Helping authors and publishers flourish in the digital age. I have more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship.
If you’re reading this essay, you’ve probably heard the term beta reader. Although some people do offer beta reading for a fee, the term usually refers to unpaid non-professionals who give feedback on writing prior to publication. Unlike critique partners, there’s no requirement to exchange manuscripts; unlike editors, there’s no expectation that beta readers will have advice about how to fix whatever weaknesses they find. They’re civilians, proxies for our future readers. Typically, they’re people we know, if not personally, then through a friend or writing community. We trust them enough to test our books on them and (presumably) listen to what they have to say.
Use of beta readers is widespread, but surprisingly little has been written about how writers actually use them and how they help—or if they do. Most articles focus on how to find beta readers or what questions to ask. See, for example, How to Find and Work with Beta Readers by Kristen Kieffer. But that’s not quite the same thing.
As a former qualitative researcher, trained to look at what folks on the “using” or “receiving” end have to say, I got curious about this gap. I put the word out on five different Facebook groups for writers, asking whether, who, when, why, and how people used beta readers. Within a few days, I got 92 responses. After parsing the responses into topics and themes, I ended up with nearly 200 distinct “bits” of information.
Here’s what I learned about how my fellow authors use beta readers. Not what other blogs tell them to do, but what they actually do.
Most people use a variety of beta readers—writers and non-writers.
Whenever 92 people respond to a question, there’s bound to be a spectrum of experience and opinion. However, responses to this particular question fell into three clear camps.
Readers only, please! Some people only used readers, never fellow writers, because they felt that readers were more authentic, representative, and jargon-free. They liked readers with “a sharp mind and attention to detail,” preferably from their target audience, who were familiar with and liked their genre, and whose judgment they could trust. Some preferred non-friends who had no expectations, vested interest, or reason to soften their response for the sake of the friendship. “I’ve had plenty of betas who ‘yes’ me to death and while nice for the ego, it’s not what you need.”
At times, specialty readers were also sought, either because they were experts in an area relevant to the book’s setting or plot (e.g., legal or mental health issues, a particular time or place) or because they could serve as “sensitivity readers” for content or characters outside the author’s experience.
Writers only, please! Other people were equally adamant that they preferred to use fellow writers, whom they considered better equipped to spot and articulate specific plot, pacing, and character issues. “Civilian readers don’t catch snafus like we do.”
On the other hand, they were well aware of the pitfalls of using fellow writers—in particular, the challenge for a writer of being able to switch gears and simply “read as a reader.” “We writers have a tendency to want to change it to how we would write it ourselves.” Interestingly, this is very much what I found, back when I was an academic and doing research on therapists who returned to “the client chair.” Most had a very difficult time surrendering to the patient role, even for an hour.
Both, please! More often, however, people preferred a variety of beta readers, both writers and non-writers. That could include family members, trusted critique partners, representatives of the target audience, strangers, and “intelligent friends.”
“You need a good variety to get a full understanding of the good and bad in your writing.” One person used one-third supporters/cheerleaders, one-third tough critics, and one-third “wild cards” whose opinion she couldn’t predict. “I like to ask two sets of people: a few that are my target audience and a few who can help edit and deal with higher level critiques.”
What matters isn’t just who, but when.
Rather than thinking of beta readers as a single group, or of beta reading as a single event, many people use different groups of readers at different points in their writing, and for different reasons. They liked to have one kind of reader to review an early draft, but wanted a different kind of reader for a revision and a third kind for a polished manuscript.
These three “points in time”—early draft, revision stage, and final version—weren’t rigidly defined, of course. Nevertheless, people were consistent in stating that different types of beta readers were useful at different stages.
Fellow writers were seen as most helpful for early drafts, ongoing critique, and feedback when one was stuck, at a crossroad, or “when I have done everything I can with a draft but don’t know how to go further and need assistance with recognizing craft issues.” Drawing on a common lexicon, fellow writers could explain, more specifically, what was lacking or wrong—as long as they didn’t cross the line into “this is how I would have done it.”
Non-writers, on the other hand, were more helpful later, when the book was done, “as a test audience, almost as quality assurance,” but not for material that still required considerable work. Respondents emphasized that it was up to the writer to make the manuscript as polished as possible before showing it to non-writers, who “don’t want to read something that’s not been edited or is hard to follow.”
Using beta readers is worthwhile, if not essential.
Those who responded to the survey felt that beta readers were a necessary part of the writing process. “They are a huge part of my process since the longer I work on a manuscript, the more susceptible I am to blind spots.”
In some cases, people used beta readers because they couldn’t afford a paid professional. Betas were seen as an alternative way to get an independent, impartial view of their work. For other people, beta readers complemented the feedback they received from paid editors, preceding or following their input; that is, they used—and valued—both. “Betas tell you how the average reader will respond to your book, and the editor will make your book marketable.”
Getting the most benefit from a beta reader was a key issue. To avoid both generic praise and generic criticism, some people felt it was important to give readers a list of specific questions about structure, clarity, continuity, and character development. “The questions are the key to focusing the comments—otherwise you run the danger of vague praise or people thinking they’re line editors.”
On the other hand, some preferred to leave things open-ended, letting readers report what they actually felt, without being limited or primed—the way people will focus only on the color of a flower, ignoring its shape and scent, if you tell them that’s what you’re interested in.
Using beta readers has its pitfalls and limitations.
Problems can stem from an over-abundance of feedback—a trap that writers can fall into when feedback is free. “It’s way too easy to ask ten people for comments, and then implement all their comments and lose what I intended for the story.” Confusion and loss of focus will make the manuscript worse, rather than better. “If you get too many chefs in the kitchen, it can change the recipe, which is almost never the best solution.”
Because feedback from beta readers doesn’t reflect knowledge of writing craft, it may lack the specificity necessary for it to be “actionable.” As one person put it, “reverse engineering” is needed to translate a beta reader’s reaction into what exactly went wrong and what to do about it, requiring so many extra steps that it left him wishing he’d hired a professional—or never asked. In his view, willingness to provide useful feedback and the ability to do so aren’t the same thing.
As with all forms of feedback, quality will vary. “My experience is that you can find beta readers that are spectacular and some that are useless. And it is the same for professional editors. It depends on who you can find, not on whether you pay them or not, or whether they’re writers or not.”
