Collected wisdom: how to write a good reader’s report

Reader’s reports play an important role in the publication of translations. Editors use them to find out more about new books that they can’t read in the source language. For translators, writing reader’s reports is a good way to build relationships with publishers and—hopefully—make a case for brilliant new books that deserve to find a wide readership. For New Books in German, Emma Rault talked to some industry veterans about their expectations, preferences and pet peeves.

Be brutally honest

‘Readers from an academic background are often tempted to take a more analytical approach, but really it’s about your basic emotional reaction,’ says literary translator Ruth Martin. ‘Did you love the characters? Detest the reading experience with every fibre of your being? Or just feel lukewarm about it? Say that loud and clear, and say it in the first paragraph.’

Don’t talk it up in hopes of getting a translation gig out of it. Translator Daniel Hahn: ‘You develop your reputation with an editor by demonstrating good and reliable judgment, not undiscriminating enthusiasm.’

Balance opinion and description

‘It’s good to have a take on a book, but you also have to be able to look beyond your own preferences at the bigger picture,’ says literary scout Anne Vial. ‘What’s original about it? Who could it appeal to?’ This is where a plot synopsis and a description of the general writing style come in. Molly Slight, an editor at Scribe: ‘If the premise and the writing sound really intriguing, and the reader didn’t love the book but I like the sound of it, I might then get a second opinion, so it’s useful to have that balance.’

Don’t avoid spoilers

Remember that you are the editor’s eyes and ears—you’re writing a report that functions instead of reading the whole book. ‘I don’t need a blow-by-blow account, but I do want a good sense of the overall story arc,’ says agent Markus Hofmann about a synopsis.

Show, don’t tell

Describe a stand-out scene, or translate a paragraph that gives a taste of the prose and makes the book come alive. ‘The editor will have to convince everyone in the company that the book is worth taking a chance on. Think in terms of what information would help them go into that meeting,’ says translator Jamie Lee Searle.

Contextualize the book

‘The reader needs to tell me what genre the book is, what the writing is like: literary, upmarket, commercial,’ says literary scout Mira Trenchard. It’s also helpful to know how the author’s work has been received in their own country, and how it might compare to books published in the English-speaking world, or anything else that’s similar. ‘But be specific,’ says Daniel Hahn. ‘It’s not “the Polish Harry Potter” just because it has some magic in it, even if that’s the only children’s book you’ve heard of.’

It can also be useful to mention which other foreign publishers have bought the book, says Peter Blackstock at Grove/Atlantic. ‘If Gallimard is publishing it in France, that tells me something. And I can then write to the acquiring editor to get their opinion.’

‘Don’t say, “You publish writer X, so you should definitely publish this because it’s exactly the same,”’ Blackstock adds. ‘If anything, the opposite is true—it means I’ve already got that niche covered.’

Other things that it might be useful to include:

Sarah Hemens, editor-in-chief of NBG: ‘It’s good if reports can point out any issues in language or the way groups or individuals are described that might be sensitive or objectionable.’

And make sure to get the report in on time! Editors are counting on having the information by a certain date, and will likely have scheduled around that.

And last but not least… be entertaining

Tanja Howarth, a literary agent who has sold more than 250 German titles to British publishers, says: ‘Ideally, a reader’s report should be a real pleasure to read, the same way you might enjoy a very good introduction to a novel.’

Emma Rault © Angelique Rault

Emma Rault is a translator from German and Dutch. Her most recent translation, from the Dutch, is Nina Polak’s The Dandy, out with Strangers Press.

Among her previous translations is an NBG jury choice, Rudolph Herzog‘s Ghosts of Berlin.

She is the recipient of the 2017 GINT Translation Prize.

Browse our most recent jury selections here

[book reviews will appear here…]