So you’ve written a book and you want to get it published.
Chances are, if you are like 90% of writers, no one has read your finished draft at all - except perhaps a close relative or friend. So the leap from that quiet and private world of the writer to the world of the agent or publisher is quite a large one, over an almighty abyss: how on earth do you judge whether or not your book is in any sense ‘ready to publish’? And how do you summon up the courage to launch it into that void?
This is where ‘beta readers’ come in. The term ‘beta reader’ comes from the software industry, where programmers release a ‘beta’ version of a new programme to a group of people who will test it. In writing terms, a beta reader gives you feedback on your finished manuscript, so you can adjust it before you fire it off. A beta reader tests your manuscript by reading it, and tells you about things that need to be changed so you can improve its readability and its saleability. Beta readers are incredibly useful to both self-publishers and those planning on going the traditional route.
The big advantages of a beta reader are twofold: they are simply another pair of eyes; and they have no decision-making or judging capacity over your work. They are, in effect, like ‘soft editors’ - people who will give you feedback just as readers, without necessarily advising or assessing or in way way putting you under any unwelcome pressure. Because, let’s face it, even the most sympathetic criticism from the friendliest editor can ‘hurt’ - a professional editor, or agent or publisher has altitude with a writer even when that writer tries not to feel defensive. The professional editor/agent/publisher is someone who wields a certain power over your future plans as a writer, for good or for ill: you have to listen to them, and you are obliged, if you wish to move forward, to pay attention to what they’re telling you.
A beta reader, on the other hand, is just a reader. Perhaps it would help to stop calling them ‘beta readers’ and just call them readers. They have no power, they are just presenting feedback. You can judge whether or not to listen and assess whether not to make any changes accordingly. But their value rests in that simple readership. They can help you to spot a whole range of things, including:
• how well (or not) you have described a character or setting so as to convey images and emotions into your readers’ minds
• how successfully (or not) you have paced the novel so that readers feel that they can track with what is happening, while still keeping a sense of being enthralled and remaining hooked on any mysteries within the plot
• how well (or not) you deliver on any anticipation or expectations that you have set up in the story
• how carefully (or not) you have explained anything that needed an explanation so that the reader actually understand what you mean
and much. much more.
You may have been, or perhaps still are, a member of a group of people, as in a writers’ group or book club, who read each other's stories and give comments within the group. This in itself can be valuable but it can also be daunting and unhelpful, as other group members tend to find it difficult to voice a disagreement with another member’s opinion, thus leading to a feeling that you are being ‘ganged up on’ sometimes. A single beta reader feels no such pressure from a group: they are giving their own straightforward feedback just to you, the writer, and are not swayed by what anyone else says or thinks. A beta reader will read your entire story and develop a personal response to it, uninfluenced by the opinions of others.
Some will then give you a written report, while others make notes as they read, in the text of a manuscript, and others will perhaps want only to give you verbal feedback. Some beta readers charge for their services; others operate on a turn-about basis - ‘you read one of mine and I’ll read one of yours’.
You might need three or four beta readers to be sure of an external and unbiased opinion - and don’t be surprised if one particularly likes a bit of your story which another one loathes! The big plus is that all of this feedback comes to you to judge and weigh.
Here’s the crunch: all writers need beta readers, and all published writers have at some stage used them, even when they haven’t been called by that term, because this is what publishers do as a matter of course. One particularly great example comes to mind: when J. R. R. Tolkien presented his manuscript of The Hobbit to the publisher George Allen & Unwin, the chief publisher gave the story to his 10 year old son Rayner to read. The feedback was positive, which determined that that book would be published. The Hobbit went on to sell so well that Unwin commissioned a sequel. And the income from the international best selling The Lord of the Rings went on to save the entire publishing company from bankruptcy. That was all well before the billion-dollar movie sequence based on those books.
So beta readers are an important part of the publishing industry. They can be chosen because they have specialised tastes, or because they have no particular expertise: the feedback is valuable both ways. Applying the feedback from beta readers and making changes in manuscripts accordingly can make huge differences to whether or not publishers will accept a story. A work that has been read by, and consequently adjusted because of the input of beta readers is much, much more likely to get published.
Seeking a beta reader is not an admission that you don’t know what you’re doing as a writer, it’s the professional way to jump the gap between finished manuscript and publication. Beta readers will point out things that you have missed, but for the most part you may find that these are things which you will not have spotted ‘by accident’: the misspelling of one of your own character’s names, the change of colour of an item of clothing, the way one chapter starts in the wrong place, the incorrect use of a verb…all these things which, despite the best proofreading and self-editing that you can muster, have still slipped under the radar. The best beta readers will tell you truthfully whether or not your story ‘works’ on a page, chapter and total level - and what you could do to fix any shortcomings. Even if a beta reader isn’t a professional editor - and of course many of them aren’t - they can suggest ways forward, which you can then choose to follow up or not.
Where do you find these people? How should you approach them? Should you pay for beta reading?
Please stay tuned for further articles on this subject.
(If you feel that you're ready for a beta reader, go here.)