“Beta reader” is a term that gets tossed around a lot in the publishing industry. You would imagine that such a standard term would be easy to define.
But there’s actually a lot of contention and confusion concerning what exactly a beta reader is, what their function should be, and when exactly they are supposed to come into the publishing process.
Why is this?
I spent some time in a few different beta reader groups on Facebook to gain some insight. What I have found overall is an extreme difference of opinion between authors going the traditional publisher route and those that were self publishing. This actually makes a lot of sense and I’m excited to talk about it, so tag along.
What is a beta reader?
I’m going to start here with a general definition. Then we can dive into the controversy.
You may be more familiar with the concept within the framework of gaming or product prototypes, i.e. the beta testers. Quite simply, these are people representing the intended market who try out the product before it is released to the mass public.
Same with publishing. Beta readers are people representing your intended audience who read your book before it is launched for sell.
What’s so complicated about that?
Wellll…carry on and you’ll see.
What is a beta reader’s function?
This is where things start to get a little tricky. By standard definition, a beta reader’s function is to give you general feedback from a CONSUMER perspective. As your target audience, they are there to give you an idea of how the mass public will likely respond to your book. As such, they fall into the process right as the final product is about to release.
Now, seeing as they represent the CONSUMER, you can expect the main scope of the critique to come from a generic and untrained point of view. You’ll get some betas who are avid readers who know their stuff and will provide some deeper thoughts on plot, character, etc. But for the most part, they are going to focus more on how interesting the story was, whether it made sense, and their level of excitement for more.
That’s all you should ever expect from a typical beta reader.
All the traditional authors are nodding along and thinking, “Yes, yes…there is nothing wrong with this picture.”
That is because their book deal comes with a nice package of agents, editors, and publicists. The heavy critique efforts of those people shape the book into its best and final form, allowing beta readers to serve their proper function as the last step in the process.
But self published authors don’t get the nice critique gift basket. Not even a complementary piece of fruit.
Self pub authors have to instead rely on their own resources and tiny bank account. This has lead to a major shift in the understanding of beta readers and the role they should play.
While a great critique partner and editor come with a hefty price point, beta readers are usually free. Therefore, self pub writers are relying on them more and more to be their main source of feedback for major editing through the entire process.
The issue with relying heavily on beta readers for your editing needs is that you are inevitably relying on non professionals to produce what needs to be your VERY best work. In other words, you are relying on someone to do a job they (usually) are not trained of do.
A beta reader, by the standard definition, is not intended, nor designed to play the role of editor. Therefore, you will always run the risk of your manuscript having its glaring needs overlooked.
Now, this is not a criticism, nor a judgment. As a self pub author, you are such a BOSS. You have to find success with whatever means you have. But do read on for suggestions on how to do this safely (and correctly).
I’d like to offer some suggestions to help everyone respect the proper way to employ the beta reader.
If you’re of the traditional route, hug your critique basket and be patient with those in a different position than you.
If you are self pub, be cautious. I say this with such a momma bear heart. It may make the process more tedious and time consuming, but I have a solution to help you put beta readers in their most beneficial place in your publishing journey.
Note- if you are going to rely on beta readers as your main source of critique for edits regardless, just be extremely picky and aware of limitations.
Now, here’s my helpful idea- I would personally differentiate and call your initial betas your critique focus group. Take the time and put in the effort to find people who are above average in their critique skill. These could be fellow writers, language majors, book reviewers, anyone with extra experience under their belt to help you get a more thorough examination of your story. If you do happen to have the means to invest in a professional editor, be sure they are the right hire for the job. (Check out my post “How to Hire a Freelance Editor” for more tips and info.)
Once your story has been evaluated by your critique group (or editor) AND read over by a handful of proofreaders, THEN pass your story over to a true standard group of beta readers. Remember, these readers are your target audience, so be sure their age and interests match your genre.
This group should be reading the version of your book that you are 99% sure will be loaded up on Amazon. If this group has a quibble with a couple of things that you and your proofreaders overlooked, that’s great. Make that last minute adjustment.
But you should mostly expect positive and excited general feedback. Remember, your book has already been through the ringer with your critique group and your proofreaders FRIST. So it should be a great product. Therefore, this group of beta readers shouldn’t find much of anything to hate.
Instead, these readers should be your source for great testimonials to use for your advertisements and reviews. They are your first public feedback, so quote them as much as you can (with permission, of course) to show the world your budding reputation. And encourage them to spread the news about you!
So when should a beta reader enter the picture?
Now that you have a clearer picture of what a beta reader is and how they function, you should have a better idea of when they should come into the publishing process.
The correct answer is- the end.
I hope the distinctions I’ve made help you self publishers out there as you wade through the muck of DIY book production. You’re taking on such a momentous task by running a whole publishing house by yourself. The best thing you can do to make sure you are as successful as you can be is to follow the traditional process as closely as you can, which my above suggestion does.
Ultimately, standards will remain standards. You can try to bend the rules and bank on creativity to make a mark. But some corners can’t be cut. A beta reader team is one of them. As discussed, they are crucial to understanding audience reception, and they are your priceless nuggets of marketing gold.
Don’t miss out on the benefits of a beta reader by misunderstanding or misusing their role. Let them be your guide at the proper time (right before book release) and your writing career will thank you for it.
Thanks for reading along and be sure to leave additional thoughts or questions in the comments below!
See you next time,