Ultimately, of course, writers must decide what to do with the feedback they receive. People tended to feel free to accept or reject what beta readers told them. If a number of people pointed out the same weakness—especially if they included both writers and non-writers—or if the comments resonated strongly, the feedback was more likely to be taken seriously. What I don’t know—because I didn’t ask—was whether people felt the same way about feedback they had to pay for.
I guess that’s another study.
What can we learn from this study?
Know—and communicate—what you want from a beta reader. That may be different at different points in the writing process.
Seek diversity of background and viewpoint, depending on your aim. Sometimes you’ll want a heterogeneous group of readers, and sometimes you’ll want someone specific. Think about what you need before you ask.
Regardless of whether you also use a paid professional, beta readers can serve a vital role as a test audience. Just remember the difference between asking for someone’s experience and asking for her expertise.
What is your experience with beta readers? Share in the comments.
Maybe you’re like me, someone with a mile-wide idea shelf but a short, stubby one for people. Perhaps you like your fellow humans generally, but your introvert soul prefers small-group interactions to huge crowds and forced small talk. Or maybe, like me, you grew up in a place where networking was either mentioned with disdain or not at all.
A writing conference may be your first professional networking opportunity. During my first few conferences, my angst could’ve lit entire cities. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. Sensing my discomfort, a gracious mentor debunked the mysteries of networking for me. Studying her at future conferences revealed several tricks I could use to schmooze like a pro, or at least operate like a less awkward version of myself. This gift is one I’ll spend the rest of my life repaying and one I’d like to share with you.
Whether this is your first or fortieth conference, it’s always better with friends. Invite a fellow writer to join you. If that’s not possible, put out an all-call on your social media networks to see who’s attending your #conference. Make plans to meet IRL (in real life) so you can either get to know each other or catch up.
But if you reach your destination flying solo and sans plans, there are still things you can do. Introduce yourself to your equally introverted and angst-ridden seatmates at the beginning of each session. If someone seems to be on the same conference track (as in you both continue to attend the same sessions), abandon your Twitter feed and strike up a conversation. Ask their opinion on the topic, where they’re from, or what they love. Steer clear of the seemingly obvious go-getter question: what’s your favorite book? That’s like asking a parent to name their favorite child. You’re likely to hear crickets as your fellow writer anxiously formulates a thoughtful, stranger-worthy response. Instead, ask what they’re reading now. See if the person has lunch plans. If they do, ask to tag along. Remember, conferences are for schmoozing and everyone likes to have a full lunch table.
Shop the Book Fair
Once you’ve buddied up, tackle the conference book fair. But before you enter, let me give you some advice. The primary mission for these journals is to spread the word about their publication and increase readership. A secondary mission is to connect or reconnect with author’s they’d like to publish. What’s not mission critical? Hearing cold pitches from unknown authors.
Upon arrival, select the tables you’d like to visit. If you’ve published in a magazine or journal that’s tabling, thank them for publishing your work. Say something nice about their organization (easy to do with some light research) and ask what they’re most excited about publishing next.
When visiting prospective places to submit, buy a copy of their latest publication. You can use this to decide whether your work and this outlet are a good match. Again, say something nice and if possible, talk about a favorite piece. If you want to get fancy, ask about the journal’s aesthetic, mission, or what the editors like best about working there. In other words, strike up an authentic conversation with the person in front of you. But do no pitch unless you’re asked to do so. Even then, your best bet is to secure an email address (if they offer) and send your pitch post-conference through the proper channels.
Remember, these editors are probably surviving on coffee and frequent visits to their happy places as they work to overcome their own people-related hang-ups. In this environment, your pitch is likely to be forgotten, but an authentic conversation with a fellow human is more memorable. It’s also something you can mention in your cover letter.
Do the Eating, Meeting, and Greeting
If you’re already overloaded, it can be tempting to skip social events. Before you do, remember these are your best opportunities to connect with fellow writers. At conference-sponsored meals and meet and greets, give yourself a threefold mission: meet other writers at your level, have authentic conversations with more experienced writers, and practice speaking with influencers without getting creepy or fangirling over them like I have. If you like something a presenter said, say so. If you’ve read their work, talk about what you liked and ask how they came up with their idea. If those questions make you sweat, ask what they love to do in addition to writing. Never bum-rush featured speakers just to say you’ve spoken with so and so, and never pitch to an agent eating lunch.
In fact, if you’re really interested in speaking with an agent, do some research before making contact. Agents are frequently overworked and underappreciated. If an organic meeting opportunity arises, compliment their presentation or talk about how much you love one of their client’s books. If you’ve read one of their articles, share what you learned. If they ask about your work, deliver your one-sentence elevator pitch. Don’t have one? Wow them by saying you have a work in progress but want it to take a back seat to the conversation you’re currently having—one that focuses on why you’ve been impressed with their work or perhaps a shared interest. If pitching is your main goal, sign up for conference pitch sessions so agents can give you and your work their undivided attention.
Allow for Happenstance
A fabulous writer friend of mine once told me about the importance of stopping by the conference bar at the end of the day. “You never know what might happen,” she said. In her case, she struck up a conversation that included a well-known author. At 2:00 AM, one of the writers in this conversation invited the stragglers back to his hotel room to show them something special. Feeling like this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and not as sketchy as it sounds given that she was with a group, she obliged. As the party continued their writing-related conversation, the writer passed around the whale blubber he’d brought with him. Yes, whale blubber. The thought of chewing on a hunk of whale fat makes me shudder, yet ever since she told me that story, I’ve yearned for my own conference-related whale blubber experience.
Now, before every event, I ask the universe to send me one. Finding my whale blubber generally requires me to stay open and check in with my gut regarding which opportunities to pursue. Sometimes it means breaking away from my carefully created conference schedule to try something new. As someone who’s not a night owl, my whale blubber experiences rarely happen at 2:00 AM, but I’m usually rewarded for my flexibility with some happy, unexpected moment.
Joyful happenstance allows you to be completely present and frees you from the neurotic thoughts that lead to awkward interactions. Happy and carefree, you can use my top three schmoozing tips. Be a good human. Respect the size of your people shelf and challenge it to hold a little more. When possible, seek out your personal whale blubber experience. Your writing life will be better off for having done so.
