UPDATED JULY 2, 2017
Writing is not a solitary endeavor. Not by a long shot. When a writer finishes a draft of a story, it is usually impossible for them to be objective about what they’ve written. Beta readers take a recently completed story and view it with a level of objectivity that the writer does not possess.
But if you’ve never worked with a beta reader before, you shouldn’t jump in blindly. Beta readers can help you bring focus to your story in ways you never imagined. But they can also be less-than-helpful if you’re not specific in your directions. Worse, they can be downright problematic if you’re not careful.
In this article, I’ll go over the four things every writer should know about beta readers before involving them in your project.
What Is a Beta Reader?
If we’re going to talk about beta readers, it might be a good idea to “level set” and make sure we’re all talking about the same thing. Rather than reinvent the wheel, let’s take a look at Wikipedia’s definition, which I think is about as good as it gets. Here’s a screenshot of the relevant section. Click the link or pic to be taken to the article.
If you’re going to take anything away from that definition, please let it be the following terms:
- Non-professional reader
- Reads with intent to improve
- Before public consumption
I’d like to add one additional criterion that is absent from the Wikipedia definition:
- Ideally a writer themselves
Why? Because you want people who are able to not only point out what isn’t working in your story, but also offer educated advice on how you might improve it. Yes, my writing skill improves every time I write something. But it improves by leaps and bounds when I work with beta readers who are better writers than I am.
Now that we’ve come to some agreement as to what beta readers are, let’s take a look at the four things every writer should know before they start working with a beta reader.
1. Know How To Find Beta Readers
Social media is great for a lot of things, one of which is calling a lot of people to action all at once. That ability is highlighted when it comes to putting out the call for beta readers. Hopefully you’ve spent some time building a writer’s platform before you’ve gotten to this point. If not, don’t worry. There’s still time. You’re a little late to the game, but better late than never showing up! Had you been building a platform, you would have also been cultivating key relationships with other writers and potential readers. These relationships will greatly assist you in finding potential beta readers. So if you haven’t already gotten started, now’s the time! Put yourself out there. Get to know people. Hell, maybe offer to beta read some of their stuff too! Beta reading works great as a mutual relationship, and sometimes you need to give in order to receive.
If you’re just starting out with beta readers (an assumption I’m making here), then you’re going to want to cast a wide net at first. Put out the call and (within reason) take what comes. People probably aren’t familiar with your writing skills, and you’re probably not familiar with their reading skills. So when you’re fresh out of the gate, you’re probably going to have a lot of “hit or miss” when it comes to the quality of the readers you find (unless you have specific recommendations from friends).
One last point I’d like to add in regard to finding beta readers (thanks to Thomas Weaver’s comment below!): Make sure the beta readers you’re accepting are people who actually enjoy reading within the genre you write. Nothing is worse than getting negative feedback from someone simply because they “don’t get it.”
2. Know How To Communicate With Beta Readers
I add this to the list because you need to be prepared for it. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of ways to communicate with people around the world. But if your primary form of communication is email, then you need to ask yourself whether or not you want your personal email address floating around. If you’re ok with this, and you probably will be for some of your readers, then fine. But remember what I said about casting a wide net? If you’re just starting out, you’re going to be communicating with a lot of strangers, and there is no cosmic safety net that appears just because you’re dealing with other writers!
So, be logistically prepared to handle the email you’ll be sending and receiving. And, follow these DO’s and DON’Ts:
- DO understand you’re dealing with people you don’t know personally. Be courteous and respectful.
- DO understand that people are DOING YOU A FAVOR by giving you their most valuable commodity: time.
- DON’T expect them to do YOUR work. It’s not their job to write your story.
- DON’T expect them to be miracle workers. If you hand them a turd, beta reading isn’t going to make it a diamond.
- DON’T be an asshole. The writing community is a small one. We know who all the assholes are, and we periodically tag them to track them in the wild.
