So I said, “Hey, wanna be my beta reader?”
“What’s a beta reader?” Everyone replied.
A beta reader is to books as a beta tester is to the latest version of Windows. Beta testers get their hands on technology a little ahead of the market. The product is done, and we might assume ready for sale. But rather than releasing it and just hoping its features will work and be a big hit, smart companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Samsung recruit people who are “early adopters” or who are particularly tech savvy to try it out. Those folks try every feature, take it to work or use it in the car, and they let the makers know what doesn’t work, and why, when, and how. That allows the latest Android or iPhone be the giant hit it could be, rather than face slow sales and mountains of returned merchandise.
A beta reader does something similar for books. When a publisher has spent good money contracting with an author, they want to make sure that author is going to make them money. Similarly, when a self-published author spends money out of their own pocket to put a work out there, they want to be sure they're going to get their investment back. Beta readers can help them do that. Beta readers are not replacements for editors. Usually, by the time the beta reader sees the work, it’s already been through at least one round of rewrites and edits. It may not have been seen by a final copy editor, but it should be mostly free of copy errors, and in a form that the editor and author think will best present the story they are trying to tell. But will it?
It’s easy for a writer, or even an editor, to become too close to the work. They’ve read it multiple times. They’ve reworked the text, picked the right words, thought about it, slept with it, dreamed about it. They’ve gotten those characters in their heads and became friends. The author knows what the characters are thinking, even when they don’t tell the reader. And that’s a problem. The writer thinks they’ve expressed those motivations and inner emotional states well enough using the show, don’t tell method. The reader may disagree.
Here the beta reader takes on the role of the reader in the market. They don’t read the book the way an editor does. They just read the book and give their impressions. Beta readers are usually not experts, unless the book is aimed at an expert audience. They’re just ordinary folks with a love of reading who don’t mind spending some extra time letting the author or publisher know what they thought in a little more detail than the average reader would.
Are all beta readers the same?
Nope. Some are definitely more helpful than others. And some are specifically sought after because they are part of a special subgroup of readers. For instance, if the book is a murder mystery about a surgeon killing their patients, doctors and other experts in health services, forensics, and the law will probably be most helpful. They’ll pick up on little details and inconsistencies others may not. They may find the work less believable than would non-experts for this reason. Alternatively, the publisher might want to know if the work is a little too jargon heavy for the average reader. Are terms defined well enough that one doesn’t have to be a subject matter expert in order to understand the work?
Publishers and authors often specify an age range, education level, reading level, gender, or even more specific characteristics that they think will line up with their most likely readers. A book about a young black child living in rural Georgia in the fifties will likely appeal to a different audience that a book about an aristocratic Russian family living in a palace at the turn of the century. Some books, of course, are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience. In that case, the publisher may purposely seek out a cross section of the audience, making sure they get some people of every age range, reading level, gender, race, sexual orientation, and more. These are really marketing decisions. Most publishers won’t bother with beta readers for authors who already have an established audience, either because they are famous (think Donald Trump or Dr. Oz) or because they have a track record of successful books (Stephen King). And some publishers don’t use them at all. In any case, most authors don’t have to concern themselves with this level of marketing. Once the book is written, their job is done until it’s time to make an appearance to promote it.
The self-published author has to take this job on along with all the others. Self-published authors cannot fall back on years of experience and education in marketing to make these decisions. For them, the beta reader is an even more invaluable asset. Self-publishers often feel isolated in their task, and they really are. Publishing houses have lots of in-house experts, and can call on other experts as needed. They have experts who design book covers, experts who do typesetting, experts who edit, and experts in photo spreads and art arrangement. They have experts in marketing, and in financial management. They have lawyers and advisers. The self-publisher has him or herself. They may pay to have their book professionally edited, but the odds are long they will ever have a personal relationship with the editor. If they hire a marketing firm, they will likely never recoup the costs. And book covers are another expense most cannot afford. So the low cost of beta readers is a definite selling point to self-published authors. And there is a great opportunity to develop a relationship with beta readers who provide excellent feedback.
What makes a great beta reader?
Publishers and authors have a variety of requirements of beta readers, but most agree on a few things that make the best beta readers worth their weight in gold.
1. Great beta readers read and respond quickly. Once a book is ready for the beta readers, publishers may send it out to as many as 50 beta readers. Most self-publishers have between 3 and 13 readers they tend to rely on again and again. The book is mostly done, and needs to go to final copy editing, or for another round of rewrites and edits, before it can get printed and bound and shipped out. And there are lots of other steps, all on hold while the reader is doing their job. Obviously, the faster they can do it, the faster and better that book can get published.
2. Great beta readers don’t just know what they like or don’t like, they know why. This is the most important element. If you hated the book, we need to hear whether it was because the characters were unrelatable, or the because the prose was stiff, or the plot lagged. If you found it boring, was it because there was no action, or because the action wasn’t described well, or maybe because it was over described, slowing the reading experience to a crawl. We need specifics!
3. Great beta readers pay attention to the questions they’re asked. Sometimes the publisher wants a general read and will ask very simple, broad questions like, “Would you purchase this book for a friend?” or “Would you recommend this book for a just learning reader?” Other times they get really focused. As, “In the chapter on Death and Dying, did the author adequately describe the process of grieving for the young child?”
4. Great beta readers read deeply and a lot. The more you read, and the more you process what you read, the more likely you’ll pick up themes, deeper ideas, contexts, and errors. Some people are good at picking up story and thematic problems, while others will spot all the factual mistakes. If you can do both, you’re going to get asked back to beta read again and again. You are the beta reader that helps assure that author success.
5. Great beta readers enjoy the process and take pride in the finished work. It is a process. It takes time. There are few rewards. Beta readers are sometimes paid in cash, and sometimes not paid at all-- but most often they are paid in small rewards like free books, gift cards, or inexpensive thank you gifts such as tote bags and fountain pens. They do the work because they like to read new books. They get a little extra thrill knowing almost no one else has yet read the work, and they may have a little hand in making it even better. They also get the pride of seeing the finished work. And there’s extra bragging points if they can point out where a suggestion they made got incorporated into the final product!
Self-published authors often rely on family members or close friends to do their beta reading for them. This isn't ideal, because family members may be uncomfortable really leveling with their loved one about how bad the book really is. And if they do openly critique the work, conversation may be a bit tense around the Thanksgiving table next year. Professional authors take criticism constructively and consider all suggestions, making use of the ones that are especially pertinent. That can be hard to do though, when the person critiquing them is also on their secret Santa list. No one can hurt you like your family can. Not only that, but family members and friends may be so similar to the author, that they're likely to make the same assumptions as the author. They probably share socio-economic status, school experiences, religion, and even interests. That means the author that relies on friends and family may not be getting a true representative sample of the audience they are shooting for. That's why many prefer beta readers from outside the author's usual circle of family and friends.
So, that’s a beta reader, and that’s what makes a good one. Some people really enjoy it. Want to be a beta reader? There are lots of authors and publishers out there looking for someone just like you.
If you're eager to get started, Splot! Publishing Club invites you to join Beta Readers Anonymous and offer your services to members of our little circle of writers.