Amazon is always looking for better ways to crank out a higher profit margin. While some of their updates have been much to the chagrin of authors, recent changes to their book advertising system should help authors make better decisions about their ads and target their markets more precisely.
But it’s not all good. I’m leery of some aspects I think might be problematic.
Note: If you’re less familiar with Amazon ads or aren’t sure how to create them, then check out my complete, free video course on Amazon book advertising.
Amazon advertising: What has changed?
A couple of months ago, Amazon changed the name of their advertising platform from Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) to Amazon Ads, which is why you might still see people, myself included, call it AMS.
On January 7, 2019, Amazon made some significant changes to the AMS features. Although there are slight variations throughout the entire system, most of the major changes can be grouped into three categories:
New Advertising Modes
Better Advertising Targeting
1. New Amazon advertising modes
The first change we’ll explore is how Amazon has altered their advertising modes. Previously, authors had a choice of two methods to advertise their book:
Sponsored Product Ads
Product Display Ads
View of Kindle lock screen
However, Amazon has removed Product Display Ads and instead created Lock Screen Ads. Simply put, this allows you to display your ad on the screen of a Kindle when it is locked as well as on the home page of a Kindle device.
It works a little differently depending on whether the user has a Kindle Fire or not, but the basic principle is the same: when someone opens their Kindle, they will see your ad either on the lock screen or the home page—and hopefully click it.
While some authors believe this is helping their sales, I personally am not a fan of these ads. I believe a lot of Kindle users accidentally click on the ads on their lock screen or home screen. I know I’ve personally done this a couple of times.
The other issue I have is that I generally don’t shop for my next book using my Kindle. When I’m using the device, I’m reading a book I already have invested in. Therefore, I’m a bit wary about this option, and so far my own testing shows high clicks and low sales as compared to other modes.
2. Improved Amazon advertising dashboard
If you’re a book marketing nerd like me, this is a change you can truly get excited about!
For years I’ve been frustrated by Amazon’s dashboard—features common in any other sector of the advertising industry were not offered. To see if your ads had new impressions, or changes, you’d need to export Excel files each day and compare. Having to do this was wholly ridiculous, especially for a company as large as Amazon. Thankfully, Amazon has made some meaningful changes to their dashboard that have improved the user experience.
Amazon Dashboard, Campaigns view
Here’s what’s new.
Export. If you’ve used Amazon ads in the past, you’ll know how tedious it was to have to export your data, run it through a spreadsheet, and manipulate it outside of the Amazon environment. I have a background in engineering, so I’m kind of a technical guy, but even I found this to be frustrating. Thankfully, you can now do meaningful data manipulation within the Amazon advertising environment itself. This is a lot more efficient and saves the frustration of having to export the data.
Filters. You can now filter the data. This is particularly useful if you are running different campaigns, or different versions of the same campaign, as you can quickly and easily compare performance.
Timescale. Now Amazon allows you to quickly change the timescale for the data shown. You can easily see data from a particular time period. This is great to analyze trends. What direction are your ads trending in? Better or worse over time? You can use this data to make improvements to your campaign, and also to draw cause-and-effect relationships between your marketing decisions and the performance of your campaigns.
Columns. Amazon advertising data can be a little overwhelming sometimes, particularly if you’re not used to working with quantitative information. Thankfully, Amazon has made it a lot simpler. You can now easily select which columns are displayed, allowing you to see only the data you want.
Lifetime data. This is a great improvement. You can now easily and quickly export the lifetime data from your campaigns. This is a fantastic option to get a big picture overview.
3. Better Amazon advertising targeting
If you’re familiar with online advertising in general, you’ll know how important targeting is. After all, the ability to pinpoint your ad audience is one of the major advantages of online marketing.
As part of their upgrades, Amazon has improved the way you can target your ads and make sure you get your book in front of the market you want. Here’s some of the new targeting—plus one that isn’t as commonly known.
Product targeting. This is good if there is a specific book you really want to get your ad next to. To target a product, you use the ASIN. This stands for “Amazon Standard Identification Number.” It’s a ten-digit code that’s unique to each Amazon product. If you want to target a particular book, the ASIN is how it’s done.
Category targeting. Picking the right categories for your book is a key part of becoming a bestseller, and ensures the right people are exposed to your work.
Negative targeting. This change was made last year. With negative targeting, you can now suppress your ad from display when people type in certain words or phrases. Say, for example, you have written a book about the optics of twilight—how the light looks at dusk. Using negative targeting, you could ensure your book does not show up anywhere near Twilight (vampire romance) or people looking for a book in that genre or category. This ensures your ads reach the right people, saving you money and frustration.
See the changes in action
New Amazon Book Ads Update (Explained) - YouTube
Final thoughts about the changes
After about a month of working with the new system, I’ll give them a B+. I like the new targeting with the ASIN numbers and the categories. This new emphasis on categories gives authors the chance to expand their reach by targeting relevant categories they had to sacrifice when publishing their book (authors are only allowed to pick three categories for their metadata). So, rather than sweating your selections, you can simply add even more categories when advertising. Also, the new dashboard is light years better than the original version, but some aspects could give more insight into what’s really going on.
However, when it comes to the Lock Screen Ads, I’m not a fan. In truth, I wasn’t much of a fan of the Product Display Ads either, so swapping one for the other doesn’t change much. This one will bring Amazon more money due to more clicks, but I doubt it will have the positive ROI that authors see elsewhere. However, that isn’t to say that Lock Screen Ads won’t work for anyone.
If you’re interested in learning more or starting your ads, be sure to check out my full free course about Amazon ads. I will be updating it soon to reflect the above changes once I gain more experience with each aspect.
If you’ve been experimenting with the new changes, let other readers know your thoughts and observations in the comments below. Let’s share our knowledge, experience, and insights.
The writers who visit you in class, when you’re still a student—especially if you’re young and impressionable—these writers stick with you for a lifetime.
I recall vividly a visit from Dana Gioia to my undergrad poetry class, then his reading afterward, and handing him a book to sign. I thought there was no person more intrinsically a writer, so thoroughly in his being and essence someone who loved words. He was nothing less than a prophet.
