What Are Beta Readers (and Do I Need Some?)

I’ll answer the last question first: yes.

Now, onto the other: what, exactly, are they? People talk about having them, sometimes in the subdued tone usually reserved for humblebrags about one’s Ferrari but mostly with the outrage usually reserved for a new case of the clap. Still, they don’t talk about what they are. Each new author, more or less, has to make this discovery on their own. With, admittedly, varying results. Which is strange, because the concept is fairly simple: beta readers are guinea pigs.

They’re not editors. They’re not reading your book for any purpose other than to tell you if it’s good. As a reader. In other words, they might love the book–or they might hate it. You might get a beta reader who hates your book so much that, after quitting halfway through the first chapter, he never touches it again. Which is great; he’s doing his job, in that he’s giving you feedback. Feedback you’ll get, trust me, one way or the other.

I have a beta reading group on Facebook, which is secret. Mostly friends and longtime fans, these sainted souls of virtue are currently reading Dark Horizon (which is due for release sometime next year). I am obsessed with like hearing what everyone has to say, but have to remember not to push it–or anyone, as an individual. It’s nobody’s job to tell me how to write. Except, maybe, my editor’s. It’s definitely her job to help me respond to questions, complaints, and criticisms. Even so, neither she nor I can always predict what’ll keep the pages turning–and that’s where feedback comes in.

I mentioned earlier that you’ll get it one way or another; my first book bombed, in part because it was marketed incorrectly but mostly because, and I cannot stress this enough, it sucked. Good enough to get published is not good enough to develop, let alone maintain, any kind of fan base. I didn’t have beta readers back then, even though I wanted them. I couldn’t get prospective agents to read my queries, let alone anything longer–and that was with a cash incentive! Beta readers, unlike agents and just about everyone else involved in the publishing process, don’t (ever) earn squat. You could write something that makes Worlds of Power: Metal Gear look like Twelfth Night or you could outsell J.K. Rowling. Either way, your beta readers are left in the same position. Which they know! So when you do find a few, treat them with respect.

And along these lines, here are a few more do’s and don’t’s:

  • DO have realistic expectations. A beta reader’s sole job is to read your book exactly like they would any other. They’re not proofreaders, they’re not editors, and they’re not world building/character development/historical consultants. Ask yourself: what are your expectations of a book, when you check it out of the library?
  • DON’T attempt to collect beta readers from your local writing group. Writing is one of those fields that serves as an attractive nuisance for jackasses of all kinds. Now, your local writing group may be wonderful. You may have even started it, populating it with nothing but legitimate, freshly resurrected, card carrying saints. And you know what? Someone in it’s still there to copy everyone else’s work.
  • DON’T guilt people into participating–as beta readers, or in any other way. This isn’t Mary Kay. You might get a few pity reads, or more likely pity promises of reads, and that attention might feel good momentarily. But it’s not a sign of anything, except possibly some exceptionally loving people in your life. That your mom reads your book, even that your entire sorority reads your book, doesn’t mean anyone else will. Especially when they have drive to the book store (or fire up Amazon) and pay!
  • DO choose people you trust. This is your work product, after all, your blood and sweat and tears. I’m not trying to make anyone paranoid, here, I’ve just been in this industry long enough to have a few stories.
  • DO consider using a multi-writer/public platform like Wattpad. I’m not on Wattpad, currently, but was for a couple of years. Now that I’m essentially starting from scratch, under a “new” name, I occasionally consider going back. Wattpad (or any similar site, really) can be a tremendous help in building a platform. On Facebook, for example, or on Amazon, you have to be looking for me to find me. On Wattpad? Millions of people who already like books and are already looking for a book to read are already there, searching.
  • DO be patient.
  • DO accept that lack of interest is a valid, and vital, form of criticism. Instead of getting defensive, assuming you have the spoons, consider exploring the why’s. Is it how your book opens? Something else to do with the book’s actual content? Is it the blurb? Or maybe, simply, your description? Who likes, and doesn’t like your book, right now, that’s some valuable insight into future success–and failure.
  • DO establish ground rules. In my group, yes, I obviously want feedback. But not all feedback is created equal! Talk to me about my writing; do not insult my editor, or any of the other dozens of people whose hard work and sacrifice goes into my and all the other books on the shelf. I had to boot someone, recently, for being completely inappropriate in this regard–not to mention, hurtful. Now, she could’ve learned from her mistake (i.e. allowed herself to be teachable); instead she chose the route of, “you can’t handle my truth bombs.” Um…maybe? But I literally have no control over certain aspects of the publishing process.
  • DO periodically check in with your beta readers–just to see how they are. Consider, too, making a few nice gestures like sending cards, etc. For inspiration, think about what perks you’d offer on a hypothetical (or maybe current) Patreon.

Okay, that’s my list.

What have I forgotten?