When we ask you to read those books, we don't want you out looking at plots, characters and settings. While these are certainly important elements and you shouldn't ignore these ideas, you are really missing the point. What you should be looking for is "the voice" of the authors. Look for the common trends and threads you see flowing through these books.
The voice of these stories stems from a number of different things. Grammatically, you can look at sentence length, use of vocabulary, sentence structure and word choice. This tells you a lot about the style the publisher tends to use with their stories.
But, take it a step further. Look at the use of narration and dialogue. What material is included in these portions of the story? Take it a step further and examine when and how they use the material. Even the level of information that you see showing up in these elements. Some publishers tend to have a more literary feel to them while others tend to have more of a mass market feel. This is also how you can find that "category" voice that you frequently hear people speak of. (I don't want to go heavily into this right now).
As I said though, many authors tend to just copy the plots and character types that we see over and over again. The end result of this approach is simple. Editors and agents simply see this as nothing unique. You may have mastered that storyline, but, in the end, you haven't given us anything new to chew on.
I should also note that when you read these stories, I recommend the following approaches:
- Don't read the established authors that have been there for a while. The odds are they are doing things that fall outside the guidelines of the publisher. Remember though, they have sort of earned the right to deviate from the standard.
- Read authors that tend to be newer to the line, This gives you a bit of a clearer picture of the editing that is taking place behind the scenes. These authors are still working VERY close with their editors.
- Read different authors from the same editor. This variable will show you how the editor's decisions and choices have extended in different author voices.
- Look for patterns and trends. The more you read, you will see similar characteristics popping up.
You might surprise yourself with what you find. The keys to these publishers are right in front of you. All you have to do is look.