Kimmery Discusses Beta Readers

 

You’ve seen the statistics: 80% of Americans want to write a book. Let’s assume for a moment that 10% of those are somewhat serious about pursuing the idea. Math is not my forte but I believe that would wind up being somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty million people, all of whom have contacted me personally in the last few months to ask for advice.

I’m sort of kidding, but sort of not. Many people have asked me about the process of becoming published, and most of them jump right to stage of how to get your work to a publisher. This is wrong, guys. Before you can be rejected by publishers, you must be rejected by agents, and before you are rejected by agents, you must first be criticized by some beta-readers. This is a crucial stage in the ultimate goal, which is being dissed by actual readers. This week, we are focusing on one step of the journey: how to find beta-readers (and what to do with them once you’ve acquired them).

First a brief definition: a beta-reader is someone who reads your manuscript early in the process for purposes of delivering feedback, and they’re generally selected on the basis of one key criteria: they agreed to do it.

There are several keys to a successful experience with beta-readers, which I’ll list below.

Where To Find Them: I sent an email to a zillion close friends asking them to ask their friends if anyone would be interested in reading an unpublished women’s fiction manuscript with a strong medical component. This was effective: I received dozens of offers. You don’t want your own friends to be your beta-readers (unless they have some good qualifications, like professional developmental editing experience) because your own friends are less likely than strangers to be honest about your manuscript’s flaws. Another good way to find people is through online groups, like Facebook. There are many genre-based groups on most every social media platform full of people who’d like to exchange manuscripts.

How To Choose Them: Ideally, beta-readers would be people who read a lot in your genre, or have writing experience themselves, or have an English major or something, but don’t be too picky. Anyone who reads books and can speak your mother tongue with reasonable fluency is a potential candidate. You may run into some issues if your beta-reader only reads steampunk sci fi and you’ve written an erotic mystery, but on the other hand, they’re going to be an excellent barometer of what someone unfamiliar with your style will experience. I liked having a mixture of beta-readers. In real life, you will have a mixture of readers.

How Many To Have: More than one and less than ten. You want enough people to see if there is some consensus on your deficiencies, but not so many that you fall into a hopeless pit of confusion and time suckage.

What To Expect: First, expect nothing. You are asking people to use their valuable time purely to benefit you. They don’t know if you write well or if they are going to be suffering through a 500,000 word adjective-laden manifesto with no plot and no grammar. Even if you have written the world’s most engaging novel, these people are seeing it in unfiltered form, and that isn’t going to be a great reading experience for them. The result: some of them are not going to get back to you. This happened to me, and I still don’t know why. Were they offended? Did they forget? Did they drop dead of boredom by page ten? Who knows?

Second, expect a range of reactions. Some people are going to loathe the very things that others love most. In my case, this occurred with a minor character, the protagonist’s three year-old daughter. Most people who’ve read the novel (as evidenced by my Goodreads reviews) adore this character, even if they didn’t like the book overall. But a few people found her speech mannerisms off-putting or confusing. The moral here is not to put too much stock in any one person’s opinion. If you receive near-universal feedback that one element of the story is unbearable or incomprehensible, that’s one thing. But if some people like it and some don’t, then it’s a judgement call and falls back on you as to whether or not to alter it.

Third: beta-readers will find problems. They’ll identify typos, plot-holes, grammar problems, timeline discrepancies and factual errors. This is truly wonderful. You’ll be amazed at how many times you’ve read the thing without noticing your glaring mistakes.

What You Should Do: The number-one rule here: don’t be defensive. You do not get to control people’s reactions; this is the ultimate expression of subjectivity. I really, really want to explain to everyone that I use big words because that is truly how I talk and think, not because I have a pretentious thesaurus addiction. But overuse of big words, whether it is one’s natural voice or not, is going to piss off some readers, and knowing that is helpful, whether or not I choose to act on it. You cannot argue every little point with your beta-readers, because at some point, they are going to question why they ever voluntarily got involved with a foaming lunatic like you. I tried defending my choices with one my earliest beta-readers and I regret it, because she was quite perceptive and I was not.

You should, obviously, thank your beta readers with a gift or a mention in the book’s acknowledgements. (Depending on what you wrote about, they may not want to be mentioned in the book, however—check first.)

Finally, you should also be prepared to reciprocate if your beta-reader is also a writer. I’ve found that writers are some of the most generous, most supportive people on earth. No one I’ve met treats this industry as a zero-sum game; everyone seems to hold a genuine belief that there is room for all of us in the publishing world in one way or another. I’d never have gotten my book published were it not for my beta-readers and my writer friends who read for me. So, from the bottom of my heart: thank you.

You can read more of Kimmery’s writing HERE.

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Kimmery is the author of The Queen of Hearts (2018, Penguin). She's also a doctor, mother, author interviewer, traveler, and obsessive reader. You can read Kimmery's book recommendations and reviews at kimmerymartin.com.

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This article has 5 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful post–funny and full of good advice. When I first got beta readers, I asked through the Sisters in Crime listserve for those who wanted to exchange manuscripts. I got five good, solid readers and every one of them had a viable manuscript–all but one of them is now a published writer. The advice I got was solid, and varied. One that stands out is one that I initially was completely baffled by. We discussed it, but no matter how she explained her point, I didn’t get it. But it kept nagging me, so I knew there was something I was missing. Suddenly, one day I was mulling it over, and lightening struck! I realized what she was getting at, and that although I didn’t have to take the advice, doing so would make it a stronger story. So I’m a fan of beta readers, and a fan of taking advice seriously.

  2. Thank you for this post, Kimmery! I agree with Terry that you’ve given a lot of great advice. But I’m curious… you define a beta reader as someone who reads a manuscript “early in the process” and I’m wondering if that’s part of the counsel you’re giving here. I thought beta readers could be helpful at any point. In my case, I’ve been reworking a manuscript that’s been in my life for a dozen years. I even had an agent for it, but we parted ways over revisions. Is it your feeling I should avoid beta readers now because I’m way past the early stages? Or would you seek them out if you were me? I was actually thinking it was time to find some readers again, but now I”m not so sure.

    Many thanks again!

  3. You’re right; beta readers are helpful at any point in the pre-publication process when you are still seeking an agent and/or publisher (if you choose to go that route) no matter how long you’ve been working on it. I’d say yes to soliciting some new readers– fresh eyes could be so useful for you, especially because you’ve seen your manuscript a million times and your perspective is probably a bit locked in. I hope it goes well!

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