It seems to me authors have a love/hate relationship with their beta readers and I wish to do something to correct the problem. I gave my opinion about how beta readers should behave from my own perspective as both author and beta reader. Now it’s only fair I do the same to the author half of my persona. Consider this your beta reader owner’s manual.
A beta reader is a mythological creature, it allows us, as authors, to create the best work we can. They critique our work, highlighting what works, what doesn’t, and where we can improve our babies from the reader’s viewpoint. They are not our whipping boys, nor are they our editors, they are people and deserving of our respect.
I believe there are too many authors who confuse beta readers with alpha readers and I am about to clear it up for the uninitiated and uninformed among us. Alpha readers are those people we give our manuscript to in its unpolished, rough form. I repeat this to make sure we all understand this UNPOLISHED ROUGH FORM = ALPHA READER!
Alphas are typically someone you feel close to; someone who will be kind, but honest. Some of us use our fellow authors for this stage as part of a cooperative exchange. A manuscript swap or critique group. These poor unfortunate souls see our manuscript when we haven’t taken the time to check for typos, sentence structure, or plot errors that abound in a rough draft.
Beta readers are the people who see your manuscript after you’ve already done everything you can think of to polish it. After you’ve listened to the feedback of your alpha readers and you’ve sweated through revisions, errors, and late night rewrites, then you send it out into the world to see how it connects with an actual, non-emotionally invested, reader. Do not use your best friend for this unless you know that your best friend is brutally honest. I used my sister, both as alpha and beta reader for my novel because I know she will never lie to me. In fact, she’s more brutal on me than she would be on anyone else because she knows what I am capable of. Still with me? Let’s move on to the next step.
I’m sure you’re wondering, where can I get beta readers? I’m so glad you asked that question. We find our betas through a lot of work, begging, and if necessary paying for these mythological beings to help us. If we’re lucky and they agree to do it without financial compensation then we’re ahead of the game. If we choose to pay, then it is up to us to do our due diligence and make sure that our reader(s) are consummate professionals and not scammers.
The first place I looked for beta readers was at the Goodreads Beta Reader Group. This is the same place that I started beta reading and it is like my home. I feel that I must give anyone considering this group fair warning. In recent months, more and more people are putting up ads to read and then hitting the authors who respond up for money. If you do not wish to pay them it will be up to you to ignore them. Also, several readers there take a significant amount of time to deliver their critique. Again, this is something you will have to deal with and is something I will cover later in this post.
There are several groups on Facebook where you can connect with other authors and may be able to find a beta. I’ve gained several clients from groups there and will gladly take anyone who needs a beta as long as they ask and are polite.
The last option I will discuss is the professional beta reader. I have no problem with anyone who chooses to pay to have someone read their work. I do feel that it is wise to seek out references from other clients. I also feel that you have to take a critique from someone who is being paid to read with a very large grain of salt. Especially if they do not find anything negative to say. Trust me, you can always find something negative to say about any manuscript.
So now you’ve found some beta readers! Good job. I’m sure you are wondering what you can expect from them. Let me guide you through the care and feeding of your beta readers.
Step One: Communicate! I cannot emphasize this step enough. It will make or break your relationship with your betas. If you would like it back within a specific time frame … tell them! If you want to know about character development … tell them! Plot development, pacing, whether you should kill off dear Aunt Bernice … ASK THEM! Betas are not mind readers, they do not know what you are looking for unless you tell them. So please keep the lines of communication wide open.
Step Two: Don’t be pushy. If you promised them two weeks to read without interruption, then give it to them! Don’t email every day asking for updates. Not every person reads at the same speed, and good betas can be reading for five or more authors at a time (my record was thirty waiting, but that will NEVER happen again!). Every time you expect them to email, skype, or send up smoke signals it is time you’re taking away from them reading! If you’re not paying them be kind and not a asshat of epic proportions … please!
Step Three: When you receive your critique. Thank them, then read it. If you have questions … ask them (see step one). Be nice, even if you disagree. Ask for clarification, but don’t fight with them or get into a flame war on forums. Be a professional not a troll. I’m a firm believer in reaping what you sow. Be a snarky troll and soon no one will read for you. Don’t believe me? I keep a list of people I will never read for again. I doubt I’m the only one.
Step Four: Do not expect them to write a review for you on Amazon, Goodreads, etc. I do not know how this trend started, but I would like to slap whoever started it into the next millennium. Not only is it rude, but some sites would consider them false and remove them which could bite you in the derriere.
Step Five: Repeat. You will need more than one beta. Personally, I used twelve for my book and I am still waiting for reports from at least half of them. Go for a larger number and expect to only receive critiques from half or less. I know, it sucks, but it is far more common than uncommon to have a beta disappear and not ever hear back from them.
One final word on the subject and I will leave it alone … for now. Betas, most anyway, do not get paid. They don’t ask to be paid. As a matter of courtesy, don’t treat them like a slave. A copy of your book when it is published WITH a nice gift bag will go a long way in showing them how critical they were to seeing your book published. Don’t feel like doing a gift bag, or the reader doesn’t want it? Try a donation in their name to a charity, a gift card to Amazon (most of us read … a lot!), or even a handwritten note of thanks. It’s the small things that make us do this job.