3. Know What To Give Beta Readers
You just have to send them your story, right?
Not so fast.
In essence, yes. That’s all they need. But think about what you’re trying to accomplish. You’re looking for concrete, specific feedback that will improve your story. Moreover, you’ve (hopefully) set a publication deadline for yourself, so this can’t just be an open-ended process. This may be the engineer in me, but I’ve developed a process around beta-reading. Here are the 3 things I give all of my beta readers:
- A Deadline
- If you send your story off without telling the person when you expect the feedback, don’t be surprised when they don’t treat it like a priority. These are people who are volunteering their time to help you improve your work, and they have lives and responsibilities of their own. Know by what date you need the feedback and be courteous enough to communicate that date to your beta readers. Ask them to inform you if your deadline isn’t achievable. This will avoid misunderstandings and heated email exchanges later. It will also tell you if you need to find more readers.
- The Work-In-Progress
- This is a no-brainer, right? But keep in mind that the format you’ve chosen to write in may not be the format your reader reads in. There are many people out there who don’t have access to Microsoft Word or Pages for Mac, so be prepared to create multiple formats for your readers. I’ve mentioned in other posts that I use Scrivener. Scrivener allows me to “compile” my document to any format imaginable with a single click. I strongly recommend giving Scrivener a try if it’s not already in your tool box. They have a 30-day trial…and that’s 30 “real use” days, meaning if you go 5 days without using it, you haven’t lost 5 days of trial! Can’t beat it.
- A Questionnaire
- Remember what I said about “concrete, specific feedback” earlier? The reality is you’re not going to get it unless you ask for it. You’re going to receive your fair number of “THIS IS AWESOME!” as well as “I didn’t like it at all,” though the latter will usually come through as “it’s not working for me.” Jodie Renner, at the Killzone Blog, developed the questionnaire I use with my readers. This has become invaluable to me, because it makes your readers think before giving you feedback. I’m not saying you should use this questionnaire (though, as I said, I use it), but I strongly urge you to ask your beta readers open-ended questions that help improve your story.
I’ve listed 3 things to give your beta readers. Now I’d like to tell you about something you never give your beta readers: MONEY! Under NO circumstances should you agree to pay a beta reader. That’s simply not how it’s done. If someone approaches you to beta read your work and tells you they’ll do so for a fee, run in the opposite direction.
4. Know What To Do With Their Feedback
So, you’ve managed to round up some beta readers, your lines of communication are open, you sent them your story and questions, and now their feedback is pouring in to your inbox. What do you do with it all? How do you organize it?
First, let’s talk about what you’re probably going to receive: a hodge podge of text files, Word documents with “Track Changes” turned on, emails where they’ve copied your questions (and their answers) into the body of the email, and emails where they’ve numbered their answers from 1-15 and didn’t include the corresponding questions. In other words, you’re going to receive everything under the sun, because each of your beta readers is a unique little snowflake. <–EDIT: I hate that “certain people” have recently hijacked the term “snowflake”. Please forgive the usage. This was written before it was common practice to use the term as an insult. I’m shooting for a little levity here, not insult. And it really sucks that I have to point that out.
Take a deep breath and start looking over the feedback, in whatever form it’s returned to you. But don’t do anything about it right away. You need to let it sit and “percolate” for a little while. Criticism is a funny thing: no matter how prepared you are to receive it, you’re NOT prepared to receive it. So read it and allow some time for the initial sting to fade. Also, the feedback is invaluable, but it will be worth even more when viewed in comparison to the rest of the feedback you receive.
Once you’ve received all the feedback you expect to receive, go over it all one more time. This time, pay special attention to common problems identified by your readers. Personally, no matter how many copies I send out, if two or more of my readers identify the same issue, then it’s an issue regardless of how I feel personally. Here’s the thing you need to get through your egocentric writer’s skull: your readers are not wrong. Issues raised by two or more of your readers are real issues. You asked for their opinions. Don’t shrink away when your readers actually share them.
