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Writing: What are Beta Readers and Why and How Should Indie Authors Use Them?

headshot of Richard Bradburn

Richard Bradburn – author, editor, beta reader

Whether or not indie authors employ  professional editors and proofreaders,  beta readers will help you make your book more likely to please its eventual purchasers. Many indie authors skip this step because they don’t understand the concept. Richard Bradburnmanaging editor of editorial.ie, a freelance editing service, is here to enlighten you.

What exactly is a beta reader?

A discussion about beta readers came up the other day in an editors/writers group I’m a part of, with considerable confusion about:

  • what the role of a beta reader is
  • what to look for in a beta reader
  • how many beta readers you should have
  • how much attention you pay to what they say

Because publishing is in flux, the roles of participants in the production of a book are evolving rapidly, sometimes morphing into quite different functions from those they historically fulfilled.

Traditional Role of Alpha and Beta Readers

Here’s the traditional scenario:

  • An author writes a book and sends it to his publisher.
  • His editor suggests some revisions, the author redrafts.
  • The editor discusses the new draft with her colleagues. Together, they’re not sure. It’s a good book, but is it going to appeal? They’d like some reader opinion.
  • They send the draft out to some trusted readers they have on call, asking them, “What do you think of this?”Those readers would have been called alpha readers, if they were called anything at all.
  • The manuscript comes back with approving comments.
  • Encouraged, the publisher pushes it into production, copy-editing, proofing, cover design, promotion campaign.

But hang on, the marketing team say. Is this book literary fiction, or romance, or historical fiction? It has all three elements, but in order to promote it efficiently, in the right media and in the right way, we need to know which market sector it is the most likely to appeal to.

“Send the final proofs out to some beta readers,” the managing editor says. “See what they make of it.”

So beta readers were only involved at the very last stage of the process. They took no part in shaping the book, they were like the screen-test audience in a film pre-release screening. Is this movie a turkey, or is it worth spending a big chunk of our promotion budget on?

Different Role in Indie Publishing

The accepted role of the beta reader in indie publishing circles is very different:

  • An author completes the first draft of a book and seeks validation.
  • At this stage, authors could turn to an independent editor, but few do. For a start, that costs money. Secondly, it’s not about professional critique at this stage.
  • So the author researches online, hears about “beta readers”, and turns to his writers’ group, or asks the opinion of a friend or former teacher.

The beta reader thus gets involved in the very first stages of the book, when it is still an early draft.

What a Beta Reader Should Do?

A beta reader might say:

  • that they got a bit bored in the middle
  • that they didn’t like this particular character
  • that this bit of plot seemed a bit too coincidental or contrived

They’re not commenting on what they liked or didn’t like about a finished book. Instead, suggestions they make might have a critical impact on how subsequent drafts of the book develop.

The key thing to consider is that in this new role beta readers are far more important to the development of the book than they ever used to be in their traditional role.

A Beta Reader Should Be…

 Well-read…

There’s not much point in giving your draft to someone who hasn’t read a book since leaving high school. You’re going to be asking them their opinion on the structure of your book, whether the plot holds water, whether the characters are believable. They need to have something to compare it to.

…in your genre

If you’re writing for a specific audience, ideally your beta reader should like that genre, have some prior experience in reading books of that genre, and/or even better, be a member of that target readership. There’s not much point giving your YA LGBTQ steampunk mermaid romance to your rather dusty and conventional classics professor and asking her opinion.

Objective…

They should be capable of being fairly objective in their analyses. Here’s the hard thing. Potential beta readers may be unaware of their own biases. If someone tells you that your tragic ending really doesn’t work, it might just be that their preference is for Happy Ever After endings.

…but not too objective

A beta reader who claims that the inciting incident must occur on the first page, that all the major characters must have been introduced by page four, and that adherence to the three act structure is mandatory, has read too many books on the craft of writing, and worse, memorised them.

A confident communicator

They should be capable of communicating what they thought to you, clearly, concisely and unambiguously, ideally in writing, and as specifically as possible. You’re trying to isolate particular problems so that you can fix them—“I found it a bit boring” isn’t going to help you do that.

Diplomatic

They should also know how to phrase criticism so that it isn’t personal, and is always constructive, so that as much emotion in the transaction as possible is defused.

How Many Beta Readers Do You Need?

As many as you can cajole, entice, bribe. As you can see above, getting the “right” beta reader is fraught with complexity. You’re unlikely to achieve a perfect audience at the first attempt. That doesn’t matter too much if you’ve got a reasonably wide range of opinions to choose from. What you’re hoping to get from your beta readers is a loose consensus. Five out of ten betas saying that “the chapter where she goes on a road trip through New Mexico with her pet lizard is a bit boring,” is useful feedback. One beta saying “I wanted to know what the lizard thought. Lizards are cool,” is perhaps not so useful.

How Much Attention Should You Pay to What They Say?

Discard the bottom 5% and top 5% of results. They are outliers. While their opinions are possibly entertaining, they won’t be of much use to you. What you’re looking for is clues as to how “most people” would rate your book. If the majority (or even a significant minority) of your beta readers suggest that one particular facet of your book grated with them, then you have a good clue as to something you should take a second look at.

Can I Use a Beta Reader as an Editor?

You mean, skip paying an editor to edit your books and rely solely on beta reader feedback? Well, I’d say no, but I’m obviously biased. But here’s my justification:

  • Objectivity

However well-intentioned a beta reader is, they bring their own biases. Perhaps they dislike first person narrative. Perhaps they dislike cynical protagonists, and you fancy yourself as the next Raymond Chandler. Professional editors get the subjectivity of their analyses beaten out of them, either by training and then continuous professional development, or by repeated exposure to the wonderful world of fiction and its authors.

