Advice on Self-Publishing

Advice on self-publishing, part 2: Beta reading and editing

Apologies for being a bit late in getting this posted, folks–I’ve been fighting a head cold this week, so I’m not entirely up to speed. Nevertheless, here you go, part 2 of my thoughts on self-publishing. Hope y’all find this helpful! This post focuses in particular on beta reading and editing, things that, in my opinion, are things that need to happen to your book once you’re done with it.

Now, beta reading is not the same thing as editing, so I’m going to talk about each in turn.

Beta reading, for those of you who don’t know already, is the act of handing your manuscript off to one or more trusted persons to read for you and find errors. Think of it as like a beta release of a software product–you’re handing it off to a select group of people who you trust to find the bugs in your product before it ships. Beta reading can be anything from a big-picture scan through of the manuscript to tell you “yes, this holds together” to an in-depth, line-by-line copy edit. How much you get out of a beta reader really depends upon that beta reader and how much you’re asking for. A really good beta reader, though, will approach editorial levels of commentary and be ready and willing to tell you if bits of your book don’t make sense. A truly phenomenal beta reader will in fact give you commentary that nudges you into the right direction to not only fix problems with the story, but ideally even make it stronger.

I absolutely, positively endorse getting your manuscript beta read at minimum before you send it out into the world. No matter how good a writer you are, somebody who is not you needs to see that story before you try to sell it. Nobody’s typing is a hundred percent perfect–somewhere in that manuscript, chances are that you’ve mistyped something. And chances are that you’ll miss it because you’re in a mindset of thinking you actually typed the correct thing, and your eyes will go right over the error. And if you can get a beta reader who can point out possible larger errors in your storyline, all the better. A good beta reader is gold, people.

How to find those beta readers? Ask anybody and everybody you know, but I’d recommend targeting friends or family who are passionate about reading–particularly if they are inclined to post reviews of things they’ve read recently. If you have friends who are fellow writers, they’ll be especially good beta readers. Yet at the same time, tread a little more lightly when approaching fellow writers who may not be able to spare time from working on their own work. Be willing to discuss swapping beta reading efforts. And if you do swap beta reading efforts, commit to doing so in a timely fashion (I’m guilty of falling over on this myself, so I’ll particularly stress this bit).

Once you do get your manuscript beta read, you also need to be prepared to accept good criticism. If you’re genuinely interested in improving your work, then listen to what your beta readers tell you, and remember that if they tell you that a particular aspect of your story just does not work, there’s very likely a reason for that that you need to think about. It’s vital to keep in mind as well that even if you get a lot of critiques in about your work, this doesn’t mean you are a failure as a writer. Nobody’s first draft is perfect, especially when they’re first starting out. It’s okay if your beta readers find things that need fixing. It’s all part of improving your craft.

Yet at the same time, don’t be afraid to reject a particular point from your betas if you genuinely feel that you need to keep it the way it is. Ultimately you are the writer, and it’s on you to make the final call about whether or not you’ll implement any given suggestion. But if you do turn down a particular suggestion, do so in a constructive fashion. Don’t be all “I’M THE WRITER AND WHAT I SAY GOES”, because that’s a fast track to never having beta readers again.

When should you get your story beta read? For my money, I’d say “once the first draft is finished”. However, as with almost everything in writing, your mileage may vary. For me, I find getting critiques on a chapter before I have a complete story is a good way to guarantee I’ll get way too focused on that chapter, and less on getting the actual story done. If you want somebody to sanity-check you before you have a complete story, I’d recommend at least having a complete outline as to what’s supposed to happen.

How many times should you get your story beta read? Again, your mileage may vary, but for me it’ll be a question of “how many drafts do I plan on doing?” I try to put out a call for beta readers after every major revision to a draft.

Be sure to be clear to your beta readers about your desired level of input (do you want just a proofread? Or do you want larger-structure feedback?), and how much time you’re able to give them. Be flexible if you can on how you hand out your manuscript to your readers–whether in a Word doc, over Dropbox, in differing formats, or what have you.

And once you have your manuscript beta read one or more times, what about professional editing? Should you do that too?

My answer on this: it depends. Commissioning a professional editor who knows what they’re doing can cost you several hundred dollars, so if you can’t budget for it, you can’t budget for it, and that’s that. Still, I’d encourage you to look into it if you can afford an indie editor’s rates. And here’s why: no matter how good a group of beta readers you may be fortunate enough to find, somebody with actual experience in publishing is going to bring a whole different level of attention to your manuscript. Ideally, any editor you commission should be someone who can not only proofread your work, not only give you larger-picture input on the story structure, but even help you polish your writing style and make you come across as professionally as possible.

And if you’re going to self-publish your work, people, trust me: you want to come across as professionally as possible. If you were publishing your work via traditional means, you’d be edited. Don’t do yourself the disservice of skipping that step if you’re choosing to go self-pub instead.

So yes, find an editor if you can. The trick will be finding someone with actual experience. With the explosion of self-published works, there are a lot more people out there than there used to be, promoting themselves as independent editors. There are also services that will offer you editorial input as part of the overall package of publishing your work for you. But ultimately, no matter who you hire, find out in advance what work they’ve edited beforehand so that you can see what their work looks like. Post to writer forums (like Absolute Write’s Water Cooler) and ask for recommendations. Ask your fellow writers. Look in the dedications or acknowledgements of other people’s work and see if they’ve credited their editors, especially if you know those works to be self-published. And if you go to conventions appropriate to your genre of work, chances are good you’ll find people at those conventions offering editorial services.

Long story short: whether you can afford a professional editor or not, make sure that somebody who isn’t you sees your book before you ship it.

Next post: What happens once you have a book ready to go? How do you turn it into an ebook?

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