What’s Up With Beta Readers?

I hope your weekend was a good one. Mine was good. It was brutally, nastily cold here in NJ, so I bundled myself up and worked. Lots of editing, some reading, loads of emails (Wait until you see #InboxWednesday).

This week we’re going to talk about a part of the writing process that I don’t really talk about a lot. We’re going to talk beta readers.

The reason I don’t usually go into a great heap of detail is because I have a mixed relationship with beta readers. Some experiences have been great, some way less than great, and it’s a part of the creative process I probably should spend more time on, because it’s becoming more mainstream to rely on them.

Let’s start at the beginning. A beta reader is someone asked to read the manuscript and provide critique, generally as one of the later stages of post-writing pre-publication. As their name says, they read.

They’re not editors. I mean, they may be an editor as their job or something, but their service to the manuscript is not a directly editorial one. They read and provide feedback. If you’re asking a beta reader to edit (aside from whatever things they randomly catch, I mean specifically wanting them to read and edit), then you’ve merged proofreading and beta reading.

I believe that anyone who does a job should be paid. So yes, I believe beta readers should be paid. Flat fee, per chapter, whatever, they’re helping you out just as much as the editor, and you’re paying them (right?), so make with the payouts.

But wait, you cry, where am I supposed to get the money? Or worse, why do these people deserve to get paid, they’re just reading?

And that, right there, is the reason why this post exists.

They’re not “just” reading. Their job is to read with a particular eye on story elements. Some authors provide a list of specific questions (hopefully they avoid the fluff ones like: “Did you like it?” or “Did you like X character?” because a beta reader is a lens for getting feedback focused on specific elements. What elements? Here’s some of the elements:

+character arc
+plot development and pacing
+tension
+story pacing
+number of characters
+the ease of readability
+narrative tone
+gauging how exciting the climax was
+gauging how satisfying the resolution was

These are story elements. They’re subcutaneous to the ego stroke of whether or not the person liked the story and can therefore blow smoke up the rectal cavities of authors. If you’re looking for praise, let your grandma read the story. A beta reader is not a praise factory, they’re a critical eye with a bit more objectivity than the editor who’s spent weeks with the MS or the author who’s been tapping the keys about it for a year.

Because they’re not being asked to fellate the insecure author (I talked to quite a few beta readers over the weekend whose feedback was irrelevant to their playing some kind of “you did good enough” validation), we come back to this idea that the author is the superior in whatever relationships concern the MS.

Let’s see how we get to this way of thinking.

The author has the option to hire an editor, and if they do, then the author employs the editor. There’s a servile power dynamic there.

The author tells the beta readers what to look for, so there’s another servile power dynamic there.

Pretty much anybody pre-submission serves the author’s needs. For some people, this power, particularly over a manuscript that they are very emotionally tied to or invested in, is ripe for abuse.

It doesn’t help that some pinheads mistake the “beta” in beta reader for a subordinate position off the bat. For the record, a beta reader is a text beta-tester, the surrogate audience member. Considering their role as audience, I would challenge any power dynamic because the beta reader is your resource for how the story will engage the marketplace. Confuse a beta reader, disinterest them, and you expose the fleshy story underbelly and possibility that your MS isn’t the polished gemstone you think it is. This is not to say it’s on the other extreme of formica or whatever zirconia gets sold on late night television, but there’s no reason to disregard or belittle the feedback because it isn’t the radioactive glowing praise that your MS is a bestseller waiting to happen.

Which is why I advocate for paying your beta reader. Treat them as a peer, not a tool, in your process and value their feedback. If you have (I’m making numbers up) 3 readers, and 1 says that the story is bloated with too many similar sounding names, or you’ve got the story all over the place in the first few chapters, consider what they’re telling you. Don’t blow it off just because it’s not as praising as what your other two readers might say. Remember that your MS may not be liked by everyone, that should you go forward and traditionally publish, an agent or editor may possibly have similar concerns, that your MS may languish in rejection hell for a while until those concerns get revised.

You want a beta reader to push you, to flip your MS judo-style, beat it up a little (or a lot), because you’re trying to get the best MS possible. So why not beat it up a little? Does that mean more work for you? Yeah. Is that bad? No.

Not every beta reader is going to extol your praises. Not every beta reader is going to spew hot lava at you. Like so many other things, it’s about the combination of all feedback, rather than the authorial power dynamic. It’s okay to get feedback that’s harsh, I’d go so far to say it’s vital, unless you want to just live in a clueless bubble of faux-perfection where you don’t push yourself or your craft out of some fear that your emperor will be exposed as a nudist.

Getting to stage in production where you need to engage beta readers is not the end of the marathon that is publication. You still have to get the story packaged and either submitted, or into the hands of readers. So let’s talk for a minute about a different kind of power dynamic, where the author puts them on a pedestal. Which isn’t the point either.

Yes, the beta reader, to some extent acts like a surrogate audience, but again, they’re not just reading your story for enjoyment. Giving them concepts to keep an eye out for helps you steer through the parts of writing where you may find or think yourself weak. They’re useful, like so many other things I’ve talked about on this blog.

To suggest the beta reader is superior in some way is to suggest that you’re writing as to earn the praise of the audience more than the pleasure of writing or the want to see your story in the world. Yes, there’s an element of praise to be had by an audience, but it can’t be the only reason you sit down everyday to write. Not everyone is going to like your work, and they’re not supposed to.

Treat your readers like people, because they are people. Don’t be a dick, don’t throw some alleged superiority in their face. They’re trying to help you, let them.

I’ll see you later this week for #InboxWednesday, where we’re going to hear from Tonda.

See you then. Happy writing.

0 thoughts on “What’s Up With Beta Readers?

  1. As with anything, the quality of beta readers varies. I used two, neither professional. One was amazing with quality feedback specific enough to act on. Their comments made me rewrite several sections, making the story much stronger. The other much less so.

  2. Insightful post. You’ve corrected my half-baked notion of what a beta reader is and presented a host of useful considerations for the next time I need beta readers. One thing you implied and I think I totally get is the warning that a beta reader shouldn’t get an early draft. A special case might be using a friendly reader as a total throwaway, like in the case where you’ve just spent a year writing about that sparkly vampire and before you spend another year polishing it for beta readers or submission to an editor for work, you want to know if your plot is anywhere near acceptable. You are just getting a friendly read for sense. I would nowhere near consider such a person a bona fide beta reader but someone vetting a sparkly vampire manuscript.

  3. I think an important point here is that often you meet other writers, through workshops, conference, in roundtable groups, who are at the same stage you are, also interested in having beta readers, and you both offer to read each other’s manuscripts. So in a way you are “paying them” in that you’re offering your services to them quid pro quo. That’s different than paying a professional editor, say $ 4.00 a page to critique.

    • Maggie, I want to point out two things – first, I pay my beta readers cash, and to date none have asked me to edit anything, professionally or personally. Second, $4 a page is .016 cents per word, which is low even for proofreading. I pay my beta readers a flat MS amount depending on my budget and schedule, and to date that’s been in the ballpark between $75 and $350 depending on the size of the MS and how quickly I needed it back.

      While I might be asking my friends to read my work, I’m not asking them to give me the “friends” rate where they pay me with a smile and a pat on the back. They’re doing a job for me, they get paid.

      Thanks so much for your comment, and thanks for reading.

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