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Many authors wrestle with the seemingly impossible conundrums of publishing.
To get published, you need to have a history of being published.
To grow an email list, you need to have people to email.
To get good reviews, you need to have good reviews. It sounds like a catch-22.
But for every publishing conundrum, there is obviously a starting point, because authors still get published, build email lists and, yes, even get hundreds of five-star reviews.
Back in Episode 242, we talked about where negative reviews come from. While it’s good to eliminate the causes for negative reviews, you still need good reviews.
Three kinds of people can help you get more reviews: beta readers, editors, and advanced readers.
So how do you get more five-star reviews? You write a better book.
Who determines whether your book is better? Your readers. Only readers leave reviews, so your book must be a “good book,” according to them.
To ensure your book will be good according to your readers, you need to invite some of them to read it while you still have time to make changes. Incorporating reader feedback into your writing process will make your readers happy, and they will leave and leave great reviews, which will often generate more good reviews.
What are beta readers?
In the movie industry, filmmakers show early edits of the film to test audiences. Afterward, they survey the audience to see if the jokes were funny. They ask if the movie made sense and if the ending was satisfying. By the time a major motion picture is released, it has been tested on thousands of movie-loving viewers.
Beta readers are like a test audience for your book, but you don’t need thousands. You just need a handful. But they need to be readers, not industry professionals or other authors. Beta readers are the voice of the future readers of your book.
Why do authors need beta readers?
If you are writing for a target audience you don’t belong to, it’s especially important to test your book with beta readers. For example, if you are writing to teenagers, test your book on beta-reading teens before publishing your book. If you are writing a mystery and haven’t read at least a dozen mysteries in the last year, you need beta readers.
Nonfiction authors also need beta readers for all the same reasons. How will you know if your arguments are convincing if you don’t test them on beta readers?
What to look for in a beta reader.
Your beta reader should be a well-read fan of your genre. Your mom, who mostly reads cozy mysteries and only watched one Star Wars movie (though she doesn’t remember which one), is not a good beta reader for your space opera.
She might be a great cheerleader for you, but she is a bad choice as a beta reader because she is the wrong kind of reader. Her opinions about books and tropes won’t represent the readers you will be targeting. In fact, the more your cozy-mystery-reading mom likes your space opera book, the less your readers will like it, and that will lead to poor reviews.
A fellow author who writes space opera is also a poor choice as a beta reader. Even though she’s familiar with your genre, her feedback will be too prescriptive because she is an author.
A test audience doesn’t teach filmmakers how to make movies. They simply let the filmmakers know whether the movie works. When a viewer says, “I didn’t like the ending,” she’s offering really helpful feedback.
Where can I find beta readers?
Look for books that are comparable to the one you’re writing. Peruse the reviews on Goodreads and find the longest five-star reviews. Reach out to those reviewers one-on-one and ask if they would be interested in being a beta reader for your book. Superfans are often honored to become beta readers.
Do not choose the reviewer who wrote a one-sentence review. Look for the reviewer who wrote a book report on how much they loved that book.
There are also groups on Goodreads specifically for matchmaking beta readers and authors.
Make friends with the kind of people who read the kind of books you like. The more you read in your genre and talk about it, the more you will connect with friends who also read and love your genre.
While fellow authors make for poor beta readers, they often have beta readers of their own, and they may be willing to connect you.
Once you have published a book, you can pull from your existing fans and readers. I heard of one author who received a three-page email from an existing reader who pointed out all of the continuity errors in her published book. This reader was on the autism spectrum, and these errors really irritated her. The email was a bit curt.
Instead of taking the email personally, this author replied, “These are incredibly detailed insights. Would you like to be a beta reader for my next book so we can find these errors before it goes out?” The reader was thrilled to have the opportunity, and the author’s next books were sparklingly clean from a continuity perspective.
Previous Beta Readers
When authors continue to write, work, and publish books, they get better at writing. As I’m fond of saying, “The carpenter builds the house, but the house also builds the carpenter.” Besides improving your writing craft with each book, authors can improve the quality of the beta-reading team for each new book.
Some beta readers will give more helpful feedback than others. Savvy authors retain the most helpful beta readers by inviting them to the beta team again when the next book is ready for input. Over time, your team of beta readers becomes a hand-selected squad of feedback ninjas.
3 Kinds of Specialty Beta Readers
You may also want to pursue connections with some specialty beta readers.
Some authors have a small group of alpha readers who read and give feedback before the book goes to the larger group of beta readers. The author may do a round of revisions based on three alpha readers’ feedback before sharing the book with her larger group of beta readers.
Modern readers have greater access to knowledge because of the internet, and because they know so much, they are more likely to notice technical errors in your book.