I start a document (I use Google Docs) to track feedback. I’ve found a spreadsheet works best for this because of its grid-like nature, but use what you’re most comfortable with. This is going to be a living document, so you don’t want to fight with the technology when you have bigger fish to fry. I create three columns. In one column I list all of the items that were commonly identified (i.e. two or more readers expressed concerns about the same thing). In the second column, I list items that may have only been identified by a single reader, yet I find them intriguing enough to explore further. In the last column, I make note of any “solutions” to the problems as they come to me.
Once all of the feedback is in my hands, and has been recorded in my document or discarded as a “stylistic preference”, I go to work on implementing the changes. Sometimes (rarely) I’ll send it out for another round, but I’ve found this to be less and less necessary as my skills improve.
One question I receive frequently from followers is “can beta readers replace professional editors?” You may be surprised to learn that my answer is “Yes. But it depends.”
Not all beta readers are created equal. Some have a mastery of the craft and language (and time/willingness) to work closely with you to improve your work and your craft. I’m blessed to have a person like this in my life. Only you can know for certain if you have a relationship like this. I don’t subscribe to the blanket statement “beta reading is not editing” that you’ll hear repeated time and time again. In truth, most often it isn’t. But it can be.
One final word of advise: Be up front about your expectations. I recently had a beta reader rate an unpublished version of a story on Goodreads, because they weren’t fully aware of the purpose of beta reading. This was my fault, because I wasn’t explicit in my instructions, and I didn’t properly vet all of my readers before sharing my work. A quick email later and the issue was resolved, but the entire situation could have been avoided had I been more organized going into it.
Now go forth and find beta readers!
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About Nat Russo
Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.
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great article. Just want to put it out there that yWriter is also a great program, and it’s free. This may be a consideration if spending even a small amount of money on Scrivner or any other program is a consideration. It allows the writer to export files in a wide variety of formats, including html, pdf, rtf, etc.|
I love the humor – “we periodically tag them to keep track of them in the wild.”
Thanks, Maria! And thanks for that tip on yWriter. After what you said about it on Facebook last night, I’m very curious.
Excellent article. I’m glad you mentioned finding beta readers who are writers, because although that runs contrary to what I’ve seen other people recommend, my personal experience is that non-writers don’t usually even know how to articulate WHY they like or don’t like something, or to recognize the difference between “This story isn’t to my personal tastes” and “This story is badly written.” (That last bit falls under “Don’t have beta readers who actively hate the genre you write in.” I’ve never understood why some writers think it’s a good idea to do that.)
Excellent point, Thomas! And it’s one I forgot to make in the article. I think it’s imperative that your beta readers actually know what to expect from the genre! Otherwise you’re going to be dealing with a lot of irrelevant criticism.
For example: I’m working on a story where a magic user calls down a cloud of rocks on his enemies. A beta reader (who, as it turns out, is not a Fantasy reader), commented (paraphrasing) – “I don’t understand where the rocks came from. This made it difficult for me to stay involved in the story.”
I’ve had genre issues myself. (With SHADOWED, it was why “Opened” was in caps, oy.)
Of course, getting a non-genre perspective too is better for catching some logic slips. But you can’t let their blind spots drive you crazy, and they’re no substitute for a proper reading simulation with someone who *is* like your readers.
Very true, Ken. People who normally read outside of your genre can bring a fresh perspective and get you thinking along lines you normally wouldn’t think on.
That issue of ‘the difference between “This story isn’t to my personal tastes” and “This story is badly written”‘ always gets me in reviews, too. Ugh. But that’s another story…
Do you think there is still value in having beta readers who aren’t writers – or having both, perhaps?Other writers make better ‘critiquers’ usually. But readers who are within my target audience, while they might no be able to always articulate the ‘whys’, may at least be a gauge of the reactions of the people who will eventually read it, if I can interpret their responses.