The way I saw it then and still see it today: Barry was blindly in love with everyone and everything, and words are what he loved most of all, and they are what he had with which to express his love. He didn’t hedge his bets, and the sentences he fashioned—those holy, celestial, bonkers sentences—oh my god. As Wells Tower put it after Barry died, “He wouldn’t leave a sentence alone until he’d electrified every word… After Hannah, you couldn’t let yourself write a ‘Then he picked up a coffee cup’ sort of sentence ever again.”
As a freelance editor and book coach, I help my clients with all kinds of tough tasks, from untangling plot problems to finding ways to cut 60,000+ words from an already polished manuscript.
But there’s only one job that ever keeps me up at night, and that’s when someone comes to me for help with their query letter and I can tell right away that the problem lies not with their query letter, but with their actual book.
Writing a query letter is hard for almost everyone, so the problem isn’t always obvious from the get go. The author may not have found a way to boil the story down to its essential elements (or may even lack a sense of what those elements are).
The author may have tried to include too much in their query, or not made it clear how the various plot lines connect. They may not have succeeded in communicating the stakes of the novel, or the takeaway—basically, why the story has value, and why a reader might care.
But sometimes a novel cannot be boiled down to a few essential elements because the story itself lacks coherence. Its various story lines cannot be connected in the course of a few clear, punchy sentences because those story lines themselves aren’t clearly connected by cause and effect. The stakes of the novel can’t be stated in a way that’s compelling because the stakes of the story simply aren’t high enough; there is no emotional takeaway because the novel lacks an effective character arc.
Yes, boiling down an 80,000-word novel to just a couple paragraphs is a brutal business, but it also tends to reveal the overall shape of a novel, just the way a map reveals the overall shape of a country, in a way that simply can’t be intuited while making your way across the landscape it describes.
And what I’ve noted here are just a few of the ways that structural or thematic issues can reveal themselves at the very last stage of the writing process—the point where you’re ready to pitch—making it virtually impossible to write a query letter that will sell.
A novel that can’t meet the standards for a query letter generally will not meet the standards of the marketplace for fiction. Agents and editors know this; that’s why they require pitches that adhere to this form. (Editors who specialize in memoir will tell you the same thing.)
And part of why this sort of scenario gives me nightmares is that the author who comes to me for help at this stage is generally no slouch. They’ve studied creative writing, taken classes, attended conferences, seminars, etc.—oftentimes they’ve even hired an editor to help them perfect the language.
How can I explain that despite all the time and effort—and often, money—they’ve invested in this book, it’s unlikely anyone will publish it? This is not the stage at which anyone wants to go back to the drawing board.
As far as I can tell, people wind up in this position for three reasons:
1. The line editing happened before developmental editing.
Having your novel line edited before you receive developmental feedback on the story as a whole is like rearranging furniture in a room that might need to have a wall knocked out.
You might get lucky and wind up with a floor plan that works on your very first attempt at building a house, but chances are, you won’t. And while it’s fine to discover your story by writing it (hello, pantsers!), you owe it to yourself to bring in a seasoned architect or two to at least take a look at the place before you start unpacking Grandma’s china.
2. They believe they can write a publishable novel intuitively.
This is not to say that some writers don’t possess this ability—especially if they’re writing in a genre with a pretty set pattern, like the cozy mystery, and they’ve read a ton of books in this genre.
It’s only to say that such people tend to be outliers, especially when they’re first starting out. Flannery O’Conner once said, “Everybody knows what a story is until they sit down to write one.” In my experience—as both an author and an editor—truer words were never spoken.
3. They’ve studied story structure, but they haven’t figured out how to apply it to their own book.
This isn’t surprising, since many creative writing teachers (and authors of books on craft) essentially teach their own idiosyncratic process. Which is great if your work and process aligns with theirs—but if it doesn’t, you’ll excitedly scribble away notes and insights that feel like revelations at the time, but later, when you go back to try to apply them to your novel, you’ll struggle to see how they apply (or how they might help you solve the issues you’ve already identified).
The novel is novel, in that it’s endlessly open to reinvention; in my experience, it’s only the truly foundational principles that apply to nearly any type of long-form fiction. The kind of person who generally has insight into the most broadly applicable principles—and the role they play in producing publishable fiction—is a freelance developmental editor.
And personally, I’d rather be the bearer of good news than bad. Which is why I’d so much rather work with first-time authors early in the development of their novels than at the end, when they’re asking me to help them accomplish something that simply isn’t possible.
Note from Jane: Starting March 26, Susan is offering a new online class through LitReactor called Nail Your Novel. She’s spent nearly a year developing this class, which reflects—in the simplest possible, most actionable terms—what she’s learned over the past ten years as a freelance editor and book coach.
This class will help you get a handle on what it really takes to meet the standards of the marketplace for fiction, and how to make it happen—not in the abstract, not in someone else’s book, but in your own. Which, in the end, is going to make your book a whole lot easier to pitch.
When writers ask me about “must haves” for marketing or overall career development, I always hesitate to list requirements. Every writer is different; every career is different. However, I do think you can gain better momentum and traction if you’re willing to build a foundation with these three integrated components:
Author website: your 24/7 business card to the world and official hub
A presence at one social media network: where you are regularly visible to all in the community
Your email newsletter: your most valuable outreach to those who are interested in your work
Awareness of estate planning issues can be especially important to writers because of the unique nature of property rights in written works. Proper planning ensures that the ownership of a writer’s works after his or her death will end up in safe and knowledgeable hands.
In addition to giving the writer significant posthumous control over his or her works, an estate plan can greatly reduce the overall amount of estate tax paid at death. Because valuations of written works for estate tax purposes are not precise, estate taxes may turn out to be significantly higher than might have been anticipated. Thus, it is very important for writers to reduce their taxable estate as much as possible.
An estate plan may be either will-based or trust-based. Each type has advantages, but both are legitimate forms of estate planning. Estate laws and probate procedures vary throughout the United States, and a plan that works well for one person in one state may be inappropriate in other situations. Proper estate planning requires a knowledgeable lawyer and sometimes the assistance of other professionals, such as life insurance agents, accountants, and bank trust officers.
A will is a unique document in two respects. First, if properly drafted, it is ambulatory, meaning it can accommodate change, such as applying to property acquired after the will is made. Second, it is revocable, meaning it can be changed or canceled before death.
