Building a Community of Beta Readers

How Janna Morishima and Misako Rocks! turned rejections from editors into an opportunity and an experiment

Publishing is a challenging industry. In order to be successful, you need to be able to take changing trends in stride, turn failures into opportunities, and be brave enough to try new approaches. Publishing strategist Janna Morishima and manga author Misako Rocks! have been able to do just that with Misako’s newest manga project, Bounce Back.   

Both Morishima and Misako have had winding paths in publishing, pivoting when their own interests or the market dictated.

Morishima began as an assistant to Scholastic trade publishing’s Creative Director, David Saylor. After reading about graphic novel Blankets by Craig Thompson, she saw an opportunity for children’s books to be graphic novels. She and Saylor created a proposal for a new imprint and began Scholastic’s Graphix for children’s graphic novels. Next, she moved to Diamond Book Distributors, to cut her teeth on the business side of the industry as Director of the Kids Group during the financial crisis in 2008. But, after a few years, she missed working directly with creatives, and ended up walking away from publishing altogether to help her husband run his photography business. Several years ago, Morishima combined her experience in editorial, in corporate publishing, and in the world of freelance art to start Janna Co. Now, she works as a consultant, helping visual storytellers like Misako to build their careers and navigate the publishing industry.

When Misako moved from Japan to the United States, she got a job working at the Madison Children’s Museum. She became a manga artist once she saw how interested kids were in manga and anime. After sending around her portfolio to publishers, she published three middle grade graphic novels in 2007 and 2008. Unfortunately, the financial crash plus disappointing sales meant that she wasn’t able to get a new contract. So she changed her focus. She wrote books for a Japanese audience about learning English and finding an American boyfriend and started to teach manga to students, both in the classroom and in private lessons.

Now, she’s getting back to the world of middle grade manga with Bounce Back with Morishima’s help. 

They sent out their first round of proposals, but frustratingly only received rejections or nothing at all. Instead of shelving Bounce Back, they took that failure and used it to re-strategize. The pair enlisted the help of beta readers and found themselves with a stronger story and a community of readers who are invested in the project – in part because they helped shape it! 

What is the origin story between you and Misako?

I met Misako for the first time soon after I started working at Scholastic. One of my tasks, as assistant to the Creative Director, was to review artist portfolios. In those days, we had a certain day every month when artists could drop off their portfolios for review. This was in the time before Dropbox and online portfolios!

One day, a young Japanese artist who was living in Wisconsin called me to ask about our portfolio review procedures.

She dropped off her work and I wrote her a detailed editorial letter, explaining how she could improve it. Whenever I thought an artist had potential, I tried to give them some concrete tips on how to keep making progress with their work. The surprising thing is how few artists actually followed up and reached out to me a second time with revised work.

Misako was one of the exceptions. About a year after I met her for the first time, she reappeared on another portfolio day, with brand new sample art. I was impressed with her enthusiasm and persistence. I gave her the names of some other people in the industry she could talk to — and before long, she had a book contract with Henry Holt!

Misako eventually moved to NYC and we became friends. She would ask me for advice about her publishing career, and I always enjoyed helping her out.

When I started my consulting business a couple of years ago, it took me a few months before I asked her if she wanted to work with me formally. In my head, I was thinking, “What is she going to say? I’ve been giving her advice as a friend for so long — is she going to think it’s weird when I suggest that we start a business relationship?”

Once I did finally ask her, though, she didn’t bat an eyelash. “Let’s DO IT!” she said with her usual exuberance. 

How did you arrive at your beta reader project for Bounce Back?

The first thing that Misako and I worked on together was a book proposal for Bounce Back. I helped her write a detailed synopsis and develop several pages of sample art. Then I submitted it to a handful of publishers.

Four editors got back to us with rejections. We didn’t hear from the rest of the people I had submitted it to.

