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.