An expert reader is a type of beta reader who reads to represent a technical specialty.
If your main character is a doctor, you’ll need at least one real-life doctor to read and make sure your main character speaks as a real doctor would. If your character is an airline pilot, you’d better have a pilot read your book to make sure it makes sense.
In filmmaking, these are called technical advisors. They point out inaccuracies and help protect the credibility of the author.
In one of Brandon Sanderson’s books, he portrayed real-life computer hacking. It was the first time I had seen a hacker represented accurately. He described their work as it is in real life.
The stereotypical hacker you see in a movie is furiously typing behind his laptop, and that is pure fiction. Since Sanderson’s portrayal was so true-to-life, I wasn’t surprised to see that he thanked real-life white-hat hackers in the acknowledgments of his book.
In my experience, professionals love giving technical advice to writers. They are often tired of seeing their profession misrepresented by lazy writers. They’ll work hard to help set the record straight for your book.
You may be shocked to discover how much access you gain to places and people when you say you are an author working on a book. Police will let you ride along in a patrol car and give you a tour of the station. You can visit the “employees only” sections of buildings, hospitals, castles, construction sites, and other locations, which are typically off-limits to the public. The key is to ask by phone call and not by email.
While an expert reader represents a certain kind of specialty, a sensitivity reader represents a certain type of person.
If you are a man writing a story with a female protagonist, make sure some of your beta readers are women. There is a whole subreddit that makes fun of men who write unrealistic female characters.
Sensitivity readers can look for issues related to gender, race, religion, or any other area where the author lacks understanding or familiarity. If one of your characters is religious, find a beta reader who practices that religion so you can get the character right.
Feedback from technical and sensitive readers is important because any unrealistic description or dialogue will knock the reader out of the story.
I recently saw a movie set in the South that portrayed every southern character as idiotic, evil or both. This is so common in film that when a character with a southern accent is introduced, it kicks me out of the story. I know that character will turn out to be evil or stupid.
To portray people more realistically, get to know them in real life. Ask them to read your book and see if you’ve written anything unrealistic or stereotypical.
You may be asking, “If I have all these beta readers, do I still need an editor?” Yes.
Yes, you still need an editor.
Your editors may not reflect your target audience, so when they read, they are forced to make educated guesses about what readers like and don’t like. Beta readers from your target audience, on the other hand, can tell you for certain what they like and don’t like.
Share your manuscript with your beta readers before sharing it with your copy editor. Incorporating their feedback before handing off your manuscript will mean your editor can work with a more polished draft, which means you’ll use her time and your money more efficiently.
Authors who have written multiple books typically get beta feedback before they begin the editing process.
However, if you are still working on your first book, you’ll want to get editorial feedback first. You are still learning how to write the kind of book people want to pay for, and an editor can give you feedback that is easier to implement.
Editing is a process because you need at least three rounds of editing.
No one writes perfectly. We all need help, and that’s why we hire editors.
Many indie authors make the mistake of hiring only one editor. But you need three kinds of editors because they do three very different types of editing.
Developmental Editor (Airforce)
A developmental edit, sometimes called a content edit, is an edit of the ideas in your book. It is an edit of the story. If we were to use a military metaphor, the developmental editor is the Airforce that scouts the territory and drops bombs on enemy bunkers.
Developmental editors usually insert comments into your document and send you a long email with their general thoughts.
Copy Editor (Marines)
The second kind of edit is the copy edit, also known as a line edit. This is an edit of the words. In this round of revisions, your editor will correct grammar mistakes, address usage issues such as passive voice, and fix typos.
The copy editor uses Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” feature to make specific changes to your words and sentences.
Going back to our military metaphor, the copy editor is like the Marines landing on the beach and getting face-to-face with the typos. When people talk about editors, the copy editor is usually who they have in mind.
The final editor is the proofreader. When your book is typeset, the words are laid out on the page exactly as they will appear on the pages of your book. But the typesetting process can introduce new errors. Additionally, as the words are laid out differently on the page, you and the proofreaders may see errors you previously missed.
In our military metaphor, the proofreader is the Army defending against new typos that may sneak in.
Proofreaders edit the final PDF of your book before it goes to the printer. Since they are working with a PDF, they don’t use comments or the Track Changes feature. Instead, they create a list of typos and where to find them.
The proofreader’s edits say things like, “The third paragraph on page 6 is missing a comma before the word ‘but.’” It is a hassle to identify and fix typos at this stage. If the copy editor does a good job, the proofreader’s job is much easier.
After beta readers and editors have read your book and provided input, the next group that gets to read is your advanced readers.
