Monday, August 09, 2010

From the Vault: Reading explained

Happy summer, everybody!  For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging.  It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when.  So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year.  We've cued up enough, but if you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Jim
Choosing what projects to take on can be a tricky thing. Given the number of manuscripts I usually have waiting to be read and how few of those I’ll actually be able to work on, I start each one assuming that I’ll be passing on it. For about 50 pages, I keep an eye out for the specific reasons I’ll be rejecting. I’m looking for overwrought writing, character inconsistency, sloppy plotting, and/or any reason to put the pages down and move on to something else.

Let’s say I pass page 50 and haven’t found a reason to definitely say no. I hit my optimistic reading phase and for the next 100 or so pages, I’m thinking, “Hook me!” I’ve invested just enough time that I won’t be upset if I end up deciding to pass, but I’m starting to think, “Hey, this could be my next new client.”

At page 150, my mood shifts entirely to, “Don’t let me down now.” Pessimism sneaks back in a bit. Even if I like this, I start to wonder, can I sell it? This is where I bust out the super handy trick that Jane taught me when I was starting out: if you can think of five editors you know who this could be right for, then it’s probably worth a shot. I ride the manuscript out keeping that in mind and also thinking about the competition. What similar books have done well? Are there too many similar books? Does this read like what’s working now, or does it read like what might be working a year from now when it would come out?

Of course, every so often, a manuscript comes along that shuttles my reading rules right out the window. And that is what I live for.

Let’s flash back to last summer. I drag a bag of manuscripts up to my roof, yank out the first one, open to the first page, read the first paragraph…and stop. It sounds so corny and over the top to say that you were hooked on something from the first page except that when it happens, it’s transporting. I read until the sun went down, and the next morning, I handed the manuscript to a colleague.

“Read a page and tell me if I’m crazy,” I requested. “I mean—this is really as good as I think it is, right?”

I fell so head over heels for the novel that I actually wanted confirmation I hadn’t just lost my mind. I felt stupidly luck to even have the project in hand. When the first page was read, I got the affirmation I needed: “It’s really that good.”

“Crap. Who else has this?” Luckily for me, though other agents did have and did want to represent the novel, its author, in her infinite wisdom, decided to work with me. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is an astonishing novel for the young adult market that blends the literary and the commercial, stunning writing with rich characters and brilliant plotting. I eagerly look forward to its publication by Delacorte next spring.

The point I always come back to is that people who work in publishing do so because they’re readers. Yes, I read with an eye toward market and potential profit. This is a business, and when you work on commission, you can bet that there’s always an eye on the bottom line. The most thrilling part of the job, though, is playing some role in ushering a book you feel passionately about into another reader’s hands.

At the delightful (and not just because you can gamble there) Las Vegas Writers’ Conference last year, someone asked a panel I sat on, “Would you rather have something come across your desk that has great writing or a great plot?” It’s an unanswerable question. Because I’m not looking for pieces of a good book. I’m looking for the whole package, or for someone who inspires me to believe in their ability to create the whole package.

In responses to rejection letters, understandably upset writers sometimes ask, “Who are you to judge me? What right do you have to say who’s good enough?” All I can answer is that I’m a reader. I’m an audience. And I want you to win me over as much as you want me to be won. It can’t happen always, but we hope it happens enough.

Originally posted in April 2008.


  1. Wow, Jim! Thank you for a beautifully written post and for the insight into how you read a manuscript. There's a lot to be learned here!

  2. I felt the exact same way when I picked up The Forest of Hands and Teeth. That first chapter was so intoxicating, I found myself reading it in the check out aisle, to the car and in my car. I sat in the parking lot for over an hour, before common sense kicked in and I actually drove home.

  3. This is the first post I've read that goes into what an agent thinks when they're reading a manuscript.

    Thanks for the post, Jim.

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