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How Publishers Use Reader Reports to Make Contract Offers


You’ve cleared the first hurdle in commercial publishing. Whether through an agent or your own submission, the editor is interested in your book proposal (a package that included your proposal, one or two sample chapters, and your biography). The next step in this delicate dance is the Reader Report: a market feedback tool used by an editor as part of the publishing decision process.

A “reader” is someone the editor trusts for his or her commercial acumen.  In other words, readers help the editor decide if your book concept is salable. The editor solicits opinions from an eclectic mix of readers, reflecting different tastes and topic viewpoints. For example, two people might be interns or editorial assistants within the publishing company; authors from an unrelated field; professionals within your industry; avid readers interested in the topic and who are friends with the editor. Typically, your proposal is sent blind to the reader, meaning that your identity is anonymous.

In a Reader Report, the editor asks questions that focus on saleability and the target customer.

1. Identify the primary bookstore category. 

2. What’s really new here? How is the author in touch with or slightly ahead of the market trends?

3. Does the title work? Do the title and subtitle state the book’s benefit clearly or is the customer
mislead about the book’s actual premise?

4. In one catchy line, how would you pitch the book to the publisher’s sales representatives?

5. Characterize the author’s writing style. Identify sections where the author engages the reader with compelling stories or examples.

6. What are the book’s key themes and why are they intriguing?

7. Would you buy this book or recommend it? Please explain.

Upon receipt of these reports, the editor reads these responses for consistency.  For example, an editor is sensitive to the following points.

1. Did the readers identify the same key themes?  If so, that is a good indicator that the book’s structure will be solid.

2. How are the catchy one line phrases similar?  Consistency here indicates that the author understands the primary bookstore category.

3. Do the readers buy the author’s premise?  Is the reader convinced the author will deliver the book as outlined?  Why or why not? The editor looks for reasons to be confident about the book’s market position before going further.

Prior to contacting you and sharing the feedback, the editor may circulate the proposal and the reports to marketing and sales colleagues for their opinions.  At this stage, it is likely an informal request. A smart editor knows how to create a buzz around an exciting project. No book succeeds alone. It takes a team of people who are as passionate as the author and the editor in order to commit the financial resources required for the project. 

Unless the project is competitive, patience is an author virtue at this stage. Calling the editor every day is not a winning strategy; it alienates the editor.  When the editor does follow-up with you, usually within seven to 10 days of analyzing the reports, you can expect several possible outcomes.

1. For whatever reason, the editor turns down the proposal. Because it was an achievement on your part to make it this far in the process, be sure to ask for specific feedback.  This is your opportunity to be curious about the publishing business and not defensive about your work. Try to put yourself in the editor’s shoes and understand his or her rationale. 

2. The editor suggests substantial changes and invites you to resubmit the proposal for further consideration.  The ball is now in your court.  If you agree with the changes and believe these changes will make for a stronger book, you may want to agree to this request. If not, you may decide to try other publishers.

3. The editor suggests minor changes and plans to present your proposal at the next publishing board meeting.  If the board (representatives from editorial, marketing, production and sales) agree to buy your book proposal, the next step is a contract offer that will be made to you by the editor. 
In conclusion, readers play a critical role in the editorial decision process.  This article highlights the key steps.  For more information about book proposals, please see Five Key Secrets to Winning Book Proposals and The Book Proposal Submission Checklist.   


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