Friday, April 26, 2024

In Memoriam: Janet Reid

On Sunday, April 14, 2024, the literary community lost one of its guiding lights when Janet Reid passed away. A New York literary agent for more than twenty years, Janet was possibly even better known for her writings about the publishing industry, especially her advice columns for aspiring authors.


Janet Reid was born in Seattle, Washington, the oldest of four sisters. Her sister Cynthia described her as a constant source of “great humor and limitless encouragement” to all her family, a sentiment echoed by her clients, her associates, and her friends. After a stint at law school, which set her up nicely to do a literary agent’s requisite contract work later, Janet spent fifteen years doing book publicity in Oregon, where she also hosted an author interview radio program for Oregon Public Broadcasting. “Janet had a smooth radio voice,” writes Adam Eisenberg, her client of more than 20 years, “and a fondness for equally smooth Scotch, Macallan in particular.” Janet left her broadcast days behind her and moved to New York City to launch a literary agency in 2000, but that radio voice became famous all over New York publishing offices, where editors would pick up a phone call from Janet’s caller ID with accelerated pulses, wondering what one-liner she was going to drop on them today.


Janet launched JetReid Literary, her boutique agency, shortly after arriving, and began courting and accruing clients. During this time, Janet crossed paths with Stephany Evans, the owner of Imprint Agency. Janet joined Imprint in 2004 and she and Stephany worked together for the next twelve years, through an agency merger in 2006 that formed FinePrint Literary Management. Janet carved out a space for herself as the agency’s crime fiction specialist, although she also loved to represent nonfiction. After FinePrint, she worked with many of her former “ducklings” at New Leaf for three years before relaunching her own agency, JetReid Literary in 2020. Over her 25 years in the industry, she developed the careers of New York Times bestsellers and Edgar Award winners. At the time of her passing, many of her client relationships have stretched over two decades.


Janet became an integral piece of hundreds of writers’ professional careers because of her blogging. She never monetized any of her writing or labor—the thousands of hours she invested in her blogs were pure of purpose, to demystify the publishing and querying processes for (often frustrated) aspiring authors. Well, almost pure of purpose—Janet did enjoy the community that built up around her platforms, even if she was careful to only engage at arm’s length, protecting a rigorous ethical separation between her work for her clients and her non-denominational advice for writers.  


Janet’s first blog, which she ran from 2004 to 2008, was perhaps the watershed moment in book blogging history. For this (strictly anonymous!) blog, Janet developed the online persona of Miss Snark, a sharp-tongued, truth-telling literary agent who offered scathing and highly educational commentary on etiquette, bad behavior, trends, and hypocrisies in the book publishing industry. Miss Snark became legendary in the publishing community and beyond, establishing itself as the go-to online writers’ resource for how to get published. Miss Snark’s true identity was hotly debated in internet forums—to this day, long after Janet allowed Miss Snark’s anonymity to subside, one can still find Reddit pages offering a range of amusing hypotheses. 


In 2008, Janet pivoted to a new platform, The Query Shark, which she ran under her own name for the next sixteen years, critiquing readers’ query letters and answering readers’ industry questions. The impact of both these blogs can be observed all over the internet—her words quoted and excerpted widely by other publications, writers citing her advice as a critical turning point in their path to publication.


Janet was also a cherished mentor among publishing professionals as well as among writers. “What stands out to me about Janet's time at Fine Print, other than her fierce dedication to her clients and her penchant for literary murder and mayhem, was how she took our interns and younger agents under her wing as mother hen and mentor,” said Stephany Evans. “They seemed often to congregate in her office (her "lair", as she called it) and bring her their questions or run their pitches by her for her approval. She seemed to be happiest when she could offer support or a leg up.”


Indeed, to her “ducklings,” Janet was an incredible mentor, generous with everything she had,” said literary agent Suzie Townsend, former assistant and friend. “She knew when to be compassionate and when to push someone to be better and when to lighten the mood. She definitely shaped who I was in this industry and I'm incredibly grateful for it.


Another former assistant and friend, Meredith Barnes, said, “I moved to New York from far away when I was very young, and Janet was my first boss--but she gave me much more than anyone should ever expect from ‘a boss.’ Janet fed me when I was broke, corrected mewith vivid diction!--when I messed up, and somehow knew how to compliment the things I was secretly proudest of but thought no one else noticed. She made me bold.”


