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10 Lessons Learned: Beta Readers

In the first post about my Weird Publishing project, I explained why it was weird and stated that I would share my journey here so authors could benefit from my success or failure and what I learned by doing it.  This post is about lessons learned from the process of inviting beta readers this time, and I’m using the previous post about beta readers as the outline on which to hang the lessons learned (in blue).

What is a Beta Reader?

My definition of a beta reader might be different from yours.  Instead of free editors, I see them primarily as the trustworthy readers I give my special creation to, the ones who will give me an honest opinion about that content—whether or not it was worth reading.  If it was, I want to know what they liked and didn’t like and why.

When Do You Use Them?

I’ve published three books already and have only used betas once.  That time I asked for beta readers because I wanted to see if I was communicating clearly on that topic (historical origins of the trendy Law of Attraction–the formulas, not the spiritual law which is timeless).  However, because publishing my current project will be like an extreme introvert standing buck naked under very bright lights, all alone on a stage in front of a huge audience, with no script, I really needed assurance there was a good reason for me to continue.

Lesson 1:

My invitation did not communicate the true feelings I had about my project, as I was able to express above.  Only one beta reader really knew how I felt about this book and hers was the feedback that I had been seeking.  Next time, I’ll wait until I am absolutely clear about what I need.

Where Did You Find Them?

My list of eleven people to invite included both old and new friends, but most importantly, people I saw as strong enough to speak their truth, no matter what; only one of those is a published writer.

Lesson 2:

Next time I’ll extend the net, invite more people, because I really hoped to have five people give early feedback.  Asking eleven actually yielded five, but only three went the distance.

How Did You Ask Them?

On September 7, 2016, I sent an email invitation to each person on my list of eleven, hoping at least five would commit to reading and responding with feedback at least by September 20, allowing 12 days to read 10 pages/day with 2 days left over to consider and note their feedback.

Lesson 3: 

Next time I’ll spell out the time period several times in the invitation, as I did for this blog;

…reading and responding with feedback at least by September 20, allowing 12 days to read 10 pages/day with 2 days left over to consider and note their feedback. 

The Invitation

This was my first time to spell out everything, but I wanted to be as precise as possible with my language so they would understand exactly what I was asking them to do.  My invitation included these elements:

purpose of the email:

“I just completed the rough draft of the first book of a four-book series,  and am looking for beta readers.”

I also gave them the working title so they could get an idea of what the book was about.

Lesson 4:

The stated purpose in the invitation absolutely did not convey the truth.  This is closer to the truth than what I sent them: 

I just completed the rough draft of the first book of a four-book series,  and am looking for beta readers to help me decide whether or not to pursue this project because of its intensely personal nature. 

The first book is very intense.  It includes things I’ve never told anyone.  It’s about a deeply personal experience which includes, for example, night visions–seeing things that aren’t there during daylight hours while working. 

THAT would have communicated what I needed from them so much more effectively.

“Beta readers” defined for this project:

People who read a book prior to publication, offering their perspective about its readability, worth, and making suggestions to improve the product.

Lesson 5:

The above definition of beta readers was much too general for the truth.  This one would have been more honest, more accurate:

I need a small group of trusted people who care about me, people who are strong enough to give me their honest answer, whether or not to continue.  Please don’t waste your time editing.  This is only a rough draft that, if I continue, will be fleshed out, rewritten and revised countless times before an editor sees it.  The story you’re getting is not complete, but it’s enough for your decision. 

I simply want your response to this question:  Should my friend go forward with this story?  If so, why?

Length of the project:

120 typed pages, double-spaced

the terms of the agreement Listed:

  • feedback about the story by September 20
  • what you liked and didn’t
  • suggestions to improve the product

Lesson 6:

Because none of the beta readers seemed to understand the importance of the deadline, I would have a sentence explaining that.  No one said what they liked and didn’t or gave feedback as requested above. Again, more clarity from me apparently was required–e.g.,

Deadline for feedback is September 20. 

I’m on a timeline for publishing before Christmas — either this book OR choosing a different topic altogether.  I need your feedback by September 20 to help me decide which way to go.

I would have restated that several times–at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end.  I also would have included a phone call when someone agreed to be a beta reader–going through those points again.

Full disclosure re’ use of comments:

I clearly stated my intention to use their comments for promotion if applicable:  “If you say something nice that could be used as testimony in promotion, I’ll take your agreement to be a beta reader as permission to use it—as is.  (Obviously doesn’t apply if you don’t like it.  Yikes!)

Lesson 7:

That bit about full disclosure of comments was inconsistent with what I really wanted from them.  I was asking for a YES or NO.  It would be consistent, however, with a different purpose for their invitation–e.g., as advance readers of a project that would definitely be published with or without their feedback.

Call to Action

Well?  What do you say?  If you agree, I’ll send the document by email.

Lesson 8:

In the call to action, I would have re-iterated the terms of the agreement–e.g.:

Well?  What do you say?  Would you like to read the ROUGH draft of a personal story to advise me whether or not to continue?  Could you read 120 typed pages in two weeks?  Do you understand what I’m asking?…

Response from the Invitation

Of the eleven invitations sent, all but two responded with “Yes” or “no” causing me to wonder if I had current email addresses (oops!).  Five people said they would be happy to read and give feedback.

Lesson 9:

At this point, I could have phoned those who agreed to be my beta readers.  I could have explained briefly, one more time, what I was asking of them, made sure they understood the deadline, and why it was so important to respond with their feedback by that date. 

Lesson 10:

I could have verified that each beta reader could open a WORD document sent as an email attachment. (Two could not, and they had to drop out).  I could have explained that “No one gets a paper copy.”  (One did not understand that part and had to drop out).   

Because we are active online and have learned so much tech stuff required for indie authors, we forget that this is unknown turf for some family and friends.  If we want their support, we have to do what it takes to get them involved or let them support us in another way–like buying the book!

Response from the Beta Readers

As it turns out, even though I made mistakes, could have been more specific, could have followed up with a phone call, I got exactly the feedback I needed.  Even so, I’ll be more attentive to detail to honor the great lessons I learned.

(I deleted this section here because there were no lessons learned in the feedback from beta readers.  I got what I needed, even if only from one person, because it was such a strong affirmation! You can go back to that post if you are interested…

Every feedback is important, because it’s a view from an actual reader!  And it’s easier to hear it if you remember they’re reporting their experience.

Indie Publishing:  My Weird project

  1.  Indie Publishing: My Weird Project
  2. Weird Publishing Project:  Beta Readers!
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