BetaBooks Fall Update

Hey everyone,

It's been a while since we've updated the blog or sent out any BetaBooks news in general. Life has been a little hectic, and as you all know BetaBooks remains a nights and weekends project for me and Paul, so when our lives get too busy at the same time it's hard to keep up.

Despite that, we've been working on a few key things in the background. Today I wanted to just highlight a few of those things, and I'll expound on the interesting bits more in near future blog posts.

Greatly Improved Highlighter Mode (aka Inline Feedback)

In the past, highlighter mode worked well on desktop / laptop computers, but wasn't very usable on mobile devices. Only about 1/3 of authors choose to turn on inline commenting for readers (and we actually don't recommend it for the best "classic beta" results) -- but about 70-80% of all readers choose to read and leave feedback from phones or tablets. So for the authors who were using inline commenting, their readers often had to work on a desktop computer when they didn't want to.

It took a really long time, but I finally got the highlighter tools to work nicely across both desktop and mobile, which is a big win for that category of author and reader.

To be completely honest this was a very draining project, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand I'm very happy with the outcome, and how much better it makes the software. On the other hand, that one feature sucked up most of my programming time for about 9 months. In some ways I feel I could have taken better care of the BetaBooks authors by just forgetting about mobile highlighting and working on the many other feature requests that we get.

But what's done is done, and as I said I think the feature turned out really well, so let's see that as a glass half-full accomplishment and be excited that I get to program other things now :)

Marketing and Design Work

One of the big challenges for us is to maintain BetaBooks while it remains too small for anyone to work on even close to full-time. We need to get about 3-4x bigger before we could realistically fund a full-time support person, and probably 10-20x bigger before either Paul or I could go full-time. I know this is a familiar conundrum for almost every author out there.

That's likely still a long way off, but I think we made some good progress this spring and summer figuring out how to get there. We got a little freelance design help, which shows up mostly in how much better the reader looks (this was part of the new highlighter mode update). Soon we'll launch a redesigned home page and signup experience, which should make it easier for authors to know what BetaBooks offers, as well as making it easier for authors and readers to get signed up and start working in the software.

Stay tuned for more of that through the end of this year :)

Retiring the Podcast

For about two years Paul and I ran a Podcast titled "How Authors Work." This was great fun, and it led to a lot of great conversations with authors. However, after stepping back and measuring our results, we found that the podcast wasn't succeeding in driving visibility or traffic to BetaBooks, and had instead become sort of a fun diversion that didn't align well with what Paul and I wanted to accomplish for the next few years.

It was a hard choice, but we decided to stop recording the podcast, and retired it officially in June. The common theme here is that we don't have enough hours in the day, and we've had to make some difficult decisions on how we allocate the hours we do have. I think we're both at peace that the podcast served its purpose as a learning experience for the two of us, and are happy to invest that time back into other areas that will hopefully be more productive over the long haul.

Catching up on Support

The worst thing that happened this summer is Paul and I reached the point where we could no longer keep up with the volume of support emails coming in. This is a good problem to experience, because it means more people are using the software, but we did not handle it very well. There were too many times that we left people waiting days or weeks for a reply to an email, which deeply embarrasses me.

We ended up finding an unexpected solution to this problem which has helped immensely. Many of you have interacted with my wife Pam via Pam's Beta Jam, or other reader community programs in the past. Pam has been doing some editing work part-time, and as she watched me and Paul struggle to keep up with BetaBooks, she decided she wanted to jump in and help. And wow has she helped!

Pam taking over the Customer Support role has been a huge improvement, and we're deeply grateful for her effort.

Cost Control

I mentioned growth previously, but the other big factor in keeping BetaBooks alive is controlling costs. Most of our monthly revenue goes to keeping the lights on - or computers on, in this case. I already mentioned that we're trying to grow BetaBooks so we can put more than part-time human effort in, but the other way to do that is to cut costs. I spent a lot of time this summer carefully considering everything we were spending money on, then slowly but surely eliminating anything I could, or replacing it with a cheaper alternative. This is really not fun work, but with it done we're in a much healthier spot, and much less in danger of running out of reserves.

New Writing Projects :)

Almost three years ago I'd finished a book and asked Paul if he would beta for me. Silly me, I also mentioned that the beta process was kind of a pain to organize, and that I thought maybe I could write some basic software to streamline it. Paul said the software sounded brilliant, and he'd happily beta for me as soon as I wrote it. Thus BetaBooks was born.

After that I spent the vast majority of my free time working on the BetaBooks software, and my own writing really declined. Somewhere along the line I developed a horrible case of writers block, and I quit writing entirely. I don't have big dreams of becoming a famous author, but I do really enjoy the craft, and I've missed it a lot.

I'm not sure what happened this summer, but somehow the writers block has lifted, and just recently I've been writing my own work again. It's a great feeling, one I know that most of you are very familiar with, to sit down at the keyboard (or writing instrument of your choice) and have the words just flow.

I hope to be back to the beta stage myself pretty soon :)

As I said at the top of this post, we'll have more news, and I'll try to keep up a more regular cadence of updates going forward. Cheers, and talk to you next time!

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