When carefully prepared, wills not only address how the assets of the estate will be distributed, but also foster better management of the assets. Those persons responsible for administering the estate of a decedent are known as executors in some states and personal representatives in others. It may be a good idea for writers to appoint joint executors so that one has publishing or writing experience and the other has financial expertise. In this way, the financial decisions can have the benefit of at least two perspectives. If joint executors are used, it will be necessary to make some provision in the will for resolving any deadlock between the two. A lawyer’s help will be necessary to set forth all of these important considerations in legally enforceable, unambiguous terms.
It is essential to avoid careless language that might be subject to attack by survivors unhappy with the will’s provisions. A lawyer’s help is also crucial to avoid making bequests that are not legally enforceable because they are contrary to public policy.
A common way to transfer property outside the will is to place the property in a trust that is created prior to death. A trust is simply a legal arrangement by which one person holds certain property for the benefit of another. The person holding the property is the trustee; those who benefit are the beneficiaries.
To create a valid trust, the writer must identify the trust property, make a declaration of intent to create the trust, transfer property to the trust (this is often a step that is missed and can create a multitude of problems), and name identifiable beneficiaries. Failure to name a trustee will not defeat the trust, since if no trustee is named, a court will appoint one. (The writer may name himself or herself as trustee.)
Trusts can be created by will, in which case they are termed testamentary trusts, but these trust properties will be probated along with the rest of the will. To avoid probate, the writer must create a valid inter vivos or living trust.
Advantages of Using a Trust
The use of trusts to prepare a trust-based plan will, in certain situations, have significant advantages over a traditional will-based plan. For example, the careful drafting of trusts can allow the writer’s estate to avoid probate, which in some states is a lengthy and expensive process. Similarly, the execution of an estate through a trust-based plan can ensure a level of privacy not possible in probate court. Although these kinds of provisions provide some control over the estate, writers are cautioned that trusts cannot adequately substitute for a will if used haphazardly. Professional assistance is strongly recommended.
Life Insurance Trusts
Life insurance trusts can also be used for paying estate taxes. The proceeds of a life insurance trust will not be taxed if the life insurance trust is irrevocable and the trustee is someone other than the estate executor. Even when the trust is irrevocable and the trustee is a third party, the proceeds are taxed to the extent they are used to pay taxes to benefit the estate. The advantage to this arrangement, then, is not so much tax avoidance as guaranteed liquidity. This advantage is especially important for writers and other creative people, since otherwise survivors can be forced to sell remaining works for much less than their real value in order to pay estate taxes.
Many aspects of publishing—including arrangements with authors, agents, illustrators, freelancers, employees, printers, binders, and distributors—involve contracts. The terms of a contract vary depending on the situation, but in every case, the nature of legally binding agreements is the same. Here are three common forms of contract.
Contracts that are not explicitly stated in words may be implied by conduct. For example, suppose that a writer submits a manuscript to a publisher, which publishes the manuscript but does not compensate the writer. Even though they did not sign a contract, there is an implied contract between them. The terms of that contract depend upon the relationship between the writer and the publisher.
If the facts indicate that the writer submitted the manuscript with no expectation of payment, then none would be due. On the other hand, if the writer has historically submitted manuscripts to this publisher and received payment from the publisher for publishing them, it is likely that the writer expected to receive compensation and that a promise by the publisher to pay would be implied. The implied terms of the contract would be legally enforceable. But absent a clear written agreement, the parties could be faced with lengthy and expensive litigation to determine the amount due and other issues.
An oral contract is one in which the parties have verbally agreed to something but have not recorded the agreement in writing. Most oral contracts are valid and enforceable, although some kinds of agreements are legally required to be in writing to be enforceable. As a practical matter, oral contracts are often difficult to prove in court, since the main evidence is usually the conflicting testimony of the parties. It has been said that oral contracts are not worth the paper they are written on. While not technically correct, this adage does reflect the harsh reality that many worthy claims cannot successfully be enforced because oral agreements lack the strength of written ones.
Written agreements should adequately describe the obligations of the parties and the consideration involved. Custom dictates that written contracts be signed and dated by the parties.
Under the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN) and various state laws, transactions executed electronically, such as by email, cannot be invalidated solely because an electronic signature or electronic record was used in their formation. An electronic signature is any identifying mark, such as the sender’s name at the end of an email or email address in the header. Some kinds of documents, such as wills, are typically covered by these laws, as are most publishing agreements.
Some types of agreements are legally required to be in written form. The Statute of Frauds, a law adopted to inhibit fraud and perjury, provides that any contract that cannot be fully performed within one year must be in writing in order to be legally binding. This rule has been narrowly construed to mean that if a contract can conceivably be performed within one year of its making, it need not be in writing.
Assume that a writer has agreed to submit two manuscripts to a publisher—one within eighteen months after the contract is signed and the second within eighteen to twenty-four months thereafter and no earlier. In this situation, the terms of the agreement make it impossible for the writer to complete performance within one year. If, however, the writer agrees to submit both manuscripts within twenty-four months, it is possible that the writer could submit both manuscripts in the first year and the requirements of the Statute of Frauds would be satisfied.
The fact that the writer might not actually complete performance within one year is immaterial. So long as complete performance within one year is possible, the agreement need not be made in writing. The Statute of Frauds applies to other kinds of contracts as well, but these rarely involve writing activities.
For a contract to be enforceable, the parties must be capable of understanding their contractual obligations. Minors are deemed by law to have diminished capacity to contract. A person is legally a minor until the age of majority. This age varies from state to state but is either eighteen or twenty-one years of age in most states.
Persons who have the capacity to enter into contracts and who sign written agreements are generally bound to the terms of those agreements, irrespective of whether they read or understood the agreement before signing. The law imposes the burden on the parties to read proposed agreements and understand the terms prior to signing them. The fact that an agreement was lengthy, obtusely drafted, or complicated will seldom justify rescission, except when the terms are unconscionable or against public policy.
For an in-depth guide to legal issues from a publisher’s perspective (especially helpful for prolific indie authors and small presses), check out The Law (in Plain English) for Publishers by Leonard D. Duboff and Amanda Bryan.
Like many indie authors grateful for new outlets for their work, I was drawn last year to the world of audiobook production. This was thanks in large part to the recommendation of author friend Ian Thomas Healy, who’d had a positive experience adapting his work for audio. His personal history with it, combined with the rise in audiobook popularity, led me to follow Healy’s example and create an audiobook at ACX, Amazon’s audiobook production platform.
