Ether for Authors: Could Beta Readers Ease the Impatience?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

17 June 2013 iStock_000002082970XSmall photog GrafficX TEXTED STORY IMAGE

Table of Contents

  1. And the Enemy Is: Impatience
  2. Krüger “Readers Love Bad Books”
  3. DRM: Gone With a Wind?
  4. Giving the Boot to Kickstarter
  5. Private Writings Gone Public?
  6. Con­fer­ences
  7. Last Gas: “How To Talk With Readers”

And the Enemy Is: Impatience

What might be helpful…is a process whereby manuscripts are uploaded and read for a fee. A random reader is paid to get as far as they can into a manuscript before they lose interest (hopefully they read to the end). Let’s say the fee is $10. Here’s why it can be so inexpensive: If the reader is enjoying what they’re reading, they’ll want to keep reading! Hey, they are getting paid $10 to read something they like! A book they didn’t pay for!

Hugh Howey at BookExpo America

Hugh Howey at BookExpo America

That’s Hugh Howey, primarily a self-publishing author. Some of his work in the “Silo Series” trilogy that comprises Wool, Shift, and Dust (releasing August 17) is being produced in print by major publishers.

When he’s asked by a reader in What do Self-Published Authors Need? what the biggest barrier to quality self-publishing is, Howey shows the compassion that comes with his deep experience:

I’d say the biggest barrier to releasing quality material is probably impatience. You have a work that feels pretty good; you’re exhausted; you want to move on; you might be a bit delusional about how good it really is; so you hit publish. Nobody steps in and tells you to make it better, to do another pass, to get a better cover, to write a better blurb, to hire or trade for some editing, to beg or trade for some beta reading. You simply jump the gun.

What’s promising is that Howey actually puts a proposal on the table, something that might lead to one or more structured approaches to “the quality question” in self-publishing overall.

We hear a lot of wailing and counter-wailing these days about the low quality of some—not all, I said some—self-published work. There is some well-produced self-publishing going on. Howey’s is an example. And there’s a perceived problem (or “challenge,” per your guided-retreat enabler) with some less-well-produced work.

Miral Sattar

Miral Sattar

We also hear a lot of upset and counter-upset about the high price of some—not all, I said some — editing work.
 
When BiblioCrunch’s Miral Sattar’s The Real Costs of Self-Publishing a Book ran at PBS MediaShift (preceded in fact, by her piece, Costs of Self-Publishing for the IndieRecon online “conference” event), a lot of hair-tearing and teeth-gnashing ensued over her high-end extreme-case examples of potential deep developmental editing costs.
 
We saw a curious bit of pushback, when editor Stacy Ennis, author of The Editor’s Eye: A Practical Guide to Transforming Your Book from Good to Great, was excerpted recently by Jane Friedman (my Writing on the Ether host) in 5 Ways to Find the Right Freelance Book Editor.

Stacy Ennis

Stacy Ennis

Ennis had recommended that authors ask for references from potential editors in evaluating the work they might do on a given manuscript. Seems logical enough. But several editors chimed in, some to note that it can be hard to request and capture references. In this case, a commenting editor talks of using LinkedIn to try to firm up such references (good thinking). Others were surprisingly dismissive of the research Ennis was encouraging, as in this comment:

As someone who does editing, I find your requirements for finding an editor rather…lengthy and involved. I’m going to edit their book, not marry them.

The Editor's Eye by @StacyEnnisIf you’re actively in search of a spouse or freelance editing now, the comments on that story have a lot of useful discussion and tips. Some aggregating organizations of editors, for example, are said not to have any credentialing procedures—members can simply join and be listed.
 
On the other hand, editcetera.com/ in the States is said to test its recommended editors, and in the UK, the Society of Editors and Proofreaders is said to certify two levels of capability, ordinary and advanced. Howey, for his part, gets off a quick litany of ways authors may try to handle “the quality challenge.”