I’m wondering this, because as well as cultivating beta-reading or critiquing relationships with other writers, I was wondering whether putting out a ‘call’ through my mailing list for people to apply to beta-read my next book would be worth trying, or a waste of time?
I think there’s a lot of value to having non-writer beta readers. For one thing, folks who beta read your work are typically always right when they say “there’s a problem” (after all, they’re commenting on their experience of your story). But they’re invariably wrong when they offer you solutions! So having a group of readers who can be honest about the problems they find is always a good thing. You need their help identifying the problems much more than you need their help fixing them.
That being said, know going into the endeavor that the average “pure reader” doesn’t necessarily know what a “beta reader” is. In fact, many writers don’t know. I’d prepare some sort of boiler plate message to send to each of them, educating them about what the expectations are about the beta process. More importantly, I’d be clear about what the beta process is *not*: an open invitation to write a review of an unpublished work. I’ve been bitten by that in the past.
I think putting the call out through your mailing list is a wonderful idea! In fact, if I were using my mailing list, I’d find a way to turn it into some sort of contest. You can simultaneously do some marketing AND find valuable beta readers in a single email! 🙂
Your posts are the best. This couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I’m about to launch into beta reader land for the first time (scary!) and this helped clear things up so much. The second paragraph under #1 was easily the most helpful!
Thank you, Sara! I’m glad it helped!
This was invaluable, Nat. I’m filing the article away in my Evernotes because I’ll be needing it soon 🙂
I’m glad you found it helpful, Renae!
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Hey Nat – nice article. I did beta reading for an author which I loved doing a) because I love his work and b) it was an honour to be able to do it. Not sure I’d completely class myself as a writer, but I know I picked up on small things (spelling, continuity, “this bit doesn’t work”) that did help because of my attention to detail. I am hoping he’ll ask me to work on his next book – as with a writer a beta reader can only improve with practice!! 🙂
The “thank you” was a mention the credits for the book. I couldn’t have asked for more!
Absolutely, Marj. I love mixing in some non-writers in my corps of beta readers, for exactly the reason you pointed out: they may not know *how* to fix something (that’s my job anyway), but they know when something isn’t working.
That’s an awesome “thank you” to receive! 🙂
Great advice Nat, I need some of these beta readers for book 2. I didn’t use any on book one and that was a mistake that I won’t do again. This is scary for me. But I know it’s necessary. Finding readers for my genre which is erotic romance is the key. Is there any one place to go for a specific genre? Thanks again for posting this. It couldn’t have come at a better time..
For genre-specific readers, I would check out some of the relevant Facebook groups (if you’re on Facebook). Another possibility would be Goodreads forums/groups. I bet you’ll find some like-minded individuals in either place who would be happy to read your work.
Thanks for this, great article and can’t wait to get to this step…maybe early next year (fingers crossed).
Keep at it, Cassie! You’ll get there!
This was really helpful Nat as prior to reading your article I didn’t know what a Beta Reader was! I had only heard of the term recently and to be truthful I thought it was some form of electronic device!! Ok, I’m embarrassed to admit that but there it is! So, yes, your article has really helped. I have used family members to do this sort of this for me in the past but other writers would certainly be able to articulate (hopefully!) better any likes or dislikes. I shall certainly be taking these tips on board. Thanks!
Emma, you’re not alone! Until I “came out” as a writer, I had never heard the term before! And that was a mere 4 years ago!
I’m so glad I could help. If you ever have any questions, you know where to find me!
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This was helpful. I especially liked the spreadsheet idea. Thanks
Glad to help, Christa!
Nat, this article broke my heart. I was just doing a search on your site to see if you offer Beta Reading services, lol. I can’t really afford you as an editor but would have loved to be able to receive some sort of feedback prior to sending my MS to the editor I’ve selected. Plus, I really don’t think there is anything wrong with a more experienced writer providing a service like this for a fee for a beginner. Time is valuable, so why not charge? I was going to sign up for the first three chapters but I feel like it’s the rest of the book that I would like additional feedback on.
