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I HEART Janet Reid, but She's Dangerous

2014-04-02 6 min read Essays marco

I’ve been following the blog of one Janet Reid, literary agent. Well, she really has two blogs that I know of: the one I mentioned, and a second and much juicier one. It’s called Query Shark, and it’s a collection of queries and her comments.

Queries, in case you didn’t know, are the letters (emails) that authors send to agents. In them, the former request representation by the latter, by presenting a project. Queries are incredibly important, because agents read them first. If the query doesn’t interest them, then they won’t read the remainder of the message – typically sample pages.

But, really, you should go to the two blogs if you want to know how that all works. Especially because Janet (whose last name I won’t use because I just love her too much – NO STALKO!) is brutal, direct, and honest. She is the Simon Cowell of query letters. She won’t hesitate to tell you you are too fat to write a book (OK, not that…).

This is what she had to say (among other things) to a writer who self-published and languished in obscurity:

As to your question: querying a previously published novel is like asking someone to finance a fixer-upper house. You need a plan. And by plan I mean marketing plan: you published this book; it sold six copies, four of which were to the NSA to see if you’d discovered any of their secrets.

Well, maybe you didn’t find that funny, but I was ROTFL-ing. Especially because I know from own experience what she means. It’s a tough world out there, and all the friendly and encouraging words from friends and family don’t help you make people interested in your book. Janet just might.

Janet, you must know, is not mean. When she tells you that your query is no good, she always tells you exactly what’s not working, and hints what you could do to improve it.

This is an example from the last query. Two girls (no sexism, they are actually 17) queried their YA (young adult) novel. In one of the paragraphs they say:

ENTRUSTED with responsibilities and skills that set them apart, in a world where power hangs in the balance, two very different girls come face to face with the secrets that could destroy a nation, or save it.

Janet replies with:

In a world where…sharks eat writers. In a world is a cliché. One too many movie voice overs have seeped into your brains.

And of course, she’s right. I can’t even begin to enumerate the flap texts I’ve read in self-published fantasy novels that contain that phrase.

So I love Janet. That’s great. But why do I say she’s dangerous?

I think the problem is that she’s pushing for “Things that Sell.” Which is great, but it’s just a way of saying, “Things that Have Sold in the Past.”

My criticism, in other words, is that she advances a formula just because it worked in the past. There is no critical thinking about the why and how of the efficacy of the formula. It’s just held up as the gold standard of How to Write Fiction that Sells.

To be fair, the criticism is general. I’ve seen the same problem in my professional career, when dealing with Venture Capital firms. They are not interested in the innovative; instead, they are looking at the last thing that worked and want to feed off its success. Nobody was interested in funding Amazon for years; once Bezos made it, there were literally hundreds of Internet startups trying to sell books online.

The same phenomenon shows up in Hollywood, too. That’s not surprising, since the “formula” has always been a big part of the business down there (up there from where I sit). Two examples come to mind, one banal and one deeper. The banal one is that casting directors ask for someone that resembles someone else when casting a movie. That creates incredible pressure on actors to look like someone else, which apparently is one of the reason so many people around Hollywood look the same. (“They have the same plastic surgeon,” as an acquaintance quipped.)

The deeper example is the formula that became prevalent in the 80s and 90s. To connect the viewer with the protagonists of a movie, the first part of the flick was devoted to showing them before anything happened. Sometimes that’s not a big deal, but I still recall the movie, The Day After. That’s an apocalyptic movie about the effects of a nuclear war on rural and urban Kansas.

Following the formula, the first part (half?) of the movie was a description of the dull life of regular Americans in Kansas. So we could empathize with them before they got blasted into a nuclear wasteland. The problem, mostly, was that there was nothing interesting about this first part: we were there to see the effects of nuclear war, instead we slept through bicycling children and upset suburban moms.

Janet’s formula is compelling: Jump into the action, give me some amazing writing, tell a story that connects with the reader, and no epilogue. It makes sense, it is easy to see why it would sell to a certain audience, and you can point at hundreds of titles that were successful thanks to following it.

The problem: it’s the past. I can see why Janet highlights the importance of her own profession, but self-publishing has become such a huge part of the experience of a writer, it’s hard to see how she would cling to the idea it’s a danger to an author. Also, she doesn’t spend much time telling people that short, cheap ebooks are where much of the action is going.

I have a sense publishing is changing in very deep ways. In particular, I think its trajectory is going to follow what the technology business has been doing: there will be faceless, nameless corporations generating large-revenue, low-profit, mass-market books. Instead of famous authors like Stephen King or Ken Follett, there will be writer collectives potentially identified by a fictitious name, or a brand.

On the other end, there will be scores and reams of authors who self-publish whatever odd way they like to publish, and there will be infrastructure to support them. There already are the Kindles and CreateSpaces for the publishing part, but there will also be marketing tools that help disseminate automatically to select audiences.

And then the task of agents will be to shepherd the concepts and formulas of the self-publishers into the large-publisher world. Similar to the way the giant tech companies have almost entirely stopped innovating and instead simply buy ideas. Like Facebook buying Oculus just a few days ago.