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January 17, 2010

YourBookBiz -- Seeking the Perfect Peer Reader

After reading this post, please take a moment to think about lining up a peer reader for your own project, even if it isn’t finished. Go to the comments section just below this text and enter your name and contact address, the working title, and a three line pitch of the book. It is time to get this part started.

The old friend who called out of the blue and said, “I’ve got a great story to tell you and then you can write the book and we’ll split the profits,” is definitely not the person you should ask to be a peer reader. Anyone who might care if they hurt your feelings might also be excluded. Forget most folks who think Rush Limbaugh is a witty kidder. Relatives and lovers, and friends of lovers. Bookburners. Those who move their lips when they read. You get the picture.

The worst feedback you can get is, “Oh, it’s good.”

What makes the ideal peer reader? Well, it certainly helps if they are an editor at a prestigious New York publishing house with a slot on their spring lists open. Alas, the book biz is not creating too many of those particular sprites these days. The best you can hope for is someone who reads with a firm idea of what they like and what they don’t. It helps if they are also someone who also writes so they know the craft you practice in all its false promise and despair.

As I search for peer readers for The Last Resort: A Telluride Murder Mystery, I want to establish some guidelines up front about the expectations I have for the kind of feedback that would be enormously helpful. Exactly what should we hope a peer reader brings to the table?

In The Game

Your ideal reader should be your peer or better in their love for words and all their quirks. They should be a gifted oral storyteller you love to listen to. They would know the books you read and bring new books to your attention. They speak their mind. They mind what they speak. The thought of driving off for a joy ride with them for a few hours should set the world right.

You should be able to pitch your book to your reader in terms they understand. “Gatsby is a bumbling detective who-dun-it. The sidekick is ten year old Dakota Fanning in Dreamer. The humorous side jokes are a rich drunk barber, runaway libidos, and a town that will do anything for a view. Our hero is a Native American Rocky Balboa without the accent. The bad guys are a motorcycle gang with a sexual orientation dilemma. Think an “R” rated Nick and Nora Charles in modern ski town tinsel.”

Of course you add that it flows like Chaucer.

It is best to remember that if you find all the attributes, comfort zones and social orientation you need, it is equally important that your reader also enjoys the genre that the book comes closest to. Detective fiction for example has very strict traditional story signatures that lovers of the genre expect. The story operates within the nuances of the plot and stylistic needs of the most likely readers. This is important information for your peer reader.

A Critical Reader

Critical reading does not mean reading each word critically. If the job description for peer reader is to find what is wrong with your manuscript we would all be phoning our seventh grade English teacher. You most desire an open mind with the ability, instinctual or studied, to expect and recognize those cornerstone benchmarks every book needs in order to satisfy the demands of the marketplace. Pace, voice, style, humor, transitions, etc. should all be registering as a whole that either works together or not.

Peer readers should read with a pen in hand. Note whatever jolts you along the path of the story. Do a squiggle in the right hand margin of the manuscript to indicate a comment. It is helpful for a reader to refer to the notes taken during the book in which the sequential observations, assessments and comments are collected.

A peer reader is also anticipating how to explain their reactions to you

An Articulate Communicator

Nothing is worse than lukewarm praise. Nothing is worse than, “I kinda got lost.” Anything is better than “What was the point?” What does “it was readable” mean?

The ideal peer reader will not make general comments about the “goodness” or “badness” of a manuscript. A swaddling baby and your work are only measured by their unlimited potential. All feedback must be about a specific feeling, or question, or suggestion to a specific section, word, or storyline of the book.

Conversations between you and the ideal peer reader should be laden with affirmation of the process and the inevitability of a quality final product. I feel, I think, I wonder if, and may I make a suggestion should be the on the advance team for any new point to be made. Enjoy the process; stretching things in your book biz self makes them grow.

Reward your peer reader with high respect and a hefty personal reward. A meal with wine and good conversations about books and the creative process in general, but not just yours in particular. Many peer readers become good friends with the authors they help.  Often peers and authors will exchange roles. Remember, take the advice or leave it, but don’t miss this part of the journey, both you and your book will be better for it.


To see more about PEER READERS go to the 10 Rules of Peer Reading at



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