Though it made me sad, this is a great article. I’ve been saying all along that I need to find betas who will not hesitate to make me cry.
I wish I could help out, Carisa! I’m usually happy to beta read (free of charge, of course), but unfortunately my production schedule has slipped, and I’m having a heck of a time catching up! In fact, I’ve actually stopped accepting new editing work temporarily.
If only we could figure out a way to add a few more hours to the day. Or maybe do away with sleep, haha! 🙂
I hear ya. I have no children and I’m barely managing my time. I have no idea how writers who are parents do this.
Best article I’ve ever read on beta reading. Thanks for the advice!
That’s humbling, Regina. And you’re very welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Another timely article for me. I would love honest feedback on my finished MS, but i have a feeling doing so will be difficult based on the subject.
I did have another suggestion that might be helpful; using artists that like to read. They have a very keen eye for detail and can spot the holes…which is perfect timing as i just spotted that my own comment is coming from an old blog of mine i still need to integrate with my new one… ooops. I don’t even know how that happened. Lol. Signing off as @remotelyviewed. Thanks for another great article and leaving trails that help the beginners find their way.
Thanks so much for stopping by, @remotelyviewed! Very interesting suggesting, regarding using artists who like to read. They have a very different way of looking at the world, which is exactly what you need in a critique partner.
I have come across other authors who have encountered beta readers who don’t quite understand the difference between this is what I was hoping to see vs. This is what you need to do.
I have been toying with the idea of Scrivner, it’s nice to see there may be a free alternative. It is nice that even the comments section be a font of knowledge and tips.
Thanks for writing this article, and thanks to the Sisters in Crime writer who re-posted it on theOregon’s Writer Colony FB. I have a couple questions…
1. Do you divide your Beta writers into the group who prefers to look for punctuation errors from the group willing to look at storyline input (or – perhaps true Beta readers ought not be bothered with punctuation checks)
2. How many Beta readers do you suggest and what time frame to you give them for a 60k word manuscript?
OK – that’s three questions. Thank you again for this valuable piece.
Thanks for stopping by, Lula. I’m glad you liked the article! And I’d be happy to answer both of your three questions. 🙂 Hahaha!
Between my full time day job and my home life, my typical schedule looks like I lost a game of Tetris when you load it into an Outlook calendar. Because of this, I try to keep things as simple for myself as possible. So I don’t bother categorizing my readers. Also, on any given manuscript, I often have 8-10 new readers, so I don’t know what to expect from them in terms of the quality of the feedback. I will say, however, that as I get to know beta readers on multiple projects, there are some whose opinions I begin to value above others. (And there’s one in particular whose opinion trumps all for me. I’ve been working with her the longest, and she REALLY knows her stuff.) But I think that’s a natural consequence of the process.
Each of your readers will have their own sets of strengths and weaknesses, and this is very good for you. Some approach beta reading as if they were proofreaders. Others as developmental editors, and others still as copy editors. Get enough of a variety of these folks, and a couple of solid rounds of “beta” reading can actually replace professional editing early on. [I can hear the collective gasp of many writers right now. 🙂 ]
As far as how many readers you should have, it’s going to be difficult to find any at first. So take as many as you can get. I like to cast as wide a net as possible. Eventually, you’ll be savvy enough to sort the good advice from the bad. When I first began, I had a single beta reader. That grew to three over the course of a year, and now it has ballooned to around 20 per project (roughly half of whom I’ve worked with in the past).
The important thing about your deadline is to be brutally honest about it. That’s the way to avoid hurt feelings in the future. My books typically range from 130k words to upwards of 170k words when they’re in beta stage. I typically ask my beta readers to have feedback for me in a month’s time. I’ve found that I often have full critiques as early as 2-3 days later, and some stragglers ask for an additional week or two (and I build time into my publication schedule to allow for this, within reason). It’s taken me 2 weeks to read 60k of my own words this month, and that was spending nearly every minute of spare time I have. I’d say 3 weeks to a month is a reasonable deadline.