They can get this by publishing, watching the feedback, and attempting to fix and re-publish their work. If they are smart, they get a loved one or friend to do this before they publish. If they are smarter, they get beta readers. Smartest, they hire an editor.

And normally, that’s about as far as we get in these discussions. We’ve rarely made it much past the instruction to buy the very best professional editor’s eyeballs you can afford if you’re a self-publishing author who understands the “make your book as good as possible.” The friends-and-family route, nice in some calling plans, is fraught with potential problems.  

I can speak only for my own sainted mother. She was a masterful supervisor of math education in the public school system of South Carolina. She would not have recognized the Chicago Manual of Style if it landed on her left foot. One of the best elements, to my mind, of what Howey is suggesting, in fact, starts right there — not friends or family. If at all possible, eyeballs that don’t have a friendly, romantic, or familial relationship to an author are, likely, far likelier to see and say some problems.

Dust by @HughHoweyI’d take what Howey is wisely talking about further. What he imagines is a group of beta readers whose intent is to read “as far as they can into a manuscript before they lose interest.” He writes:

To earn their $10, they write a note to the author explaining that it was just too many typos, this or that sentence was clunky, not enough action, too many unicorns, whatever…For the writer, a $50 investment to get five honest opinions is a great deal. And I think writers will do MORE work before they even upload the manuscript, knowing they are paying someone to read it.

I, too, can see writers working harder to get ready for those five reads. When authors work with paid editors, one of the smartest things they do is pre-clean their manuscripts every way possible, so that the editor they pay is working at a higher level than easily fixed typos and misspellings. On his concept of the read-as-far-as-they-can team, Howey writes:

The works that come out of this system will be vetted; they will have more polish; they will have reader feedback built-in; and they will have interested parties out there, hoping to see the work they helped shape do well.

I’m with him on that. I’d up the ante, though. It seems to me that we can take his model and envision existing groups of beta readers formalizing their efforts as such teams to do more than read as far as they can and write up some notes. Many of our better-turned-out self-publishing authors speak of having highly accomplished beta readers. James Scott Bell is one, for example.  

I’d like such groups of betas to put together their credentials, some background on themselves, and offer their work, as units, to authors willing to go higher than $50 for the five read-till-you-can’t folks of the Howey plan. Readers of the caliber I’m thinking about might work for $100 each and supply detailed commentary on the manuscripts they read.
 
You see a lot of “I love my beta readers!” traffic online, which is heartening. But as in the case of good editing, strong pre-publication reading needs to offer insightful reaction and guidance. Encouragement is great. Actual evaluation is better. The best work at this stage of a project is less about supportive community and more about critique.

There’s a wide gap between $50 and what you might be paying for a professional edit. Groups of proven, practiced, seasoned beta readers could step into that middle ground, schedule their work together, charge a respectable fee, run a simple site and listings for themselves, and get some authors past that friends-and-family alternative.
 
My preference is still that authors get to the most seasoned professional they can for edits. 
 
Being properly edited is not a submission to a gatekeeper.
 
And beta reading is not a substitute for editing.
 
But knowing that all writers won’t go this route, maybe actively offered, capable beta-reading—beyond the ad-hoc “who do I know who likes books?” route—could introduce another layer of organized review-and-critique that, as Howey is noting, isn’t widely available at this point.  
 
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Krüger “Readers Love Bad Books”

How to get your friends in the industry! the industry! whipped up into a literary lather? Hand them a drink, then read this to them:

People thought that with digitization, the good books would be easier to get. But the problem is that most of the readers love bad books! I have no explanation for the fact that modern societies have invested tons of money into schools and universities only to find out that horrible books are much more loved than the good ones…

Michael Krüger

Michael Krüger

That’s Michael Krüger, publisher at Carl Hanser Verlag in Munich. He’s to retire soon. My father used to say you’re never more powerful than when you’re leaving. In his Publishing Perspectives Q&A with Amanda DeMarco“The Problem is That Most of the Readers Love Bad Books!” Krüger seems to sense this, covering several thorny realities with the gusto of an impending exit.

