Beta readers can be a valuable part of the writing and publishing process, but there is quite a debate about their contribution and overall impact on the writing process. Do you need to use a beta reader? Here’s how to determine if you should, when you shouldn’t and how to set it up for success.
What is a Beta Reader?
A beta reader is usually either an avid reader and/or a writer willing to read your work and offer feedback. Sometimes they want a small compensation or want to trade to have you read their work.
A specific type of beta reader emerging in today’s market are sensitivity readers. Unlike an editor, their main purpose is to read your manuscript in a way that minimizes or eliminates any “-isms,” (such as able-ism, ageism, racism, sexism) the author may have unintentionally created within their work. If you are writing a book with characters and situations that are culturally diverse, especially in regards to a culture you the author does not identify with, I do recommend using a sensitivity reader. However, the sensitivity reader should follow the recommended guidelines for beta readers in general. I have outlined these guidelines below.
The Benefits and Disadvantages of Beta Readers
One benefit of beta readers, especially in comparison to critique groups, is that beta readers are given your complete manuscript and therefore see the bigger picture of your manuscript. Critique groups limit what can be submitted to be read at any given time.
Another benefit is that there is another set of eyes on your manuscript. This helps with things the editor doesn’t care about such as character likability or story feasibility. Your editor, even on a developmental edit, will be looking for story holes, grammar, punctuation and flow. They may point out problematic areas, such as your villain waking from a coma in the hospital and having access to machine gun, but a beta reader will tell you they threw the book across the room when they read that scene.
A big disadvantage includes the fact that another person has full and complete access to your manuscript. When you give your work to an editor or other writing professional, it is part of their standard of ethics to maintain your intellectual property. While it is ethical not to steal the product of someone else’s creativity, unless you are willing and able to sue a beta reader for stealing your idea, you agree to the risk of losing it. Even if you are willing and able to sue, and even with a contract in place, it is a hard fought case to prove an idea was yours. There are many high profile cases out there that attest to this.
Beta readers can also be a disadvantage to an author who has a deadline in place, or if time is a factor in any way. This is because beta readers can significantly slow down, or even put to a halt, the publishing process. Countless times I’ve seen beta readers over commit and miss deadlines. I’ve also seen them offer little to no help, even after reading the manuscript, because they aren’t reading it the way an editor or trained eye would.
For example, I’ve had a reader come back to me and say, “It was good. I liked it.” This feedback is unhelpful as I am not applying for awards that judge my book as ‘good and likable’. I also received feedback on a particular scene, where I was told I was too descriptive about a bedroom. The bedroom was a scene designed to “show not tell” about the living conditions this particular character had. I said nothing about the character in words, but showed her very clearly, from her likes to personality and financial status, by describing where she spent most of her time. Beta readers don’t always understand how an author develops character or story line.
Tips for a Successful Beta Reader Experience
If you are wanting a beta reader, ask why. Often your editor is the only set of eyes you need. After their three-part comb-through, they will have a proofreader take a look to catch anything they missed. BUT, if you do choose to use a beta reader, I suggest it be someone in your target market. Your target market includes those who will likely buy your book because they are interested in the topic you have written about. Your target market reader will read with the interest needed to be helpful and they will be able to give you constructive criticism and detail what they liked about the manuscript. Make sure they are honest, tell them exactly what kind of feedback you are looking for, and give them a deadline. Have them sign a confidentiality agreement and offer some compensation, whether it be a signed copy of the book when it comes out, a financial stipend, or another service of value to them… under the condition of them meeting the deadline.
You may want to consider two or three beta readers in case one or more doesn’t complete the task, but that is up to you. Regardless, set a deadline for yourself that if you don’t receive their feedback, you continue on to your editor without it.
Because I have seen so many beta reader attempts fail and authors get incredibly discouraged, I decided to put together a writing group that takes all the best components of a critique group and beta readers and leaves out the ineffective feedback process and missed deadlines. Contact me HERE to learn more.