When I entered into that first relationship with an audiobook narrator/producer, I knew absolutely nothing about how an audiobook was made (beyond the obvious “skilled voice actor records a reading of a book”). This meant I also had no idea how much there was to know. My “extensive” research involved learning the difference between the PFH (per finished hour) and RS (royalty share) payment systems offered on ACX and browsing voice samples in ACX’s pool of available narrators.
What I learned as part of the production process was that the more an author knows going in, the less potential there is for strain in the author/producer relationship. As uninformed as I may have been, and as lucky as I was to find a narrator who was easy and fun to work with, one element impossible to be blind to was the explosive potential of this recipe: writer/artist protective of original work and its intent + narrator/artist protective of professional ability to deliver a valid interpretation of the original work.
And that doesn’t even graze the issue of fair payment. What I didn’t learn until recently was that the $100-$200/PFH I had seen offered by many narrators at ACX and therefore thought was reasonable compensation is, according to seasoned professionals who frequently discuss pay issues in a Facebook group for audiobook narrators, woefully inadequate. Had I done more research in my earlier audiobook days, I’d have learned that other production companies, such as ListenUp Audiobooks, charge $450 per finished hour. This in turn would have helped me not balk at the $250/PFH minimum requested by many ACX producers in the Facebook group. (The group’s regular users often direct new narrators to audiobook narrator Julia Sage’s website, which hosts a helpful cost calculator as well as a comprehensive explanation of the differences between Per Finished Hour, Royalty Share, and Hybrid agreements. Highly recommended for authors considering adaptation.)
Pay issues can be resolved fairly easily, but artistic conflicts can be trickier. How much input should an author have when it comes to the narrator’s interpretation? When is feedback helpful, and when is it frustrating?
For answers to these and other questions, I reached out to someone who’s not only experienced in the field of audiobook production, but who has also interviewed countless other narrators, and a few authors, about their own experiences with audiobook production: Rich Miller, stage and screen actor, audiobook narrator, and creator and host of The Audiobook Speakeasy podcast.
Rich has been a storyteller since he was a kid. When he was around 10, he started reading to his family after dinner (his favorites were The Lemonade Trick and The Big Joke Game, by Scott Corbett). As an adult, Rich started acting in musicals and plays, and from there went into theatrical sound design and voiceover work. For the past five years, Rich as been focusing on telling stories through audiobooks. When he’s not in the recording booth, he’s dodging Tucson drivers on his bicycle or creating a new cocktail.
KRISTEN TSETSI: What awkward moment or mistake, whether mechanical or self-inflicted or in an exchange with an author, did you experience as an audiobook narrator that you don’t believe you’ll ever forget?
RICH MILLER: I think the worst mistake I’ve made is agreeing to narrate a book that was primarily made up of text that was handwritten by dozens of people, often poorly photocopied. It was grueling work, more stopping-and-starting than any other book I’ve narrated. It reinforced something that I knew was true, but that’s easy to forget or minimize when you’re working as an entrepreneur: it’s okay to turn down work when there’s a good reason to do so.
You’re both a stage-and-screen actor and a book narrator. Does narrating take a special skill, or could most actors also be audiobook narrators?
I’d actually answer “yes” to both questions.
Stage actors who cross over into film learn that the mediums are very different, so they learn how to use the skills they already have in a different way. So it is with audiobooks: having a background in any form of acting gives you a leg up, you just have to adapt the tools you already have for use in a different medium.
When going from stage to audiobooks, an actor needs to learn how to be “small”: you have to be able to portray the same level of intensity as you might do on stage moving around expressively and shouting, but without moving your mouth away from the mic too much and without actually shouting. This is similar to going from stage to film, with the added constraint of knowing that you can’t rely on facial expressions to convey anything to your audience: they may help you deliver lines believably, but alone they don’t add to the listener’s experience.
With fiction, there’s usually also the need for the ability to portray a character who is not the same gender as the narrator without taking the listener out of the story. There are a few narrators who can do this so well that it’s easy to believe that the audiobook is actually a full-cast production, but most listeners are fine as long as the characters are clearly differentiated without the narrator resorting to methods that make it obvious they’re faking something (e.g., a male narrator using a falsetto for all female characters). Subtlety is generally a good thing.
I’d been narrating for a couple of years, and in that time I’d been listening to more and more podcasts about a variety of topics. I thought, “There’s got to be some podcasts out there about audiobooks,” so I searched and found some.
The problem was that most of the ones I found catered to listeners, and while occasional comments about why the narration in a particular audiobook did or didn’t work were interesting, I found myself wanting more content that would be helpful to narrators: input from coaches, engineers, casting directors at publishing companies, etc.
I met Scott Brick at the Audiobook Publishers Association Conference in 2017 and mentioned my idea to him, and he was kind enough to share some ideas with me based on the many interviews he’d participated in. During that same conference, I enjoyed sharing a few drinks with many friends in the industry, and since I’d become somewhat of an amateur mixologist over the past few years, framing the podcast as a friendly chat about audiobooks over drinks seemed like a natural fit. Thus, the Audiobook Speakeasy was born.
Your first episode, an interview with Sean Allen Pratt, includes a discussion about the three questions to ask yourself before agreeing to a contract: is the pay satisfactory, what will it do for your career, and will you have fun? How do you know whether you’ll have fun? That is, how much of the book do you typically read before deciding whether it will be fun, and what else helps you decide?
I think Sean’s advice is great. After doing this for awhile, I have found that I don’t actually think of those questions one at a time anymore, but each one of them absolutely plays a part in my overall decision-making process. In terms of fun, I feel like I usually get a good sense of the tone of a book within a few pages. If that tone doesn’t excite me in any way, I’m definitely focusing more on the other aspects — pay and career — when deciding whether to pursue a project.
In episode 17 of the Audiobook Speakeasy, Audiobookworm creator Jess Herring says in a conversation about sound quality of audiobook recordings, “Some authors want to record their own books.” In response, you almost inaudibly murmur in the negative. She goes on, “…which is a bold choice…”
Though it could easily be argued that you and Herring are right to warn authors not to read their own material unless they have an acting background (whether stage or straight voice), it could also be argued that there is legitimate concern on the author’s part that the narrator won’t correctly deliver a certain line of dialogue or the personality of a character. All writing is of course open to personal interpretation, but a silent reading allows for any number of interpretations; a voice reading, on the other hand, determines a single interpretation for all listeners.
