A discussion about beta readers came up the other day in an editors’/writers’ group I’m a moderator of. There seemed to be 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, and how much attention you pay to what they say. Some of that confusion is because publishing, particularly indie publishing, is in flux, and the roles of participants in the production of a book are evolving rapidly, sometimes morphing into quite different functions than they historically fulfilled.
Here’s my take on it:
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?” These readers would have been called “alpha readers”, the first people outside the actual production team to see the draft.
The manuscript comes back with approving comments. Encouraged, the publisher pushes the book in to 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?”
Indie publishing and beta readers
The accepted role of the beta reader in indie publishing circles is very different. An author completes the first draft of a book. When the delight of typing “The End” wears off, they are usually assailed with doubt. “Is it any good? Will people want to read it? Are there any glaring problems? Is there something I missed? Am I really a writer?” At this stage, authors could turn to an independent editor, and get a professional opinion on their work. Few do. For a start, that costs money. Secondly, it’s not about critique at this stage. It’s more about validation. Authors haven’t grown that thick skin that they need to develop in order to hear a professional’s frank and honest opinion about their writing. Hemingway is reputed to have said “The first draft of anything is shit.” The fragile newbie-author ego is not likely to be resilient enough to hear this unwelcome news, just yet.
So the author researches online, hears about “beta readers” and turns to their writers’ group, or asks a friend, or their old high school teacher, and asks for their opinion. “Will you be a beta reader? Tell me honestly what you think.”
How the role of a beta has evolved should be clear. The beta reader is now getting involved in the very first stages of the book, when it is still an early draft. What are they likely to say? 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 no longer merely commenting on what they liked or didn’t like about a finished book. Suggestions they make might have a critical impact on how subsequent drafts of the book develop. Arguments as to whether this is a good thing or not are missing the point. This evolution has already happened. The key thing to consider is that in this new role beta readers are potentially far more influential in the development of a book than they ever used to be in their traditional role.
What should I look for?
Yikes! So you are that newbie author, and you’ve heard about beta readers, and you were going to recruit a few for feedback on your book. What should you look for in a beta reader?
Firstly, they 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. The more books they’ve read, especially of modern literature, the more they’ll have to compare it to.
…in your genre
Ideally, they should be well-read 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.
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. Your dystopian “everybody dies” Analysis of the Human Condition that is truly the best thing since “On the Beach,” is not going to go down well.
…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
And finally they should be capable of communicating what they thought to you, clearly, concisely and unambiguously. Ideally they should be able to give you their feedback in writing (it helps to be able to mull over critique in your own time) so they need to be able to communicate ideas and thoughts in writing in a clear and ordered fashion. Rambling monologues, where one idea blurs into another, are hard to read and difficult to learn from. Comments should be as specific 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).
Their prose needn’t be polished and perfect, but if it’s littered with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors then, unless there’s good reason, you’d have to wonder exactly how well-read they are. They should also know how to phrase criticism so that it isn’t personal, and is always constructive. This helps defuse the emotional baggage of what otherwise can be quite a sensitive conversation.
How many beta readers?
Truly? 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.
And how much attention should you pay to what they say?
Statisticians routinely take a sample, (in a survey, for example), and discard the bottom 5% and top 5% of results. They are outliers. They are that person who was more interested in a book about a lizard. You’re not writing a book about a lizard, so their opinions, while possibly entertaining, are not 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 (be it one character’s motivation, or a plot device that seemed unlikely, or a section that they skipped) 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. I should have to justify that opinion. Why would I say no? After all, many authors swear by their beta reader feedback when drafting their books.
There are a couple of issues.
However well-intentioned a beta reader is, they bring their own biases. Perhaps they dislike first person narrative, or they don’t like New Mexico. Maybe they don’t like lizards. 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 (which any editor who’s a member of a professional organisation is encouraged to participate in), 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.
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 copyediting 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, and it’s not generally a beta reader’s role. If they’re looking for spelling mistakes, they can’t be appreciating your wonderful prose.
Beta readers, within the modern 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 focused on areas you want help with.
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.
- Don’t send them a revised first ten chapters, after they’ve been reading for a few weeks, and expect them to start again.
- 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.
[An abbreviated version of this post was published on the ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) blog in July 2017]