Professional book editor in the UK explains why aspiring authors should always hire beta readers for your novel, whether you pay them or not!
Book editors, proofreaders, beta readers, sensitivity readers, literary agents, publishers — a lot of people have to read your novel before it’s ready for the general public. Each one provides something different that will get your novel ready for publication, so it’s important not to skip any of them.
Today, we’ll be talking about beta readers and perhaps the most exciting step in the journey of writing and publishing a novel: getting an audience to read your story!
First of All, What is a Beta Reader?
Imagine going to an ice cream shop.
There are two dozen flavours to choose from, and they all look delicious. You could choose one flavour and buy a large sundae, but what if you don’t like the one you choose?
Well, all the joy of going to an ice cream shop goes out the window and you’re left with a melting scoop of disappointment and despair.
Okay, that’s a bit dramatic. You can just ask for a sample of a few different flavours, and then you’ll know which one you like!
Why did this blog post start with a tangent about ice cream? Is it because I want ice cream? Well, yes, but it’s also a metaphor for beta readers!
You wouldn’t buy an ice cream without first getting a little sample to make sure you like it. Or maybe you would, I don’t know. But you shouldn’t publish a novel without first giving it to some beta readers to see if they like it.
A beta reader is someone who reads your novel before it’s published and gives you feedback. They take the ice cream sample that is your novel and say whether it’s too sweet or a little bland. They tell you what they like and don’t like, so you can fix your ice cream (i.e., your novel) before you serve them a big bowl of it (i.e., publish your novel).
Is this metaphor melting into goop? Probably. I should have hired a beta reader.
Let’s leave the ice cream in the freezer and talk about beta readers.
Beta readers are not the same as book editors or proofreaders. On the contrary, book editors and proofreaders look at your novel through the lens of a writer to fix mistakes, whereas beta readers look at your novel through the lens of a reader to look at the story as a whole.
Is the writing too dense or flowery? Are the characters flat and uninteresting? Is the story interesting enough to keep reading after chapter two?
These are the types of questions a beta reader can answer for you. It’s a trial run that will give you an idea of audience reception. Finally, your audience will get to read the novel you worked on so hard!
Why are Beta Readers Important? What do they do for Your Novel?
Another way to think of beta readers is like a mirror by your front door. Sure, you can leave the house without glancing at it, but what if you have lettuce stuck between your teeth or your hair is messy? To be safe and ensure that you’re looking good, it’s best to check your mirror before you leave.
And if you’re trying to publish a book, it’s a good idea to get a few beta readers to look at your novel to make sure there isn’t any lettuce stuck between the proverbial teeth of your book.
Beta readers give you a chance to see if your novel will resonate with audiences before you actually send it out into the world. If your book doesn’t resonate, beta readers give you a chance to fix it. They’ll give you a different perspective on your novel.
When you write, especially if it’s a larger project you’ve been working on hard for months and months, it can be hard to see the forest for all the trees.
It’s hard to put away your opinion as the author and view the story as the audience would. You’re attached to your story. You love it, and perhaps you can’t see all its faults.
Alternatively, maybe you hate everything you write, and you’re blind to how great your writing really is.
Either way, it’s common for writers to get too into their own heads. They can’t see what their writing actually is, they only see what they think it is.
So, getting an outside opinion (or many) will help you to see the forest again and look at your story more objectively. Beta readers will provide this perspective, so giving your novel to beta readers is an important step in the writing process, thus - don’t skip it!
How Many Beta Readers Should You Have?
There is no hard-and-fast answer for this, unfortunately. It depends on the size and intensity of the project.
For a short story, you might not need more than two to five. But for a 100,000-word epic fantasy novel or sprawling space opera, you might need a few dozen.
You can start with only a few, perhaps three, and hire more as needed. The more opinions you get, the better an idea you will have about how your novel will resonate with audiences. You need a variety of opinions from a variety of different readers—but the majority of your beta readers should be people from your target audience.