In the past, those rejections might have stopped me in my tracks. But being older and wiser, I knew I should listen to my gut instinct. I still had a good feeling about the project. I decided that we should keep moving forward with the intention of self-publishing, maybe doing a Kickstarter campaign. So I said to Misako, “Write the first book in full. I’ll edit it, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Misako went right to work and churned out the first draft in record time. I edited the first draft and she revised it. Once we had a revised second draft, I wanted to get feedback from the target audience before deciding on our next step. I just had a strong intuition that showing the manuscript to outside readers would provide the compass we needed to determine the next step in our path.

That meant that we needed to find beta readers.

Who are your beta readers? How did you find that group and determine the right mix of students, librarians, and educators?

Luckily, both Misako and I had plenty of people we could ask in order to find beta readers.

First of all, Misako teaches manga art to kids all over New York City. She knows their teachers and parents. And I was working as a consultant with the NYC Department of Education School Library System, so I knew school librarians.

Both of us made a list of everyone we could think of who works with or might know kids between the ages of 10 and 13 who like manga and graphic novels. Then we emailed them to describe our project, and included the link to a Google Form where people could apply to be a beta reader. Misako also posted a call for beta readers on her Instagram page.

(We made a sample beta reader application form based on the form we used; you can find it at http://bit.ly/sample-beta-form. Feel free to make a copy of the Google Form and adapt it for any project!)

We didn’t have any “right number” of beta readers in mind. We honestly had no idea how people would respond. We were a bit shocked by the number of people who submitted applications! It ended up being more than 100 people – about half kids and half grown-ups (mainly teachers and librarians).

What have you learned from the beta readers? 

“We got so much useful feedback and Misako significantly revised the manuscript based on specific suggestions from beta readers. For instance, she amped up the budding romance between main character Lilico and her love interest Noah”

When I mentioned to a few industry friends that we were sending the manuscript as a Google Doc to about 100 beta readers, some of them thought we were crazy. “You’re going to have 100 people leaving comments in the same manuscript?!” they said. “It’s going to be a mess!”

They might be right, I thought to myself, but we’ll never know until we try! I was also encouraged by Guy Kawasaki’s description of the beta reader process he used for writing APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur. [Kawasaki used NetGalley when launching APE, and wrote about it as a publicity and marketing tool in the book itself.] He also let a very large number of people read his manuscript and writes in detail about what a significant contribution they made to the development of the book.

After sending the Google Doc link to our full list of beta readers, about 65 of them actually read the manuscript and left comments (more than 700 comments, to be exact!). We were thrilled with that follow-through rate.

The first thing we learned was that following your gut instinct and experimenting is a very good thing! We got so much useful feedback and Misako significantly revised the manuscript based on specific suggestions from beta readers. For instance, she amped up the budding romance between main character Lilico and her love interest Noah — apparently middle graders like a little romance almost as much as young adults!

One point which many people asked about was how we would differentiate between times when Lilico is speaking Japanese (with her parents and when she’s alone with her cat Nicco, for instance), and when she’s speaking English. After that, Misako did a lot of research to find specific fonts to use in the lettering of the graphic novels: one for English, and a different one for Japanese.

We were also surprised by how strongly people reacted to “mean girl” Emma. They thought she was terrible, but at the same time they seemed to be fascinated by her, and couldn’t get enough of her obnoxious behavior. This made us happy… because the sequel to volume 1 is all about Emma.

At its heart, though, the experience with beta readers underscored a basic principle of 21st century marketing: the more you let people behind the scenes and get them involved in the creative process, the more invested they are and the more they want to help you succeed. We were amazed by how carefully our beta readers read the manuscript and by the level of detail in their comments — and even by the back-and-forth discussions that they had with each other!

“The more you let people behind the scenes and get them involved in the creative process, the more invested they are and the more they want to help you succeed.”

As one beta reader commented at the end, “Hope all of this feedback will turn this book from an amazing book to an AWESOME book!” The help they gave us was invaluable.

What other benefits have you gotten from your beta reader experiment?

Simply that it gave us confidence in the project! Before showing the manuscript to beta readers, I had a feeling that it would appeal to middle grade readers — but of course, I’m not 11 years old myself anymore, so I couldn’t be sure! Once we got the comments from the beta readers, we knew that they had become thoroughly emotionally involved in the story.

