Friday, November 14, 2008

The Secret World of “Readers”

Many writers believe when they send their precious manuscript to an agent or editor, the person they’re targeting is the only one who will actually read their work. However, in many cases, the first eyes that peruse your literary baby don’t belong to the agent or the editor. Instead, they just might be stuck in the face of a reader. So, who are these mysterious readers and how should you feel about them?

If you think about it, you’ll understand that popular agents (let’s talk about agents from here on out since most writers go after them first) couldn’t possibly read everything that comes in to them. If they did, they’d never get anything else done. There would be no time for family, friends, or even trips to the bathroom! That’s why they hire “readers.” Readers are the first line of defense against manuscripts that don’t fit the needs of an agent. If you’ve sent out many proposals or manuscripts, I can almost guarantee you that your work has fallen into the hands of someone hired to keep slush from an extremely overworked agent. Although I’m an author, I’ve also worked as a reader. I thought you might like to know what I look for and how to get past me.

Usually, your proposal will be screened by the agent first to make sure it sounds like something they might be interested in. If it passes their test, it will then be shuffled off to a reader. It’s my job to know exactly what the agent wants. First of all, the genre should have already been established. In other words, if the agent is only looking for inspirational romance, your suspense proposal won’t get to me. The agent will nix it right away. IF you get past the agent (your proposal is the right genre, your plot sounds appealing, and the writing seems strong), your work will find its way to me. One important thing to remember about genre: stick to it! Don’t send out a proposal for historical romance that turns into something else. In other words, if your female protag turns out to be an alien – Houston, we have a problem! Stay true to the genre the agent is looking for.

One of the most helpful pieces of advice I can give you is this: read books by authors the agent represents. This is the very best way to find out what they’re looking for. Some other hints – keep your plot moving. If I fall asleep reading your manuscript, this isn’t good news for you. Some writers spend so much time on characterizations, their plot bogs down. Here’s something to remember: A reader might love your plot but feel your characters need some development. That’s not a big problem. Fleshing out characters can be done easily. But fixing an ailing plot takes more effort. I recently sent a manuscript back to a particular agent with a recommendation that the characters needed some work. But the plot (except for one part) was pretty good. The agent sent the manuscript back to the writer with the opportunity to fix the weaknesses. If this author makes the requested changes, she’ll have an agent! So concentrate on that plot. Good agents are looking for exciting stories that will draw interest.

One integral part of your manuscript is the writing. No matter how strong the plot and how appealing the characters, if you can’t write, you’re not going to get where you want to go. There is no substitute for good writing skills. Learn your craft, and don’t send an agent a sloppy manuscript. Yes, typos and grammatical mistakes aren’t big turn offs if they’re occasional, but continuous mistakes make me wonder about your commitment to excellence.

It’s important for you to remember that many readers are authors, and you have no idea who they might be. I would never tell an agent to pass on a manuscript because I don’t like the person who wrote it, but if you’re obnoxious and critical of other authors, you may unknowingly reap what you’ve sown someday. That author you offended might just be the person who will make the decision to either accept or turn down your work. SO BE NICE! (Shouldn’t have to tell you that, huh?) Although, I must present this caveat: I wouldn’t recommend a friend’s work to an agent just because they’re a friend. I owe it to the person I’m working for to be perfectly honest. This is one reason most readers will never admit to anyone that they’re working behind the scenes for an agent. The pressure can be too great. Never ask a writer friend to reveal whom she’s working for.

Besides some additional money to help pad my author pockets, what is the benefit from being a reader? Finding someone really talented who deserves a chance, recommending that the agent sign them, and then running across a forum where this same writer is sharing the joy of signing with her new agent! It makes my day. On the downside, it’s hard when you have to say “no,” but in that case, I try to pass along comments that will be helpful in the end. All of us had to hear “no” before we learned how to improve our skills. Most of the time, the criticisms are more helpful that the praises. It’s all about getting better, isn’t it? Take the comments the reader gives you and make yourself stronger.

