Writing a book is (mostly) a solitary endeavor. It can take years—even decades—just to finish a first draft. And even once that full manuscript is done, doubts linger. Is your book any good? Will readers like it? How will that manuscript rise to the top of an editor or agent’s slush pile? How will readers find out about it? Or, to put it simply:
How will your book stand out in a crowded market?
These are doubts worthy of any writer’s consideration, for two reasons:
- The rise of self-publishing means there are more books in the marketplace than ever before, but readers aren’t buying or reading more books. Except in extraordinary circumstances, book sales rarely see growth year over year.
- Writers are getting more savvy about the publishing process—and spending more money and time making sure their book is the best it can be before it ever gets published. The aspiring writer not only has more competition than ever before, but that competition is better equipped.
Most authors started writing because they love to write and have a story to tell, not because they know anything about the publishing industry. If you’ve just finished a manuscript, you’re probably feeling isolated and unsure of your next step. You might be considering querying agents, submitting to publishers, or starting the self-publishing process. But where should you start? And what if no one—agents, editors, or readers—likes your book? Will you give up on your dream of being a published writer?
Was all that work for nothing?
Your Book Is a Start-Up
I got started in publishing about 20 years ago, just as publishers were beginning to experiment with products like “Books on CD-ROM” and web-publishing. I was editor who hadn’t planned to get into digital publishing, but one day my boss said to me, “Hey, do you know anything about this HTML stuff…?” I didn’t, but was the pay better? Yes? Then, sure, what the hell, I’ll figure it out.
Flash-forward, and I’ve since been the driving production and management force behind more than 20 volumes of digital books, 100+ monthly digital journal issues, and a digital publishing platform that hosted more than 700 monthly and quarterly journals, not to mention XML content management systems, online databases, and email marketing services.
So yeah. I learned a few things about “this HTML stuff.”
One of those things was the Software Development Life Cycle, used by every tech startup from Apple and Google to Amazon and Facebook.
And being a writer, I learned how to apply the SLDC to writing.
“How,” you ask?
It takes time, money, and intellectual capital to design a website or online business. Start-ups need people to use their websites in order to create a positive buzz for their service or product; however, they don’t want to risk releasing a product that still has issues that need to be fixed. That could cause bad publicity and disastrous word of mouth.
So here’s what they do:
Before the official launch of a website, start-ups will gather a group of users to beta-test a site or product. This group provies feedback on the product. These beta-testers use the site just like a regular person would (though they’re usually a little more Web-savvy than the average bear). They usually have a lot of experience with the type of product they are helping the company to test, and that experience helps them to give the start-up useful insights on what issues need to be fixed before the company should expand to a wider audience. The beta-testers also share what they really like about the product—and that positive feedback helps the start-up to hone and refine their mission and message.
A start-up often creates several iterations of the product or service before taking it “out of beta” and launching it to the public. Sites can be in beta for months or even years. Google famously kept Gmail in beta for five years while they improved service and enhanced the product. The beta stage lasts as long as a start-up needs to feel confident that they are launching a fantastic product, minimizing risk, and maximizing profit.
So—like a start-up company—what every aspiring writer who’s just finished their book needs is informed feedback on the product they plan to offer.
What’s a “Beta-Reader”?
A beta-reader is someone who reads your book and gives you feedback before you begin the publishing process.
In the best case, this is someone who somehow comes across your book on their own, while browsing for something to read, like a a real bookstore customer would. They find your book and judge it against all the other books in the marketplace. This helps you to see how readers will react to your book when you try to sell your current version to them.
Online reader platforms like Wattpad and Tablo can be ideal for finding these sorts of readers, and are set up specifically to encourage feedback and comments. But they can also be hit-and-miss. Firstly, readers on these platforms have to find your story, and then they need to be willing to comment, not just once, but throughout the whole book. It can take a while for that perfect storm of feedback to produce your ideal beta-reader.
Who’s the Ideal Beta-Reader?
Ideally, beta-readers give you targeted feedback that specifically speaks to your writing goals. Here are a few things I suggest you look for:
- Do they read a lot of books, especially contemporary books? Are they aware of current publishing trends and bestselling writers?
- Are they well-read in the genre in which you write? For example, if you’re writing romance, you don’t want a beta-reader who only reads political thrillers. You want someone who can tell you how your book stands up to other writers in the genre, and who can give you feedback about whether fans of that genre will buy your book.
- Do they write too? Another writer can analyze your book in a way that an average reader can’t. “I really liked it” might sound very gratifying, but isn’t very specific. A writing beta-reader can offer concrete suggestions to improve voice, character development, plot, setting, and pacing. And another writer shouldn’t balk at typing up detailed feedback, either—he or she knows what an important part of the revision process this feedback is.
How Do You Find Beta-Readers?
Trust me, as important as it may seem that your spouse, friend, family member, or teacher read your writing and heap praise upon you, your mom is not your ideal beta-reader.
No, cast your net for beta-readers in a wider circle and seek out people who will be more constructive and critical in their feedback—and really help you improve.
Some good ways to find beta-readers include:
- Local writing workshops and classes
- University creative writing classes and MFA programs
- Community, library, or church writing groups
- Paid services from a developmental editor (either in person or online)
- Paid online writing classes
- Writing conferences and retreats
- free, online work-shopping
More traditional means for finding beta-readers have included:
- Submitting manuscripts to agents and editors
- Entering writing contests
- Applying for writers’ residencies or grants
But What Kind of Feedback Makes A Book Better?
Check back with me next week to find out!