5 Surprises From My Book Club Beta Readers

Sheri McIniss doesn't need much of an introduction but in case this is your first visit, welcome, and a little about her. She traditionally published her first two works of fiction and decided to go this one alone and self publish. She is deep in the final stages of pre-publishing has agreed to share some more of the journey. Specifically, highlights of her beta reading experience. I think she happened on to yet another pot of gold finding so many avid readers willing to commit to her project. Without me holding you up much longer, in her words...

5 Surprises From My Book Club Beta Readers 
by Sheri L. McInnis

My third novel, HUNTER'S MOON, is due out next month. It's the first time I've self-published a book, so I wanted to make sure I followed as many of the rules as possible.   

One of the major steps as an indie writer is to 'beta test' your manuscript (MS) on a number of readers before you release it. It's become part of the self-publishing handbook. 

You can find beta readers among your friends and family or at places like GoodReads.com. But when I found out my landlady, Zuzana Syrovy, ran the Toronto Book and Brunch Club, I couldn't help but think there was an opportunity there. With almost 900 avid readers - 'Brookies' they're called - it seemed to be a goldmine of potential betas. 

I asked Zuzana what she thought of the idea and she said she'd put the word out. A couple days later, she had nineteen beta readers for me - including herself. 

Along with the friends and family I already had - including my BFF, Tracey Lowther, who's been my Alpha Beta since we were kids - I had a total of twenty-eight beta readers. The vast majority were women, but they were all different ages (from their 20s to 80s). Some were into supernatural books - like mine - others weren't. One thing was certain: they were all avid readers.

I wrote a general letter, thanking them all for their help and input. Reading a book is a big time commitment. Making notes on one that's not even published is even bigger. 

I asked them to comment on the characters, the plot development, whether or not they liked the ending, etc. And, of course, I asked them to flag typos. That was just a modest request because after about two hundred reads of the book myself, I didn't expect there were any of those. 

The readers had the MS for about six weeks. I've gone through all the feedback - and just started the revisions - but even early on, five things have surprised me about the process. 

1) How many of the readers actually finished the book.

From what I hear, you can collect all the betas you want, but that's no guarantee people will finish reading the book and/or give you feedback. A lot of betas - whether you know them or not - disappear without a trace. 

There were a few people in my group who didn't finish the book, but the vast majority of them did. That surprised me because - as Zuzana warned me - Brookies are mostly a literary bunch and supernatural stories like mine aren't usually read and discussed. 

But if you recruit avid readers - like book club members and the bookworms in your own circle - you can expect them to be more likely to finish reading the MS than if you just rope your boyfriend - who plays video games all day - into doing it. 

Of course, it helps if you have someone like Zuzana to organize everything. She was so great, everyone took the task seriously.

2) The cost of photocopying.

Photocopying isn't about beta feedback, of course, but it's another part of the process that surprised me. 

If you're following the handbook, you should ask your betas what format they prefer to read in. Mine wanted hard copies, so I had a big print job on my hands: close to thirty copies of a three-hundred page document. 

I chose a printer that used recycled paper and had a tree-planting program, but even after doing my research and getting a good deal, the cost was close to $15.00 a copy - for a total of about $500. It was a shock because I didn't budget more than $80-100 for beta printing costs. 

If you do have to send physical copies to your betas, check the print shops in your area that actually produce book proofs. There are plenty out there and they can print soft cover 'galleys' of your book for less money than a photocopy job. It takes more time to format the file and do the printing - which I didn't have - but for convenience and cost, it's worth investigating. 

As big as the photocopying expense was, I took it out of my 'editor budget' and decided to look at all these people as real editors. I'm glad I did. Which brings me to Surprise #3. 

3) How many typos there were. 

As I said, I just 'modestly' asked the betas to flag typos. I'm really great at catching mistakes in other people's work and I'd been through my MS hundreds of times. 

But it's so true what the experts say! You cannot spot all of your own typos, no matter how many times you read through a draft. It's almost as if writers suffer from an optical illusion - the phenomenon of persistence of vision - which lets our brains see things that aren't there! Because there were at least twenty-five typos I missed, most of them dropped words. 

But some of the mistakes were actually embarrassing. Take my witches, for instance. The bad ones - the Wayward - are gearing up for world domination. The good ones - the Avowed - choose to live in peace and harmony with humanity - or 'Normals' as they're called. 

But when the Queen of the Avowed explains this to the main character - in a very important scene btw - she says "we choose to leave in peace and harmony with humanity." Leave? Where to exactly?

Or this one: 

"How long have you been married, Grace?"
"Eight months. No, none." None months? Really? Of course, I meant 'nine' months and most everyone caught that one - except for me. 

Not a single person flagged all of the mistakes either. People seemed to have their own radar for certain kinds of typos, which is why it was great to have such a large group to catch them all. 

So listen to the indie gurus: find yourself a bunch of picky readers and/or hire a professional copy editor. Because we all know too many typos will cost you at least one star on any Amazon or GoodReads review! 

4) The criticism didn't hurt as much as I thought. 

Zuzana warned me that not only were Brookies mostly a literary bunch, they were also very outspoken, so she prepared me to take some criticism. 

Since I got the manuscripts back, she's been texting and calling, as if she's put me on suicide watch or something.

Anyway, yes, there has been criticism. Some of the readers are not into supernatural books and they were clear HUNTER'S MOON wasn't their thing.  

There was also lots of positive feedback too - and it was so great to read - but as any writer knows, it's the criticism that tends to slide into the long term memory bank. ;)  

But you might as well accept that you're never going to escape criticism by readers. No writer does. My first two novels were published by major New York houses and getting notes from an editor wasn't a walk in the park either. 

When it comes to negative feedback on creative projects, I always remember something I heard Kevin Bacon (of all people) say. I'm paraphrasing here, but you'll get my point: 

"When they criticize you, it's really rough. But when they praise you, it's never enough." 

So take criticism in stride, consider how it could help you - and accept that it's part of your job as a writer. 

5) How detailed the notes were. 

I was really surprised by the depth of the feedback. Although some betas just flagged typos, others composed long structured emails (I set up a special account) with page and paragraph numbers and suggested changes. Others commented on character development, story arcs and whether or not they'd read the sequel. Even the sex scenes got singled out. 

My book is not 'erotica' but there are a few, ahem, sexual encounters. Some people thought my sex scenes were really hot. But at least one person went out of her way to say meh about them. 

Then there was the woman who thought the lesbian sex was way hotter than the heterosexual sex. Which sort of gave her pause because she's straight. It was a very hot scene to write as well, and being straight myself, it's giving me pause too. Trust me. 

But again, avid readers - like people in book clubs - take books very seriously. They love reading and discussing books and because of that, they're more experienced in terms of offering advice. 

Even though I'm still in the early stages, I'd say working with a book club is great practice for dealing with the real world of readers and reviewers. It's a trial run - or  'beta test' - of what you can expect when your book gets released. 

Whether you try to find readers who specialize in your genre, or decide to cast a wide net like I did, one way or another you can't skip this part of the process. Because it will definitely make your book beta. I mean, better. 

Here's more info about the Toronto Book and Brunch Club. 
Twitter: @booknbrunch
Instagram: @zuskas

And how to find book clubs in your area at bookclub.meetup.com.

btw HUNTER'S MOON is due out in November!