So, the next time you send your manuscript to the agent of your dreams, remember that it may fall into the hands of someone like me. In fact, it might even be me. But I’ll never admit it…


Nancy Mehl loves the mystery genre. “I grew up on Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys,” she says. Although she started writing at a young age, she didn’t get serious about it until she was in her forties. “For many years, I’d toyed with the idea of writing a novel. Then when I watched Murder, She Wrote, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do!’”

She has published seven novels and one compilation book. IN THE DEAD OF WINTER, the first book in her Ivy Towers Myster Series is currently available online. Also, the Ivy Towers compilation book, COZY IN KANSAS, will be released on December 1st. It's currently available for preorder. Her newest series, the CURL UP AND DYE MYSTERIES, introduces Hilde Higgins, a young woman with an unusual job. “I actually came up with this idea one day while I was brainstorming with my agent. We were talking about all of the odd “hooks” used by mystery writers. My agent mentioned hairdressers and I brought up funeral homes. As a joke, I told her I should create a hairdresser who works in funeral homes. We laughed about it, but the idea wouldn’t go away. After a little research, CURL UP AND DYE was born. It’s a hoot to write!” The first book int he series, MISSING MABEL, will be released to the Heartsong Mysteries book club in the summer of 2009.

Nancy lives in Wichita, Kansas with her husband Norman. She has a grown son, Danny, who is a talented graphic designer. She runs a HUD program for the city of Wichita and works with a wonderful volunteer organization, Wichita Homebound Outreach.


  1. Welcome to Seekerville, Nancy! And thank you for the "insider secrets" on professional readers. Your book covers are GREAT -- they make me want to pick one up and take a peek!

  2. Great article, Nancy. In my search for an agent, a 'reader' reviewed my book proposal and sample chapters that I had sent to a CBA agent. In the rejection letter the agent simply told me the reason for the decline was the reader thought I 'tried too hard'. I kind of chuckled, thinking what the heck did that mean?

    At the same time, an editor with a major publishing house offered me a contract saying my novel was well written and she loved it. Goes to show you that this business is so subjective. I praise God for my new editor...she's fantastic.

    Thanks for sharing insiders information. Your article was enjoyable to read.

  3. Nancy,

    Do you read the synopsis with the stories? If an editor gives the option of providing a chapter by chapter or a detailed synopsis for a mystery, is one or the other better, in your opinion?

    I've heard so many conflicting opinions. For a 60,000 word book, how long should a single-spaced synopsis be?


  4. Welcome, Nancy, and what a fresh and interesting blog topic -- I believe it may the first we've had on readers!! Your cozy mysteries sound wonderful, ESPECIALLY the Curl Up and Dye series -- what an incredibly clever title and concept -- I'm hooked!


  5. Nancy, my best friend in the whole wide world!!!

    he he he

    Welcome to Seekerville. I never knew there were "readers" among us!!!

  6. BTW I too am enjoying Nancy's books. I won three at her blog contest.

  7. Wow, you're a busy lady, Nancy! Thanks for the insider info.

    Now you've got me wondering if my agents employs readers. Hmm.

  8. Welcome Nancy.

    Nice glimpse into the life of a reader. I think many pub houses use readers too.

    Loved what you said about the reaping/sowing thing.

    Thanks for visiting Seekerville.


  9. Thank you for all the comments. Let me go back and pick up the question about a synopsis first.

    I usually try to keep my synopsis to a page. Two pages at the most. I try to keep several things in mind. First of all, it should sound exciting. I attempt to hear it as a movie trailer in my mind. This is the overall "feel" of a good synopsis. But you must remember that an agent is looking for these things: What is the genre? Who is the protagonist? Is she/he interesting? (No one dimensional characters!) What is the hook? Is the plot interesting? And is the writing in the synopsis strong? I try to remember the old journalism addage: Who, what, when, where, and how. Make sure you cover these in your synopsis. The agent wants to get a good idea of where your story is going.

    Oh, and yes, sometimes I read the synopsis. But usually, your synopsis gets you past the agent who gives me the manuscript.

    Hope that answers your "synopsis" question.

    And...Hi, Tina!!!! Great to see you! LOL!


  10. Hey, Nancy. I've read your books, so I know you've practiced what you teach. :-)

    Great writing, great stories, great article!

  11. Hi, Nancy. Thanks so much for being on today.

    I love this topic, very much a look at something we don't hear so much about.