Janet endured more than her fair share of personal loss, but she held herself to a very strict code of right and wrong. Her friends looked to her as a moral compass: a person who had an instinct for taking the high road, whose well of kindness and generosity was seemingly inexhaustible, and who held no grudges unless you really deserved them. Janet was a devout Catholic. In the often-unreligious culture of publishing, Janet joked about her own church attendance and how it kept her on the right track; her friends joked back that she kept them on the right track. “Many know Janet as the Query Shark but for me she was my ram in the bush,’ providing help and support when I least expected,” said agent Regina Brooks. “She sent me flowers at milestones and offered prayers as a steadfast warrior in my corner.” For the non-believers among her “ducklings,” Janet would skip the prayers but still send the flowers. Or whiskey.


Janet’s irrepressible sense of humor endeared her to authors, editors, and fellow agents alike. The ultimate reward of a lunch or drinks date with Janet was making her laugh. Her guffaw, if one earned it, could silence a crowded restaurant, and she was not afraid to fall out of her chair with mirth. She brought joy into every gathering, steadfast loyalty into every relationship, and kindness into every encounter. She will be deeply missed—by her two surviving sisters and brothers-in-law, two cousins, ten nieces and nephews, nine great-nieces and nephews on the west coast, and by her non-biological found family in New York, who are legion.


“Her passing leaves an unfillable hole for me, and for so many people,” said Keith Kahla, Executive Editor at St. Martin’s Press. “And yet, I know that somewhere, shes clucking her tongue and saying, with great sympathy and heart—‘I know it's hard . . . now get back to work.

Click here to contribute to a memorial bench in Central Park in Janet's name and to Janet's favorite charity, Wild Bird Fund.



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Love for Janet in the Words of Some of Her Authors, Colleagues, and Friends

There’s so much to say—about Janet’s kindness, her rowdy sense of humor, the delight she took in giving and receiving good-natured ribbing. She was a supportive agent and a blistering deliverer of critiques—but always with a mind to bring out the very best in us. It would be true to say she made me a better writer, but that was only part of her gift, and surprisingly incidental for someone who was a literary agent. I can’t count the number of people who’ve told me she helped them with no expectation of anything in return.


I could go on and on, but I keep coming back to one thought. Janet used to say, “The Shark doesn’t do hugs.” But I never once saw her hold back when someone needed one, including me. I’ll miss her.


—Bill Cameron, client




Janet has been a friend and mentor to so many of us in the publishing industry. I've never met someone with such a ready hand to help another, whether offering advice on a query, sharing a brilliant new manuscript, or connecting kindred spirits. Her unique brand of jovial curmudgeon made her the life of every gathering, and her wit was razor-sharp but always used for good. I'm glad to have many years of comradeship and conference drinks to recall fondly . . . as well as her great love of animals, including the (rental) cats she loved to tout on her Twitter feed. In the end, I'll remember her for her kindness, her humor, and her fierce independence. I am deeply grateful to have known her.


—Abby Zidle, Executive Editor, Gallery Books




I first started working with Janet around 2002. I think Janet had arrived in Brooklyn only a year or two before we connected. After I met her, I realized the move to the East Coast was an obvious one for her. Janet LOVED the City—she seemed to breathe New York. 


Janet was not only a knowledgeable agent, she was also an amazing and honest editor. She always told the truth and, even if she finessed it at times, her advice was always spot on. Janet once explained, I'm not creative. I can't tell you how to fix things. But I can tell you what's wrong. Of course, that wasn't true—at least the part about her creativity. Janet was very creative. Yes, she had a keen eye for spotting problems with your manuscript, but she was also a wonderful writer in her own right, as readers of her popular Query Shark posts can attest.  


Janet loved non-fiction books, even ones that wouldn't necessarily make a lot of money. I think she really loved ideas, and she would nurture them as she would her writers. Janet was very supportive and encouraging, often telling me, You just have to write your way through this book to find out what it's really about. Janet also had a great passion for what the law should be Over the years, our conversations always included a discussion of the state of the law and the harried state of the world. In those discussions I learned Janet was an old-style law & order Republican, yet socially liberal. She often ranted about how she couldn't stand what happened to the party starting with George W. Bush, and she absolutely despised Trump.  


Janet was knowledgeable about a lot of subjects and curious about so many more, and she had a razor sharp (shark?) wit. She was also kind and thoughtful. Last fall, as I was returning to a novel I'd put aside for a while, she unexpectedly sent me a book she thought would serve as inspiration. It was a lovely gesture that reminded me she cared about my project and believed in me.


Back in 2008, after Janet helped me polish my book proposal for A Different Shade of Blue: How Women Changed the Face of Police Work, she started sending it around. But the initial response was less than enthusiastic. Not long after, I was visiting New York City and we met for coffee in Grand Central Station. After we sat down, I nervously asked, "Are you breaking up with me?"


