Monday, February 14, 2011

A Successful Reader's Report

I’ve done blog posts before on the reader report, but lately Kim and I have been discussing them more and more and trying to figure out what really makes a great reader report.

For those of you who aren’t aware, a reader report is something every single potential editor will have to do for a job interview; it’s also something interns and assistants do for their bosses, and believe it or not, it’s something all editors do almost every week for other members of their editorial staff. Whether written or verbal, a reader report gives your analysis of a book’s potential.

What I think gets confusing for some people is where your opinion comes into play in a reader report. If you sit in on an editorial meeting at a publishing company, you’ll hear a number of editors, as part of their reports, say things like, “I didn’t like this” or “I didn’t warm to the characters” or “This was absolutely fabulous. I loved it,” which can easily make you think that a reader report is all about your personal opinion. And it is and it isn’t.

Remember, these editors have likely been around for a long time, so when they say something like, “I didn’t like this book,” other editors in the room know that they are saying that based on years of editing. That not liking something means that they don’t see it as commercially viable. And that’s the point of a reader report.

When I get a reader report from a potential new hire, an intern, my assistant, or even Kim, I only really care about your opinion if you’ve been around long enough to show me that you have experience behind your opinion. In other words, when Kim says she doesn’t like something, it’s going to have different weight than if an intern says it. When an intern or a potential new hire says she doesn’t like something, I need to know why, and “because I’m not comfortable with it” isn’t going to fly. I want to know whether or not you feel the book is commercially viable, whether you’re comfortable with it or not.

For example, you might not like that sex scene in the opening chapter, but do you not like it because you are uncomfortable with sex scenes or do you not like it because you don’t feel it works for the book. In other words, does it feel gratuitous and out of place to you. Again, not because you think it’s too abrupt for the book, but because you don’t feel it fits the story. To you it feels like the author slapped it in because she needed an exciting opening.

When interviewing for jobs in publishing, especially with agencies and in editorial, you will often be asked to write a reader report, and I will tell you from experience that a reader report can make or break any possibility of you getting that job. I could interview the sweetest candidate in the world, but if she writes a really awful report I will not offer the job. To me that report is the one thing that shows whether or not she has the editorial eye needed to propel her to a career in this business.



Stephanie McGee said...

Very very timely post, for me. Thank you for sharing this. As a matter of curiosity, how would you suggest someone looking to perhaps get into the business go about learning how to write one? If it's required during the interview process, it's an important skill to develop. Would the best way be to start writing reports for every book we read, just to get that practice in?

A3Writer said...

The more I read about agents, the more I feel I'm a lower paid, alternate reality version of one. "I only really care about your opinion if you’ve been around long enough to show me that you have experience behind your opinion....When an intern or a potential new hire says she doesn’t like something, I need to know why, and “because I’m not comfortable with it” isn’t going to fly. I want to know whether or not you feel the book is commercially viable, whether you’re comfortable with it or not." I say something very similar to my composition students.

It's amazing how people can't separate out personal opinions from any kind of objective measure, and are shocked at how their opinion really does not matter whatsoever.

I can tell from how you describe the report, too, that this is not something you can readily be an expert at. It really does take that necessary experience in the industry to gain an eye for what works and what doesn't.

I wonder if there's a way for potential authors to try and develop their own version of the eye. Such a skill would be very useful in planning and writing out a manuscript.

Lorenda said...

I think the best way to get some practice at this is to read other's work. There are several times I've served as a critique partner for an author whose work I just flat out didn't like. I pick these on purpose because it forces you to ask the right question, which is "why isn't this working for me." And I know if the answer is "um, um, because I said so" then I need study up on my craft (which helps my writing become stronger) until I can give an informed opinion based on the genre's trends, tropes, etc

Laura Campbell said...

This is a great post. I'm part of the Bucks County Writers Group and enrolled in an online writing intensive class. As a former teacher, I understand the usefulness of judgment when critiquing a peer's work. Unfortunately, people in my class are not critiquing other people's work. They're editing it. That isn't want we need. We need to know what is working and not working and why. I'm more concerned with the reading experience of my writing. Thanks.

ryan field said...

Good instincts, I would imagine, come into play big time with regard to reader's reports.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Interesting! I've never considered a career in publishing other than writing, so I had never heard about these. I can imagine from your description of them the kind of skill that is needed to write one, and that there are probably many people who have trouble with them initially due to the challenge of separating personal opinions from the kinds of professional opinions that develop with time and experience. I know a few people who have considered pursuing publishing internships, so I will point them to this post!

Scooter Carlyle said...

I had somehow managed to be completely oblivious to the existence and purpose of a reader's report. Thanks for the information.

Annerb said...

I would agree with Stephanie. Is there any place you would suggest to read up and get more information on reader's reports?

A.M. Kuska said...

I have had the opportunity to converse with a wide variety of people in the publishing world, and one of the most valuable things I learned came in the form of a single question. For every plot point, for the book yourself, ask: "Why does it matter?"

If you don't have an immediate answer, you need to find one. I've used this in my writing to shore up countless plot holes. I suspect using this question would be a very helpful way for an intern to back up those feelings.

Thank you for sharing this post. It was very informative.

BookEnds, LLC said...

I've written about it a few times, but I don't think there is anywhere you can read up on the report. Keep in mind though, that what an agent or editor looks for is going to be different depending on the agent or editor. The best thing you can do when writing a reader's report is keep in mind your knowledge of the market and why an editor or agent wants it. Yes, she wants to know your opinion, but based on the market. It's not a book report it's a professional evaluation.