Last week was a milestone in pursuit of my current writing quest in that I sent out copies of my draft children’s book to a squad of little beta readers for feedback.
Following on from some professional editing advice earlier in the year, I revved up the draft for the umpteenth time before deciding that it was well and truly time for the beta reader acid test.
It took me a while to decide how best to go about this process and so I thought that it might be helpful to share ten of my experiences so far:
1. Put yourself out there
Taking that first step towards seeking independent feedback on a draft is a necessary but terrifying hurdle that any aspiring author will face at some point. It is certainly something that I have been nervous about tackling.
I would like to thank William Faulkner (and my husband) for buoying me out of my front door and down to the post office with the following quote:
“You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore”
That is to say, unless you can reach out for constructive feedback from your target genre and demographic, you will never truly know whether you are hitting the high notes with an audience.
If the beta reading process is working as it should, some negative feedback, I believe, will be inevitable.
But that’s why we need it. To edit, edit, edit. And improve.
2. Take a deep breath
Now that the manuscripts have gone out, I’m working on steeling myself in preparation for what might come back. When I got feedback from the first round professional editior, all I could see were the negatives and plot holes she flagged up. When I look at the same feedback again now, several months down the line, I see that there was also lots of good (and positive) feedback in there.
It’s worth taking some time out to digest feedback before deciding on next steps. That includes replying to specific feedback. Don’t be rash.
I now better understand that pride of authorship has to be overcome to move forward on any writing project. All writers have been there. This won’t make the process any easier to bear, but it should make for a better book in the end.
3. No strings attached
When you finally feel ready to send copies of a draft out to beta readers, it is important to have an idea of strategy before you start recruiting. I did a fair bit of online research into tried and tested beta reader selection methodology prior to settling on a pathway.
In particular, I found a few well established writer’s forums on Facebook where it felt “safe” to ask “stupid” questions of others, which was invaluable.
My first key decision was that I didn’t want to use anyone that I had either a direct or indirect personal connection with in the process.
I am seeking truly independent feedback and feel that there is too much scope for contamination by having an association with a beta reader at this stage. I’m all for close friends and family helping to reassure in a draft’s infancy but there comes a point where the cord has to be cut if you want to benefit.
My second decision was not to offer payment to my beta readers. Firstly, there is no money to offer. Secondly, I believe that this also contaminates a reader’s ability to be completely honest in the feedback process. This is also why I wasn’t keen to use a beta reader agency to recruit. Instead, given the test age demographic is 6-10, I included novelty bookmarks in the pack as a thank you (or bribe, depending on your perspective).
My third decision was to target a random pool of adults in the hope that some might volunteer their children to help out. To do this, I joined the closed community Facebook page of a smallish town in Scotland that I know well, but do not live in, and put a message on the timeline.
Tactically, I wanted volunteers to remain as anonymous as possible in the public forum to avoid note comparing and so requested that anyone interested should email me privately.
Within a day I had received a huge amount of email interest, including messages from a minister’s wife and two primary school teachers offering to support the project in whatever way they could.
A very pleasant surprise. I have a suspicion that this was the easy bit!
4. The PR starts now
Spelling, grammar and presentation are essential ingredients in projecting a credible and professional project when recruiting beta readers. Get the wording of the Facebook post right. Ensure your draft and formatting is page perfect before sending to the printer. Don’t cut corners on costs. Respond to all notes of interest received, both enthusiastically and in longhand. Be confident; not arrogant. Keep communication lines open by emailing participants when the reading package is sent out. Keep offers of additional community support warm, even if not quite what you are looking for right now – these contacts could be useful in the future.
You get the gist!
Keeping friendly communication lines open will also be vital when it comes to chasing up any outstanding feedback further down the line.
5. Recruit a spread of age, sex and ability
One of the areas I’m looking to pin down through beta readers is a more specific idea of my target audience’s age range. I have used my feedback questionnaire to tease this out via a mixture of box ticking and comment requests as to how easy or difficult the child or reader felt the book was to understand.
My main protagonist is an 8 year old girl but she also has a sidekick of 9 who is male. I got far more interest from my call to arms than I expected to and so have sent the manuscript out to 5 boys and 5 girls covering a spread of ages between 6 and 10. In engaging with parents/guardians via email, I already know which of these children are independent readers and which still enjoy being read to aloud.
I’m also realistic that not all beta readers will finish the book or indeed provide the feedback. I will be delighted with anything more than a 50% response rate.
6. Your budget
Engaging beta readers in the way I have is not necessarily cheap, even if you aren’t paying them. This is a factor that I hadn’t fully appreciated before embarking upon my beta reader project. I guess that very few hobbies out there are free and so I’m reconciling these expenses as an investment.
All in, I think my beta packs have cost me around £280 in total to put together and send out.
For this I got: fifteen A5 spiral bound copies of the manuscript (250 pages) put together at a local print shop for £12.99 each, bookmarks for £10 on E-bay and postage & packaging (including a self addressed and pre-paid return envelopes) for around £80.
I guess that I could have cut the price on this by sending e-copies or driving for an hour (petrol money) and hand delivering the packs under cover of darkness, but hey ho. Worth considering all this in detail before you start.
How or whether to manage confidentiality was one of the key areas I quizzed fellow authors on about the beta reading process before I got underway. These days it is worth being mindful of the internet and file sharing, particulalry with something as sensitive as an unfinished draft of a book.
Most of the authors I spoke with felt that it was overkill in the early stages of a novel to include non-disclosure wording/agreements in beta reader packs, particularly if not paying for a reader’s services.
A word on e-copies. As expected, it was felt that there was more risk that confidentiality could be breached with electronic drafts than with printed and bound copies.
Since I know that children will be reading my book, likely in bed, I had already decided that my manuscript would be printed in A5 for practicality reasons. It has my name in the header throughout and includes a welcome note and questionnaire all within the binding.
Once the book is read and questionnaire completed, the whole manuscript is then to be returned to me within the prepaid self-addressed envelope. If they want to go to the bother and expense of photocopying 250 pages, I guess that’s up to them.
I do not expect to get 100% back, but – back to my first point above – part of this leap of faith has to be trust.
8. How to gleam feedback
As indicated above, all initial communication with my beta readers will be in writing. I shall have open electronic channels with parents and guardians throughout (as required) and there is a paper questionnaire of twenty questions included in the bound book to be competed and returned at the end of the process.
The questionnaire itself has been devised to cover both specific and general feedback on substance, including the believability and accessibility of the characters and premise. As mentioned earlier, I have used a combination of box ticking and comments boxes to facilitate this.
At the end of the questionnaire, I have asked if the adults, together with their children, would be open to a follow up feedback session as required. This is entirely voluntary. I may not decide to do this, but worth giving myself the option.
At the front of each manuscript is a personalised welcome note to each child advising that they have been specially selected to be a part of my secret reading mission. Although addressed to the reader, this note is also directed at parents/guardians as it contains simple instructions on what is required, including return and deadline information. I hope that in making the feedback process itself fun and imaginative will help drive a successful outcome (i.e. return rate). Otherwise it just feels way too much like school homework.
I sent the packs out in late September and so have requested completed feedback by the end of 2015. A realistic turnaround time is essential for beta readers, especially since my target demographic have so many other things going on without piling on the extra-curricular stuff.
Fingers crossed that feedback will start trickling back to me between now and then so that I can digest it all ahead of more editing in 2016.
That’s my top ten tips for now folks!
I hope that sharing my beta reader journey to date might prove useful to you if you are at a similar stage.
I shall be back in the new year with a follow up post on all of the elephant traps and lessons learned no doubt!
Have you used beta readers in the past? What was your experience?