Literary Gatekeepers: Professional Readers Impact Novel Sales

Writing Novels That Sell with Adrienne deWolfe

Editor's Note: Please welcome Helen Carey, who has worked as a professional reader for two book publishers and a literary agent. Helen has agreed to share her “insider secrets” about the real, behind the scenes power that a professional reader has over your manuscript. Helen also happens to be a published novelist, so she knows what we deal with every day, while writing novels in the trenches!


The Power of Professional Readers

By Helen Carey

So your novel is finished. What happens after you send it off to your chosen literary agent or publisher?

Well, unless you are a well known name, have a good track record, or have chosen the tiniest publishing house in the world, chances are that your novel will be allocated to a ‘reader.’

Who are readers? What do they do? And, more importantly, how much power do they have?

How to write a novelProfessional readers are used by the larger literary agents and fiction publishers mainly to take a preliminary look at unsolicited submissions (the ‘slush pile’). Sometimes readers specialize in a particular field of expertise or interest, such as contemporary crime, historical fiction, sci fi etc. A reader’s job is to assess to what extent the synopsis and the first few chapters (5000 words or so) of an author’s manuscript meet the criteria of the publishing house or literary agency and whether the author has commercial potential.

And the most important term here is ‘commercial.’ Despite the impression they sometimes like to give of being the only true champions of style and erudition, “keepers of the literary flame” – publishers -- are actually in the business of making money. Their professional readers are their gatekeepers.

Aha, some of you may be thinking, being a publisher’s reader sounds like a great job. What could be nicer than reading for a living? Well, yes and no. Finding possible winners is great, but wading through piles of obvious no-hopers is not. Having the skill to detect potential is not the same as enjoying a good read. Publishers look for a high level of discernment in their professional readers, an awareness of the market and an understanding of what really makes a novel work, stylistically, emotionally and commercially.

When a reader finds a submission that does tick all the right boxes then the opening chapters are recommended for a second read by an editor and if the editor agrees then the author will be asked to submit the complete work for further assessment. Hurrah!

I will list the elements readers look for at the end of this article, but for now, my advice to aspiring novelists is:

  • Read widely to get an understanding of the market.
  • Hone and re-hone your novel, especially those all important opening chapters and the synopsis, to make sure that you are submitting absolutely your best work.
  • Write a compelling synopsis and cover letter.
  • Check that the agency or publisher is appropriate for the type of work you are submitting.
  • Read the submission guidelines.

Having been a reader myself, I know only too well how many potential novels bite the dust for reasons quite apart from their literary or commercial merit. Reasons like the fact that they were actually, er ..., poetry, or they were (illegibly) hand-written, or didn’t come with a synopsis, or did come with some kind of quirky gimmick. Or, commonest of all, (can you believe it), didn’t have a return address.

To get past the all-powerful gatekeeper, a novel really has to shine. You need to give it all the help it can get!

What do publishers’ readers

look for in submissions?

  • Genre – does the story fit into some recognizable category which will make it easier to sell?
  • Does the synopsis demonstrate a sustainable premise – a storyline or background that is idea big enough to carry the word count, normally about 100,000 words?
  • Does the synopsis demonstrate that the author understands how stories work, how to create pace and page turning power?
  • Is there an interesting setting?
  • Is there some kind of theme – what is the story about at a deeper level? E.g. Friendship, courage in adversity, true love conquers all?
  • What sort of time period does the story cover? One day? A week? A year (like my own Lavender Road novels)? A century? Is this time span workable?
  • Are the characters engaging, not necessarily all good, but at least sympathetic and empathetic?
  • Is there a compelling plot? (Different from story structure - plot is ‘what happens next.’) Does the writer seem to know how to move the story along?
  • Does the writing engage right from the get-go? Does it have panache and style (not necessarily literary,) but is it readable, fluent, suitable for the chosen genre?
  • Is there some humor, if appropriate, or at the very least, the occasional light touch?
  • Is the story, and/or the way it’s told, fresh? A new take, a new idea, a new slant?
  • Has the writer thought about audience? Who the book might appeal to? Is the potential audience wide enough to make the book commercial?
  • Is there potential for a follow up? A series?
  • Does the writer seem committed to his/her craft? Does the writer have a track record? Any prizes/ short stories published etc? Is the writer in a position to promote the novel?
  • Is the manuscript polished, tidy and error free?

Lavender Road by Helen Carey, authorAbout Helen Carey

Helen is the author of the bestselling wartime LAVENDER ROAD series. She has also worked as a reader for two mainstream publishers and a leading literary agent. She teaches Creative Writing at University level and lives on a small coastal farm in Pembrokeshire, England, with her husband and two dogs.

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