SFWC 2018: Beta Readers

There are three types of pre-publication readers:

  1. Alphas
  2. Betas
  3. ARC Readers

Alpha readers are your earliest critics. These are the members of your writing group that see your roughest work.

Betas are the ones we hear about most. They read the manuscript after you’ve tidied it up from the feedback you’ve received from your alpha readers.

ARC readers are seeing the final product. You’re not looking for feedback at that point so much as people to review your book and generate some buzz.

There is one other kind of reader, and those are live readers, meaning people who are reading the book as it’s written. This is specific to display sites like Wattpad, where you may post a chapter at a time to build an audience.

Finally, there is a subcategory of readers: sensitivity readers. Those are people from a certain backgrounds that can advise authors on whether or not the representations in the book are accurate—or potentially offensive. For instance, a white hetero author writing a black transgender character would probably want a sensitivity reader to look at the manuscript prior to publication.

Okay, so why even have beta readers? Well, think of it as similar to a Hollywood test screening. When a studio makes a movie, they’ll host small screenings to get feedback from general audiences. Then they may make changes to the movie based on that feedback. Beta readers allow you to fine tune your book. At the same time, you can build a fan base or community, a group of core supporters who (hopefully) are excited about your book and will spread the word.

How do you find beta readers? The easiest way is to simply ask. Start with friends and family, but also look into online communities where members might have interest in your subject matter. Put a call out in your newsletter or put links in your ebook back matter. There are readers who would love to feel like they’re part of an exclusive group that gets a sneak peek at a new book.

How many readers do you need? The number of alpha readers will usually depend on how many people are in your critique group. If you don’t have a critique group, well, you should definitely find one. But if you can’t, at least try to find around three people to read your rough work. When you’re ready for a beta read, you want more like 10-20 readers. For ARCs, you want as many as you can get. Same for live readers—you want to hook as many as possible.

The most important aspect of getting and keeping beta readers is engaging them. Make them feel valued and special, like they’re part of an exclusive club. Create a Facebook group just for them, and keep in regular touch with them. Give them something to do—be specific about what you’d like from them. And always thank them, even if they’ve given you feedback that’s difficult to swallow. These people have given you their time for free, so they deserve your gratitude.

You’ll get the best (meaning most useful) feedback if you ask specific questions. Just don’t ask too many, or else your readers will feel overwhelmed. I use the rule of three when considering feedback. If one person says they don’t like something, it might just be them. If two people say it, I’d better take a look. If three or more people have the same issue, I need to fix/change it.

That said, don’t start editing until your results are in and conclusive. It helps to give readers a deadline and maybe send a couple of reminders. Just don’t pressure them too much. Again, they’re giving you their time for free.

When do I beta? I wrote a post a while back about the order of the writing process. You will normally beta after your critique/rewriting loop is done but before the professional edit. This is because a professional edit costs money, and you don’t want to pay for that only to have to change everything due to beta feedback. Still, that’s no excuse for giving your betas shoddy material. It needs to be clean and polished for them in a way it doesn’t need to be for your alphas.

I’ve written all this in a lead-up to introducing a site I learned about while at SFWC. It’s called BetaBooks and I’m giving it a try with Hamlette. So if you’re interested in beta reading for me, please let me know! I’ll be posting chapters on BetaBooks as I revise. I hope you’ll consider reading and giving me some feedback. At the same time, we’ll be checking out how well the BetaBooks site works. Should be fun, so please join us!

SFWC: The Fiction Agents

I won’t list them all here, but my first session at SFWC this year was a panel in which the fiction agents at the conference introduced themselves and answered questions about what agents look for. I’m posting the questions and answers below.

What is the #1 query mistake?

Of course they couldn’t keep it to just one. But here are a few:
1. The authors query before they’re ready to publish (that is, before the manuscript is the best it can be)
2. The authors don’t research the agent and so query something (a genre) the agent doesn’t rep
3. Typos
4. Gimmicks—better to be straightforward and brief
5. Querying multiple agents at one agency

And here’s what you want to do: put your hook—whatever makes your book unique—out front in the query.

What does an agent do for an author?

The general answer is that an agent can take care of the business side of things, giving the author the time and opportunity to be creative and actually write. An agent will fight for you, and gets rejected with you, so that as an author you’re not taking it alone. Agents act as middle men and can get you in the door at publishing houses. They can help you keep up with publishing trends, and can advise you and help manage your career. So that you’re not having to do it all on your own.

What do agents look for?

The usual:
1. A killer story they can sell
2. Good grammar
3. An author who is willing to listen to advice and opinions, and to the agent’s experience
4. Someone with more than one book in them
5. A writer willing to collaborate
6. Someone with an established platform or proven track record
7. Someone with initiative who is willing to help market the book
8. Someone who is committed and takes their writing seriously

And what they don’t want are narcissists or crazy people, writers who think their work is perfect just as it is.

Where do agents look online when “researching” a potential client?

They’ll often Google first, or look for you on Twitter. Then all the usual hot spots: Facebook author page, blog, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Goodreads . . .

Do agents read their own queries?

Most have assistants or interns that weed queries out based on a set of criteria the agent has given him/her.

And this reminder when researching a potential literary agent: look at the dates from any interviews or articles. Something from a couple years ago may no longer be relevant. (If, in 2009, the agent said she was looking for “zombie stories,” she probably has moved on by now.)

I hope if any of you are thinking about querying agents, these points help you plan! More from the conference after I’ve managed to get some sleep . . .