That was a huge relief.  

How are you planning on keeping beta readers engaged throughout the publication process?

Misako is launching a brand new website for Bounce Back, and on that website people can sign up to get updates about the process of getting Bounce Back published and other behind-the-scenes details. Our beta readers are the first people to be on that mailing list!

We’ve tried some Instagram Live and Skype “Ask Us Anything” sessions to keep Misako’s fans in the loop. But we haven’t started doing that sort of thing on a regular basis yet — we want to!

What’s next for Bounce Back?

We’re in search of a publishing deal. I just submitted Bounce Back to a new round of editors and we’re waiting to hear back from them. If we can’t find a traditional publisher for the book, we will consider self-publishing. But our first choice would be a traditional publishing deal, because full-color middle grade graphic novels are very expensive to produce.

Misako is also going to be a special guest at several comics and book shows this fall. October 19-20 we attended Baltimore Comic-con, and on November 15-17 we’ll be at Anime NYC. January 25th, 2020, Misako will be at Teen Bookfest by the Bay in Corpus Christi, TX.

Those shows are another chance for us to speak directly with fans and learn what they’re most excited about.

You’ve said that you think that traditional publishing has a lot to learn from self-publishing, and vice versa. Can you give a few examples?

I think they are learning from each other now. The stigma attached to self-publishing is eroding a little bit because of some high profile successes.

I think the biggest thing that traditional publishers can learn from self-publishers is the importance of connecting directly with your audience rather than relying on intermediaries to sell the book. The publishing ecosystem is complex, so there are always going to be intermediaries — reviewers and booksellers and librarians, etc. — but now it’s possible to build strong relationships both with those influencers and your actual readers.

What I think self-publishers can learn from traditional publishing is the importance of having a well-rounded team contribute to the final book. All writers need editors. All books benefit from great design. All books, no matter how good they are, need strong marketing and sales plans in order to get found. If you’re going to publish on your own, it’s important that you find the right people to help you.

It seems like the story of you and Misako and the story of Bounce Back are stories where you were able to turn failures into opportunities. How do you think about the relationship between failure and the creative process?

By trying something and failing, you now have useful data.

Yes, I certainly felt a bit like a failure when I initially left publishing. I know Misako was very disappointed when her first graphic novels didn’t sell very well in the early 2000s.

But I think failure is critical to growth for any human being. The key is to be clear-eyed about the reasons for your failure, while at the same time forgiving. Any time you try something and it doesn’t work out the way you wanted or the way you expected, give yourself a high five. Because you tried it! That’s huge! By trying something and failing, you now have useful data. You can review what happened and find the things to improve or do differently next time.

Basically, failure is inextricably involved in the creative process. If you really want to get better and achieve something big, you’ve got to embrace the fact that there will be failure along the way.

Developing the right mindset to be able to use your failure rather than get paralyzed by it is critical. I read tons of self-help books, started practicing meditation, and have given a lot of dedicated thought to this subject! One of my favorite people who writes about failure is Seth Godin. He sums up everything you need to know about failure in 372 words.


Janna Morishima is a publishing strategist and literary agent specializing in graphic novels and visual storytelling for kids. She was one of the co-founders of Scholastic’s Graphix imprint and the director of Diamond Book Distributors’ Kids Group and has worn almost every hat in publishing, from art and editorial to marketing and sales. Find out more at http://jannaco.co.

*Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

*Read our other industry interviews here.

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Pre-Publication Tips for Authors: Sending Out Review Copies

Getting people talking about your book before it goes on sale is crucial to a book’s success. But, without a professional publicity team, it can be hard to know where to begin. Galleys are a perfect place to start to get your book into the hands of people who will build its pre-publication buzz.

Publishers can always attach PDFs to emails, but this tends to look less polished than sending along a digital galley or a printed galley Plus, PDFs are not trackable or secure, which means that they can be shared widely without your knowledge. The industry standards for sending review copies are to send either printed galleys or digital galleys through a secure site, like NetGalley.