There’s the question of how American readers don’t seem to love work translated from other languages as much as European readers, in particular, do. Krüger:

Of course I am unhappy with the fact that European publishers are translating a lot of the good, and a lot of the mediocre, and even a great deal of the bad books from the States into European languages, whereas our American friends are very reluctant. With the exception of Knopf, only the small houses like New Directions or Other Press are constantly translating from Europe.

Carl Hanser VerlagAnd there’s the overtake by Big Publishing of smaller and independent houses, of course: Krüger has no love of a house that can put out more books than its publisher can read:

What changed in the last forty years: the enormous appetite of the conglomerates to buy more and more independent publishing houses. Even a good publisher can’t read more than a hundred books a year, and because publishers should not publish more books than they can read, my sole explanation is: if they publish more books than that, they must not want to read them.

Among your buddies, though, it’s that readers-love-bad-books line you’ll hear being passed around, maybe spat out here and whispered there. Most of my work here has been done, and handily, by Publishing Perspectives Editor in Chief Ed Nawotka. Check his discussion follow-up, Today, What Does “Publisher” Actually Stand For?

Nawotka correctly positions Krüger’s comments where they need to be: here in mid-digital-disruption, we probably don’t agree and may not even know what “publisher” means, as crazy as that would sound to somebody on the street. An entrepreneurial author is his or her own publisher. And so is the executive of a major house.

Most vexing of all may be not what “publisher” means today, but what “reader” means. That, too, we may need to learn all over again as readers of literature become consumers interacting with their authors, not just the end-user of a big industry apparatus.

The readers-love-bad-books line is about as chicken-or-egg as they come.

Do our readers send sales of a 50 Shades through the roof because they love “bad books?” Or do they turn to such material because it’s what powerful marketing operations at major publishers communicate to them is “the” thing to read?

You tell me.

DRM: Gone With a Wind?

Quickly on this one—because how many screaming-into-the-night issues can we take in a single edition of the Ether?—I’ll just mention, shhh, DRM, very softly, then we’ll keep going.

Roettgers, Janko @Jank0

Janko Roettgers

This is JankoRoettgers at paidContent in  :

Well, this is one way to do it: Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute is working on a new ebook DRM dubbed SiDiM that would prevent piracy by changing the actual text of a story, swapping out words to make individualized copies that could be tracked by the original owner of the ebook.

This lies in the realm of what’s sometimes called “social watermarking” and such.

The idea behind SiDiM is similar to the way rights holders have been trying to protect music and video for some time. Instead of trying to lock down copies through technical measures that prevent copying, so-called fingerprinting measures simply add markers to a work that make it possible to identify the original purchaser. In theory, this prevents people from sharing their works for the fear of being caught.

The changes in text reportedly contemplated are comparatively subtle, Roettgers writes. “Invisible” becomes “not visible.” If you step just to the left of such a technology, you wonder if they’ve thought of rendering the entire text of a book jibberish. If the idea is to deter copying and file-sharing, that might do it. Have a look at the story, I need to keep going. You don’t want to dwell on the topic of DRM too long, the pile-on starts pretty quickly.

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Giving the Boot to Kickstarter

You know those folks who get so excited about crowdfunding that you have to hose them down in the backyard to get them to stop pushing the $35 T-shirt?

Dave Morris

Dave Morris

Author Dave Morris is not one of them.

Let’s say you put your comic or gamebook on Kickstarter and you raise $100,000. Whoop! Quit your day job, right? Well, no… Because you now have to print, parcel and post about six thousand copies of the book. Plus some T-shirts and a free lunch for the rich kids. A conventionally-published book doesn’t get onto the bestseller lists by selling six thousand copies.

