Tuesday, August 20, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book...How to Find Good Beta Readers

The previous installment of this series was all about finishing what you start.  If you're still reading, I'm going to assume that you've at least finished up a rough draft of what you've started.

Congratulations! You've accomplished something that almost everyone says that they want to do, but that few people actually get around to: writing a book-length work.

I remember the first time I typed those two magical words: "The End." I was jubilant; I quickly loaded the manuscript onto a flash drive, drove it over to Kinko's, and had it printed out in three parts (it was a monster--150,000 words).

It's still sitting in a drawer, unpublished.

The reason? Over the course of the next month after I finished it, I sat down and edited that thing to death. Every line, every word, every punctuation mark was up for debate. I added new chapters and rewrote old ones until I finally had to admit a horrible truth to myself:

It was crap.

This supposition was confirmed by a lot of my beta readers, who said that there were some good parts, but the book might need to be reworked a bit, sped up in parts, and even separated into three books.
"Whoa, hold on--beta readers? What are those?"

Beta readers are friends, acquaintances, and even total strangers who read your book and tell you what works and what doesn't, as well as point out glaring typos along the way, before a book is released.

I'm fortunate enough to have 2-4 beta readers that I trust implicitly with my work; they're just friends who enjoy reading and like helping me out in exchange for free reading material.

Of course, I realize that not everyone has friends who enjoy reading, especially friends with time to spare who will be as honest and ruthless as need be. We're working on a solution to this problem over at Hunt to Read as we speak, though it probably won't be implemented for a few more months.

Until then, though, here are some things to keep in mind when trying to find beta readers for your work:

Everyone "Wants to Be a Beta Reader." Few Actually Follow Through.

Believe me, when you finish that first manuscript, all kinds of people will be thrilled to read through your stuff. "Oh, sure I'll read your book--pass it on over!" "Really? I need it back in three weeks, no longer." "Not a problem--this is number one on my to-do list!"
Cut to three weeks later: "Hey bud, any update on the book? How's it reading? You close to finished?"

No response.
Let's face it: people like to think of themselves as "good friends" first and foremost. They want to help their newly-minted author friend out however they can.

Unfortunately, life often has other ideas, as that project from work, family vacation, or whatever else they have cooking takes precedence.

That's why you have to use your best judgment to vet those who are truly interested in reading your stuff and offering feedback from those who are, for lack of a better term, lookie-loos with no intention of finishing the book and providing feedback.

Unfortunately, you're going to have to use this first book as a test of sorts. My suggestion is to try to line up 6-8 folks to beta read this way. My best guess is that at most three will actually come through in the allotted time. Provided their feedback is useful, these will become your go-to beta readers on future projects.

Give Beta Readers a Specific Deadline and Types of Feedback You Want

You'll weed out the flakes from those folks serious about helping you more quickly if you give your potential pool of beta readers both a specific deadline and what kinds of feedback you want.

Here's an example of something you should include in every email to beta readers, no matter how long they've been with you (feel free to copy and paste into your own emails):

"Dear Bob,

Thanks for agreeing to read my new book, Special Book. It's been a lot of fun to write, and I hope it'll be equally as fun to read!

While you're reading, I'd like to know your thoughts on the following:

-Specific feedback on characters
-Formatting issues
-Continuity errors (i.e. the gun is in the detective's holster in Chapter 23, but it should still be in his car per Chapter 18)
-Glaring typos
-[insert any number of kinds of feedback specific to your book].

I would really like to have your feedback within three weeks so that I can release this book as soon as possible--please let me know if that's a realistic time frame for you or not.

Thanks again Bob--appreciate your help on this!



Obviously don't put "D.J." if your name isn't D.J. If it is? Hey, what a happy coincidence!

Friends Often Balk at Giving Tough Critiques or Harsh Feedback

I now realize my first manuscript wasn't great. At the time, I thought it would revolutionize the publishing world, turn it on its head and set it alight.
Of course, my early beta readers saw what I should've seen from the beginning. A lot of them were terrified of "hurting my feelings" by giving me the straight dope. One of my close friends just refused to give me any feedback at all past the first ten pages, figuring that the old adage "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all" was good advice to live by.

I blame all of the touchy-feely writers who can't handle criticism. My new motto is "if you don't have anything nice to say, I still want to hear it, provided there's something useful in there!"

That last part, "provided there's something useful in there" isn't a disclaimer; too many readers think that them opining on their personal tastes is what writers want to hear. We do, to a point--just not when it interferes with more valuable feedback like "is the story engaging?" or "are these characters real enough?"

If you're lucky enough to have friends who will give you the honest truth, by all means, hold on to them as beta readers like gold--they are one of the rarest commodities out there.

It May Take Readers a While

A lot of my writer friends simply can't fathom how it takes a person more than a few days to finish reading a book--I mean, it's a book!

Of course, most of my writer friends love books and read them voraciously. They don't realize that a lot of people shoehorn a half hour of reading in here, another fifteen minutes there.
Give your readers some lead time, but also be aware that they have lives, too. Don't bug them constantly to finish up. You can remind them close to the deadline, but keep in mind, especially on your first manuscript, you may receive a lot more e-mail "vacant stares" or just outright apathy than you might think.

Acquaintances Can Be More Helpful

Sometimes distance can be the best harbinger of honesty. Your best friend might hesitate to give you honest feedback, but your co-worker's husband with whom you're friendly might not. Like with a job search or anything else in life, you have to shake the trees and bushes of your extended network a bit. If you notice that a lot of old acquaintances have posted a lot of Goodreads updates to Facebook, that could be one indicator.

Also, you should keep an ear out at dinner and cocktail parties for folks who say that they enjoy reading; as an author, you'll be doing a lot of this anyway when we get to the dreaded "marketing" series of posts. Mention that you're writing a book, and if the person responds, "Wow, sounds interesting," offer to let them read an advance copy in exchange for feedback. No one's going to steal your idea--if you really want piece of mind, register your precious manuscript with the copyright office pre-release, then update it after release.

If All Else Fails, Turn Online

As I mentioned earlier, at Hunt to Read, we're working on an easy way for authors and publishers to connect with beta readers. There are already a couple ways to do so online:

The World Literary Cafe has a forum with folks available to beta read. No guarantee on quality, though...
KBoards has yellow pages for all kinds of author services, though they're still a bit underdeveloped. Notice who's listed under the "Promotional" section...

Evaluate Your List Constantly

Once you have a few books out there and some sales, you might be able to rely on fellow authors you meet and/or fans of your work to beta read your stuff. Some of your current beta readers might get busier, and thus won't have time to beta read any more--if that's the case, don't be a moron--thank them for all they've done in the past, and let them know that you'd love to have them beta read again in the future.

Like anything else in life, change is the only constant. Communicating with your beta readers and setting reasonable deadlines and expectations will help you find a quality stable of readers no matter how popular you are.

But what if you don't want to take all of the time and effort to find beta readers, or you'd rather just pay a professional to edit your work?

Stay tuned...

Previous Posts In This Series:

#1: Before You Start

#2: The Idea Hunt
#3: Tools of the Trade ("What You Need to Publish Your Indie Book for Cheap")
#4: Sit Down and Start Writing!
#5  How to Write More Words Per Day
#6  Indie vs. Traditional Publishing
#7: Finish What You Start (With a Little Tough Love)

D.J. Gelner is the Co-Founder and CEO of Hunt to Read. Contact him directly at djgelner@hunttoread.com.

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