“What? Janet replied, clearly surprised.


“Are you breaking up with me? I mean, we've gotten three rejections—”


“Phew!" Janet interrupted with a wave of her hands. Three rejections are nothing! After we get a hundred rejections we'll talk.”


She then calmly laid out the realities of the publishing world, explaining that we may get many rejections before we find the right publisher. I was greatly relieved, and from that day forward, whenever she had to give me bad news or even advice that I should change course on a project, she always started off with, I'm NOT breaking up with you. But . . . 


Now that Janet has passed, I thank her for not breaking up with me . . . until now. And while I'm incredibly saddened by this, I forgive her. I'm grateful to her for believing in me and, more importantly, for being my dear friend.


—Adam Eisenberg, client




I always thought it was cool that Janet's last name was Reid, because that's how she spent so much of her time.


Janet read manuscripts, emails, text messages, and contracts.

Janet read SO MANY QUERIES and offered the sharkiest of feedback.

Janet read people and situations and every room she walked into.


For a while, I was one of the lucky people who got to be with Janet almost every day. Office neighbors, we would roll our chairs to our door frames and kibbitz in the corner. I loved talking with her because she was unlike anyone I had ever met. Janet had opinions and shared them freely. She had the best vocabulary and was very particular about word choice. Janet would speak quietly and then burst out laughing when she got to her favorite part of a story. Janet loved cats, plants, and bourbon. She loved maps and office supplies. I know that love extended to her people as well and I am very thankful that our paths crossed when they did. Janet was and always will be an uplifter (even though I'm sure she would cringe at my stating this, ha!) but she is. I know I'm not the only one who is feeling blindsided by her quick departure. I'm not really accepting it to be honest. I owed Janet a call. I'll talk to her.


—JL Stermer, agent




The first thing Janet ever wrote to me, in response to my query letter, was 'I'm pretty sure I'm not cool enough to be your literary agent.' After twenty years of uproarious laughter, sage advice, and plentiful snark, I knew the inverse was true. Our first meeting to discuss my literary career took place in a Subway sandwich shop on 23rd Street; the last time I saw Janet was in our favorite bar. I will forever miss her raucous laughter and wonderful spirit. My world is a lesser place for her absence.


—Jeff Somers, client





Janet was an incredible mentor and friend, as well as hands-down one of the most selfless people I knew. Her blog is actually one of two blogs that sealed the deal for me to make the leap into publishing. When I started as an intern, her agency's office shared space with the agency I interned for. On my last day, she gave me several pieces of much needed (blunt) advice that helped propel me to where I am today. (Though I admit I didn’t follow all of it: I regret not changing my X, formerly known as Twitter, handle—"Do you really want to be called KOrtizzle in your fifties? That's going to be your brand," she cautioned. "Nah, no one will really know who I am." To this day, I am KOrtizzle—at conferences, online. I can't change it; it's how people now know me! But I know she came to love it by the way she would shriek ORTWEEEEEZE on voicemails and whenever I entered the room.)


She wrote my recommendation letter for the AALA (then, the AAR) and was always forwarding me learning opportunities early in my career. She often invited me to go with her to drinks, parties or lunches to help me network, despite the fact I was 'just' an assistant. I had the honor of working with her for a few years under the same shingle, and she was an incredibly knowledgeable and empathetic mentor who was always available to answer questions or give advice. When I launched my agency, I received a gorgeous bouquet with an amazing note of encouragement that still hangs over my desk. She would call with no agenda just to see how I was doing and her door was literally always open.


I'm confident in saying a good portion of this industry benefited from her selflessness, guidance and/or humor at some point in their careers. And I know she would be annoyed we're making 'a fuss' over her, but the woman more than f*cking deserves it. And I will continue to quote her and share those tough love lessons to others in the industry in hopes of doing what she wanted from everyone she spoke to: helping others rise and succeed.


—Kathleen Ortiz, agent




Around 2009, I was desperate to find an agent and was sending query letters to every agent in New York City. One of them called me. "You're Dana Haynes? Were you the editor of the weekly newspaper in West Linn, Oregon?" Since almost nobody had ever heard of the West Linn Tidings, I was surprised but told her, yes, I used to edit that paper. "Before I moved to New York, I lived in West Linn. I hated your paper. Sure, I'll look at your manuscript."

That was Janet Reid. She sold that manuscript, and then the next eight.


—Dana Haynes, client




Janet Reid was a unique individual and she made an indelible mark on the world of publishing. She was passionate, endlessly enthusiastic, and while she never sought the limelight for herself she was relentless in support of her authors. She will be sorely missed.


