Outside These Walls was my third novel, but it’s the first I’ve chosen to publish. And I wish now that I had the benefit of this article before I ventured into the world of seeking other people’s opinions. I definitely would have saved some money, and overall, I would have gone about things differently.
When I finished my book (story completed), I was pretty sure I’d put the writing puzzle together. That I’d learned enough from the previous two that this one was worthy of publishing. I just wasn’t 100% sure it was worth the time or money to take it to press and promote it. So I decided to invest some dollars to determine whether I should. In no particular order of importance, this is what I learned about beta readers.
Finding an Agent Is Unlikely
And finding a publisher without one is also unlikely, regardless of the quality of your writing. I intend to write another article on this subject. But for now, let me just say it’s unlikely I’ll ever seek an agent again. Why? Wait for that post. So why bring this up in an article about beta readers? Since the odds are long, quite long against you, publishing your book is up to you. No one else is going to do the work for you, and paying a vanity publisher is not the answer. This means you’ll need help from others and beta readers are at the top of the list.
Getting the Input Was Worth It
There are ways to obtain beta readers for free. Below is a link to an article about where you might find them. I prefer to pay for them, however, because I value my time. Not every dollar was well spent, but it was the right thing to do. Should all writers seek input from test readers? Indie authors should, at the very least. At the time of this writing, I know that ten readers can be had for less than $300. You’ll get some valuable input and know where you stand. Compare that to $600 for a quality cover design. Self-publishing costs money, especially if you intend to sell some books. I’m learning that first-hand. But I wouldn’t be doing it if my book had only garnered three stars from my beta readers,
What About Alpha Readers
If you are unfamiliar with the term or role of the alpha reader, here is a decent post discussing the difference between the two. Alpha and Beta Readers: What Are They and Why Bother? (ingramspark.com)
To that article I will add that the reader you’re looking for requires a different set of tools and qualifications because you are looking for input more on the technical side of things. Some beta readers are just people who enjoy reading.
But if you have someone in your life you trust to be honest, as well as helpful, then use them. But here’s the problem. For many readers, it’s difficult to look for the diamond in the rough. And that’s exactly what they have to do with an unedited and unpolished manuscript.
Since this article is about beta readers, I’ll add just one more point. If you have studied the elements that are generally regarded for making a good story, I say don’t bother. If this is your very first effort, it’s probably a good move.
Spending a Lot Is Not Required
My first round of input came from six people with varied backgrounds, from a beta reader to someone who claimed to be a “USA Today bestselling and award-winning author, ghostwriter, and screenwriter.” I have no idea if that claim was true, but I paid her $380 and nearly $1100 total on that first round. Since then, I’ve discovered with some diligence, patience, and a bit of creativity, beta readers can be found for a rate that’s hard to turn down. As I write this, I’m in the process of a final round of six readers that I employed for about $150. My go to platform is Fiverr.
Then there are the free kind of beta readers. This article will give you some insight on where to go for free readers. 15 Places to Find Your Next Beta Reader – Helping Writers Become Authors.
Obviously, if you’re a starving artist, free is more attractive, but I can think of a few downsides for the free model. Your time would be at the top of that list. Paid readers are obligated to follow through. Paid readers are also obligated to do what you ask. With free, you have no latitude to complain—zero leverage.
Know What You’re After
The vast majority of beta readers provide a report as part of their service. However, many don’t detail what that report consists of. I had my own set of questions I wanted answered. My regret is I did not ask for a grade until the next to my last round. More on this in a bit. In that round of testing, I only asked for a couple of things. That was short-sighted and a mistake. I may have saved a few dollars by not asking for answers to a bunch of questions but not that much. Why was it a mistake? First, knowing they have to give me answers to my questions, forces them to pay close attention. It also gives me potentially valuable information. The purpose of that round of testing was to find out if I’d fixed my issue with confusion over who was speaking. I also asked for a grade from 1-10. If they really hated it or really liked it, I wanted to know why. Both of these were a mistake as well. No one uses a ten-star ranking system. I wanted granularity but forgot that Amazon uses a five-star system. Also, why only ask if they really hated or liked it? In hindsight, I’d have done things quite differently.
Don’t Pay Until You’re Satisfied
Fiverr guarantees your satisfaction. If your reader doesn’t do as agreed, you can get a refund. I don’t recall with Upwork. This will happen if you employ very many. I provide very explicit instructions for what I want. More on that in a bit. They know, or should know, what I expect from them, and I expect them to deliver what I ask for. I had one reader offended by my content. She should have stopped reading at chapter eight. Instead, she continued, making snide comments at every turn. She even made a comment about not caring if I didn’t pay her.
Content Warnings Are a Must
Outside These Walls is not for everyone. It contains strong language, a scene of assault, and some explicit sexual dialogue. One gal in the first round told me she wouldn’t have taken the job had she known. It was a rookie mistake and one which I’ll never repeat. Not only do I make sure my beta readers get a content warning, but it is also front and center in my novel. You may find this article helpful on the subject. Your Guide to Content Warnings: When and How to Include One in Your Book – TCK Publishing
Find the Right Readers for Your Book
Outside These Walls is an odd duck. It doesn’t conform to the typical standards of any genre because it doesn’t have a central protagonist. It’s also difficult to label it as literary fiction because it doesn’t contain the typical element of eloquent prose. Consequently, I needed readers who could look past all that. If you have a whodunit, the only readers you should employ are those who enjoy a good mystery in the conventions of the genre. Their opinions are the ones that matter. Anyone who is predisposed to romance novels set in 1900 century England will not give you what you’re after.
Even after going to substantial lengths with my job description and the uniqueness of my book, I had one reader criticize it for lacking conventional storytelling methods. Fortunately, she gave me some feedback after only three or five chapters. I’m unsure which. She had no business taking on the job and we parted ways. I had many others pass, claiming they would not be a good fit. I appreciated their candor.
