Some writers and authors may wonder at the real value of investing in a beta reader and what kind of services will actually be provided.
“Well, I’ve got a cousin who reads lots of books. He’ll help me.”
“My best friend is an English teacher; she’ll give me good advice.”
While these options may seem like solid and cost-effective solutions, relying on friends and relatives for constructive, literary feedback can put writers and authors at a disadvantage. Most especially if that close circle of advisors errs on the side of camaraderie over criticism.
Since Merriam and Webster kind of let me down in their definition of “proofreading,” I decided to test the vast information waters of Google and got a Wikipedia definition of “beta reading” that is a bit more extensive, and articulate to boot.
…a non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting. Beta reading is typically done before the story is released for public consumption. Beta readers are not explicitly proofreaders or editors, but can serve in that context.
See? All kinds of fun things going on in that definition. Let’s unpack some of it, shall we?
“a non-professional reader” — Now, looking at that, you might jump back to the beginning of this article and say, “Hey, my cousin isn’t a professional reader.” Or, “Neither is my English teacher friend!” And this might be my only bone of contention with Wikipedia’s definition: beta readers should be professional readers. Granted, not every single reader in your audience will be a professional reader–they don’t need to be. However, if you want an honest, educated, and sometimes hard-to-swallow reading of your book and an effective opinion on how those non-professional readers will receive your book, you want someone who knows how to read books critically and not just for passing pleasure.
Ahh! Not “critically”?! Right?
Yes, critically, because there will be professional readers–critics, of course–who may (or eventually will) read your book, and their opinions are the ones that get passed around on social media and will reflect on your book. Which, for some of those non-professional readers, will determine if they buy it or not. What you need to ask yourself is, will your cousin or your best friend be honest with you about your writing even if their opinion is unflattering? This is where growth as a writer comes from, being able to take constructive criticism that doesn’t feel “constructive” when it’s being heard or read.
But, like Amanda Shofner’s quote above says, you need to remember that a beta reader’s opinions are not about you personally–even though your work feels deeply and inherently personal–but your book. The object that will reflect your work ethic, your effort, and your professional image as an author. Writers can also expect comments that are strictly personal opinions–even from professional beta readers. An author doesn’t have to take every piece of advice/criticism/guidance provided; you want the story to be yours, and it should be. But a beta reader can make sure that your story will be presentable and meet commercial readers’ expectations. Something a non-professional reader may not be able to provide, even if they are willing to be blatantly honest (with minor exception to that English teacher, actually).
“typically done before the story is released” — Unlike proofreading, beta reading does not have a specific place in the publishing process other than before you release the book to the public. However, if you’ve already published the book and you’re getting reviews that mention inconsistency in character development, plot structure, or the entire narrative’s arc, a single round of beta reading would definitely help to clear up those kinds of issues.
“not explicitly proofreaders or editors” — This much is true. Not all proofreaders are beta readers, not all copy editors are beta readers, and not all beta readers are proofreaders or copy editors, but they most certainly can overlap. Effective proofreaders and copy editors will comment on things that a beta reader would comment on, but they may not change them for you. On the flip side, effective beta readers will comment on issues with grammar, spelling, punctuation, even if they may not know how to change or correct them for you.
Overall, investing in beta reading services is making an investment in yourself, your craft, and your potential book sales. The adage that you need to spend money to make it didn’t become an adage for nothing. Hiring a beta reader will boost your book sales because the results will show every kind of reader that you cared enough to put out the best book that you could by making effective use of all the tools at your disposal.
Have you hired a beta reader recently? If you haven’t, would you consider it now? Would love to read about your experiences and opinions in the comments below!