Call the Book Doctor

Why Would You Pay Someone to Read Your Book?

I once got a rejection letter that put me in a great mood. The editor pointed out the flaws in my book proposal and went on to tell me what I might do to amend them. His criticism was thoughtful, tactful and right on the mark. Obviously he had read the proposal all the way through. That in itself made me happy. It’s rare. More often, an agent or editor will decide to turn down a manuscript after reading the first few pages, or skimming through the whole in about the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee.

Nothing is more frustrating to authors than this cursory treatment of work they may have labored over for months or years. But look at it from the agent or editor’s point of view. Time spent reading something they don’t believe they can sell is time spent working without earning any money. If they lingered over your prose long enough to come up with useful feedback, it means they were enjoying it. If they bother to write up that feedback, it means they think they might be able to sell your work someday, even if they can’t sell what you’ve sent.

More often, they respond with boilerplate–if they respond at all. A few vaguely complimentary remarks culminating in “unfortunately, not for us” is the industry standard. It might hearten you to hear that “not for us” is often the true reason. The book isn’t bad. They just don’t see enough profit in it–for them. An agent you’ve approached might not have personal connections with editors in the companies most likely to want your book. He or she may believe that it is indeed saleable, but unlikely to yield a commission large enough to be worth pursuing. It’s a business decision that you shouldn’t take personally.

On the other hand, maybe the book or proposal is flawed in some particular way, or just plain awful in a general way. Rejection letters are unlikely to pinpoint the real problem. So where can you turn for an accurate diagnosis?

Call the doctor

I hope you already know that you should never pay a literary agent to read your work. Reputable agents work on a commission basis. If they don’t sell your work, they don’t get paid. Agents who charge reading fees are most likely deriving most or all of their income from reading, not selling. Still, having your project read and professionally evaluated is service you might want to pay for.

That’s where book doctors come in. A book doctor reads your project all the way through–for a fee—then tells you what’s good about it, and how to fix what is not so good about it. What you get from a reputable one far exceeds the care and attention you can expect from even the most generous agent or editor. If you’re a first-time author, it’s a good idea to consult one before you attempt to find an agent, so that you can be sure of putting your best work forward.

Now that I’m in the book-doctoring business myself, I’ve been surprised to learn that even seasoned and successful writers occasionally avail themselves of this service. The last two manuscripts I evaluated were written by authors who are far better known than I am. (Both were working on personal memoirs–a genre that presented them with some unfamiliar challenges.) If the editor I mentioned at the top of this article hadn’t been so forthcoming with his feedback, I myself might have called on another book doctor to pinpoint what was wrong with my proposal. A trained eye can always spot problems that an author is too close to the work to see.

Will it Sell?

That’s the question uppermost in the minds of clients. It implies two different questions, one of which a book doc can answer, the other of which she probably can’t.

Questions #1: “Is it good enough to be published?” You can, and should, expect an informed and candid answer to this one. Of course, someone you’ve just paid several hundred dollars to support your literary endeavor is not likely to tell you to abandon it altogether. Instead, an honest book doc will say something like, “If you ever want this to be published, you will need to address the following problems.”

Question #2: “Is there a market for a book like this one?” Marketing concerns are the most frequent reasons cited for rejecting a book. There isn’t an audience, or the audience is too small, or the author isn’t famous enough to attract whatever audience there is, or the market is already saturated with similar books. Be discouraged by such feedback only if you’ve heard it at least a dozen times. The people offering it may be totally sincere in believing it, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

Market forces are in constant flux. If a coach or book doc assures you that failure to sell is no fault of the book itself, you might want to consider self-publishing or sending it to a small press. Or you might simply wait a while for the market to change. A project you feel passionate about should not be abandoned for market reasons alone.

How to pick one

You’ll find book doctors advertised on the web and in magazines for writers. Some are better than others, so you’ll need to assess their qualifications. Any English major can tell good writing from bad. What you need to know, though, is not just how to make the your writing good, but how to make it saleable. To be qualified to tell you that, a book doctor should be either a successfully published author, a former agent, or a former senior or acquisitions editor. (The kind of editor who decides what to buy, not just the kind who corrects grammar.) Advice from an aspiring writer who’s not doing any better at it than you are probably isn’t worth paying for. On the other hand, few published writers manage to live on the income from their books alone. Some highly qualified writers and editors book-doctor to bring in extra cash. Check credentials. (Mine are on the About page.)