received. Figure three times to make sure. (updated 7/6/14)

  3. If one agent at an agency says no, query the other ones.

  4. Take your manuscript and your query letter with you to every single place you might meet an agent. This does not mean you thrust said pages under hotel room doors, under bathroom door stalls, under lunch plates, or into handbags. In fact, you don't offer them up at all. But you're READY if someone asks.

  5. Write what you don't know. I recently attended a panel sponsored by the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and it was interesting to me that five of the six authors had created a protagonist in their own image. That's all well and good, but I'm much more interested in the people I don't see every day. The one author who mentioned her protagonist was a Pakistani terrorist was the author I went out and bought the next day.

There are some mistakes you don't want to make of course; being rude is probably the top one on that list. Being stupid is second. You DO want to take risks and chance making a mistake though. Don't let fear of being wrong keep you from finding out how to write.

The corollary to this though is LEARN from your mistakes. It's ok to make them, it's GOOD to make them. It's not ok to make the same ones over and over again.


Imagine for a moment you are applying to be an extra in "The Hobbit" The casting director asks "what makes you special?" Your answer "I'm the only person available for the job."

The casting director looks out the window to see this:

People lined up to apply for the job.

The casting director says "NEXT!" and you're out the door wondering what the hell happened.

I mention this because all too often I'm seeing queries from writers saying there aren't any/enough books on their subject.

Since one of the things I look for are holes in the market,  I turn to Amazon and search for books on that subject.

Too many times the search turns up more than 100 books.  Obviously not all are good matches.  But you don't need to find 100 to know that "I'm the only one" isn't on the right side of the truthiness scale.

What does this mean for you?

It means Know Your Field.  If you want to write a picture book that reinforces a certain concept, you better have read every picture book in your library, and all the ones your librarian tells you are a good match for that idea.

That way, your answer to "what makes you special" is not "I'm the only one" but "I do this better than Title X" or "my book is more current than Y."

If you want to write a novel about world war two spies, you'd better know who Alan Furst is. And David Downing. And Ken Follet. 

If you tell me there aren't any good books about being a cop, I'm going to bop you on the noggin with a copy of Edward Conlon's BLUE BLOOD. 

Every single time you write "there aren't any books about this" I double check. EVERY TIME.  If you get this wrong, it's game over.

How do you get knowledgeable about your area or topic? You read. A lot. If you haven't read at least 100 books in your area, you're not ready to start writing.  This obviously is an on-going effort and keeping a reading journal or list is a good idea.  I maintain a list of the published, non-client books I've read on Library Thing. 

Read the books that are reviewed in PW, or the magazines that serve your genre.  I subscribe to Crimespree, Mystery Scene and several others just to keep track of what's out there.

Almost all publishers have their catalogues online now. Go to their websites and download them, and see what they're publishing that you've never heard of.  Read those. Keep notes.

And if you think this is a waste of time, let me remind you of this: one of the keenest readers of genre fiction is a guy named Lee Child.  Heard of him? Before he was a writer, he was a reader. When he sat down to write his first book, he knew a LOT about what was out there, what worked, what didn't and most important, what he wanted to write about.

I saw this first-hand at Bouchercon three years ago when I walked through the book dealers' room with him.  He knew dozens and dozens of authors and books. He'd read them and had opinions on them.

I vowed then and there to make sure I kept up on my reading. It's part of the job.


One fast way to be rejected or fired

Be mean, rude, or otherwise unbearable to the non-agent staff in the office.

Yup, that'll do it.

There are three people in our office who you might think of as "assistants." They are not. They are godsends. They are incredibly valuable, and I treasure them. These are the people who sort the mail, run the manuscripts through the Xerox, prepare the UPS shipments, order the office supplies, and answer the phone. They are worth every penny they get paid, and should be paid a lot more.

Anyone who is rude to them is foolish and short sighted. Given a choice between them and anyone else, I pick them. They make my life easier. It's not a hard choice.

They get to put up with exactly as much crap from people as they choose. If they don't want to deal with you, you're fired. As a client. As a prospect. As an anything.

If you want to yell at someone, you can yell at me. Don't even think about yelling or being rude to anyone else. You're replaceable. They are not.


Friday Night at the Question Emporium