Digital Galleys via NetGalley

Listing your title on NetGalley lets you make your title available for request to our community of hundreds of thousands of  book influencers (including librarians, educators, and media). You can also use tools like the widget to include pre-approved links to your title via NetGalley. With NetGalley, you have control over who has access to your title, and reports available to you within your account to title activity and history. Digital galleys tend to be quite cost-effective once you have committed to them. They can be sent to as many people as you like, meaning that you can send your title to a wider pool of reviewers and influencers than you could with just printed galleys. Plus, they are environmentally conscious!

Physical Galleys

Sending out printed copies of your book is a classic and effective way to build pre-publication buzz. Reviewers or media professionals might prefer printed galleys if they work in an office that is more traditional, where an editor may be assigning the book to the final reviewer, or if they just prefer reading printed books rather than digital ones. Printed galleys are particularly helpful when submitting to literary awards. However, printing costs, packaging materials, and shipping costs are important factors to take into consideration when thinking about how you will incorporate printed galleys into your marketing strategy. They can be quite expensive, so it’s important to be strategic when thinking about who should receive a printed galley. For the budget-conscious, printed galleys should only go to readers or awards who have specifically requested printed galleys, and who are likely to review your title.

Most review sites and reviewers have specifications for how they would prefer to receive galleys, which we advise you to consult before submitting your titles to them for consideration.

However you choose to get the word out about your book pre-publication, make sure that you are giving your book the best possible chance to succeed by providing advanced copies to reviewers and influencers.

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Pre-Publication Tips for Authors: Selling Your Book to Bookstores, and Beyond!

Getting your book sold into a bookstore can be one of the most daunting parts about being an independent author, but also potentially the most gratifying. Seeing your book in a brick-and-mortar store, next to a curated inventory of other books is an accomplishment for any author.

Booksellers are pitched thousands of titles per year, so the competition to get your book carried by a store can be fierce. But, with some forethought, you can set yourself up to meet this challenge head-on.

Make sure to schedule an appointment with a book buyer rather than showing up to a bookstore unannounced, with copies in hand. Booksellers will appreciate your professionalism and the respect for their time. Plus, it gives you both an opportunity to prepare. These meetings tend to be short, so prepare a succinct pitch for your title. Give a quick introduction to your book (no need to give a full synopsis, just enough to pique their interest), and three good reasons why your title is a good fit for their bookstore and clientele.

Let the bookseller know what kinds of promotions you are doing, either in your local area or online. If you have reviews or feedback, be sure to leverage that as an indicator of enthusiasm for your work.

Hopefully, the bookseller will be impressed and take a few copies of your title to sell in their shop. But, if not, gracefully accept their decision. You’ll want to leave a positive impression on them so that you can hopefully build a strong working relationship in the future.

In addition to selling your title to bookstores, consider other places who might be interested in buying some copies of your book. Local museums, libraries, archives, and record stores are great places to start. Be creative!

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Case Study: The Trans Generation by Ann Travers

How NYU Press used strategic timing, leveraged comp titles, and engaged with NetGalley members to make The Trans Generation a success

On NetGalley Insights, we highlight the successes of NetGalley publishers and authors, and share some of their strategies. Today, we’re talking with Betsy Steve, publicity manager at NYU Press about how she used NetGalley to ensure that The Trans Generation: How Trans Kids (and Their Parents) are Creating a Gender Revolution got the enthusiastic launch it deserved.

Published on June 5, 2018, The Trans Generation uses interviews with trans children and their parents to explore gender in the 21st century, and the experiences of navigating schools, healthcare, and society as a trans youth. Written by trans activist and advocate, Ann Travers, The Trans Generation is designed for both academic and popular audiences.

Our audience is always eager to learn more about how others are planning their publicity and marketing efforts on NetGalley. Where did NetGalley fit into the overall strategy and timeline for The Trans Generation?

At NYU Press, we find that NetGalley exposure plays an extremely important role in elevating the titles that we believe have potential for a more general readership. These are also titles that we want on librarians’ and booksellers’ radar as soon as possible.  We pay close attention to early feedback from users as it helps us position our books in the marketplace.

