Who are the gatekeepers?
So, your novel is finished. You have mulled, agonised, edited, lost confidence, honed, polished, regained confidence. And now you want to get it published by a ‘proper’ publisher. So you peruse The Artists and Writers yearbook, you ask fellow writers, you check out who published your favorite novels and then you wrap up the first few chapters of your treasured masterpiece with a synopsis to die for and an irresistible covering letter and send (or email) it off to your chosen agent or publisher.
So far so good. But what happens next?
Well, unless you are a well known name, or have a good track record, (or have chosen the tiniest publishing house in the world) the chances are that your manuscript will be allocated to a ‘reader.’
So who are readers? What do they do? And, more importantly, how much power do they have?
Professional readers are used by the larger literary agents and fiction publishers mainly to take a preliminary look at unsolicited submissions (the delightfully named ‘slush pile’). Sometimes specialising 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. And their professional readers are their gatekeepers.
Aha, some of you may be thinking, being a publisher’s reader sound 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 in my next post 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 covering 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 unfunny, sales gimmick. Or, commonest of all, (can you believe it), didn’t have a return address or contact details.
To get past that all-powerful gatekeeper a novel really has to shine. You need to give it all the help it can get!
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Great article, Helen. Tales from the slush pile make sobering reading indeed!
Very good advice as always.
Thanks! Nice to know a publisher agrees with me!!