What would you say about this to an author considering audiobook production for the first time and uncertain about whether to hire a narrator?
I think it’s perfectly reasonable for an author to consider narrating their own work. The problem is that most authors are not familiar with all of the elements that go into audiobook production.
In addition to the performance aspect, there’s understanding how to properly set up and treat a recording space; mic choice; mic technique; and recording software proficiency, to name a few.
There are certainly ways to deal with a lack of knowledge in those areas, such as hiring a director and an engineer and booking time in a professional studio, but many authors are not thinking along those lines, they’re thinking about self-producing. So whenever I hear that an author wants to narrate their own work, I try to caution them about everything they need to know before going that route.
I think that it’s also perfectly reasonable for an author, especially one who has never had an audiobook produced before, to have concerns about how a narrator is going to interpret their text. But a well-selected audition piece and open communication with the selected narrator should allay any fears. It’s also important to remember that while an author knows the characters that they created, it’s possible to get too close to one’s own work: a character that is portrayed differently than how you hear them in your head may resonate more with the audience.
And there, I think, is where the author/producer relationship has potential to get delicate. Actor and audiobook narrator Barbara Rosenblat says in episode 28 of your podcast, of her first time narrating an audiobook, “I thought, ‘That was the most incredible piece of work I’ve ever done. I mean, the control of being able to create all your own characters in this setting.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is brilliant!’”
An author might be of the mind that s/he is the creator of the characters and may be uncomfortable with someone else re-creating them, or re-envisioning them. Actors are used to taking direction when performing on stage or set, but novels don’t have directors—only their authors. Is feedback/guidance from authors received as it might be from a play or film director? That is, do you welcome their input or their suggestions about delivery, or are they generally not trusted because they’re writers and not actors (or not otherwise involved in the acting world)? Is there a commonly understood “just right” amount of input?
Unfortunately, there is no “just right” amount of input. I know narrators who are very explicit with rights holders when starting on a project, and go so far as to send a detailed description of how they’re going to work, including a statement about the fact that they will accept no creative or directorial change requests once the first fifteen minutes have been approved. In a recent podcast episode, I had a chat with an author/narrator pair who knew each other prior to audiobook production, and it was clear that the author gave a great deal of direction during the process. So it really depends on the people involved.
I think the important point is that the author is not the director: either the book is being recorded in a studio with a director and an engineer and a narrator, as often happens at the major publishing houses, or the book is being recorded by a single person who is self-directing (with an occasional outlier, e.g., an engineer is hired but no director), but in neither case is the author the director. That doesn’t mean that an author’s input can never be considered; it simply means that how much input will be welcome should be determined by the parties involved before embarking on the journey.
What list of helpful notes should any author provide after finding a narrator/producer but before the recording begins?
I think the most important things that should be communicated are whatever the author is most concerned about. This will vary from author to author, but generally speaking I think characterizations are most important: his words are bold, but are they coming from a place of power or insecurity? Her words are whiny, but is she simply spoiled or is she being manipulative? A lot of times, the answers to questions like that are fairly clear from the text; sometimes they’re not.
Pronunciations are also important: it’s up to the narrator to pronounce actual names (e.g., names of places that exist) correctly; but if your novel has fictional place names where the pronunciation can’t be researched, if you care about how it’s pronounced, make it clear.
If every author would provide this type of information up front, I think 90% of the conflicts that arise during self-directed audiobook production would disappear.
What kind of author is a horror to work with, and what kind of author is a joy to work with?
I think the most difficult interactions are with authors who want to micro-manage a project: requesting a pause be lengthened by a half-second, giving a line-reading on a character’s line of dialogue (or 100 lines of dialogue!), etc.
Again, most of those things can be avoided with a well-selected audition piece, good feedback on the audition and/or an initial submission (e.g., the first fifteen minutes through ACX), and a list of concerns before production begins.
The authors that I love working with are the ones who understand the creative and interpretive nature of the work, and can share a thought like, “That’s not at all how I heard that in my head, but that’s fine, what you did works great!”
There’s a recurring conversation on an audiobook producers’ Facebook page that centers on producer pay. Last year, when I was looking for a producer for my first audiobook, I would often see “Available for royalty share (no money paid up front, and author and producer split profits 50/50) or $100-$200 PFH (per finished hour).”
But what’s being said in the Facebook group is that no producer should accept less than $250 PFH (nor should they enter into a royalty share with any author who isn’t a sure-thing big seller) unless there’s a hybrid royalty share + PFH agreement.
This is a multiple-part question:
What is the minimum an author should expect to pay for a narrator/producer, and why?
When will an author know the producer is clearly overcharging?
What is expected of an author who does manage to secure a royalty share agreement with a producer, and what is expected of the producer?
When would you say to an author, “You’re not a likely candidate for a royalty share agreement”?
Recurring conversation is right! Hardly a day goes by when I don’t see a new conversation about rates, either because of an initial question or as a tangent to some other topic.
It’s a bit of a dicey subject, because colluding with others to set a minimum rate would be price-fixing, which is illegal. So I want to make it clear that I am not trying to organize any sort of movement, or get any group of people to agree to a rate structure. But I can explain why the $250PFH number comes up so often.
Many of us look to SAG-AFTRA, the union that covers this type of work, as a good guide when deciding on a rate to charge. The union has negotiated minimum rates for audiobook narration with all of the major publishing companies; these vary from company to company, but I believe they range from somewhere around $175PFH to somewhere just north of $250PFH.
This rate is for narration only; post-production is not included. When a narrator produces an audiobook on their own, post-production IS included, and most editors charge between $60PFH and $100PFH. So the argument is that, in order to net a rate that would fall within union guidelines for reasonable pay for this type of work, a rate of $250PFH is the lowest a narrator should charge for full production.
