The ethics of having children give feedback on my middle grade novella?
October 3, 2014 8:48 AM   Subscribe

I've written a middle grade novella (age target approximately 10 to 14 years, 26,000 words). I had what I thought was the rather simple idea of asking my next door neighbor kids (and friends of my son) if they could read it and give me feedback. They were enthusiastic, they'd never read a book by someone they knew. Then I thought, they are performing a valuable service for me. Shouldn't I be paying them?

So, I offered ten dollars to each. (Which is where it stands, they are reading it. And, yes, I did go through the parents first.) Since then, I've thought, isn't this well-below minimum wage? I'm not sure how fast a ten year old reads, but this (100 pages) is probably about four hours. Am I using child-labor? Okay, that last bit seems a bit over-the-top, but shouldn't I be compensating them more?

What is the ethically-correct choice here? Has this sort of situation been reasoned out? (Do publishers pre-test market-survey books for kids?)

While keeping this to two neighbor kids who would probably have read it for free, I was thinking I wouldn't mind getting feedback from more kids. I can think of several more who would think I was giving them something wonderful to do. If I were to pay them minimum wage, I can't really afford many instances of forty bucks per child to read my novella. (I'm not particularly wealthy and I don't imagine the book is going to net me more than in the single digit thousands, if I am lucky.)

Speculatively, if I were to ask a teacher to assign it to her class would that be wrong? Would it be worse if I were to compensate the teacher or school? I would like to have opinions from all sorts of places. If I used some source to try to find interested kids (some unspecified internet site for contacting parents) what compensation would I need to offer?
posted by dances_with_sneetches to Work & Money (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Honestly, I think you're over-thinking it a touch. You are not creating a serfdom by however much or little you're compensating people to do something that people do (and pay money to do) every day - read and/or say what they think about what they read.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:51 AM on October 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

I've never been offered (or asked for) recompense from author friends who have asked me to be part of their draft-reading-feedback-giving posse. As far as I know, that's the norm - but it functions in a context of people who know each other doing this, and what goes around comes around.

I wouldn't come within a mile of asking a teacher to accept money to assign the book (which they probably wouldn't even be able to do these days, what with the hoops to be jumped to get something in the curriculum).
posted by rtha at 8:54 AM on October 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Why not name them in an Acknowledgements section? That would be a nice thing to do.
posted by Quilford at 8:54 AM on October 3, 2014 [52 favorites]

The standard compensation for this kind of thing is to thank the individual in your acknowledgements, assuming that your novel should be published. I think a teacher assigning the book as a class project might cross the line, but it would depend on the specifics.

Source: I have been doing this kind of test-reading for writers since I was a middle-grade-age reader myself. I've generally been thanked in the acks if the book gets published, and that's always been plenty for me. (If the book doesn't get published, well, no harm, no foul.)
posted by pie ninja at 9:01 AM on October 3, 2014

This is not an ethical issue. Everybody is doing this voluntarily. People do this voluntarily all the time. They are doing it because they think it's interesting and maybe because they want to help you.

Please do not try to interact or get involved in any way with kids you don't know. No matter how good your intentions are, this is a minefield. Give up the idea of getting a teacher to assign your book.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:02 AM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

i've been a free test audience for my friends' books. i didn't feel exploited; in most cases the books had some redeeming value. knowing how to write a book review (and later, a blurb) is a useful and potentially valuable skill.
posted by bruce at 9:04 AM on October 3, 2014

I think paying them is nice, and a useful lesson for them. But you didn't have to. I have (when hella broke) asked for payment for editing my friends book length manuscripts, at what amounted to $25/hr. But I am (was) a freelance writer and was copyediting, not just offering feedback. Anyway, you're good.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:10 AM on October 3, 2014

As long as you aren't pressuring or manipulating anyone to read the book, I think this is firmly in the vein of "favor" as opposed to "labor." It's not as if you're asking them to sign on to 40 hours a week of intensive book editing for years at a time! I don't have experience with fiction, but certainly I have read and commented upon plenty of academic work for friends and colleagues and they have done the same for me -- no money has ever exchanged hands. If I did have a novelist friend, I would similarly be happy to read their work assuming the topic interested me.

