A lot can happen in six minutes. Six minutes can mean the difference between making your train or missing the job interview of a lifetime. It can mean the difference between saving someone's life, or getting there just in time to pick up the pieces. Six wondrous minutes can feel too short, while six minutes of hell can stretch on for an eternity.
...yeah, that was melodramatic. But it's true: six minutes can make a difference in your life. And six minutes are all I need to decide whether or not I'll consider publishing your book.
During this week's #editortips, I said "On a good day, I review 10 queries an hour. That means you get six minutes of reading time to make an impression. Make it count." Some expressed skepticism. Others were just curious. How can I decide on a book in six minutes without reading it from cover to cover? What happens during that six minutes that leads to a decision? What could I possibly be smoking that makes me think I can assess a manuscript's potential in six minutes?
If you want honest truth, six minutes is being generous. Some agents and editors know in one glance, and don't have the six minutes to spare for a deeper evaluation. And readers? Readers will judge you in a minute or less. If those first few pages don't do anything for them, they'll walk away from the book without making a purchase. If your manuscript can't grab me in six minutes, it won't grab readers in sixty seconds or less. And that's what I'm looking for: that connection. That click. I don't even really need six minutes to know it's there.
So you want to know what happens in those six minutes? Here's a rough breakdown:
0:00-0:30: Read the query. At this point I do notice mistakes, lack of professionalism, overall issues with the query or the story concept, and whether or not I recognize the author - but still hold off on any kind of decision.
0:30-1:00: Record the submission in my spreadsheet, including initial notes based on the query. Everything starts off here with a Pending status marker.
1:00-:1:15: Open the manuscript or sample pages and read the opening hook, possibly the first page. I've walked away from manuscripts at this point. It only takes one paragraph to know the writing's weak, and those kinds of issues generally persist throughout the manuscript.
1:15-3:00: Skim the first five pages. It sounds cruel to say I skim, but I do. Readers do the same when considering a book. It takes a certain spark to make me stop skimming and start reading in depth, and that's what I'm looking for at this stage. I may also skim the rest of the book very quickly to see if the actual story matches up to the query. Sometimes people write bad queries that don't actually encompass the central plotline of a good story, so queries can be misleading. Sometimes people also write really good queries that are equally misleading, because the story isn't anywhere close to what the query promises.
3:00-4:00: Read the synopsis, if there is one. There may be something there that tells me a good story I was considering will completely jump the shark, or that there's promise in a story that started off poorly. If there's no synopsis. skim a little more. Waffle. Weigh positives vs. negatives. Look for tropes that don't sell well, or that sell amazingly, or that we already have in excess.
4:00-5:00: Waffle more. If I'm in love with it, read a little more in depth. If I'm meh on it but think there's promise, do a fast scan through looking for any WTFery** that will tip me over the edge to no. Consider if I can build a sub call around it for our themed collections. Consider if it will already fit into an upcoming sub call, or can be tweaked to do so. Consider if it has series potential. Occasionally, if I'm leaning toward no but wondering if I'm being too harsh or having a bad day, I'll IM nuggets of the story to my right hand woman and Sexy Paperwork Fairy, Kerri-Leigh Grady, and ask her if the problems are as bad as I think...or if that's my headache and that damned noisy alleyway mariachi band talking.*** That picture, by the way? Totes a sexy paperwork fairy and not someone's creepy-as-hell photomanip. Yep.
5:00-5:30: Make a decision. Update the spreadsheet with either Pass, Sub Pool, or Pending/Pending Full. I'll spare you descriptions of the unnecessarily complicated color-coding system that helps me find the status of things at a glance in a spreadsheet with hundreds upon hundreds of entries, but the sub pool is for a story that I think has potential but doesn't quite spark me. I'll forward it to a pool of other editors and ask if they're interested. Sometimes I'll send a manuscript to a specific editor if I know it's something that pushes all the right buttons for them. A story that's pending/pending full means I've either requested the full manuscript from a five-page sample that really grabbed me, or I've sidelined a full manuscript for a comprehensive read-through in the hopes I'll fall in love.
5:30-6:00: Write and send the rejection if necessary. Move the submission email to the proper folder in my ridiculously subcategorized inbox. Google-stalk the authors of manuscripts I've sidelined for further consideration. Possibly change the status to Pass if I find things that make me think the author will definitely be problematic. Cry a little, if the author of a story I loved turns out to be a cannibal who publicly advocates teens huffing bath salts, or someone who thinks they'll lead a violent militant sect in seceding New Mexico from the United States. Check to see if there's anything left in my can of Coke Zero. IM Kerri-Leigh and find another way to scar her mind. Move on to the next sub.
So there you have it. Six minutes to glory, six minutes of shame, six degrees of Kevin Bacon, six is the number of the beast. You get the idea. Have I made a decision in less time than that? Yes, but only in extreme cases - both positive and negative. Have I spent more time than that on a decision? Yes. Sometimes I get sucked into great story. I look up, twenty minutes have passed, and I'm already 50 pages in and wondering what hit me upside the head. Other times I know something's good but isn't right for me, but I'm trying hard to find a home for it with Entangled - so I get sidelined for a while talking to other editors who might be interested.
But on average? Six minutes are all you get.
If you don't hook me by then, you won't hook me at all.