We knew in the early stages of planning for The Trans Generation that NetGalley would play pivotal role in its success. Last year, we had a separate book dealing with issues affecting the transgender community that was hugely popular with NetGalley readers, so we knew that there was a strong interest in the topic. As soon as we were ready to make ARCs, which for us is about 4-5 months ahead of publication, we posted the materials to NetGalley. We were able to use the widget in our ARC follow up and also email reviewers that we work with who primarily use digital galleys. The book’s publication month was during Pride month, so we also wanted to do a push with readers during that time.

Tell us a little about the various communities you focused on to promote The Trans Generation.

Outside of the academic community, we definitely wanted parents and caregivers of trans or gender fluid children to be made aware of Ann’s work. The book also has important information that can help teachers, social workers, community organizers, LGBTQ activists, even lawyers and medical providers.

With so much interest from a wide variety of readers, how did you use NetGalley to access these different readers?

Our previous success with Beyond Trans by Heath Fogg Davis helped inform who in the NetGalley community might be interested in The Trans Generation, so we targeted those same users. We were thrilled by the response from parents, many of whom I think were drawn to our book because of the title and cover. We also made mention of the author’s deep involvement with the trans community in our marketing copy to highlight that they are more than just an academic researching this area. Ann is deeply committed to the improving the lives of anyone who identifies as trans.

In what ways were these specific communities important to the success of the book?

Many of the reviews left on Goodreads, NetGalley, and Amazon were from parents or general readers interested in learning more about the trans community. It was fascinating to read that they learned so much from Ann’s work and that they would recommend the book to friends, their local libraries, and community outreach groups. We are thrilled that the book carries a 4.3-star rating on both Goodreads and Amazon, which we believe has helped in the book’s success.

What about the trade community on NetGalley? Were Reviewers, Librarians, Booksellers, Educators or book-trade media especially important to you? Why, and how did you go about reaching them?

The trade community is very important to us. Though we are an academic press, the titles we choose for NetGalley are accessibly-written on topics that appeal to a broad readership. We have cultivated an extensive list of auto-approved librarians and media that regularly check on our listings. We also notify users when we have a book they may be interested in because of their previous activity.  When we see that a user posted a review to a blog or website, we make sure to tweet out the link.

How did you optimize your Title Details page to drive requests and reviews for your book?

For this, we made sure to add all the excellent advanced coverage the book received in the “Advance Praise” section. We find that endorsements from library pre-publications and other long lead media appeal more to general readers than praise from academics and scholars. We also added to the title page all the amazing reviews users submitted.

Which NetGalley marketing tools did you take advantage of? How and when did you use them to increase interest?

NetGalley offers some excellent marketing opportunities that I take advantage of whenever they fit with our titles. For The Trans Generation, we nominated it to appear in the “Featured on NetGalley” promotion that coincided with “GLBT Book Month,” which was a perfect and timely tie in.  We definitely saw an uptick of requests once that ran.

How did you engage with members who requested access? How did this fit into your overall timeline for marketing and/or publicity?

We create a personalized approval email for each title that encourages members to leave reviews on sites such as Goodreads, Amazon, B&N.com and their independent bookstores’ website. We rely on their positive feedback on these platforms to boost our titles’ visibility.  For The Trans Generation, we did a promo push to celebrate both pub and Pride month with all members who requested access. This was a follow up email that encouraged members, if they hadn’t already, to please leave a review of the book as a way to celebrate Pride. We did see an increase in engagement after we sent that campaign.

How has NetGalley been incorporated into your post-pub strategy?

For our more popular titles, like The Trans Generation, we often leave them up for a few months after pub. We definitely want to leave enough time for users to leave reviews with Amazon.  National and local review coverage plus radio interviews often provoke members to look up a book and it’s important to us that everyone who is interested in our titles have an opportunity to download them. We also will use the widget in course adoption campaigns that may go out after the pub date.

What are your top tips for academic publishers and nonfiction publishers listing titles on NetGalley?