—Andrew Grant, former client





There are three things in particular I'd like people to remember about Janet. One is how wise she was. I'd send her a manuscript and she'd get back to me with, "This is great! I love this! Here's what you need to change . . ." Of course, as a writer, you don't want to make changes. You just got done with it. It works. If you pull it apart you have to put it back together again and you just got the damned pieces to fit. So I'd pout for a day or two and feel sorry for myself and then figure out how to make the changes. And she was right. Every single time, whatever she told me to do, following her advice made it a stronger book. 


The second thing is her great sense of humor. Making her laugh was one of my favorite things and I'm sad that I won't have the chance again. I have one memory that still makes me smile, when I related an interaction between Royals fans and New York Mets fans to Janet and she laughed so hard she fell out of her chair. 


And, finally, I want people to remember how kind she was, and how supportive of writers at all stages of their careers. Her blog was a major source of advice and encouragement and, of course, Query Shark was an amazing resource for authors at that stage.


—Loretta Sue Ross, client




“I met Janet Reid only once in person, but she had already made an indelible impression on me. I spent at least a decade in awe of her Query Shark persona online. I then spent years sending her queries of my own to see if I could convince her to be my agent for my Linda Wallheim mystery novels. I hadn’t thought it was possible to become a bigger fan of her, but once I got to work with her, I did. Her online persona was gruff and blunt, but my experience with her was that she was also extremely warm. She loved books and she loved people and she saw both more clearly than most anyone I’ve ever known. She guided me through the most difficult years of my life, and she kept sending me incredibly encouraging emails that had subject lines like ‘Holy Smokes.’ I will miss her guidance more than I can say.”

—Mettie Ivie Harrison, client




On the last day of July 2007 I got a phone call that started with, “Hi, this is Janet Reid, from the department of you left me hanging on page fifty.”


Several weeks earlier I had finished my first novel, and over the summer I’d sent query letters to about thirty agents. While learning how to tackle that process, I must have read just about the entire archives of a famous blogger known as Miss Snark, an agent with a fierce little dog named Killer Yapp. Miss Snark’s blog was a gold mine of information about publishing, finding an agent, and especially writing a query letter. She would actually have readers send her their queries, and she’d critique them in detail. At times, it was a bit like the opening episodes of a season of American Idol, when the judges brutally tear apart someone who can’t sing—but in the case of a bad query letter, the criticism could help to fix it.


There seemed to be a consensus among random strangers on the internet: the real identity of Miss Snark was Janet Reid. After having read all those blog posts, the thought of possibly becoming a client of the real Miss Snark seemed like too much to hope for, but of course I sent her the query. And I was stunned when Janet Reid emailed and asked to see the first fifty pages of the book. When she called and asked for the rest of it, and ended up offering to represent me, well . . . words like ecstatic and overjoyed fall pretty far short.


You didn’t have to be a client of hers to know that Janet was the funnest person to be around at a writing conference—but being a client probably helped. I remember sending her a link to a YouTube video years ago of a woman walking into an apartment with about fifty cats in it. They clamber over furniture, knocking things aside, swarming around her. I asked Janet if that was what it felt like when she arrived at a conference where some of her clients were present.


Her advice on a manuscript was always spot on. I can’t think of how many times I changed something in a book based on a note of hers, and in hindsight couldn’t believe I’d written the earlier version in the first place. The last action scene in one of my books is a frantic race against time in Central Park—but making it frantic was Janet’s idea. For whatever reason, when I first wrote that sequence, I thought the scene should be very sedate, the whole thing serving as a kind of washed-out postscript to a climactic scene that came before it. (I distinctly remember thinking something like, “I want the characters to be like Schwarzenegger at the end of Predator, when he finally gets to the chopper, and he’s exhausted, covered in dust from the Predator nuking itself, he’s barely awake, this last little coda of a scene . . .”) Yep, my first pass at that Central Park scene felt just like that, and it was about two pages long, with almost zero conflict or tension, and I thought it was very artistic and clever. Janet’s response (I’m paraphrasing only a little) was, “Are you nuts? They should be racing against the clock to survive here, and they should barely make it.” It was pretty much instantly obvious that she was right, so I changed it, the whole time just shaking my head at the previous version, like, you were really going to put that in the book?


As a writer, it’s not exactly fun to admit something like that.  But it’s true, and people should know the impact she had, and how her work made a huge difference. That stuff happened all the time.


I keep thinking of a moment at Thrillerfest, in New York, about ten years ago.  I was sitting with Janet and a couple other friends in one of the huge conference rooms at the Hyatt (a few hundred seats), and it was mostly empty just then. We were all sitting in some back corner of the room, talking about random things, catching up. Janet said that times like this were her favorite thing about conferences. Quiet moments when you could just talk for a while. There were a lot of those over the years, and they were great.


