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My Experience With the Hidden Gems Beta-Reading Service

It’s been a little while since my last blog post. Blame Christmas, or COVID-19, or the fact that I’ve been neck deep in the home stretch of my book release. Or, you know, blame the fact that I’m lazy and should have made time.

Regardless, my head is slightly above water and I want to share a recent experience I had with Hidden Gems and their paid beta-reading service.

First, some quick context — my next book, A Promise to Be Kept, is nearing release. It’s an historical romance novel set in the Scottish Highlands, and it will be available on the 15th February.

As part of the self-publishing process, I decided to invest in some quality beta-reading feedback, via Hidden Gems. They’re a website that offers a number of services to authors including beta-reading, ARC reviewing, blurb writing and more. I hemmed and hawed for a week before deciding to take the plunge, and spoiler alert: I’m overjoyed I did.

To understand why a beta-reading service is so important, put yourself in the mind of an author. You’ve just spent the last few months outlining, writing and editing your book. You’ve lived it every day, read it a dozen times through the process, and know it like the back of your hand. You’ve put your time and a part of yourself into the story, and as the finish line gets closer, you can’t help but get swept up in the excitement.

But hold on for a moment.

What about the bigger picture; does the plot work? Is there a satisfying conclusion? Have you messed anything up, or overlooked anything?

And most importantly, does your book work in the context of the genre and target audience?

Well, the only way to get answers to these questions is to put it into the hands of a critical target audience. So for me, I saw Hidden Gems as an investment. After all, if the readers did notice problems with my book, I’d rather they came to light during a beta-reading phase than in the Amazon reviews and public word of mouth.

So, I submitted it to 6 beta-readers and included 12 questions, at a total cost of just over $200 USD. Now 6 readers might be a bit too much — general consensus seems to be around 3 or 4, however for my first time I wanted to capture as much diverse feedback as I could.

 

Anticipating

On the day that my feedback was due to arrive, I was ridiculously nervous. It’s always a hard thing to put your work in front of others, let alone people who are tasked with highlighting both the good and the bad. What if my book just straight up sucked?

My email dinged, I thought I was going to have a mini heart attack, and then I put my business hat on and got to work digesting the results.

Firstly, the overall impressions were very positive. Of the 6 readers, only 1 seemed to neither like nor dislike it — the others all liked it to varying degrees from ‘really like’ to ‘love’. So, that was reassuring. But that wasn’t to say there weren’t any problems. Oh boy, there were problems all right.

 

Digesting

With feedback, I think the trick is to try and discern what’s one reader’s personal opinion, and what’s an actual problem with the book. If one reader mentions something that bothered them, I could interpret it either way — maybe it’s a problem, or maybe that particular reader just feels strongly about something that other readers don’t.

But if two or more readers comment on the same thing, then I know it’s a problem. And luckily for me, there were some clear trends that ran through the answers, including issues that were consistently raised by nearly all readers.

And that told me that yep, these are big issues that I need to resolve before I publish.

(Unfortunately, addressing these problems involved a partial rewrite of over half the book, but hey — you gotta do what you gotta do)

 

Reflecting

After getting over the negative psychological response to constructive criticism, I could see that the readers absolutely had it right. Their comments were mostly accurate, targeted, and insightful, and the resulting changes have made for a much stronger book. I’ve fleshed out characters that I previously knew were a little weak, and made the central relationship arc between the main characters much more realistic and engaging.

Any surprises? Sure. A few things spring to mind:

  • Things that I thought would be issues, weren’t issues at all. I thought readers might have a problem with my (sometimes) complicated external sub-plot, or the use of Scottish dialect and words. Nope, their issues were things that I didn’t flag. This tells me I need to try harder to put myself into the reader’s mindset when looking critically at my drafts.
  • Readers seemed to like directness over subtlety, when considering feelings and emotions. There were times when I tried to hint at hidden emotions rather than state them outright, and was taken to task.
  • The conventions of the historical romance genre needs to be respected. Things like placing the novel in a defined time period, and then ensuring the language and backdrop have continuity with this, is very important to readers.
  • Readers love a pregnancy hint at the end of the book. I thought this might have been a personal opinion, but it was flagged by multiple readers. Maybe it’s just a very common personal opinion.
  • Readers prefer things to be explained through dialogue rather than internal monologue. This goes for anything — from plot developments to feelings and emotions.
  • Readers are super quick to recognise a plot device that’s forced into the story just to get a particular outcome (like adding something that doesn’t really fit with the story, just because I needed to elicit a certain response from a main character).
  • Everything needs to be honest. Dishonesty in any form is identified very quickly.

 

Worth It?

Totally. Absolutely. 100%. There’s no doubt in my mind that if I released the book without going through the Hidden Gems beta-reading process, it would have resulted in a much weaker product.

Now of course, until the book is released, I’m still not sure that it will necessarily translate into great reviews or sales, but whatever I get now, will most certainly be better than what I would have had, if I just rushed straight to release.

So, as far as I’m concerned, that $200 USD is now part of the cost of creating the book — non-negotiable. And as tight-fisted as I am, that’s possibly the greatest endorsement I can give.

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