What makes me buy a book?

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Hi, all! I’m Rhonda Stapleton, an acquisitions/developmental editor for Carina. I’ve been doing this for almost a year now, and I’ve been ecstatic to jump headfirst and dig into this job.

One of the nice things about my position with Carina is that not only am I an editor, I’m also published with Simon and Schuster in teen fiction. So I know what you authors go through. The angst of worrying your concept isn’t unique enough, that your writing isn’t strong enough, that your story isn’t fresh enough. And submitting a story to an editor takes courage that people outside of the business just can’t fully comprehend.

Being on the other side of the publishing desk gives me a unique perspective on what stories sell, one that I’d like to share to you writers who are hoping to pub with Carina Press. I want to take a little time discussing the elements that make me want to acquire a book for Carina.

So, without further ado, I present THE THINGS THAT MAKE ME TOTALLY DIG A MANUSCRIPT:

1. When I get a submission, I first read your query. So it’s in your best interest to really make it striking to excite me into being unable to hold off on opening your story. Your query needs to feature to me the most unique elements of your story–what makes your tale stand out from others in the genre (and show, don’t tell us this info)? E.g., how is your vampire mythology different than what’s out there? How does your heroine kick ass and take names in a way that makes her compelling? What massive conflict keeps the hero and heroine apart that really makes me want to read their story? Basically, make sure the story concept pops and that your characters are interesting.

2. Next, I open that manuscript and plunge right in. Now here’s where you have to hook me–you have a few pages to compel me to read more. As a writer, this realization of how editors work totally freaked me out at first. I can pretty much guarantee that other editors out there aren’t going to read an entire manuscript when the first few pages are poorly written or uninteresting. So start in the middle of something interesting happening, but make sure it’s not confusing! I often get manuscripts that start with some serious action, but I have no idea what’s going on so I’m baffled and then don’t want to continue reading. It’s a fine line, but remember that your reader doesn’t have the background on the story that you do. I need to be able to differentiate characters and catch on to the plot quickly. So try not to overload us with action and a large character cast, OR with too much info dump (which is one of the top reasons I reject based on the first few pages).

3. Okay, your first few pages are great, so I decide to read the partial. Good tip for submitting to us (specifically, to me, haha)–make sure the third chapter ends on an intriguing hook that makes me want to keep going. In the first three chapters, I’m looking at your voice (is it strong and interesting?), your characters (do I see flaws and strengths, potential growth areas, do we dig deeply into their heads, etc?), your plot (is the pacing tight and compelling?), etc.

4. If I dig your partial, I’ll keep reading. So the rest of your manuscript has to hold up. It’s so, so sad when I get a fantastic first three chapters, but the rest of the manuscript falls apart. Seriously, I get so bummed out! Some things I look for that make me reject based on the full are the following: poor character development/flat characters that never really go anywhere or grow. A plot that takes a weird turn I wasn’t expecting that turns me off. The pacing is too slow or conversely isn’t developed enough, so the story drags or just doesn’t push forward enough. The story is okay, but doesn’t wow me (meaning there’s technically nothing “wrong” with it, but it just isn’t quite strong enough to compel me to want to work with it).

Okay, so let’s say that your characters are strong, compelling, and unique. Your plot is strong and interesting. Your writing is strong with a good voice (note I didn’t say “perfect” writing–if I get a good story, I’m willing to work with someone). Your concept is catchy and able to be easily summarized to someone. Now, I have to “sell” your book to Harlequin. I need to write a report outlining exactly why I believe we should acquire your book. This is why it’s vital that I love your story–I need to discuss what I love about it, what I think makes it stand out, etc. To do this, I refer back to your query letter. I pull out what I think are important themes, unique elements, etc. that will hit readers right. And then I send the letter and cross my fingers!!

So far, I’ve had the privilege of acquiring some AMAZING stories in a variety of genres: erotica, contemp romance, military, sci-fi/futuristic, paranormal, and more. What made those stories stand out to me most were that in the end, I wanted to tag along with the characters and see how they get themselves out of the holes they’ve dug (or that they’ve been plunged into). Don’t be afraid to beat the crap out of them–put them through the ringer and really make them suffer!

But then, let them succeed in the end…it’s in those moments that we see the depth the human spirit has, the strength within us even when we’re at our darkest hour to pull ourselves out and change our own fates. Those moments are what I live for, and I get that high from reading. This is why I clamor for more submissions, because it’s addictive. And this is regardless of genre–every reader of every book wants to feel like he or she is really living and breathing the life of the main character. Give me a deep point of view with a fascinating character who has realistic goals, motivations, and conflicts, and I’m there.

When I find a story that makes me feel, that tugs at my heart or twists my gut or makes my pulse race, then I know I’ve got a winner. And I’m willing to put 100 percent into backing that story–and after acquiring it, making it shine.

6 thoughts on “What makes me buy a book?”

  1. Grace Elliot says:

    Thank you for crystallising your thoughts so succinctly!
    Very interesting and definately food for thought as an author.
    Grace x

  2. Leah Braemel says:

    _As a writer, this realization of how editors work totally freaked me out at first._

    Considering you’ve edited two of my books now, the whole submission process still freaks me out, LOL. But you sure know the questions to ask during edits to make a story stronger, better, shinier … ooops am I channelling the Six Million Dollar man now?

  3. Gina Bernal says:

    Great post, Rhonda!

    I love the way you put this: “Remember that your reader doesn’t have the background on the story that you do.” Often I’ll read a submission that feels like many important details might be happening in the author’s head but not on the page. Don’t forget to help your reader see what you see!

  4. Melissa Johnson says:

    Great post, Rhonda.
    So true about that report to the team bringing out the themes of the book and making us editors nail down originality and marketability. The report writing is often when I get a deeper handle on the developmental edits I might want.

  5. Man, what I wouldn’t give, as an author, to get a look at that report that goes to HQ from the editor trying to sell the book to them once the editor already loves it. :) My natural nosiness has me dying to know what’s being said about my book lol.

  6. Kathy Ivan says:

    As an author, I love getting insight into exactly what an editor sees when they are reading submissions. What stands out, what makes them want to continue reading, and what immediate will turn them off a story. Plus knowing that the editor in turn has to sell our stories to the rest of the team–well that’s a daunting thought. :-) Thanks for giving us a better understanding of the process.

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