I think it is wrong to outright say never pay any beta reader. How about if you were asked to give away all of your writing for free? To never be paid for all your hard work?
The wikipedia entry is flawed – it says in one line ‘non-professional reader’ but near the end it says some will copy edit and proof read which *is* a professional skill.
What you are saying is ‘give them a list of everything you want them look at when combing through in your work, for nothing more than gratitude’. Go and publish everything you ever write for gratitude. See how that works out for you.
If a beta reader is offering a comprehensive service and will give meticulously detailed feedback that includes spelling and grammar, but also content (remember many copy editors and proof readers won’t tell you if your story works or if there are plot holes or if characters don’t work etc) then they have a right to ask to be paid for their time (the majority who do ask for payment charge considerable less than copy editors and proof readers to do the same job and then some). Many have relevant qualifications too. You cannot make a blanket statement that says ”NEVER PAY ANY BETA READER EVER’. If you feel that way I hope you never got paid for any work you ever publish in spite of all your hard gruelling hours.
I know there are beta readers who are skilled, experienced and qualified and still offer an extensive service for free but that is by choice. Just because there are volunteer firemen doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay the employed ones because some people are willing to donate their time to the wider community.
Do you have any idea how closely some beta readers have to read your work and how many times? How many painstaking hours some beta readers put in?
Don’t make such sweeping statements. Beta readers are all different in their capabilities and what they offer/are willing to offer. Just because *you* don’t want to pay for an extensive service doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be paid for their hard work. Again, think of all the hours put into your work and imagine every publisher saying they wouldn’t pay you because several other authors had accepted to do it for free (this is, in fact, a growing problem).
I agree you shouldn’t pay a beta reader who isn’t going to look at your work very closely and is just reading it and giving you feedback that is the equivalent of a review on Amazon or somewhere similar, but don’t expect to drop a thick list in their lap and ask them to go through each one and tell you in detail for free. If a beta reader asks for payment, rather than running the other way you need to evaluate why they are asking for it. If they offer very little THEN feel free to run in the other direction. If, however, they are offering to look at a wide variety of things that are exactly what you need and more and they gave qualifications and experience, then you should consider that they are worth paying (but again be very, VERY clear that this service is exactly what you need).
While I agree that it can be the case that many people have paid for feedback that may not have been useful to them and gotten free feedback that really helped but this all comes down to managing expectations (both for the writer and the beta reader). When you give your work to any beta reader you need to be clear exactly what you are getting.
What is most important is to know exactly what a beta reader is willing to give you and whether that is suitable for your needs. If a beta reader asks for payment it is sometimes for good reason.
What you are suggesting is exploitation and undermining the effort and skill of some people – you want people to give specific and detailed advice for nothing to improve your work so YOU can be paid for it. Imagine a publisher refusing to pay you and saying if any author demanded to be paid to chuck them out because that’s just the way things are done. You’d never stand for it. Don’t stand for his. Don’t generalise beta readers and don’t undermine those who do ask to be paid for the countless hours they put into helping you perfect your work by offering all their skill and expertise. You SHOULD be encouraging people to weigh the value of somebody’s time instead you make it sound as though beta readers are obligated to give everything they have to writers for nothing.
I stand by what I said. NEVER PAY A BETA READER.
If a “beta reader” is seeking to be paid, they’re not a beta reader. This is VERY simple. You are either hiring an editor, or asking for a volunteer beta reader.
THEY ARE NOT ONE AND THE SAME.
A beta reader VOLUNTEERS. There isn’t a single starting position that takes me to “exploitation” without a logical leap my mind is incapable of making.