Even when judged by the information on Kickstarter’s stats page, it appears that only some 56 percent of projects are successfully funded. Morris’ interest is in the practicality of the concept. His conclusion:

Kickstarter is a way of raising a subscription to print books. It also serves as a great way to enthuse a core of fans who will hopefully spread the word about your project. But it is not a viable way to raise development funds – unless you are super-famous to begin with, in which case you probably don’t need the development funds that badly anyway.

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Private Writings Gone Public?

Certainly blogs have become enormously popular: personal and professional blogs, hobbyist blogs, blogs about illness, health and parenting. But have they taken the place of writing people used to keep privately? In this age of everyone trying to have their platform, are blogs to journals as banks are to money hidden in mattresses?

Nichole Bernier

Nichole Bernier

Nichole Bernier at Beyond the Margins calls the question in The Demise of Private Writing?

The evolution of blogging has been fascinating to watch. Blogs, with their comments boxes and links to one another’s sites, are looking for community, sometimes even crowdsourcing opinions. But in journals, people are working toward insight, alone — essentially asking of themselves, What would the wisest person I know advise me on this? And then digging deep for the answer.

Ironically, the more we write publicly, Bernier guesses, the less we write privately. Surrounded by outlets for our writing, it’s the inward focus that get the shortest shrift in writing terms. She makes an interesting, provocative meditation of the issue.

Somewhere along the line I stopped keeping a journal, though it was never a conscious decision. Maybe on some level I shifted sensibilities, and grew into someone who preferred making sense of the big things out loud, puzzling them out in community. Or maybe I got tired of the sound of my own voice, unshowered in a baseball cap, muddling through the same conundri over and over. Or maybe it was simpler still. There are only so many hours in a day, only so much writing you can do.

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Con­fer­ences

If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term.  Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but primarily a reference.

Jackson Hole Writers ConferenceJune 27-29 Jackson Hole, Wyoming: Jackson Hole Writers Conference:  “Each year distinguished speakers, editors and agents join our resident faculty to deliver a weekend of active and engaging dialogue, collaboration and the opportunity for all of us to raise the stakes on our work.Manuscript critiques are an important part of our conference, providing a way for you to discuss your work one-on-one with experienced writers, editors and agents.” The program also features a pre-conference writing workshop.

June 29 San Francisco: digi.lit: Litquake’s Digital Publishing Conference: “Litquake’s digi.lit is a full-day conference that will explain and demystify the new digital publishing landscape.digi.lit will put you in the same room with authors, publishers, editors, marketers, agents, and booksellers who are defining the future of reading and publishing.” Note speakers include April Eberhardt, Jon Fine, Laura Miller, Neal Pollack, John Tayman.

July 8 London Southbank: The Bookseller Design Conference: “Great design is a collaborative effort. The conference will focus on effective use of design across every element of the book business. We’ll explore ways in which we can all be braver, have more fun and escape the trap of the copycat cover into which we are all forced far too regularly.” List of speakers.

July 9 London Southbank: The Bookseller Marketing & Publicity Conference: “The Bookseller Marketing & Publicity Conference launches as a full-day event (Tuesday 9th July 2013 at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre), for the first time. The programme will reflect that the lines between publicity and marketing are blurring. The aim of the conference is to provide inspiration and practical tips to drive sales and reader engagement. We’ll be bringing marketing, publicity and brand leaders from outside the industry to give us some time to look up from our books and understand the wider trends.” List of speakers.

July 25-28 Seattle: Pacific Northwest Writers Association: “This annual summer conference is an opportunity for writers of all levels to meet other writers, attend sessions focused on different aspects of the craft, and pitch your ideas to agents and editors. Sessions led by industry experts are crafted to address many aspects of the publishing industry. From keeping track of your expenses to crafting the perfect pitch, sessions give you a chance to interact with experts and ask questions in a friendly and open environment.” Speakers include Donald Maass, Debbie Macomber.