Advanced readers get the Advanced Reader Copies (ARCs) of your book. Unlike beta readers, advanced readers are not giving feedback to improve the book. By the time advanced readers get their hands on the book, it is too late to make changes. They read and review your book to let future readers know what it’s like.
Your book’s first few receives set the tone for subsequent reviews, and that’s why it’s so important to select your advanced readers carefully.
Many traditional publishers outsource the selection of advanced readers to a third-party matchmaking service, and that is a huge mistake. These services choose reviewers randomly, and it leads to unnecessary negative reviews. The reviews often say something like, “I don’t like this kind of book,” and “This book didn’t change my mind.”
It is hard to write such a good horror story that it converts someone to that genre.
In fact, this episode was inspired by a listener who faced this very problem. She had spent several hundred dollars on an ARC service that connected reviewers with her book. Those reviewers left negative reviews because they didn’t like the fact that the book had religious themes.
As she moved into her launch period, she was stuck with a two-star average review rating. The low review average kept people from buying the book, even though they were the kind of readers who would have loved it. She couldn’t convince strangers to read it because the first five people left negative reviews. Unnecessary poor reviews had torpedoed the book she spent years writing.
She would have been better off not sending out ARCs at all!
Sending out ARCs, when done strategically, can be very effective. ARCs are a particularly good tool for helping you generate media buzz about your book. But you need to make sure your book has a chance at a positive review with the reviewer. If that reviewer has never given a positive review to your kind of book, don’t expect that you’ll be the exception.
If you are launching a new BBQ restaurant, don’t invite vegetarian food bloggers to review your restaurant. Maybe your barbeque is so good, it will convince vegetarians to start eating meat again, but it’s not likely.
Some authors skip sending out ARCs and instead create a book launch team to generate those early positive reviews. The book launch team strategy almost guarantees that your book will launch with a five-star average rating.
Creating a launch team is a technique we cover in the Book Launch Blueprint. For some authors, the Book Launch Team is the most fun and rewarding part of launching a book.
If you’ve written your book, incorporated feedback from people in your target audience, and if you are willing to hire editors to polish it, you’re ready to learn how to launch your book. To give your book the best possible start as you release it into the world, our 2021 Book Launch Blueprint course is open for registrations until April 9, 2021. Class begins Monday, April 12, 2021, so register today.
The Book Launch Blueprint is a course that will make the hardest part of your career a heck-of-a-lot easier.
For many of us, writing, editing, cover design, and publishing the book isn’t nearly as intimidating as launching it!
The Book Launch Blueprint course is now open for registration, and we only offer it once a year.
You’ll get comprehensive teaching on every element of launching your book, as well as exclusive access to our private online group where you can talk to the instructors and pick their brains about every aspect of the course.
Who are the instructors?
- Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Professor of book marketing, former agent and publishing Marketing Director, and host of the longest-running book marketing podcast.
- James L. Rubart: Bestselling, Christy Hall of Fame author and copywriting guru.
Registration closes April 9, 2021, and the course begins Monday, April 12.
If you’re committed to seeing your next book reach its maximum sales potential, register today.
Jess Lederman, author of Hearts Set Free
Yura sets out with her son Luke on an epic cross-country quest to win back her husband—and destroy the woman who stole his heart.
You can become a Novel Marketing Patron here.
You may have noticed we missed an episode a few weeks ago due to what Texans are calling “Snowvid,” also known as Snowstorm Uri. We got hit with a snowstorm like we’ve never seen before.
It hit my family particularly hard. My grandmother lost power in her house in the early stages of the storm. She got up in the dark and tripped and fell and couldn’t get up. She spent the night on the floor of her cold house. The next morning her caretaker came to check on her and got her into bed and covered with blankets. We thought she was doing better, but about 36 hours later, she passed away.
Since it was the beginning of the snowstorm, we weren’t able to gather as a family to grieve. We weren’t even able to drive because the storm shut everything down. It was a very difficult week, and I just couldn’t produce an episode that week.
Most Texans lost power for at least a little bit. A friend of a friend bundled up in blankets and froze to death in his bed. The death toll seem to be worse than the media is reporting. I know at least two people in our circle who died in the storm.
Fortunately, at my house, we had water and power the whole time. We are very thankful for that.
My grandmother had a big impact on my life. She inspired my viral blog post and the book I wrote and dedicated to her. She was an encouragement to me in my writing. Occasionally she even listened to my “internet radio show,” as she called it. At 92 years old, she used Facebook, email, and FaceTime. She was a very tech-savvy person. She was a feisty, spunky, tell-it-like-it-is lady who had no filter and said what she thought. Maybe that’s where I get it from.
Scooter Umstattd will be missed.
I’m thankful we survived. I’m thankful the weather is better, and I’m thankful for you, our listeners, and the opportunity to host this podcast.
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