Some, perhaps many, beta readers advertise what they want to read. Terrific, but be a bit wary of those who claim to like all genres. This is not true of most readers, the same as it’s not true for moviegoers. Why is this important? When you publish, you’ll need to assign it to a category of readership. Those are the ones who will buy and judge your book. You need to find like readers to provide you with an honest assessment. For this current round of beta readers, I described the job in detail here. And before you tell me I just contradicted myself, I’m aware. Yes, again, I only asked for minimum input. That’s because I’m a week away from publishing, and there’s little that could be said at this point that would cause me to change anything of any significance.
Not All Readers Are Created Equal
If you haven’t gotten the vibe already, not all beta readers are created equally. Outside These Walls is a complex novel and attention to detail is required while reading. With many readers’ comments, I could tell they weren’t paying attention. Case in point. The gal who claimed to be a USA today bestselling and award-winning author criticized the way I dealt with one character’s stutter. She said stutterers don’t get over it as fast as I portray. She did not pick up on the fact that I, on numerous occasions, conveyed that it was a nervous stutter. This is not all bad. In fact, it is telling. It means she was not engaged, and regardless that she stated she’d become bored after chapter five, it was obvious.
Yesterday, I received input from one of my current readers. He gave me 2 1/2 pages of incoherent ramblings and NOTHING of what I asked for. The details are unimportant, but the bottom line is he is the worst I’ve encountered. I had grounds for not paying him, but he only charged $5. It was worth the $5 to make him go away. On the other hand, most have been goof to outstanding.
Here’s a tip. If you require your readers to use Google Docs, you’ll be able to see what in-line comments are being made. This will give you a clue whether you’re getting what you asked for. A couple of my readers required it, and I found it quite entertaining to interact with them as they read and reacted.
Have Them Grade It
Besides identifying what doesn’t work, what you covet most is what they think about it in the aggregate. If your character arc is poor, but they still grade it at five stars, who cares? But why you got a two or three, that’s what you need to know. Currently, there isn’t anywhere on the planet that allows readers to rate books on its literary details, not one that matters anyway. The biggest retailer of books in the world is Amazon. Their readers score on a scale of one to five stars. That’s what matters. And if you don’t get a five, then you want to know why. Trust me, you cannot conclude or guess a rating based on their comments.
The guy I just mentioned who provided feedback yesterday had this to say at the end of his ramblings. “I am under your target demographic so some of the vocabulary was lost on me but it didn’t change my enjoyment of the story any less. I really did enjoy this story and if you ever decided to publish it, it would be a book I would buy. It’s a romance with ghosts, throuples, and good parenting. What’s not to love at the end of the day?” He gave it three stars which makes no sense, but considering the effort it took to get him to grade it, I wasn’t all that surprised. I felt like challenging him on his seeming contradiction but based on the dialogue I had with him to that point, I decided he was a throw-away. It happens.
One Opinion Does Not Mean Much
Something to realize is that if one of your readers finds no redeeming value in your work, while the majority of others give it four or five stars, means little. The same holds true if one gives you a five while the majority give it two or three. Out of the twenty plus readers I employed, two didn’t have anything good to say about it. The award-winning author was one of them. The other was the one offended by the content of chapter eight and couldn’t get over it. In both cases, I have a pretty good idea what their real issue was, but it’s only speculation.
One thing you can take to the bank with beta readers is their willingness to offer their honest opinion. The challenge is what to do with it, which I’ll touch on next.
Which Opinions Did I Act On
Let me preface this topic by saying it’s likely you’re a writer and not a reader of my book. So in summary, Outside These Walls is written in first person by all six of the characters, albeit mostly by only four. It’s also 50% dialog. Consequently, since I don’t use a zillion speech tags, it can be a challenge to keep up with who is doing the talking. Confusion is not something we want as writers, ever, so I took that input seriously. Even if it was coming from only one reader, I addressed it.
One of my characters dies in an auto accident. One reader was quite mad that I did that, emphasizing why did it have to be h__. For reasons I won’t get into, I didn’t dwell on h__ death in my book. Several readers commented that it was too abrupt. But what they really meant was they had no time to mourn. Since several were affected in that way, I took heed, and addressed it. That character now has a funeral service.
The story is about lots of things, but it involves the intertwined relationship of two polyamorous trios. They are separated by a generation. Although my book contains some fairly explicit sexual dialogue, there are no descriptive sex scenes. So when the younger trio has sex for the first time, I write about it in the past, the morning after, not the present. I received more than one comment about this, so I partially addressed it. There still isn’t a sex scene, but I elaborated on the before and after.
I added a prologue to introduce a character, a ghost, because how her dialogue is annotated was causing some issues.
I added a content warning to prevent offending anyone.
I also added a preface because despite all of my combined efforts to demonstrate which of my characters is talking or thinking, it was not enough for some readers. I determined the only fool-proof way was to add a decoder ring.
I annotated the narrator at the beginning of each scene.
How Many Rounds … as many as it takes
Generally speaking, there is typically more than one way to get from point A to point B. Assuming you are reading this because you’re trying to get smart on the subject, you’re self-publishing and probably with limited assets. If that is the case, you need help, and beta readers can be your best friends. Yes, you will encounter some you’ll need to ignore, but in the aggregate, you’ll have a better story with them. So how many rounds? When you’re sure it’s the best it can be.
I learned to expect pretty much anything from beta readers, so the challenge is to filter through the white noise. Some will love it and some will hate it. Only you can determine if the “hate it” comments are valid and what to do with them.
Stay tuned for my next post. It will be on how I would do things differently. Or rather, my blueprint to beta readers. Until next time.