Tuesday, November 04, 2008

When Reading Submissions . . .

As many faithful readers know by now, BookEnds strongly believes in paying it forward. For years now we have “hired” interns to work with us throughout the course of the year (and I use the term “hired” loosely since they work for nothing more than free books). One of the reasons I subscribe so strongly to the power of internships is because I truly believe it was the work I did outside of my college coursework that got me to where I am today. My first job offer had nothing to do with the journalism classes I took and everything to do with the many internships I had and the years I worked on the student paper.

Well, one of the things I am most surprised about in having interns is how much of a learning experience it has been for me. I feel bad for those first interns who graced our offices. I didn’t have a clear vision of what I wanted and didn’t always communicate my needs well. I think I’ve grown though and learned. One of the things I’ve learned is that an internship should include much more than simply reading submissions. While that is a huge part of what we want an intern for, I really need them to not get bored either. So they get to do fun things like filing, and list making, and whatever grunge work I can come up with.

The purpose of this post though is to discuss reading submissions. How do you teach someone in a very short amount of time to give you a reader’s report that will be beneficial? After close to ten interns, and a very productive lunch with an editor where we talked about interns, I came up with guidelines for how to write a reader’s report that I hope are helpful. And, because I thought you might be interested to see what we look for when reading your submission, I thought I’d share them with you.

Tips and Guidelines for Reader’s Reports

The purpose of a reader’s report (whether for a publishing house or literary agency) is to help the editor or an agent to evaluate whether or not a project is something that might be worth publishing, representing, considering, or even reading. When we ask you to do a report we are asking for honest feedback. We want to know your thoughts, all of them, on the book.

While reading you’ll want to take note of the voice, the characters, the setting, the platform (for NF), the market viability, and whether or not the story intrigues you. It might not be something you’d normally read, but in this business you’ll need to learn how to evaluate a variety of books.

When writing up the report, use a format that works for you. The important thing is that it has a summary of the proposal (in your own words, not taken from the synopsis) and your comments, and that it is legible. At the top there should be a heading like this:

Title of Book
By Author’s Name
Reader Report by Your Name

From there, do what works for you, and if something needs to be changed, you will be told.

Give a brief summary or synopsis of the book as well as your impressions. Some questions to consider when writing include:
  • What was the book about?
  • Did the overall idea seem different and unique?
  • Was it a common theme, but executed in a unique way?
  • What did you think of the author’s voice?
  • Did the characters seem real and likable?
  • Was the plot seamless and did it make sense or were there a lot of holes?
  • Did the multiple plotlines blend together to create a whole book or did they seem choppy and disconnected?
  • Did the dialogue seem real and believable or did it feel forced?
  • Were you able to easily figure out what happened or did the author keep you guessing?
  • Is this a book that would seem to have viability in the market?
  • Are there other popular books you could relate this to?
  • Are there too many similar books to make this stand out?
  • What is the author’s platform? If nonfiction, is this an author with a great deal of visibility in the market (TV, radio, speaking engagements, etc.)?
  • Has the author been previously published? With whom?
  • How was the writing? Did the writing feel professional, like you were reading a published book, or amateurish?

When writing the report be specific about why you did or didn’t like what you read as well as what you did and didn’t like, and don’t be kind. In other words, we want the honest and blunt truth (the author will not see this). Occasionally you may have trouble discerning why exactly you just weren’t excited about the read, but do your best to ferret out the reason. Warning: be careful that your report is objective and not too personal. Being uncomfortable with the level of sexuality in an erotic romance, for example, is not telling me whether or not the book is publishable.

And make a recommendation. Would you suggest that the agent read the material herself because you found it that good or do you think it’s not as good as the books we already have on our shelves? Would you recommend that the agent is going to want to read the entire manuscript? Do you want to read the entire manuscript? One thing to consider when making this decision is whether or not you’d be able to sit in our office meeting and comfortably and excitedly recommend to all of us that we read more of this book.

When finished, write up (type, preferably) your report, attach it to the proposal, and return to the agent for her review.



Anita said...

When I first started reading this post, I felt like I was reading a "cheat sheet" of sorts, but then I realized that everything you're asking the interns to consider is everything I'm hoping to include in my manuscript anyway. The post provides me with an excellent checklist, one I'll refer to again and again before submitting.


Keri Ford said...

Hmm...how much begging to get that interns opinion? Sounds like some darn good feedback! And from a total stranger-so even better! Strangers will tell you the gods honest truth.


Theo Lynne said...

This is great, thank you! It seems like a really useful checklist to give to a critique partner(s) and although I'm no where near that stage yet, I'm certainly book marking it.

Thanks for a very informative blog overall!

Anonymous said...

This is all good info. I guess I'm wondering how this all works--when exactly the intern is involved.
I assume you, Jessica, are reading the query and making the request--does the partial/full then go to the intern for the decision? I guess I feel that this business is so subjective, even a trained intern might bypass something that you personally might like. The other thing I'm thinking is that you get a lot of queries, but it seems you do not request a lot of material-- so why would you want to have the intern read it instead of reading it yourself? I suppose the answer is time--but I assume that if you are really quite taken by a project from the query, it goes directly to you?

Anonymous said...

it is always fun to read about the behind the scenes aspect of agenting. thank you for this very insightful post, like anita said I do feel like it's a cheat cheat to bring our own writing up to snuff. :)

Jean Wogaman said...

