There are a lot of things that might pique my interest in a book. Is it from writer I know or have heard of? Has there already been some buzz about the book? Does the cover letter reference great reviews from one of the advance publications (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal) or are there photocopies of the reviews tucked inside?
What doesn't sway me much: quotes from other writers. There's a lot of log-rolling, a lot of favors called in. Some people are basically blurb whores, so ones from names that turn up over and over almost have a strike against them, in my eyes.
Is there a color cover on the advanced reader's copy, or is it plain? It's getting less common to see a plain cover on a review copy, so the ones that do look to me like the publisher just couldn't be bothered.
If it's a series, and the 15th in a series I haven't read, I will think long and hard about reviewing it. For series, I think you need to be familiar with the book - but in this case, it would be many books - and do I have enough time?
This still leaves a huge pile of books.
Then I look at the premise.
I'm getting really tired of highly intelligent serial killers matching wits with a smart cop or FBI agent, usually female, in a "cat and mouse" game. Unless maybe there's a twist, like Thomas Perry's latest, Nightlife, where the serial killer is a woman. Here are two books I recently received (and passed on) "A madman, dubbed The Actor by the hooocide unit, is meticulously re-creating Hollywood's most famous - and most gruesome - death scenes.... thrilling classics are turning into terrifying snuff films and placed on video store shelves for the unsuspecting public to find." My first reaction is "no thanks." Or, from another book "Once Special Agent Unusual First Name X hunted serial killers for the FBI. She was one of the best - until a madman terrorized her family, killed her husband and daughter, and left her face scarred and her soul brutalized." I believe that real serial killers are much more likely to be sad sacks like the Green River Killer or the BTK killer. Not the nearly glamorous types these books make them out to be.
If I think the premise is intriguing, then I start reading. But if it doesn't grab me, if it seems cliched, if a single word is not quite the right word, then I'm always game to put the book down and pick up the next one. If the character is 12 but talks like she's 30, if the writer uses the word glance when she really means something closer to a stare, then I'm out of there.
I don't care if the author's third chapter or 17th chapter really sings. Because I don't make it that far.
And I think that must be somewhat similar to what happens with literary agents.
So, as a writer, make your first chapter perfect. And make it exciting. Make me want to keep reading. And that goes double for your first page. So I'll make it to the end of the first chapter, and be eager to turn the page.
Make me say to myself, "What happens next?"