As someone who doesn’t live in New York City, it’s hitting me lately just how much I associated that city with Janet Reid.  And it’s very strange, now, to picture New York without her in it.  She’ll be missed by lots of people who live there, and lots of us everywhere else.


—Patrick Lee, client




I first met Janet at a world mystery conference. We’d talked on the phone, and she had agreed to take me on as a client. I’d been nominated for an award there, and when Janet saw me at the awards, she led me up front to an aisle seat--so I'd be right up front to accept my award. I was less optimistic about my chances, but Janet had no doubts. And when I did win the award, she was the first to clap. She was always like that as an agent. She was positive about the works she represented and showed that faith in her clients. 


Janet once came to the Midwest for a conference not far from my house. On her second day there, I picked her up for lunch and drove to Waffle House, a mutual weakness. We had such a good time, not only eating, but talking about books and what was going on in NYC. (I'll never forget her laugh.) I then drove her back to the conference as she had a presentation. It was like someone had flipped a switch. She was immediately helpful and willing to answer any and all questions. She spent the time teaching all of these writers what they needed to know to query an agent or editor. I just sat in awe at the amount of information she had at hand and how freely she shared that with others.


—Jeffrey Marks, client


When I first submitted a query to Janet, through a series of misadventures which were only partially my own fault, all my personal email accounts were then silently disabled. I became completely uncontactable. Janet liked my query, emailed me, and the email bounced. Any normal person would have written me off. Janet persevered. Eventually she posted on her own blog, "Gary Corby, where are you?" Her small army of fans did some detective work and discovered one of my wife's email addresses. Janet emailed that address, and her email went straight to spam. I still had no idea what was going on.

Then late one night Helen is clearing out her spam. She stops, looks at Janet's message, and says, "This email looks genuine." I took one look and blanched. Then I worked out what had happened, emailed Janet and also called, with a thousand apologies. 

That is how close I came to never being published. I got there because Janet never gave up on a story she liked.

—Gary Corby, client


Janet Reid was an insightful, sometimes cranky, but always loving friend to writers everywhere.

I had the good fortune of spending time with Janet at conferences, on car rides around new cities, and during long phone calls that were ostensibly work related, but often didn’t involve books at all. She was a student of the world and for all of her gruff exterior, her faith in the goodness of the world shone through. I cannot overstate the importance of her support in the early days of my own publishing career. Janet gave legitimacy to us before others, and I don’t know that I would have had the good fortune of staying in the publishing industry as long as I did without her. She leaves behind a lasting legacy to so many. May the memory of her remain a blessing for all the lives she touched.

Rest well, dear friend.

—Ben Leroy, editor


Janet had a wit and sense of humor that was contagious. She was truly brilliant, thoughtful, generous, caring, and one of the loveliest souls I've ever known. We kept in touch over the years until I saw her recently. She was a very supportive friend to me, and a rare bird, indeed. I miss her company, her laughter, and her energy. I always will.

—Michael Stomme, friend



Janet was a treasured friend for nearly twenty years. Having started agenting around the same time, we’d run into each other those early days at conferences and industry events, and usually ended up hanging out and laughing in some corner of some party, as did pretty much everyone else at the event. When Janet Reid went to a party, the party came to her.


Over the years she became the first person I’d call with publishing news and triumphs and travails personal and professional. She was that friend for me, and to so many others. She was the most selfless person I’ve known, all the while proclaiming to be record-breakingly selfish. Janet was my go-to road trip companion and while I was always the one who drove (so many great places!), she navigated with aplomb from the passenger seat. On the drives, she introduced me to classic movie plots, authors I hadn’t yet read, the latest CDs of her beloved (the composer Andrew Violette), old-school country songs and her truly wonderful singing voice, and most importantly (to her), Waffle House. I’d be driving along and swimming into my field of vision would come her hand, indicating a left or right turn, usually because she’d spotted a Waffle House. She was a regular guest at our home in Hudson, NY (her country house, she’d call it), and my husband, Matt, and I are lucky that so many things we can look at every day hold a memory of her. Including the Waffle House mugs she talked a waitress into selling to her for $5, somewhere in West Virginia. Her laugh was validating (Matt’s words), her side-eye legendary, and her kindness and curiosity boundless. To (mis)quote Salman Rushdie, there is a hole in the world where my friend used to be. And I’m going to miss her for the rest of my life.


—Sorche Fairbank, fellow lit agent and friend