    Also, just for our innocent blog readers, Nancy looks soooooooo sweet but she is quicker with a cruel mouse joke than anyone else I know.

    Just because I wrote a cozy mystery, centered around The World's Largest Fieldmouse and a small town newspaper woman who is afraid of mice(like me), does NOT make it FAIR!!!!!!! to torture me for her own entertainment.

    Whew, venting feels great.
    I will now go hide behind the square of glue traps I keep around me at all times.

  12. Mary,

    Sorry about the torment. (S)

    And don't be the least bit afraid when that Christmas present from me shows up at your front door.

    You can open the box. Really.

    Trust me.


  13. Nancy, what a great article! I've been actively blogging book reviews for about 15 months now, and I'm delighted to know that "readers" are an integral part of the process.

    I am a huge cozy mystery fan too, so I'm going to have to look up your work! I especially love the idea of the funeral hair dresser! VERY clever! I'll look forward to it!

    Thanks for a great article!

  14. Okay, I now need to up my blood pressure medicine to get through the Christmas season.

    I think it's gonna be so fun to have your book, Cozy in Kansas and My book, Nosy in Nebraska, sitting side by side somewhere. Who could resist buying both. :D

  15. Hi, Lisa! And thanks Kim.

    For anyone interested, In the Dead of Winter (the first book in my Ivy Towers Mystery Series), is now available on Amazon. Cozy in Kansas is available for preorder - it will release on December 1st. I heard yesterday that it is now on its way to bookstores.


    Nosy and Cozy, huh? Sounds like a great series title!

    Maybe if we combine our books together...

    Wait a minute. Your mice might eat through the pages.

    Not a good idea! LOL!


  16. Welcome to Seekerville, Nancy!

    What a wonderful post. I appreciate your advice regarding the flaws that flag manuscripts. Great elements to look for.

    Thanks for sharing your insider views.

  17. This was a very interesting post, giving me a peek into part of the industry I've never thought much about. I've heard agents/editors say "My reader says..." or "My reader thought..." but the penny didn't drop for me that this reader might be an author too.

    Thanks for such an informative post and the reminder of just how small and layered this industry is. You never know who might be wearing two hats (or more) and might see your work.

  18. Thanks for the comments, Audra and Erica.

    You know, just the other day I was reading a particular authors' list and a writer was being congratulated on landing her dream agent.

    Little did she know...



  19. Great article, Nancy! And we all have secrets!

  20. Okay, Candice.


    (This isn't that alien thing again, is it????)


  21. I've heard established authors talk about 'first readers'. Is that the same thing? I mean do I HAVE A READER?

    How does it work with subbed, contracted manuscripts, Nancy. I've always figured the reader was the first editor who emails me and says, "What's with all the !@@$% comma's."
    Or words to that affect.

  22. Mary,

    Well, there are two kinds of "readers." The reader I wrote about is someone being paid to assist a harried agent (or editor)with new submissions. The other kind of readers are folks who work for the author. I have two wonderful readers. I send my manuscript to them before I send it to my publisher. It's their job to say, "Did you realize you called your new protag's boyfriend by the first name of a character in another series?" (This just happened.) They look for flow, mistakes, plot problems.

    As far as readers for publishers - I've never heard of that. Once you're contracted, you get shuffled off to editors. Yikes! They're scary individuals who make you wonder why you ever thought you could write.

    Like Candice...(evil grin)


  23. Hey Nancy - thanks for letting us take a peek into the world of a reader.

    I always thought the reader rec'd the ms first then passed it to the editor. I never thought of it being the other way around for an agent.

  24. Hi, Anita!

    Some agents might work that way, but in my experience, the idea of slogging through a manuscript that might not fit their needs is something most agents don't want to do. Giving it to the reader first makes more sense.

    But in most if not all cases, the agent WILL read the manuscript if the reader recommends it. Since selling the work is their responsibility, it's vital that they know the story.

    Thanks for your comment.


  25. I don't think I have a first reader then.

    And seriously, if you pay them, how mean are they gonna be? I mean c'mon, all those people hanging around Michael Jackson are probably telling him how cool he is and how great his nose looks.

