Cozy Mystery Publishing, Writing

Beta Readers | Cozy Mystery Publishing Process

Beta Readers

This post is part of my series on “Publishing a Cozy Mystery.” This series isn’t meant to tell you how you have to go about it and dictate what’s right or wrong. Instead, I’m sharing my personal journey from writing my initial draft to seeing my first book, Murder at the Marina, be released. I’ll talk about the good, bad, and the ugly. And trust me, there was plenty of ugly along the way.

Previously, I’ve talked to you about getting from a blank sheet of paper to a draft that I could share with beta readers. Today, I’m going to tell you more about my beta reader process from finding willing “test subjects” to read my manuscript, getting feedback from them, what kind of feedback I asked for, and what I did with the feedback I got back.

What are Beta Readers?

Writing can be a strange thing. Part of me wants to share the stories I’ve written, the other part of me would rather die than have anyone read my scribblings and {gasp} tell me what they think.

Eventually, I summoned up the courage to type <<The End>> on my manuscript and went in search of beta readers. While my husband had acted as my alpha reader and looked at endless early drafts, I got to the point where I needed feedback from a wider range of potential readers.

It was time for beta readers—people who would look at a polished draft and give me honest feedback about what they loved and what wasn’t working, identify plot holes, tell me if they connected with the characters or not, make suggestions about “little darlings” that might need to go, and point out things I couldn’t see because I was too close to the manuscript.

Finding Beta Readers

Once I realized that I would have a polished manuscript soon, I put out a call on my other blog—The Cynical Sailor—asking if anyone would be interested in beta reading for me. I was overwhelmed (in the best possible way) by the support and encouragement I received and offers to help.

Ten people originally signed up as beta readers. One didn’t respond to follow-up emails, two people ended up not being able to help due to other commitments, which left me with seven beta readers. Then, one lady’s husband asked if he could beta read as well, which I was really pleased about as I thought it would be good to get a bloke’s perspective (my other betas were women). That brought me up to eight “test subjects.”

What I was particularly excited about was the diversity of my betas. Some were sailors (which was really important as I was writing a cozy mystery with a boating theme), some were writers (which was great as they were able to give feedback from that perspective and many of them were experienced betas), and one was a cozy mystery writer herself.

Asking for Feedback

Once I wrangled myself some beta readers, I sent them a document outlining what kind of feedback I was seeking in the following areas:

  • Plot, pacing, and conflict
  • Characters and dialogue
  • Setting and worldbuilding

I also asked for general feedback in terms of what worked well, what didn’t work as well, and whether the story would have benefited from the inclusion of iguanas. Obviously, the iguana thing was a bit of a joke, but it gave them a feel for the light-hearted, humorous nature of Murder at the Marina.

I know some writers send out a few chapters at a time, get feedback on those chapters, then send out a new batch of chapters. Other writers send out the entire manuscript in one go, which is the approach I took.

After taking a deep breath, I hit the send button and emailed my manuscript to my betas toward the end of November (in Word, PDF, or ebook, depending on their preference), asking everyone to get their feedback to me at the beginning of January. And they all did, which was fantastic given how busy people were over the holiday season.

I gave everyone the option to provide feedback whatever way worked best for them. Some people used track comments in a Word document, others summarized their feedback in a separate document. The feedback I received was terrific. It was detailed and specific, as well as full of helpful suggestions.

Processing the Feedback

I don’t know about you, but the first thing I do when someone gives me feedback on my writing is curl up in the fetus position and down a bag of M&M’S (plain, not peanut). Sure, I say that I have tough skin, but let’s be honest, it’s never easy to hear that your “baby” can use some improvements.

Even though you already know intellectually going into the process that it’s all about getting feedback to make your story better, part of you deep down hopes everyone will say, “It’s great! No changes needed! Publish immediately!”

Not that you’d believe them though. Cause that’s the thing with feedback—if anyone says anything positive about your writing, you assume they’re lying because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. But when it comes to constructive criticism, you believe every single word.

Eventually, you run out of M&M’S and you have to process the feedback in a rational and constructive fashion. I compiled all of their notes into one document, categorized by theme, and identified whether it was something only one person flagged up or something that the majority thought needed to be addressed.

Then it was time to figure out what to do with all the feedback. I used these general rules:

  • If everyone thought something was an issue, I changed it. This was the easiest kind of feedback to deal with.
  • If one person thought something was an issue, but other people really liked it or were neutral and it was something I really liked as well, I generally didn’t make that change.
  • If someone had a great idea for the story, I made that change. Why pass up a great idea?
  • If a few people felt really strongly about something, even if it wasn’t the majority view, then I changed it. I figured other readers might hate it as well, so why not make the change.
  • If there was mixed feedback, I ate some more M&M’S while thinking about what to do. I effectively became the “tie-breaker,” either changing it or not. This was tricky. Who was right? Who was wrong? Is there really a right or wrong? You can see why I overdosed on chocolate.

