Ah, the inevitable question on whether or not to use beta readers. For those who have never heard the term, beta readers are non-professionals who read and provide a general overview of your novel for free. Sounds amazing, right? Well… they are. But there are also important things to keep in mind.
They are NOT critique partners (CPs).
Beta readers have a very specific purpose for authors. They’ll read your book and give a general answer on if they like or dislike what you have written. I remember my initial disappointment after waiting weeks to hear back from a beta only to hear – “I loved it. Hope it gets published”. Whaaaaa? That’s it? No diatribe on the main characters and how they interacted with each other? No notes on if the sex scenes made you grab your SO or run into a cold shower? It was an odd experience. On the one hand, hearing they loved it was amazing. On the other, I naively assumed they would send back my document with comments throughout the book, little tidbits into their mind as they were reading, and edits. It was only after I spoke with some of the amazing authors on my Yahoo group I got the much needed reminder – They are not critique partners. They are free sources of help to tell you if you’re going in a general positive or negative direction.
Set a requested completion date.
Another early mistake I made was thinking beta readers would be more excited to read my book than I was sending it out. I mean hey, if I was offered a chance to read an unpublished free erotica I would have it done in a day or two. I had to step back and remind myself not everyone reads (obsessively) the way I do. They are also unpaid, and the incentive to read is for them to check out an unpublished work. It wasn’t until I was in conversation with a potential reader who said “I can have it finished by XX date, do you think that’s ok with you?” that I had my “ah-ha” moment. After that, when finding my readers I began to give some criteria. “I would love for you to have an opportunity to read my novel.I would prefer if you can have it read and give me your insight within 3 weeks. Do you think this would be feasible?” If they said yes then I would send the work and check in each week. If they said no, I politely declined to have them beta at the moment, yet offered them a discounted book once it gets published just for their interest.
Wait until you get all your reviews before making major changes.
One amazing thing about my beta readers was they all (except for the first “I loved it” girl) identified an issue with one specific scene. It was a scene I felt very strongly about keeping in the story. This is where you really have to have a great sense of yourself and your writing. If I had allowed the first critique (which by the way was the harshest, so I guess it’s good to have gotten that out of the way) to make me question my writing skills and completely removed the scene, the end result would not have been the same. The other 3 readers all loved the scene, yet felt there was something “off”. One suggested to change one word – yes, one word – which made a huge difference. This is where the betas really shine. They are your target audience. You have your chance for people who will be reading (and hopefully recommending) your work to others. Listen to them. I’m not saying beta readers are the “be all, end all” of your novel. Yet, when the majority see an issue, it’s important to hear them out.
Give them a final draft.
This should be self-explanatory, but just because they are reading your book for free doesn’t mean you should give them a non-edited version. The old adage applies here – treat them as you would want to be treated. If you give them your first draft with frequent grammatical errors, not only will they give you a negative review, they may stop reading it altogether. You won’t get your worth out of readers in this way and your review will be technically based as opposed to a quality review. This isn’t to say you need to spend money on an editor first, but make sure you’ve read your work for errors. I personally invested in AutoCrit. I love that program and in the end it saved me money – I hired an editor after using the program who charged me ½ price as the majority of the technical issues were resolved.
Long story short:
Beta readers are incredibly helpful – yet don’t expect them to give you a book report. For them, it’s a free book in a genre they love and for you it’s a chance to see how your book is being received. If you’re looking for a more detailed critique on character development, plot lines, grammar, etc., then your best bet is to find Critique Partners. Stay tuned for an upcoming post describing how CPs are another invaluable resource.