Editing for Indie Writers: Before you select beta-readers, and what to do with them when you have them.

The indie editing series continues (starting here but the collective posts are here)!  I’m done with Ebook Formatting 101!

I’m still looking for one or two things for my cover posts, so if you’re interested in $5 for use of your cover in an ebook, blog post, and possible print book much later on, contact me.  Needed: a “before” type picture with print  horribly unreadable over a busy background image (you can supply an “after” picture, too, if you like), and a “before” type picture with 3d lettering of the cheesiest sort (same with the “after”).

I said that last time I was going to talk about integrating comments…but I got enough comments about beta readers that I have to back up a little.  So when I put this together as an ebook, this will come before the previous editing post.

There are three sets of things you should do before you send your book off.  Even if you’ve done this kind of thing before.

  1. Determine the purpose of your book.
  2. Pick your beta readers.
  3. Clean up your manuscript.

Determine the purpose of your book.

If you cook relatively well from scratch, you know that salt isn’t just something you dump on food at the table.  It’s not like, when making spaghetti, you just make the spaghetti without salt, bring it to your guests or family with a salt shaker, and let them have at it.  You add salt to the pasta-cooking water, you add salt to the meat, and you adjust the salt after the sauce is put together, right before you serve it.  And then you serve it wih a salt shaker on the side, because lord knows there’s alway someone who wants more salt.

Marketing is like salting your food.

Marketing is determining who will like your book and why, and making sure you have those things in place.  Before you write, you should be thinking about your audience.  As you write, well, you should just be writing, honestly.  But if you thought about who will fall in love with your book before you started writing (even subconsciously), you’ll have a better shot of selling your book (however you sell it).  When you’re writing, you should be emotionally involved with your book: that’s a kind of marketing, because you are a part of your audience, and if you don’t love the loveable things in your book, then what’s the point?  Falling in love with your own book: marketing.

And before you send your book to your first reader, you should check the seasoning, if you will.

Admittedly, I’m only starting to touch the surface of what it means to make a book marketable, on my personal journey.  There are a ton of people who are better at it than I am.  I recently read Al Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel and found that it really spoke to me.  I don’t know that it would produce a book that withstands the test of time, that is loveable, that will make you feel like it’s saved your life during difficult times, but for blockbusterability?  It definitely spoke to me.  At any rate, I know enough to say that marketability isn’t just something you throw on top of your book at the end…and that knowing your market before you send it to beta readers can save a lot of heartache.

What’s your market?

  • Start with genre.  If you have two genres, you must determine which one is the most important: which readers are you more likely to make happy?
  • Determine whether you have a sub-genre, like Steampunk or Cozy or Techno-thriller.
  • Determine where your book stands in relation to best-sellers or classics in your genre and subgenre (or explain how it partakes of both genres, if applicable).  Is it Interview with a Vampire meets fairies?  Is it The Princess Bride, only set in a labyrinth?  Is it manga-esque?

There are 1001 other techniques you can get into, to make sure you know your market.  What personal beliefs do your readers hold (politically, spiritually, sexually–what are their attitudes?  What do they think is funny? dramatic? over the top)?  What cross-markets can you tap (like schools or cake decorators or motorcycle enthusiasts)?

Basically, what you’re doing is laying down a rudimentary marketing plan.  Which, if you’re selling to big publishers, is nice; if you’re selling indie, it’s essential.  You’re publishing a book…who cares? That’s what marketing is.  Publicity is free coupons and blog tours and Facebook contests.   Marketing is knowing who’s going to eat the meal you’re preparing and keeping them in mind throughout the process: it’s salt.

Determining your beta readers

Pick beta readers who fit your market.