All of your examples…all of them…are fallacies of false equivalence. If you are a beta reader, and you’re pissed off because no one is paying you, then you found the wrong way to make a buck.
Actually people DO pay me. I used to beta read for free – mostly for friends and friends of friends and word of mouth got around and I picked up a steady pool of clients. I gave very limited feedback, but there were a select few who received highly detailed feedback. I recently made the move to charge for the more detailed feedback I was providing to those select few. I told a friend, who has been receiving my more extensive critiques for many years, that I was making the move to charging for my detailed feedback but I insisted they would still get their reads for free but they turned around and said “No, your feedback is worth paying for, tell me how much and I’ll pay it.”
Since then I have had offers from people I was giving the free, basic feedback. They are willing to pay for the level of detail I once only offered to a few friends.
Beta readers who cover all the things editors and proofreaders cover, as well as the content and readers impression are just a more convenient service. It’s an evolution. It happens all the time. There are quite a few beta readers who proof read and copy edit on top of giving you detailed content analysis and feedback that a copy editor and proof reader wouldn’t, all one service. These normally separate services can EASILY be bundled in together. To cling to ‘how things used to be’ is hopeless. If you’re happy to pay for copy editing and proof reading service separately why not get a beta reader who does that on top of their beta read? That would be much quicker and more convenient – especially if you have a deadline you’re working to.
We COULD get hung up on semantics and say ‘Well a beta reader who copy edits and proof reads too isn’t a beta reader and should call themselves a copy editor or even an entirely new name’ but that’s a little pathetic.
If a beta is willing to read for free that’s fine but your generalisations are encouraging exploitation. Yes some betas do volunteer their time but others have a right to be asked for payment.
If you stand by this then publish everything you ever write for free. Nobody made you write. You volunteered to do it because you enjoy it. Otherwise you are being very hypocritical and making money off the backs of others (not because some betas are willing to read for free but because you are telling people they should NEVER pay ANY beta reader).
I don’t know any other way to say this: you are confused on the difference between an editor and a beta reader. It’s not a semantic difference.
You should NEVER pay ANY beta reader. Period. End of story. No exceptions. Real beta readers understand this before volunteering to beta read.
Writers: if you’re in a search for beta readers, and you run across one or more who charge, the decision is yours. Just be aware it’s a volunteer service, and you WILL find quality beta reading at no charge. And, if you do decide to pay a beta reader, research the services of a professional editor and see if the fees are relatively close. If they are, go with the professional editor.
That’s the last I’ll say on the subject.
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Great blog post, thanks for writing this! Since you wrote it, we’ve been working on a web app available for managing beta readers, saving the “what file format do I email this in” and collecting / collating all their feedback. Would love for you to check it out and see hear what you think about it, could potentially save you a lot of time with your next beta 🙂
The website is https://betabooks.co, and feel free to email me with any questions etc.
Thanks for bringing the app to our attention, Andrew!
I agree with you. If you find someone who offers a service that is of a high standard, you should pay them. Seems a bit like exploitation if you expect them to critique your work, give constructive feedback and devote hours of their time to help you make money. As a one off, sure why not? But if this is an ongoing arrangement, you should pay them. The other thing is, when people are paid, they tend to take their ‘work’ (and it is work you are asking them to do) a lot more seriously.
You may be confusing professional editors with beta readers. Beta reading is strictly a volunteer service. There are people out there who are not professional editors, who do a lot of beta reading, and one day see a way of bringing in some extra cash. So they begin charging for a service that is traditionally a volunteer service. This is not okay. They may be pivoting from volunteer beta reading to professional editing services and they would like you to be a reference for their work. That’s okay. But, in that particular situation, you’re providing *each other* a service.
You NEVER pay a beta reader. You pay an editor. A beta reader, by definition, is a volunteer. If you’d like to do something special for the people who volunteer to beta read for you, that’s completely up to you. But it’s not obligatory, and it’s not some sort of unwritten social contract that you must embrace.