Thanks for sharing this. I feel a lot better about the prospect of interns reading my work first knowing you are guiding their judgment.

Kate Douglas said...

What a great post! One thing that I learned when reading contest entries, is that you can quickly tell whether or not it's a story you're going to want to finish...and that's not something you can really put a finger on, so it must be voice. I read two chapters for a friend the other day, and still can't get them out of my mind. I can't wait to see what she writes next. If I were your intern reading for you, I'd be shoving the story under your nose and saying, "READ THIS NOW!"

Totally off-topic--if you're a US Citizen and a registered voter, don't forget to vote. Maybe then all the political ads will go away...

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

I read all of my own queries. However there are a lot of queries that come to BookEnds that are not directed to a certain agent. Those are typically handled by our assistant.

You're right. I reject a lot of queries, but I also request a lot, probably around 100 or so a month.

The intern really doesn't make a final decision. I make those (refer to yesterday's post), but the intern can give me a heads-up on which projects might be worthwhile for me to read quicker or which she feels have the most potential.


Richard Mabry said...

Thanks for the look inside your agency. Given the amount of responsibility your intern has (gulp!), it would appear that you would need to be as careful about choosing him/her as you would about signing a client. Maybe more so.

Anonymous said...

This is perfect. I am so excited to see this information. It makes me feel better about submiting my work.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how Dorothy Dunnett's books would have panned in the list.

Anna Claire said...

Fascinating. I love reading about the inner workings of an agency! I'm about to go apply these questions to my own work.

And I'm totally with you on the internship thing. I learned more slaving away at my university newspaper (loved every minute of it) than I ever did in any of my journalism classes. Plus the knowledge I gained at the paper is what landed my day job.

sruble said...

I wish I had read this post before I started doing reader reports. I made it up as I went along, but your list would have been a nice place to start. Thanks for the list now though. If I ever have to do reader reports again ...


Amy Sue Nathan said...

I was glad to read that you do read all queries that come to you -- another benefit for an author who has done his or her homework. I realize that interns are carefully chosen, but having my publishing career in the hands of college student worries me a bit, to be honest. I know everyone starts somewhere.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

This is very helpful, thank you for posting it!

Diana said...

Wow! Thanks for sharing this. I feel like I have a much better understanding of what you're paying attention to when you're reading a submission.

Chiron said...

Just wanted to let you know, your blog has been an inspiration (and education) in so many ways. So...

I nominated this blog for the I Love Your Blog award.

There's details on my blog.

Thanks, Jessica, for all you do...


The Rejection Queen said...

It's all a matter of opinion no matter who reads it, agent or not. It's either a hit or miss.

Julie Weathers said...

This was a wonderful post. It's one I am going to add to my writer's book.

Thanks so much.


Puffy said...

Before I took up an internship with an agency, I had no idea what I'd be getting myself into. For some reason, I had a misguided concept that the only good literature was ivory tower stuff. As soon as the submissions started rolling in, I was astounded by the honesty of some styles and the sleekness of others, the witty dialogue of some scenes and the descriptions of others. My reading tastes expanded so much that I enjoy pretty much anything these days, thanks to all the great, brave writers out there who send their work in.

It also didn't take long to understand what interested my agent and what didn't interest my agent, which I think is what interning boils down to. Agents are severely bogged down by anxious, and sometimes impatient writers. Though the querying stage or reading partials and fulls are not exactly time sensitive, people's emotions are at stake and agents need all the help they can get. Despite the fact that interns are a second pair of eyes for the stressed agent, interning still opens up a whole new arena for a lot of us greenhorns. I read more keenly for the market nowadays, whereas I didn't have a single clue about target audience or trends.

One thing my boss told me is that stories gotta have a little bit of everything, and by a little bit of everything, she means, drugs, sex, and rock n' roll. And the final arbiter of whether I should recommend anything is:

"Does this story make me want to run on stilts down the street naked shouting at the top of my lungs about how great this book is?"

If not, then it gets a rejection. This rule of thumb has saved me a lot of grief and sleepless nights. I tend to be too lenient and compassionate of writers' endeavors.

I wish I had caught a hold of your guide to reading submissions earlier, because I spent my first month blind as a bat. Thank you for writing this, Jessica.

Esther Shaindel said...

Thanks for this very detailed post! I'm applying for internships now, and I have to write a reader's report for one interview. I already knew what the elements of a reader's report are, but having this clear list gives me focus and helps direct my thoughts.

Sharon Gail said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sharon Gail said...

Never take down this post!

I was trolling the blogosphere for information about writing reader's reports when I came across your post. I intern at an agency that has this unspoken rule that the agents can't be friendly to the interns. Instead of a poster that says "Don't Feed The Birds", there seems to be a common sentiment of "Don't Acknowledge The Interns". It's a pretty disheartening environment, where we receive no feedback on any of the projects that we work on. The only way to know whether or not our reader's report are up to snuff is whether or not they ask us to do another one.

Thank you. Thank you so much for not only taking the time to write this post, but for also recognizing that an internship is supposed to be a learning experience, and not just free labor for the agency. Your post is definitely handy, and your site is invaluable.

Keep up the good work. Aspiring writers aren't the only readers that depend on your knowledge and empathy. Aspiring professionals depend on them as well.