I would NOT try to recruit strangers or get your book adopted by schools (among other things, I think this is just really unlikely to happen...why would they assign an unpublished novel from someone they don't know when the students would otherwise be reading significant literature?) But I think asking kids you're acquainted with to do you a favor, giving them PLENTY of space to say no (i.e. if they never get back to you, don't bug them about it!), and thanking them in the acknowledgements is pretty standard for this type of thing and does not seem to have any ethical issues to me.

Another thing to consider is that "minimum wage" isn't really the appropriate standard for kids doing odd jobs for neighbors. For example, I would at times be "hired" by a neighbor to put out food for their cats when they were on vacation. I don't remember the exact rate, but I'm sure it was not minimum wage. Similarly, parents or relatives would sometimes pay my sibling and I some amount for doing extra chores like helping clean out a garage. Minimum wage was not a consideration because we were not employees. I would just relax on this -- kids do random jobs for a little spending money all the time. Minimum wage doesn't really matter because it's not as if they're supporting themselves!
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:16 AM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: It's actually a little uncomfortable for me to think of someone getting paid money to read a book; have you thought about offering the kids a gift card for a local bookstore instead?
posted by redsparkler at 9:30 AM on October 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wouldn't the offer of payment or reward present more risk that you would get favorable feed-back because they were being compensated? I'd worry less about possible exploitation and more about not receiving honest opinions if there was tangible reward involved, human nature being what it is, even in middle school, and especially with kids you know personally.
posted by citygirl at 9:46 AM on October 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wouldn't the offer of payment or reward present more risk that you would get favorable feed-back because they were being compensated?

Would it? Depends on the person, surely. I would have taken the task more seriously if I were being paid. But then, I tend to be flat-footed with criticism.

As to the ethics- I wouldn't over think it. If they can't get past chapter three, they'll tell you and in so doing have performed a valuable service. If they can't it down and ask for more, ditto. If they want to do it, they'll do it. If not, not.

Anyway, it's not like you're asking them to clean the gutters. Child money and adult money are totally different animals. And we are talking amateurs, not professional editors. Ten bucks is generous.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:24 AM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: If I were 10-14 I'd much rather be thanked in print than receive even double minimum wage.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:32 AM on October 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Traditionally, to avoid the appearance of you paying your friends to do friendly things for you (and thus putting them in the distancing role of employee, in some ways a demotion from friend), you "compensate" them with something that continues to nurture and strengthen your social bond while providing them with a nice experience.

In the case of children, you acknowledge them in your book, and you also take them out for ice cream or a movie, or invite them for a special sleepover at which they are allowed to be crazy fools and do things like stay up until 11pm and sleep in a tent in the living room.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:36 AM on October 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

Please do not try to interact or get involved in any way with kids you don't know. No matter how good your intentions are, this is a minefield

I don't think children need to be locked away from all but a handful of adult family members and teachers. Your advice would end Girl Scouts, youth groups, Little League, etc.

OP is writing a book for adolescents. It's a no-brainer to seek out adolescent feedback.
posted by jingzuo at 11:05 AM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think paying them $10 to read your book is perfectly okay. But I think you should wait and see what kind of feedback they give you before making future plans. I trust you aren't expecting a written critique from a 10yo?

"So, what did you think of my book?"

"It was really good!"

"What part did you like best?"

"Ummmm ... All of it!"

"How about the part with the dragon?"

"Yeah! I have to go to the bathroom."
posted by doctor tough love at 11:22 AM on October 3, 2014

Response by poster: I like a lot of the feedback I'm getting. I'm not convinced that kids are competent for saying no to these sorts of offers, however. (Maybe less so with money attached.)

