PONDERING: Authors – I Am Not Your Beta Reader

Wednesday, July 23, 2014 13:00
Posted in category Ponderings

ReadingThe writing world is in a state of flux right now, with vociferous advocates in all corners. At the moment all the talk is about Hachette v Amazon. Tomorrow it might be another publisher. Things are changing, that’s for sure.

As a writer, I’m lucky because I’m still finding readers. I took the decisions that were right for me. They’re not right for everybody and I have no intention of proselytizing, because what I did was what I did and I’m living with it.

But you know what? Who isn’t being heard in this?

The reader.

There are writers, professional and semi-professional bloggers, publishers, and of course Amazon. They’re all shouting and at length. But here’s me, prolific romance reader. Don’t you think it’s time the reader had a say? The so-called “consumer”? So here I am, a reader, putting aside author concerns and writing this purely as a reader and romance lover.

I read a lot. It’s my main leisure activity. Most of my fiction reading is done on my Nexus 7. I have an ereader, but I rarely use it. Only in bright sunshine or when I’m on a long journey. Actually, in my recent visit to the US, I didn’t even take my ereader. My Nexus saw me across the Atlantic and back, together with my laptop. Now airlines are allowing you to keep your reader on during takeoff and landing, I don’t even bother to buy a magazine at the airport. A book will probably last me a couple of days. That’s a lot of books in a year.

That means I’m a prime target for authors and publishers. I get newsletters and such dropping into my inbox every day. I get Bookbub as well these days, and one or two other independent newsletters. I glance at them. Unless it’s an author I know and enjoy, I rarely take notice of the offers. I may not be typical since Bookbub is famous for getting Automatic Results, i.e., the (steep) fee they demand is easily recouped in increased sales and there’s nothing an author likes more than a guaranteed result, and a money in/money out deal. Bookbub picks and chooses the people they advertise, and the big publishers are starting to use them. Some publishers also produce good newsletters, but these aren’t as well targeted to my tastes, except for the Harlequin one.

When the cheap 99 cent or free books started coming through, I went nuts. Downloaded a bunch, and kept doing it. The freebies made me look at authors I wouldn’t have normally looked at. Maybe they’d introduce me to a new, exciting writer, I thought, give me a new favorite.

Not yet, they haven’t. All that’s happened is that I’ve plodded through acres of dross, and books that, after all, weren’t my thing. I tried YA and NA. Nope, still not interested. First person narrative has to be really good for me to hook into it, and present tense turns me off completely. And I’ve tried. I tried new writers who were rejected by big publishers because they weren’t “right,” because they were pushing the boundaries of romance. No they weren’t, not really. What they were doing was havering, going off the point. I’ve never read so much backstory in all my life. “Establishing the character” one writer put it. You know what? I don’t care. I want to be made to care about your heroine before I hear about where she went to college and how disappointing her past life has been.

I’ve read really badly edited books, by which I mean copy edited. Books with “they’re” and “their” mixed up, or books that mix up words that can’t be picked up by Spellchecks, like “discreet” and “discrete.” Historicals with absolutely no history in them. They could have been happening in present day small-town Iowa. I’ve read fantasies and paranormals that don’t make sense. In some of these the backstory is entirely absent, so I’m plunged into a world I don’t understand, with rules I don’t understand.

So I’m complaining about contradictory things? You bet your sweet bippie I am. I want to sit down and read a book that makes sense, that doesn’t bore me and doesn’t jerk me out of the page every so often with a stupid mistake. I want to put some money down and buy something that will give me a few hours’ break from everyday life. To forget my troubles in a good book.

Recently I went through my Nexus and sorted out all the books I’d got for free and paid very little for. I grouped them together and started to work through them. Probably 20% of them were worth keeping and reading in their entirety.

Some of them were not to my taste. There’s another 30% or so that somebody else might like (these numbers aren’t scientific. Because why would I spend the time doing that? I’m not in the business of producing business statistics, I’m looking for a good book to read). The rest were, frankly, dross.

I’m sorry, I really am. I grabbed books indiscriminately because they were there. Then they filled up my Nexus, so I had to make some decisions. Now I have the space back. Is that all those books were worth to me, a bit of tablet space?

Frankly, yes, as it turned out. I probably got rid of the monetary equivalent of a good make-up base. So not too painful. But time? In time it was far more expensive. It took me time I don’t want to spend to go through these things.

Then it occurred to me.

I’m doing the job that used to be done by interns at publishers, by agents, and by beta readers. I am reading books that aren’t ready to be set free on the reading public, or shouldn’t be. I am acting as a gatekeeper, filtering the books through my consumer habits. This flood of new books simply aren’t ready for prime time. And what the authors don’t understand is that it’s affecting their long-term prospects. Maybe they don’t want one, maybe this one book, or one serial is all they want to do. But while one book can be made a big seller through advertising, street teams and manipulating the algorhrythms, if it isn’t good enough, the second one won’t make the cut.

Many of these books claim that the author has employed a professional editor to run through the book (I’m one of those, too. I’ve worked as an editor for a publisher and been paid for it). There are different kinds of editors, the main variations being the one who looks at the book as a whole and comments on the plot, characters and content, and the editor who corrects the grammar, spelling and continuity (the guy who starts the book with blue eyes shouldn’t have brown eyes by the end). I don’t know if the author is only employing the second kind, or if he or she is using both and then ignoring the suggestions. Because sure as hell these books weren’t ready for me to pay for them.

As you know from my reviews here, I’m a bit fussy sometimes. But my requirements are simple. I want a book with a hero and a heroine I can root for, a plot that makes sense and gives me some thrills and spills along the way, and a happy ending. (Oh, and I don’t want the present tense. That makes me itchy, but that’s just a personal preference). It’s getting harder and harder to find them, unless I stick to writers I know and even then it’s not guaranteed. I picked up a couple of self-published books by two of my favorite authors who have gone indie, and the books didn’t hit the spot. Nevertheless, I’m not ready to give up on them because they’ve given me that happy sigh before, so I know they can do it again. But when the author is his or her own boss, they can choose to ignore the advice given to them.

Listen, I don’t want to be your beta reader or your intern. I don’t care that you have a miraculously beautiful cover, or 500 reviews saying this book is the “best ever.” If I read it and it’s sub-par, then that’s it for me. It’s like buying a chocolate ice-cream and finding it tastes of nothing, or worse, day-old haddock. You cheated me.

And I’m not going back for more. If I’ve read you and loved you at least once before, then I’ll give you leeway. If it’s well edited, it makes sense and there are no douchebag heroes or heroines, then I’ll give you another chance. If it’s badly edited, if the characters are cardboard or plain dislikeable, if the plot is either over or under explained, and if I’ve never heard of you before, I’m not coming back. I will make a note in my book library and you don’t get another chance. Free, 99 cents or full price, self-published or published by the biggest name out there, I am done.

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