September 26 New York City (Metropolitan Pavilion): Marketing + Publishing Services Conference & Expo: “This innovative conference & expo is really two related shows, held together. The Marketing Conference is a full-day dedicated event that presents a comprehensive strategy for marketing in the digital age. The Publishing Services Expo offers three finely-targeted “mini-conferences” for important and often-overlooked publishing constituencies. Each track is an affordably priced, efficiently programmed two-and-half-hour session that pairs concise educational sessions with vendor speed dating to learn about new solutions.” Produced by Digital Book World and Publishers Launch (Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader and Mike Shatzkin).

September  27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest Conference West: “You’ll make real connections with fellow writers, experience the thrill of pitching your work to literary agents and editors, and get practical publishing-industry advice and writing inspiration from successful authors at Writer’s Digest Conference West.”

San Francisco Writing for Change ConferenceOctober 12 San Francisco: Writing for Change Conference: “The Fifth San Francisco Writing for Change Conference is the place to discover whether your book can change the world. The theme of the conference is “Changing the World One Book at a Time,” and the goal is to encompass business, politics, technology, social issues, the environment, culture, the law, and much more.” The event will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Center at the corner of Geary and Franklin in San Francisco.

San Francisco Writers ConferenceFebruary 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.”

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Last Gas: “How To Talk With Readers”

Publishers, there are people inside your organization who know how to talk with readers. Maybe they work with readers, maybe the moonlight in a bookstore, maybe they (gasp!) identify as readers themselves.

Ann Kingman

Ann Kingman

Those lines are from Some thoughts on #BEA13, particularly Power Readers Day. Ann Kingman is a district sales manager at Random House and, with Michael Kindness (we need more names like that), she runs Books on the Nightstand, a site for book conversation. In her piece on the Saturday “Power Readers” close of BEA at the Javits Center, she writes:

I know there are “reader advocates” working for you. Let them out! It doesn’t matter what their business card says or what department they work in — put them to work at Power Readers Day. In many cases, the best person to talk to readers at BEA is not the best person to talk to the press and booksellers on the other BEA days.

Kingman took her “14-year-old book-blogging daughter” with her to test out what readers experience when they make the brave trek across the concrete and pay $49 to experience some of the foot-aching wonder that industry folks enjoy. So Kingman was basically incognito with daughter in tow. And what she writes about finding is good folks in those booths who were probably no surer of what to do with readers than readers were sure of what to do with them.

I had one person tell me the first print and publicity information about a book (they didn’t know me — to them I was a Power Reader). As a reader, I don’t care. Ask me what kinds of books I like and then figure out the books I should know about — it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a galley. Hand-sell me something, I’ll buy it later!

At the Jacob Javits Center during BEA 2013 | Photo: Porter Anderson

At the Jacob Javits Center during BEA 2013 | Photo: Porter Anderson

Her whole post is a model of strong, actionable suggestions from an industry insider—aimed at an industry that is all but paralyzed when the outside comes in.

Not a single publisher asked us to sign up for a consumer-oriented mailing list. One publisher had a box for us to put in our business card to receive an email in which we could download some great e-galleys. That box was filled with post-it notes — Power Readers don’t necessarily have business cards. And it was a teeny-tiny box with a teeny-tiny sign. Most staff didn’t initiate conversations. And most readers were not sure how or if they should engage staff. Remember, these Power Readers were told repeatedly that they were the “lucky outsiders.” They don’t know the protocol, and nobody told them. Publishers need to take the lead.

And one of Kingman’s best comments is about how those readers aren’t complete dolts when it comes to issues faced by the business. To make more of Power Readers day, in other words, publishers don’t have to wear aprons and offer recipes as if it’s all cupcakes and silly fun.

Every “Power Reader” is curious about ebooks and the impact on publishing — have a conversation. Same with self-publishing. Readers are hearing about the same issues we have been discussing ad nauseum, but they aren’t (yet) bored of it. These readers are the future of our business, and the more they feel like part of it, the more they will become reading and publishing ambassadors.

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com, and he is a regular contributor to WriterUnboxed.com. His all-new London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at PorterAnderson.com.

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About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.