Beta Readers

In my self-publishing process, I don’t hire story editors or developmental editors. I do hire a copyeditor, but that’s for after the story is already fine-tuned. Instead of these earlier editors, I use beta readers.

As I explained in an earlier post, I do my own alpha reading and fix up what I can, but then I reach a point where I need an outside perspective. That’s when I turn to my beta readers. They don’t provide everything that a professional story editor – particularly one in a publishing house – would provide, but in some ways, they provide more.

But first, who do I pick as my beta readers?

The common wisdom going around is that these should not be your friends and family. The logic behind that is that these people won’t understand what is required to make a story work, and besides, they don’t want to hurt your feelings, so they won’t speak up about your book’s problems. While I think that can be true, I don’t think it’s always true. Certainly not all of my friends and family are qualified, but a few of them are quite qualified. And some of those qualified few are also emotionally invested in my success. They actually read the damn thing, make notes, and give me good feedback.

What makes them qualified? Well, ideally, I’d love to three or four uncles who have spent a lifetime as professional editors in my genre of publishing, but that hasn’t happened. I think the key though, is that my beta readers need to be well-read in the genres that I’m writing in. If all they read is chick-lit, they won’t be able to give me good feedback on my space opera. And when I say well-read, I don’t mean half a dozen books. I mean hundreds of books.

Also, they should know what they like and why they like it. It’s not enough that they really enjoyed Old Man’s War by Scalzi. They should be able to talk about what parts really thrilled them, what parts were only okay, and why they reacted that way. When the end of my book doesn’t work for them, they can have some idea why, whether it be plausibility, character motivation, or emotional satisfaction. This kind of feedback is easier to get if the beta reader is also a writer, because writers think about these things a lot, but it’s not a requirement. I’ve also gotten this kind of quality feedback from people who never write fiction.

And finally, they need to show a track history of giving me honest feedback, especially when that feedback is bad. I may not know this until I first try them as a beta reader. They may come back and simply tell me it’s wonderful. That’s nice and all, but it didn’t get me any further down the path. If they come back and tell me it was great until page 212 when the navy showed up and solved everyone’s problems, then I’ve gotten some great feedback about my ending. These are the kind of people who will say, “Yes, those jeans actually do make you look fat.”

Some good feedback I have gotten from my beta readers have been things like:

  • You’re telegraphing the main conflict in chapter one. I would have enjoyed it more if it had developed over time.
  • Hank is a real dick at the beginning, and you never explain why.
  • I really liked Walter until 2/3 of the way through, and then he just went nuts for no clear reason.
  • Bob reacts to everything by being angry, and that got a little annoying. Is that all he can do?
  • The scenes with Susan were kind of boring to me. I didn’t stop reading, but I wanted to skip ahead.

These were great because they were specific, they reflected how they reacted as readers, and they were not suggesting radical changes like, “I think Frank should be a vampire.” They were giving me a measurement on whether or not I invoked the kind of emotional response in readers that I was attempting. Did I make you cry, or did you blow a great big raspberry at the page?

Of course, beta readers are not a complete replacement for a story editor or a development editor. They won’t tell me that New Adult is a big thing right now, and this story could be redone with the protagonist five years older or five years younger to fit that market. They won’t tell me that the paranormal horror market is oversaturated and showing signs of shrinking. And I doubt they’ll tell me that my mystery-horror crossover will be hard to market.

On the other hand, beta readers provide a diversity of feedback that no single editor will be able to match. If one beta reader complains about one of my favorite parts, I have to wonder if I’m on the right track or if I have to “kill my darlings” as the saying goes. But if the other readers all liked that particular point, I can safely set aside that single piece of feedback with the notion that I can’t please everyone all the time. On the other hand, if most of them complain about the same thing, I have to accept that the problem is real and haul that particular darling of mine off to the guillotine. With a single editor, I’d always struggle with whether or not to stick to my guns on things like that.

Would I like to have a developmental editor and a story editor as well? Possibly, but for now I’m making do with my beta readers. However, I will say that I’m looking for additional beta readers. Right now, I have a trio of ladies as my beta readers, and while I don’t want to throw down the gauntlet of gender inequality, I’d like another man’s perspective from time to time.

How about you folks… do you use beta readers? Have you ever been a beta reader?