Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Just how many readers do you need?

by Sam Thomas

For most first-time authors, finding good readers is a daunting and difficult task. In large part this is because – to be honest – most people are liars.

I don’t mean that they are bad people. Quite the opposite, in fact. The problem is that when a friend or family-member (and who else is going to read your unpublished novel for free?) confronts a dreadful book, how likely is she to tell you the truth? Not bloody likely.

I have no advice on this front, nor is it the topic of this post.

The problem of finding readers changes fundamentally once your baby hits the shelves, and you start working on a second book. Because you are now a published author, you can ask (and sometimes convince) relative strangers to read your work. But how many is enough?

I ask this because I recently picked up a well-regarded literary mystery, and – as is my habit – went straight to the acknowledgements. There, the author thanks by name over two dozen people who read early drafts of the book.

There are a few possibilities as to how this is possible. First, these thirty people read the book seriously, and author did a lot of rewriting over a long period of time. While this is possible for debut authors, it’s not really an option for writers who have a contract with a deadline. (Try telling your editor that you’d love to send her your manuscript, but you need a twenty more reads and rewrites.)

The other possibility is that he had the book out to a lot of people at once, and – to my mind – that seems equally insane. I know from my time in academia that different readers want different things, and there is no way that ten – or even five – readers can provide coherent feedback.

Now I will grant that an author is free to pick and choose what advice to take, and to some extent more might be better than less. So I will open it up to you:

How many readers do you have, and how did you arrive at this number? Is two dozen too many, or am I just limited in my thinking?


  1. I have one permanent (she will be pried from my cold dead hands) critique partner, also published but in a different genre whose edits and comments are sacrosanct to me. I also have several friends in my genre who I tend to ask to look at "problem sections" rather than the whole book. And I have two lay-people who read for me as well--one for plot flow, character development, big picture things and the other because he never misses a nit (and is a punctuation god). Depending on my readers schedules I would say between 2 and 5 people might see all or part of a manuscript before my agent.

  2. I have a beta reader who is brutally honest, and I love her for it. (She is not a writer, but she's a voracious reader. If I could pick my target reader, it would be her.) Also, I have two writing partners and two family members who have different talents and give different feedback. I agree with Sophie--at least five people see my manuscript before it lands on my editor's desk.