What’s a beta reader and why do you need one?

 In Editing

Or: Why your friends aren’t your best first readers.

Picture of logs sticking out of water. Text says: What's a beta reader?

Beta reading is one of the services I provide, and it’s the one that most people haven’t heard of. Here’s what I tell people when they ask:

A beta reader is a person who reads an unpublished manuscript and gives the author honest feedback from a reader’s perspective.

Just like computer programs and apps undergo beta testing to find the bugs, authors need readers who can give feedback and find the bugs in their stories.

Picture of logs sticking out of water. Text says: Why do you need a beta reader?

First question. Have you written and revised a novel? If you said no, then you don’t need a beta reader.

However, if you have written and revised your manuscript, it’s a good idea to send it out into the world to see what people think before you start polishing your query letter or researching the best way to self-publish. There are a lot of novels out there, and given the time you’ve put in already, having beta readers take a look at what you’ve written is the first step on the road to finding real readers, the ones who will pay you to read your words.

Picture of logs sticking out of water. Text says: Who can be a beta reader?

Someone needs to be able to read to be a beta reader. That’s the first qualification. Ideally, they will like reading and will have read entire books. It’s even better if your beta reader has read books that are similar to yours. Your third grader is probably out, unless you’ve written a chapter book.

With those qualifications in mind, you can cast a wide net. Friends, family members, partners or spouses, any writer friends you might have, that lady next door who always has a book her hand, people in your book group. All of these people can be beta readers.

Picture of logs sticking out of water. Text says: Why people you know aren't the best beta readers. (Part I)

Unless you are terrible person (and I’m assuming you aren’t) the people you know love you. And that means that feedback you are going to be getting from them will be—how to say this?—edited.

What your beta reading Aunt Donna might think: “Bless my niece’s heart, she wrote this whole thing. Too bad it’s like a Stephen King novel that has been doused with a double helping of benzodiazepines. It’s taking all I’ve got to power through.”

What your beta reading Aunt Donna will say, “I loved your main character. She just kept going through all those different situations. You are so creative!”

Picture of logs sticking out of water. Text says: Why people you know aren't the best beta readers. (Part II)

The best advice I ever got about beta readers was, “You’re going to give your novel to five people, and one of them will get back to you. The other four will never mention your novel again.”

People you know are super excited that you’ve written a novel. They may even be super excited to read your novel and thrilled that you asked them to be an early reader. But that doesn’t mean their excitement will transfer into the action of reading your novel.

People don’t read as much as they want to. Your beta readers probably mean to read your manuscript, but their phones have so many interesting apps and there are a million streaming services and everyone is so busy.

Maybe you happen to have a pack of friends who eschew social media and streaming services. Maybe you have friends who have a Gold Card for their library. Even so, these friends might not read your manuscript.

Self-edited novels are rough. You may be an amazing writer who has spent a ton of time getting things just so. But there’s a reason every published author thanks their editor in the acknowledgments. It’s possible that on the tenth draft, your novel will still have problems. And when your beta reader gets to those problems it’s likely that some other book that has been edited is going to send out a louder call than your manuscript. Once your novel slips to the bottom of the pile it’s probably not going to make its way to the top.

Picture of logs sticking out of water. Text says: Can I just pay someone to beta read for me?

Why yes, you can! There are people who enjoy reading so much that they are happy to charge a fee to read your novel and give you feedback from a reader’s perspective.

Picture of logs sticking out of water. Text says: But should I pay someone to read my novel?

If you want quality feedback, the answer is yes. Because professional beta readers are taking money from you in exchange for reading your novel and giving you feedback, you are going to get feedback. Authors who haven’t yet gone the friends-and-family route might not understand how hard it is to get a reader’s insight into their manuscript.

People who have gotten feedback from friends will understand why a professional beta reader is a great idea. You’ll have feedback, you’ll know what kind of feedback you are getting, and you’ll know when you are getting it. These things are worth the beta reading fee.

Picture of logs sticking out of water. Text says: How do I find these professional beta readers?

I’m glad you asked. I’m a beta reader, so message me or check out my profile to see if my services would meet your beta reading needs. You can also check the internet to see what kind of results pop up. Goodreads has a discussion group for people looking for beta readers and you can also search for them in the directories of editing organizations such as the Editorial Freelancers Association or the Northwest Editors Guild.

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Text: When Should You Hire a Copyeditor?Sunlight streaming through tall trees. Text: When to Hire a Beta Reader