Nat, I appreciate your comments as regards the difference between the beta reader and the editor. Especially since you get paid to be an editor. N’est pas? I had a beta who was a retired editor. She wrote an extensive, helpful summary and went the extra mile with some editing (track) on the manuscript. I sent her a gift certificate. I feel that is an appropriate gesture under the circumstances…Thanks for your insight into the writing, reading, and editing process.
I had to close down the editing business because of my limited time. I wound up spending more time editing than writing, and that just won’t do! 🙂
I agree with the gift certificate idea. During a year that I actually publish a book, I always send my “lead” beta reader a gift card or gift certificate. She does SO much to make my manuscripts as clean as they turn out that I just have to express that gratitude in something more than a “thank you”.
I’m looking for beta readers and there seems a wide disparity of opinions on whether it’s acceptable to pay them. You say never pay a beta, but the only reason I can see on your website is that by definition, they are volunteers. Can you expand on that? Why is your definition limited to volunteers. I don’t have an opinion on this. Just trying to learn.
It’s helpful to compare beta readers with other traditionally volunteer services. For example, the people who deliver food for Meals On Wheels. While the nature of the work is vastly different, as are the skills required, the nature of the “contract”, explicitly stated or otherwise, is identical. If a person shows up at the local Meals on Wheels kitchen offering their services for a fee, Meals on Wheels would politely decline and speak to the next person in line. Whether or not Meals on Wheels decides after the fact to give that driver some sort of bonus (a gift card, a free meal of their own, etc.) is entirely up to Meals on Wheels and the driver has no right to expect it.
Beyond that, beta readers are not providing a professional service. In fact, the very reason they exist is that the work isn’t yet ready to be seen by a proper editor…an editor who will likely charge you hundreds of dollars for a professional edit job.
More evidence lies in the title itself: “Beta” reader. That is a term borrowed from the software development industry, which uses “beta testers” to fine-tune a product before it’s ready for release. In this analogy, the professional editor would be another one of the paid software engineers who is going through the code fixing the bugs. The beta tester is performing a sort of “user acceptance testing”. And, as in the software industry (I myself am a software engineer), beta testers are a mixed bag. Most give you little more than a thumbs up or thumbs down, while others give very verbose responses.
Anyway, it’s completely up to you in the end. That portion of the blog post was intended as a warning for new writers because the world (the writing world specifically) is filled with scammers.
I typically give a gift card to my primary beta reader in any given year that I actually manage to publish something. It’s a trivial amount of money, unfortunately, but a gesture that I truly appreciate what she does for me.
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Bumped into this post while looking for information on beta readers! Do you suggest authors to get their manuscripts edited prior to sending them over to beta readers?
I don’t. Editors often charge by the word or use some other form of metered pricing. The more mistakes or issues your beta readers discover, the less your editor will have to deal with. And that usually turns into a cost savings for you. In my case, my group of beta readers typically catch everything (they cover a host of bases, from proofreading to developmental editing).
So, to save a little money, I recommend letting your beta readers take a stab at it first. This way, you’ll have a chance to correct a lot of problems before an editor will see them.
Welcome to the blog!
I have just been writing out my own little blogpost about Beta readers, reiterating they are FREE as it seems the writing community is beginning to think this is now a charged ‘professional’ service. I am going to link to your post though as you go into more detail. Really useful for all writers and great detail.
It is a very strange trend that I never expected. Though, I suppose I should have known that in the human condition, wherever there’s a need, there’s a hustler right around the corner getting ready to separate someone from their cash.
Glad you enjoyed the article!
Great Blog. I really appreciate your work efforts that you have shared with us. Thanks for sharing with us & keep up the good job!
Much appreciated, Lyall! And, you’re very welcome.
Your article helped me find beta readers, prepare the format for their input, and incorporate their feedback. Thank you!
That’s wonderful news! I’m so glad it helped!