  • For academic publishers, try to post titles that are accessibly-written and would appeal to a general reader. This definitely helps with relationship building.
  • Take advantage of the NetGalley marketing programs.  They do an excellent job making readers aware of books they might be interested in.  It’s a great way to boost your visibility on the platform and gain some new readers.
  • NetGalley is a process.  The more you take the time to engage with users, the stronger your following becomes.

Betsy Steve is the Publicity Manager at NYU Press.

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Pre-Publication Tips for Authors: Ensure Your Book is Ready for Publication

As an author, you have likely spent more hours than you care to count dreaming up your story, imagining the inner workings of your characters and working through plot structure. And now that your manuscript is ready, your book is almost ready to meet the world! In order to help your book make a positive first impression, here are some ways to make sure that it’s ready for publication.

You’ll want to do everything in your power to make sure that it grabs a potential reader’s attention right away… and holds it. This means a strong cover design, editing with a fine tooth comb, and adhering to publishing standards and deadlines.

Book cover inspiration from @perfectbound_

Readers are inundated with books to choose from, at their libraries –on retail websites, and in brick-and-mortar bookstores–which means that your cover matters. Make sure that it looks professional and eye-catching, and pay attention to what other books look like in the category or genre you’re writing. For inspiration, check out perfectbound_ or  She Designs Books. You might end up shelling out for a professional book design, but a compelling cover makes a big difference for readers in a crowded marketplace.

Once you have a reader’s attention with an enticing cover, one of the quickest ways you could lose that attention is with typos and grammatical errors. A book might be full of the most fascinating characters and original worldbuilding, but if the apostrophes are always in the wrong place and commas are running rampant on the page, the reader will be quickly distracted and turned off. Make sure that you are sending your book out into the world in its very best possible state, with a comprehensive line edit. Your book gets one first impression with readers, so make sure it’s as strong as possible by sorting out any wayward spelling or grammar issues.

If you intend for bookstores and libraries to carry your book, make sure to set a realistic pub date and stick to it. Most bookstores, libraries, and even “long lead” review outlets, need significant time to plan what new books will be added to their store. Setting your pub date at least six months in the future will give you time to share it with book buyers at stores, librarians in charge of collection development, and traditional review organizations. Additionally, it’s important to  ensure that any digital files you have are formatted correctly, and that you have an ISBN number.

While graphic design, line editing, and ISBNs might not seem like the most important part of publishing your book, these are the details that will help your book stand out for readers, reviewers, and retailers.

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Pre-Publication Tips for Authors: Know Your Book

The beauty of a bustling bookish marketplace is that there is a book for every reader; a lid for every pot. This also means that not every book is for every reader. For an author, it means that not everyone will love your book. And that’s ok! The best way to make sure that your book makes it into the hands of the readers who will love it as much as you do, who will buy copies for their friends, nominate it for prizes, and review it for their audiences, is to know your book. Sounds easy, right? Not quite.

Hollywood writers, Madison Avenue advertisers, and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are well-versed in the elevator pitch; the sentence or two that summarizes the scope of a project and piques the listener’s attention. One of the most famous examples is Alien. Pitched as “Jaws in Space,” it generated huge studio interest and went on to become a classic. As an author, you don’t need anything quite so short or quippy, but you do need to know how to talk about your book in a way that will entice your audience, and give them a sense of whether they are going to like it.

The best way to start thinking about the elevator pitch for your title, as with many things, is to read more. Read the blurbs for the books you love. How do they describe themselves? What details do they highlight? How do they describe the plot and its characters? How do they condense hundreds of pages in to just a few lines?

Ultimately, you should be able to explain what your book is about quickly and succinctly. Feel free to compare it with other books, but remember, if you’re comparing it to Harry Potter, Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, or Fifty Shades of Grey, these are some of the most popular books, and many new titles compare themselves to them. So readers might feel a bit jaded when they see these same titles mentioned again. Try comparing your book to a slightly lesser known, though still beloved title, which might resonate with a more niche audience. If your book is about a young wizard learning the ropes, consider comparing it to Wizard of Earthsea rather than Harry Potter.

Thinking carefully about what makes your book unique, and distilling its unique characteristics into a quick elevator pitch will help you find the right target market for your work.

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