To put it bluntly, that means if you’re in a critique group where the people either do not read your genre of books on a fairly regular basis, or if you’re in a critique group where people are diametrically opposed to the themes in your book, then they don’t fit your market, and you’re not going to get what you need from them, and you should quit that group.  They might be able to improve your comma use, but they’re never going to help you sell more books.  Just go.  The same applies to your beta readers: if your mom is offended by what you write, she’s not your market, and you shouldn’t be inflicting your work on her, no matter how proud she is of you.  She’ll be just as proud if you don’t make her read stuff she doesn’t want to read.

I’m not going to get into the benefits of critique groups versus early readers who don’t critique or any other variation: do what works for you.  Online, face-to-face–whatever works for you.  Due to the extremely personal nature of “what works for you,” this is a trial-and-error process. I think the only real rule is the one above: don’t bother with beta readers who aren’t your market.  Even if they’re great writers.  You may find that beta readers who are great readers for one type of book are no use on another: for example, some people who read adult books can’t stand kids’ books and will bring up all kinds of issues that kids won’t care about, even if it’s otherwise the same type of book your beta normally reads.

The thing is, you can’t write a book that makes everyone happy, and trying to do so means that you never hit anyone in particular’s sweet spot.  You don’t just want to serve a lot of food, you want to sell the food that makes people come back for more, for some reason or another.  Customer loyalty means that people are looking for your stuff–you don’t have to convince them to buy your book (or your food); they already know you have what they like.  Even McDonald’s* has a sweet spot: if you’re on the road and everyone’s tired and it’s late and nothing has gone right that day, you can stop at McDonald’s, and they will have hot food that tastes just like it tastes everywhere else, and it won’t be scary like that last truck stop where you had to stop because the engine was overheating and someone didn’t go to the bathroom at the last place even though you asked “Are you sure?” twice.  Okay, it’s not a lofty sweet spot, but there it is, and people buy the food.

Your first test of whether your book hits that sweet spot is your beta readers.  If you’re selling a McDonald’s book, don’t pick readers who look down on McDonald’s and never eat there; pick people who eat at McDonald’s all the time, people who eat at McDonald’s some of the time (on the road), and people who break down and buy a bag of Big Macs because sometimes you just need a bag of Big Macs.  If you have a caviar book, get caviar readers.  And so on.

Special topic: Beta Readers who are too nice/not nice enough.

This is a trial-and-error problem.  Remember, what works for you is what’s important.  If you want people who approach reading more critically, get into a critique group or send your ms. to readers who graduated from the “criticism is more important than creativity” school of Creative Writing (we’re all over the place, sadly).  If you want people who are less critical, send your ms. to people who just like to read.  But always make sure you’re working with people who fit your market.

If you find that your beta readers are in your market but are not telling you enough information (“I enjoyed it.” “I didn’t care for it.”) then you can take several approaches:

  • If someone in your market likes it, maybe no more needs to be said.  It was good enough for them. That may be all you need to know.
  • You can ask whether that person is really in your market.  If they didn’t care for it, ask them if they can put a specific finger on why.  If they say something along the lines of, “I don’t like it in stories when ____ happens,” then they aren’t in your market.  Like, “I think they swear too much,” or “Bossy characters annoy me.”  If they can’t put a finger on why more than once, they may not be useful as a beta reader.
  • If you just want them to dwell on the story as much as you do, get therapy.

Special topic: Agents and editors.

When you’re submitting your work to agents and editors, remember that they have to be part of your market in order to do a good job on your story.  You must do your research to find out what they like to read: an agent or editor who doesn’t like your story won’t know what to do with it, really, and if for some reason bought or took on your book, would likely screw something up.  Again, you can’t make everyone like your book.  You can’t pitch to every agent or editor just as you can’t hassle random people to be your beta readers.

Clean up your manuscript

Okay…back on track.  I posted how to clean up your ms in this post.

Next time (I hope): Integrating comments!

*My husband keeps referring to “that new Scottish retaurant, MacDonald’s,” in a fake Scottish accent.  This is leanding me to misspell it as MacDonald’s on a regular basis, so if I missed one, my apologies.

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