I’ve edited countless books. If I ever thought there was only one way to write a novel, I would have had the error of that opinion forcibly demonstrated to me by many talented and diverse authors. Beta readers rarely have that objectivity, or that depth of experience.

  • Mission Creep

Secondly, some beta readers come to see their role as an editor. They might start handing out advice about not using adverbs, avoiding passive voice, showing and not telling.

All of these can be valid criticisms of writing, in their place. But that’s not what you’re giving your work to a beta reader to find out.

Professional editors treat developmental analysis – the big issues about plot structure, character arcs, pacing, voice and so on – completely separately from the nitty-gritty copy-editing functions looking at technical issues of sentence structure, expression, word choice and so on.

There’s a good reason for that. You can’t competently do both at the same time.

If your beta reader points out that your spelling is appalling and your punctuation needs an overhaul, that’s a useful aside that you might want to take a look at before you give your book to a professional editor, but it’s not what you’ve asked them to do.

Summary

Beta readers, within the modern indie definition, are very useful to authors looking for layman reader opinion. While strictly speaking “alpha readers”, the distinction is rather irrelevant these days. I’d have the following suggestions:

  • Have more than one beta reader. If possible, many.
  • Don’t pay too much opinion to one beta reader’s opinion.
  • Choose your beta readers carefully.
  • Don’t use your beta readers as proxy editors, unless, of course, they’re qualified to be so.
  • Be specific about the kind of advice/opinion you want from your beta readers. At an early draft stage you’re concentrating on the big issues about plot and character and pacing and voice, not the detailed level of word choice and sentence structure.

The more clearly you brief them with particular issues (“I’m worried about the dialogue – is it realistic?” “I’m worried about the main character – is she empathetic, or just pathetic?”) then the more likely that you’ll get opinions really focussed on areas you want help with.

The Author’s Responsibilities

Finally, you can do your bit to get the most out of the experience.

  • Give your betas a tidy manuscript, with as few errors as possible.
  • Remember to be grateful! Beta readers are usually doing it for free, for a love of books and writing. Good beta readers genuinely want to help.
  • Don’t take it personally, and don’t be personal. They’re expressing an opinion about your book, not about you. And if you really don’t get on with a beta reader’s opinion, don’t rant and argue and tell them they’re idiots who know nothing about writing. Say thanks for the feedback, and quietly drop them off your beta reader list.

OVER TO YOU What has been your experience of using beta readers? We’d love to hear about it!

What #beteareaders do & how to find & use them - by @editoreditorial for #ww Click To Tweet

OTHER GREAT POSTS ABOUT BETA READING FOR INDIE AUTHORS

How To Find And Manage A Great Team of Beta Readers: Belinda Pollard

Writing: How to Find Beta Readers

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4 Responses to Writing: What are Beta Readers and Why and How Should Indie Authors Use Them?

  1. Joanne July 27, 2017 at 6:10 am #

    You lost me at “An author completes the first draft of a book and seeks validation.”
    No, that is not why I use beta-readers.

  2. Anil Karamchandani July 16, 2017 at 3:24 pm #

    I agree Richard. I have used beta readers for my 10+ of my blog articles – each of them approx 1000 – 1500 word. I get them from Fiverr.com .

    In the following link, I share one article – duly critiqued by a beta reader on fiverr.

    https://app.box.com/s/8smgf3flvcxbo6ndhrh3spiuir39jiho

    After trying out 5 – 6, I have settled down on 2 specific beta readers. So each article I write, is critiqued and edited upon by these 2. The cost is USD.10 per article. The critique and advice that I get is very good.

    As regards the book, I had hired from Upwork about 2 years back. I think the cost was Usd. 200 for a 30,000 word book. Over there too, I engaged two of them, to ensure that the feedback I got had a broader perspective.

    The advantage that these professionals have over friends cum beta readers is that they can be very thorough – unlike a friend who will just say – this is good, or any such 2 liner.

  3. Dan Phalen July 12, 2017 at 9:31 pm #

    Terrific advice, Richard. I labored over hiring and spending for betas, then jumped in and never regretted it. The two I got fit your description perfectly. Versed in the historical fiction genre, well-read, keen to elements of structure, plot flow, character arc, etc. From both came serendipity in the form of suggested clarifications and changes. I had two ruffians speaking like Cockney serfs. Didn’t work and I got told so. Since my story takes place 5,000 years ago in Sumer, the reader has to grapple with alien place names, a smattering of Sumerian proper names, and a desert world we know as Iraq today but transformed geologically by two rivers.The beta suggestions were spot on, and my pronouncing gazetteer got extended as a result of their input.

    I also got a great deal of help from my wife, who had just finished reading the entire Outlander series. Her fresh perspective and keen eye for detail probably spared me the need for a developmental edit, for she caught the remaining continuity flaws and revealed spots needing more clarification. The 112,000-word book came together after a harrowing 14-month rewrite of a trunk novel from 20 years ago (*ouch*). Since publication I’ve received positive feedback in person from a dozen local readers.

    The upshot is that everything you say I know to be true from my own experience. I wish more self-published authors would appreciate the value of editors and betas. You guys are worth your money and I’m here to say the return on investment is positive.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful, well-crafted presentation.

  4. Jane Davis July 12, 2017 at 3:29 pm #

    With regards to the reference to the ‘very first stages’ I think it would be hugely disrespectful of your beta reader’s time to send out an early edit. I would only send out what I believe to be a mature edit. This would either be after I have implemented my structural editor’s suggestions if I use one (I don’t always), or after I have self-edited the hell out of it and can’t take it any further on my own. I also issue a questionnaire with each manuscript to draw out the feedback I want (both general and specific).

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