    So how can you exactly trust a first reader?

    But as in any critique, you'd take it for what it was, use what you could and ignore the rest.

    Not unlike my relationship with my husband.

  26. Hi Nancy!

    I'm a bookworm. LOL I would love to have a job as a reader. Do you have to be published to get that kind of job?

    I'm glad you mentioned the characterization thingy. I just found out I may have characterization issues *cringe*. One person said they can be easy to fix but it definitely helps to hear it again!

    Happy reading!

  27. Hi, Jessica!

    To read for an agent or editor, you should either be published or have a really good handle on what it takes to put a good novel together. However, I've found that good book reviewers also make excellent readers. You will also need to understand genre writing.

    As far as my personal readers, I asked around on some authors' lists and they were referred to me. I was blessed right out of the box with a couple of great gals. They're invaluable to me!

    If you belong to some authors' lists, you might bring this up in a discussion. You may even get some nibbles! But please don't think you'll get rich this way. Like most authors, I'm incredibly cheap! LOL!


  28. Now, Mary. Are you doubting my readers? LOL!

    Trust me, with what I pay them, they're probably feeling pretty mean anyway.

    Truthfully, their honesty is what makes them so good. I don't need someone to stroke my ego. I want the truth. As I'm sure you know, after reading your manscript for what seems like the 10,000th time - you get to where you don't understand it anymore. A good reader puts fresh, unbiased eyes on your story. It's really vital to me. I really value these ladies. But don't them. They might want a raise! LOL!

    Now I would NEVER hire you read for me. You're already mean...


  29. Nancy,
    Great blog! Very informative and helpful.

    I know my agent has people who read for her - she's amazing and I can't imagine how she keeps up with all of her authors AND tries to find new ones!

    I have found the same as Nancy - you want people (readers) who will be honest with you - completely. And then you develop an amazing, trusting relationship with those people.

    It's fun for me on both sides - as an author and as a reader. I think it helps you, sharpens your skills, and you get to know great people, too!

  30. Yes, I'm afraid I might have some 'issues' to work out in my reading of your work.

    Be afraid.

  31. Welcome to Seekerville, Nancy! Thanks for your informative and interesting post!

    Your Curl Up and Dye mysteries sound hilarious!

    You and Mary ought to team up and hit the comedy circuit, selling your books at intermission. :-)


  32. Hi, Kim!

    I asked Kim to pop over because she is one of my wonderful readers! It takes a special kind of trust to let someone see your work before it's polished. Kim is such a special person, and I trust her. (Even though she knows my weaknesses!) LOL!


    What about this comedy team duo idea? I think it could work.

    But who would be the straight man...or straight woman? I'm not sure either one of us qualifys for that job. (G)


    (And if we ever do mice allowed. Seriously.)

  33. Nancy, darlin' you've got no idea how many people have asked me to be in a comedy duo with them.

    I have a baaaaaaaaaaaaad feeling that I just inspire people to make fun of me.....and I'd wanta take that onstage.

  34. I've learn so much from Nancy. Not just from this article, but as a reader I've learned a lot about writing mysteries. My favorite thing. The best part is I not only point out that a character already has her robe on and doesn't need to put it on again, but when something is funny, or touching, I can tell the author! How cool is that? Thanks Nancy

  35. Mary,

    We're just trying to keep you humble, my dear. I'm sure my efforts will afford me a star in my crown. (G)

    Faye - you are too, too sweet. And yes, I remember the robe thing. What would I ever do without you??? LOL!


  36. Hey, my thanks to everyone who posted a comment.

    I really had a good time visiting "Seekerville!" You're all the best.

    God bless you,


  37. Nancy, thank you so much for your insight. I will remember your advice the next time I submit a manuscript. Thanks for introducing the "reader" to us. I can't wait to read your Curl up and Dye series. Thanks for sharing this information.

  38. I'm late, but welcome to Seekerville, Nancy!! And thanks so much for your insider scoop!

    Now I'm wondering about the other Seekers, could they be secret readers? I'll never be able to trust them again!!



  39. Nancy, sorry I missed your post yesterday. I truly enjoyed learning a little more about the mysterious world of a "reader"!

    Thanks for sharing.