Saturday, October 13, 2007

What Is A "First Reader?"--Interview With Crystal Laine Miller

Crystal Miller’s secret is out: she’s a “first reader.” What, you may ask, is a first reader? Read on and find out.

RM: Crystal, tell us exactly what a first reader does, and for whom he/she does it.

CM: A first reader reads a requested manuscript that comes into the office of an agent or publisher, usually before the agent or editor reads it thoroughly. Think of it as a first checkpoint. Usually (there are exceptions) the agent or editor has criteria and a pre-established response sheet that the reader fills out to evaluate the manuscript. The reader is expected to read the manuscript (duh) and to respond to it, using the criteria set by the agent or editor/publishing house.

RM: Why don’t we hear more about first readers? Do editors and agents try to keep their existence a secret? I know that the readers need to have their anonymity preserved, but is there something wrong with having someone other than the editor or agent read the manuscripts and winnow them down?

CM: I know of agents who don’t want anyone to know their first readers. However, I don’t know that there is a big secret that there are first readers. Editors and agents have an enormous amount of material to work through. Some have editorial assistants and these people act as first readers. Some get so many manuscripts that it is necessary to hire freelancers to help categorize and evaluate the material, because frankly, the editor or agent doesn’t want to miss a good manuscript just because they are overwhelmed. Most TRY to respond in a timely fashion. It is a process, and every author must go through this process. The editor or agent trusts this reader, but the reader does not make the final decision. The editor or agent reads the comments, and acts upon that information to help speed the process. If a reader finds something in the manuscript that makes it unacceptable, why should the editor waste more valuable time with it?

One example I can give to you is when an editor did read the manuscript and asked me to read it, too, giving my opinion. When I gave him my opinion, he said, “That’s exactly what I thought.” Editors are people. While they are good and have a sharp eye for what is good, and what will fly in their house, they still like talking it over with others before taking it front of a committee. They need comments to build consensus in the publishing house and if they have readers saying, “Good stuff, and this is why” then this only helps the cause of the writer. Don’t just look at first readers as those who winnow out the stack.

There have been times in the case of an agent that the manuscript needs fixing to make it marketable. In that case the first reader points out the problem areas and the agent is giving that author a chance to rewrite. This can also be a test for the author. If an author argues, or says “my story was given to me by God and you don’t know what you’re talking about,” then the agent knows that this is not the client for him.

The main reason agents probably keep their first readers a secret is because they don’t want authors trying to bother the first reader, because more than likely you know this person in your writers’ groups. With a first reader it is the story that must stand. I don’t think it is any secret that they use first readers in publishing houses. Sometimes it is the secretary or someone working there, but those people can’t handle all of them, so they’ll ask or hire freelancers. The first two times I acted as a first reader (two different editors,) I was not paid. They were just getting another opinion.

RM: Do the agents or editors even look at the manuscripts before you see them?

CM: Well, yes and no. Yes, they look at them, check them into the system, and may give them a quick once-over to make sure they need to be read (an agent or editor can make a good evaluation reading your synopsis and a few pages.) They MAY read them, and just really need another set of eyes. Then, they assign the manuscript to a reader.

In a large publishing house there may actually be an editorial assistant who sends out the assignments. For an agent she may send/give the manuscript with a no set up, no synopsis, etc. The reader’s job is to respond just as if it were published. So, while the agent or editor may not have read the entire manuscript, they may be very aware of this author and the work. You have to understand that no manuscript gets to an agent or editor without first having a query (or meeting at a conference) and then, a proposal. The manuscript has already gone through that process. This is the next hoop to jump through.

RM: What do you look for—both in a positive and negative sense?

CM: It sort of depends on who I am working for, but it’s like this—I have certain preset criteria that I can follow. Story is always first. If it is a good story, can any problems be easily fixed? It’s a checklist in many ways. In fiction I look for theme, is the theme a natural part of the story or some hobby horse to ride?; convincing characters; does it fit into the genre?; good pacing; writing problems like grammar, spelling, typos; showing or telling; audience; and in CBA, a spiritual thread that isn’t preachy.

I look to see if the lead draws me into the book. Well-developed characters and plot, subplots. Something that is hard to describe is the author’s voice. I look for it and describe it to the agent or editor. Point of view must be consistent. I look for tension. I look for the overarching question in the book (that is that one pitch line they always talk about—no one has to tell it to me—I find it.) I look at setting, varied scenes. And get this—I can say whether I personally liked it or not. Yeah, just like your reader does when they buy your book! But I have to be specific in voicing my likes and dislikes. I say whether or not I’d buy the book. Here’s one that depends on who I am reading for—does it offend the audience, for example, is it something that a conservative
Christian audience would find offensive (this sort of thing just depends on the house or the type of client an agent wants.) Is the writing good?

RM: If you encounter a manuscript that makes you think, “You know, if they’d just do this or that, they’d really have something,” do you just shrug it off or do you try to intervene?

Sorry--that's enough for today. Come back on Wednesday for the conclusion of the interview with Crystal. I've found it fascinating so far, and I hope you have as well. I have some other neat interviews and guest bloggers lined up for future postings, so I do hope you'll keep dropping by Random Jottings. Thanks.


Sherrie Ashcraft said...

This was a very interesting post. Thanks for the insight into being a first reader. Sounds like a fun job!

Diann Hunt said...

Great interview! Very informative and interesting!!! Thanks Crystal and Richard!

I know from taking a class with Crystal way back when that she is also an excellent WRITER as well as reader! :-)


Georgiana said...

Great post! Thanks for sharing with us--looking forward to Wednesday =)

Terry Whalin said...

Dr. Mabry,

What a great post from Crystal Miller and about first readers! Fascinating and little discussed. Thank you.

Straight Talk From The Editor

Kristy Dykes said...

Great stuff here! Thanks for digging her up, Dr. Richard and interviewing her. Thanks, Crystal, for the insider's knowledge.

Sabrina L. Fox said...

Very well spoken, Crystal. You have such a wealth of knowledge...thanks for sharing with us. ;)

Nicole said...

What a great job, huh?

Teena Stewart said...

I've known Crystal for years and she is a treasure as a friend and so valuable to the agents and editors who use her service. It takes a unique kind of talent and skill set to do this kind of work. Where would we be without first readers like Crystal? I've got a friend who I'm going to point to this article because I think she has what it takes to be a first reader.

Crystal Laine Miller said...

This is a job I love doing. I wanted to be an acquisitions editor, but I live in the middle of "nowhere," so this is as close as I might get to that dream.

What nice comments! I am honored by what you have said.

I hope some of what I've learned is helpful. One clarification--with exception to a few manuscripts, most have been unpublished authors.

Thanks, Dr. Richard, for having me. Look for him on my blog in the When I Was Just a Kid feature one day soon!