One of the more amusing (also, damning) cognitive biases described in psychological literature is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Described in Advances in Experimental Psychology under the subtitle, “On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance,” the bias holds that the vast majority of us think we’re better at tasks than we actually are. (Darkly) hilariously, our misplaced confidence makes us blind to discovering the weakness.
It’s delightful because it’s true, or it at least has the ring of intuitive truth (to use the friendly hedging words of a former philosophy professor).
Because 75 percent of us cannot avoid the Dunning-Kruger trap (and wouldn’t know it if we could), we must work—and hard—to put in place the external checks that will expose us to our own idiocy. Only in this way can we be tricked into recognizing that no matter how far we’ve come, we probably still have a ways to go.
Enter beta readers.
When we last discussed beta readers, it was in the context of business or nonprofit communications. Beta readers are essential to this work (especially when the work includes telling a story to external audiences or stakeholders).
But beta readers may also be essential for books.
It’s hard to solicit outside opinions when you’ve put in months, or maybe years, on an argument or story that has lived in your mind or heart for so long that it feels indistinguishable from you. The distance to a publisher, even when a publisher means potential rejection, can feel safer to travel.
But your manuscript isn’t you, and appropriately guided beta readers can provide valuable insight into how well a book is explaining its concepts, backing up its argument, reaching its readers, and persuading its audience. This is especially true of nonfiction genres, where reaching and persuading readers is contingent on elements of language and argumentation that can actually be isolated and improved.
Of course, your work is probably excellent. But because you likely wouldn’t recognize if it weren’t, you should save your future book’s reputation (and your own) by recruiting a few beta readers to tell you what’s weak and what needs improvement before sending that work off into the world.
Recently, a first-time author asked us why we can’t also act as agents. After explaining our very different skill set, we realized that he isn’t the first author to express confusion about what agents do and who they do it for.
Agents may bear the mark of mystery, but they’re publishing professionals who are empowered to act on an author’s behalf.
Agents know the publishing industry and know what each publishing house wants to publish. Because an agent only makes money on commission, they take on the books they know they can sell. They have a vested interest in working to secure the highest sell price possible.
This means that an agent will pick up your book and fight for the very best terms for it when they firmly believe they can make a meaningful profit. Of course, with few books selling for big-bucks advances, it also means that securing an agent can be tough.
So, do you need an agent? Like much else in the publishing process, the answer is a resounding “it depends.”
It partly depends on your endgame. Many authors imagine a future-bestseller’s experience: A bidding war between well-known, well-staffed publishers who are committed to letting loose marketing mayhem on their book.
Does this describe your manuscript-shaped dreams? Do you envision doing the work that will vault you to the top of the bestseller lists and on to a media junket? If so, you probably need an agent. You can certainly shop your manuscript to publishing houses without one, but many of the big houses, or the ones that still offer advances (or the big 5), won’t accept un-agented inquiries.
But, real talk: while most of us harbor some version of this dream, it's pretty much completely unrealistic. This is especially true for first-time authors and authors who lack an already-proven platform. The good news is, if you're willing to accept other versions of publishing success, you most certainly do not need an agent.
And if your manuscript is a niche genre that falls outside of commercial fiction, like literary fiction or niche nonfiction, you don’t need and likely won’t want an agent.
Agents aren’t easy to secure, and even if you have the right book, there are lots of reasons you may not want to use one (the minimum 15% commission, for one). But agents are also valuable and skilled contacts in the publishing world: If it’s the right choice for your book, we can help you make it.
Summer reading is the best reading. (Okay, winter reading is pretty cozy, too.) But the beach, the cabin, the heat, or just the season’s surprisingly ceaseless demands want different kinds of books. Maybe something superficial but satisfying, maybe something cold and cutting, maybe just something wacky and weird: I haven’t yet ticked all these boxes , but I’m making my way:
Rabbit Cake (Annie Hartnett) is the (gently) weird one. It's narrated by ten-year-old Elvis Babbitt, who reports on her family’s disjointed progress through grief after her mother Eva’s death. Eva, a notorious sleep-swimmer (!) who died in a drowning accident, was the full-of-posthumous-surprises life force that held her family together. After her death, Elvis watches as her dad wears her mom’s bathrobe and lipstick, and her sister obsessively makes the rabbit-shaped cakes Eva baked for special occasions. Elvis wonders, with preternatural acceptance, how to make sense of her mother's death, jolt her dad out of his stupor, and stop her sister from sleepwalking into madness. Rabbit Cake is farcical, funny, and refreshing: Elvis and her family’s grief seem so particular and strange but are narrated (and ultimately felt) as intuitive and universal.
Who is Rich? (Matthew Klam) is messy and manic. And it makes a surprisingly good foil for Conversations with Friends (described in the last books post). Whereas the latter explores the restraints and release of sexual, sensual, or just potential intimacies, the former narrator obsessively—and hilariously—mulls over the extravagant fantasies (on which he sometimes acts) generated by the confines of his marriage, children, and job. The book makes marriage and parenthood a Sartrean prison of love and hate that no one can or really deserves to escape. It’s so funny, but its sharply desperate edge makes it cut way too close to the bone.
One of Us Is Lying (Karen McManus) is for the beach! It’s a YA, epistolary-style narrative in which four high-schoolers (who are a bit more multidimensional than their stereotypes suggest), must rigorously defend themselves after their classmate dies in detention. The book is often compared to The Breakfast Club, but it’s a little closer to American Vandal: It’s an episodic, winking whodunit set in the gossipy milieu of high-school self-seriousness. It’s a bit silly, but it’s also a lot of fun.
The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach) was recommended by best friend of MWS, Katie Levin. Set at a small midwestern college, it connects a handful of key characters through the school’s once struggling but now stellar baseball team. The character-driven book (check out those names!) offers a John Irving-inspired take on multivariant masculinity, represented by Moby-Dick on the one hand, and “The Art of Fielding,” a fictional bible of baseball held dear by one of the book’s nominal protagonists, on the other. It’s a bit diffuse and meandering, but in that sense it capably recreates Ishmael’s narrative (and possibly baseball’s enactment of the futility of strategy in the face of chance).
Okay, that's a bit of a stretch, but, hey, it’s summer! What are you reading?
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.