I would love to arrange something with the local bookstore, review a book in exchange for a gift certificate.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:26 AM on October 3, 2014

Response by poster: Doctor tough love. I'll wait to see, but I think the feedback will be better than that and I hope my questions will be better.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 11:27 AM on October 3, 2014

I read an early copy of a book by MeFi's own Zompist because it was science fiction and I read science fiction and he wanted feedback and so, why not? He got my feedback and that was it.

If I were a kid, I wouldn't have expected money. If I were mentioned in the acknowledgements section I would literally have stopped strangers on the street and showed them that book and where my name was mentioned. It would have been the greatest thing ever.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 12:13 PM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

As much as I agree that asking a teacher if they want to get their class involved is not a good idea, I'd like to share this, which is one of my favorite things on the Internet:

The Day Of The Fire - Michael Fennelly [SLYT]
posted by doctor tough love at 12:15 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: I'd be fine with you asking my 11 year old to read your book, and she is totally old enough to tell you she's not interested if she wants to.
posted by latkes at 12:41 PM on October 3, 2014

Best answer: I'm a YA author and I have no compunction about asking kids I know if they want to read a draft. I don't pay them, but I do thank them in the acks and make sure they get a copy of the book when it comes out.

The only time I contacted a kid I didn't know (and paid them) was when I went in search of a tween/teen girl from a Maine lobstering family.

I wanted her to "Maine-check" and "lobster-check" the book. I asked her to point out anything that sounded even a little wrong, and for her corrections. Anything at all-- even if it was the wind coming in the wrong direction.

I paid her as a fact-checker, but I still mentioned her in the acks and sent her a couple signed copies of the book.

In general, kids can tell you if they were entertained or bored. However, they can't tell you if your book is exactly like another middle grade on the market right that second. So really, if you already have a handful of kids, I don't think it would be useful to you to look for more.
posted by headspace at 1:41 PM on October 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's certainly kind to think of offering them compensation for the service, but it seems to me that family friends pre-reading a book is on the friendly neighbor level, not really the business level. I like the idea other people have suggested of offering some sort of gift instead (e.g., a gift card) as thanks.
posted by halp at 4:37 PM on October 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it's totally fine to ask people to read a book for free. And it's generous to give them something for their time and feedback. Speaking as a 6th grade teacher, I would love for my students to choose a book that is unpublished (and for which they're giving feedback) for their independent reading project. Hell, kids reading AND doing literary and stylistic analysis ON THEIR OWN?! In a way that ACTUALLY BENEFITS SOMEONE in a real and meaningful way?!?!

Dude, I live for that shit.

Now, I couldn't TEACH that book with all students without board approval and/or parents' permission. So that's not really an option, unless you go through a private school that doesn't have a textbook adoption policy. And there aren't a ton of those out there.

One more thing:

I trust you aren't expecting a written critique from a 10yo?

"So, what did you think of my book?"

"It was really good!"

"What part did you like best?"

"Ummmm ... All of it!"

"How about the part with the dragon?"

"Yeah! I have to go to the bathroom."
posted by doctor tough love at 11:22 AM on October 3 [+] [!]

I teach 6th grade. There are many 10 year olds in that room. And they are fantastic at finding things that they like and being specific about them in a way that shows they were thoughtful and attentive to the material. And they are also really good at finding fault.

Today, I asked them to judge websites built by a group of 11th-12th graders. I gave them no further instructions, but they talked about the layout, the fonts, the busy pages with too many pictures, how one font wasn't justified in the same way on the images that linked to other pages, and gave lots of ways to improve the workflow and make it more visually appealing...and on and on.

Don't underestimate teens and pre-teens. We do that way too much in this culture. They are capable of far more than we give them credit for. And it means so much to them to have an adult tell them they did a good job, that they're appreciative of what they did, or just that they were helpful.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:40 PM on October 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

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