One thing that’s important for authors to understand is the amount of time and/or money that goes into audiobook production. It’s easy for someone unfamiliar with the process to think, “Why should I pay someone more than $100 an hour to talk into a microphone?” But if someone is handling all aspects of the production, they will likely be putting in 4 to 6 hours of work for every finished hour of audio (probably more if they’re new to the work), bringing the rate down to just north of minimum wage. And if they’re outsourcing post-production (always a better choice), they’ll be cutting the time probably in half, but they’ll also be cutting the revenue: if they’re paying an editor $75PFH and then taking 2 hours to narrate every finished hour of audio for the remaining $25PFH, they’re once again down to somewhere around minimum wage. For work that requires the skill set and equipment that professional audiobook narration requires, this is unreasonable.
I think the only reason that an author should think that a producer is overcharging is if they paid a reasonable rate for professional audiobook production and the finished product didn’t sound like a professionally produced audiobook. But that’s always going to be at least somewhat subjective, so I think it’s impossible to come up with some sort of “test” that will give a definitive answer in every situation.
When doing a royalty share through ACX, the ACX contract that is generated is fairly explicit in many areas of responsibility. In my mind it boils down to: the author should provide the manuscript, give me any feedback on the audition that will help with the rest of the book, provide any information on characters, pronunciations, etc., that are important to them, and give me detailed feedback on the first fifteen minute submission. In return, I’ll provide them with a professionally-produced audiobook. As long as we both make a good faith effort to work with each other, we should be fine. I don’t really see the responsibilities any differently than for a PFH project (other than the responsibility of the author to pay me!).
When considering a royalty share project, I look at content, Amazon reviews (both the number of reviews in relation to how long the book has been out, and how the reviews look in terms of overall rating and whether anything negative is mentioned over and over), and social media presence of the author.
If I’m still not sure, I’ll ask for sales figures if the book has been out for more than a few weeks. I don’t do many royalty share projects these days, because the number that I think will earn out over time is very small.
What is the biggest challenge to you personally as an audiobook narrator?
My biggest challenge is borborygmi. Colloquially known as “tummy rumbles.” Gut noises are totally normal, but my gut makes a lot of noise. No, really, a LOT of noise. Frequently. Eating makes it noisy. Not eating makes it noisy. Drinking water makes it noisy. On the surface, it sounds sort of funny; but when you’re sitting in a small room with a very sensitive microphone, it can be incredibly frustrating to have blocked out a few hours to record, only to have an hour or two stolen by your own body. I’ve learned to be very flexible with my time, but it’s still a challenge.
In terms of performance, I think my biggest challenge has been “warmth”: making nonfiction more of a conversation than a lecture, and third-person fiction narration more engaging. Fortunately, with great coaches like Sean Allen Pratt and Carol Monda, I feel like I’ve come a long way on that front.
I hadn’t heard of plotting versus pantsing when I wrote my first two novels—and I didn’t know much about planning at all.
For those who haven’t heard of plotting versus pantsing, it refers to one group of writers who prefer to plan first then write, as opposed to a second group who prefer to write by the seat of their pants. (As a Brit, I had to learn that this meant trousers and not knickers.) The polite term—and my preferred one—for pantsing is intuitive writing. Intuitive writers, according to the common story, simply write, however the mood takes them, and plan later on.
Plotting versus pantsing is one popular version of the plan first/write later myth. This myth basically would have you believe that generating ideas, planning, writing, redrafting, submitting and publishing happen sequentially, in that order, in a linear fashion.
The myth also has its mirror image, the idea that there are some writers out there (for some reason I’m picturing them with flowing scarves) who simply cannot plan first and must write a draft then turn it into a novel. To me, this mirror image (although it’s the opposite) is simply part of the same story.
How did the myth of plan first/write later arise?
I don’t know for sure, but after twenty-five years of teaching (and therefore sometimes having to read dodgy writing advice) I have a feeling that the idea that you have to plan first/write later (or that you simply can’t) came about because of these four things:
The idea that, to be truly creative, you must be an intuitive writer, who writes with their soul, who doesn’t need to plan first.
The idea that a creative person is synonymous with a messy person. Therefore, so the story goes, a truly creative person couldn’t possibly plan first—they wouldn’t be able to find their plan under all those piles of creative outpourings for a start.
The opposite idea: that an efficient, productive person is someone who plans, with business-like rigor, but that their business-like efficiency prohibits them from being “truly creative.”
Bestselling writers, for whom the planning process was probably pretty hazy by the time they did the interview, claiming either to “plan first” or “simply write.”
I seem to remember that Jeffrey Archer was one of those hailed as a planner. Back in the day, I gasped at the idea of doing nothing but planning for three months and nothing but writing for six months—it seemed like such an unreachable goal.
Why the plan first/write later myth (or its mirror image) is damaging
Any time I’m presented with an either/or, one thing versus another, I get suspicious. That’s because there it’s almost always an oversimplification, or there’s more context than the either/or choice suggests. There’s a game gets played on kids’ TV over here where they interview a pop star by asking them to choose between either/ors. Cat or dog. Pizza or salad. Tea or coffee. Which begs the question: why on earth can’t I like cats and dogs, pizza and salad, tea and coffee? Or feel indifferent about all of them? What if I run a pet-friendly café? Of course, if you have successfully used a linear method of plan, write, publish, or indeed, write, reshape, publish, then I raise my glass to you. I’m not telling you to stop! However, the myth can be damaging to people who are starting out because:
An inflexible, fixed plan feels restrictive, and in some cases can lead to ‘fear of the blank page’ so bad that you don’t write a thing.
It leads people to (mistakenly) think that they plan once, then get on with it.
It could mean that intuitive writers (those who like a bit of meandering and pondering) never get going with their story and lack narrative drive
Here’s what to consider instead
Plan all the time. Plan at scene level, too. Use any planning tool you like – but do not do it once. You don’t plan, then forget about the plan. Redo your plan at least once a month. Tweak your plan weekly.
Consider using scene cards (write the scenes from your novel on separate index cards). This is because it makes your plan portable, and you can see all of it if you lay it out on a table or stick it up on the wall.
Write intuitively all the way through the process. Write to your plan, but in addition have writing sessions where you go out and observe the world and freewrite about it. Observing the world like this will add depth to your characters and the locations in your stories.
Just as you do not have to choose between cats and dogs or tea and coffee, you don’t have to choose between planning and “simply writing.” Do both, at different times, all the way through the novel writing process.