Eventually, I worked my way through the feedback, made all of the changes, and sent the new and improved manuscript off to my editor.

Thanking Your Betas

I don’t know if I can ever thank my betas enough. I’m still in awe of the fact that people wanted to help and were willing to take time out of their own busy lives to read my manuscript and provide detailed feedback. Sure, I thank them in the acknowledgments section of my book, but it doesn’t come close to expressing how truly grateful I am for their encouragement and support. I wouldn’t be at the point of releasing Murder at the Marina next month if it wasn’t for them. Hip hip hooray for betas!

Want to know more?

Jane Friedman has some great tips on How to Find & Work with Beta Readers. I really like her idea of identifying your ideal reader as a starting point. Reedsy has a post about What to Expect from Beta Readers & Where to Find Them in which they discuss hiring beta readers through services such as Fiverr.

Writer’s Edit’s Ultimate Guide on How to Work with Beta Readers includes bonus tips on how to be a beta reader for other writers.

Jami Gold has excellent resources on beta reading, including a Beta Reading Worksheet. I drew on this heavily when pulling together my own beta reader guidelines. (You can see a copy of the beta readers guidelines that I sent out for Murder at the Marina here.)

You’ll find lots of great ideas for creating your own checklist at The Best Beta Reader Checklist Ever.

Once beta readers send you feedback, then you have to process it. Anna has useful pointers on Merging Feedback on Elements of Emaginette. The Kill Zone talks about How to Handle Critique, something that’s often easier said than done.

If you like vlogs, Jenna Moreci has several hilarious videos about beta readers. Be warned—she uses strong language at times.

Other posts in my “Publishing a Cozy Mystery” series:

Cover Design | Draft #743 | Beta Readers | Traditional vs. Self-Publishing | Editing | Going Wide or Amazon Exclusive | Ebooks, Print, or Both | Book Formatting| Distribution Channels | Book Release in Numbers | Blog Tours | ARCs (Advance Reader Copies) | Large Print Books

Have you ever been a beta reader? Have you ever worked with beta readers? What was your experience like?

Murder at the Marina Banner - Available Now

A dilapidated sailboat for your anniversary—not very romantic. A dead body on board—even worse.

If you’d like to pick up your own copy (ebook and paperback), you can do so at your favorite online retailer:

Amazon (US) | Amazon (CA) | Amazon (UK) | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Apple iBooks | Google Play | Book Depository | Books-A-Million

You can also add Murder at the Marina to your to-read list on Goodreads and subscribe to my newsletter here.


27 thoughts on “Beta Readers | Cozy Mystery Publishing Process”

  1. The idea of being beta reader and critiquing someone’s work was a bit intimidating for me. There are plenty of people I would feel more than uneasy to be a beta reader for. But it was great to get instructions and that you were so open to suggestions and ideas. And it was super great that the book was so fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You were a fantastic beta reader! Such great ideas and suggestions, all of which made Murder at the Marina so much better. Thanks so much for being part of the process 🙂


  2. Ellen, what a great post! Thanks for an honest look at the process… I’m still writing my work in progress so I’m not there yet, but filing away for later!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You have great betas and an excellent way of dealing with their notes. I have an awesome bunch too. I always write out questions I have particular concerns about at the end of the manuscript when I send it along to them. I do get mixed opinions too. I once cut out a whole chapter because one beta made a very good point. When I beta read myself, I make notes along the way, even adding in my emotional responses since I think that’s important for the author to know when I’m laughing or angry or teary eyed.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a lot of great information! I think your Publishing a Cozy blog series has the makings of a fabulous non-fiction book on the process of writing. In the meantime, I’ll be coming back to this series of posts when the time comes to turn my draft into a real manuscript.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Ellen,

    This is a great site. I never realized you had two blogs.

    I used to use a ton of beta readers when I started out, but overall, I found the feedback conflicting or otherwise unhelpful. Once I’d written several books, I began relying on just myself as a developmental editor, and Chris for content editing (he’s very tough on me and has developmental suggestions as well). So far this has worked great, but I keep a close eye on what my ideal readers have to say.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a pretty new one. I wanted to set up a separate author website from our Cynical Sailor blog. I’m only posting on here a couple of times a month and more on writing type stuff which may not appeal to regular followers of our other blog.

      I’ll be interested to see how beta reading goes for the next book for me and how many I end up using (or are interested in doing it). I can definitely see how as you write more, you may need fewer betas. One of the things I really liked about working with Chris is that he had suggestions (good ones) that went above and beyond pure copy editing.


  6. I really enjoyed reading about your process and how you digested the feedback. I had to laugh when I read the part about wanting them to say it’s great- publish, but also the fact that you wouldn’t believe it. It is sad that we are apt to think negative feedback is all true, but not believe the positive. I can totally relate. My skin gets tougher all the time- but things still hurt- even if only for a little while. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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