If you’re writing a light-hearted romance, asking for beta readers who exclusively read gritty crime novels might not yield the best feedback. If you want your book to be accessible to a variety of audiences, then your beta reader pool should reflect that variety. Think of it as a representative sample for your official audience once the book is published.
But don’t feel pressured to get a certain number of beta readers. Quality is better than quantity here. It’s better to have a few beta readers that give high-quality feedback than to have dozens of beta readers who won’t give more than surface-level observations.
It’s a bit of a balancing act, but you’ll need to hire enough beta readers that you’ll get varied perspectives on your book without sacrificing the quality of feedback from each reader.
When Should You Ask for Beta Readers?
Again, there is no hard-and-fast answer here. Many authors choose to have multiple rounds of beta readers at different stages of the writing process.
Remember that beta readers are not there to edit your book or correct grammatical or spelling mistakes. So, if you haven’t yet done those edits, it may be beneficial to do those first before you ask for beta readers. If there are no technical mistakes, it will make it easier for the beta reader to focus on the story and characters themselves.
If you do hire beta readers before completing any editing, make sure they understand that they will be reading a rough draft and not a polished manuscript, and make sure to specify what you want them to provide feedback on.
If you only choose to do one round of beta reader feedback, it’s best to do it towards the end of the writing and editing process.
Once your book has been polished and you think it’s actually ready for publication, ask for beta readers. After all, they’re the trial run for your actual audience.
If you do multiple rounds of beta reader feedback, it’s best to start this at least after the first draft is completely written. This is because beta readers are typically there to read your whole novel, so if you haven’t finished the story, you won’t get the most out of your beta readers.
You can get beta reader feedback after you’ve written an entire manuscript, after you’ve edited your manuscript yourself, or after you’ve seen a professional book editor.
Don’t be afraid to seek feedback multiple times during the writing and editing process!
What Should You Ask from Your Beta Readers?
It’s a good practice to send your manuscript to your beta readers along with a list of questions for them to keep in mind as they read.
You can send beta readers the whole book at once for general feedback; the advantage of doing this is that it lets the beta readers read the whole book without analysing it or looking for specific criticism. You can get honest audience feedback from an honest reader.
However, many authors choose to send their beta readers one chapter at a time with questions specific to that chapter (i.e., “did the scene with the goat and the jack o’ lantern make sense with the rest of the story?”).
Breaking it down by chapter lets you get more detailed feedback. You can ask specific questions about certain characters or scenes, or general questions about the story as a whole.
You can ask about the writing or the structure of the story itself (“Is the middle part of the book boring?”).
Here are some suggestions to get you started, but of course, you should choose questions that suit your story best.
Did the cliffhanger at the end of the chapter make you want to read on?
Is the story interesting enough to keep reading?
Which character do you like best/least and why?
What were your favourite/least favourite things about this chapter?
What do you think will happen next?
What do you think of the main character?
Is the narrative voice distracting or interesting?
Is the writing style funny or annoying?
Did you understand how Point A led to Point B?
Did you get bored while reading? At which points did you get bored?
What confused you about this chapter/the whole novel?
Ask a mix of open-ended and yes/no questions to get varied and specific feedback.
You should also let your beta readers write their own feedback independent of your questions, which will let them talk about things you may not have thought to ask about.
There are a thousand ways to use beta readers. You could have a group of beta readers give feedback specifically on the romance sub-plot or specifically on the fight scenes. Or you could ask each beta reader to focus on a different character or plot line.
If you’re writing a sequel novel, it’s a good idea to find beta readers who haven’t read the first book, so you can see if the sequel can easily introduce new readers to the world and series. But don’t forget to have a few beta readers giving more general feedback, too.
And remember, your beta readers don’t have to be writers, but they do have to be readers.
Should You Pay Beta Readers?
There are advantages and disadvantages to paying beta readers. Some people support it, and some people don’t.
Let’s break down all the advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages: There’s a better chance that beta readers will take your project seriously if they’re being paid to do so. Since it’s a job, they’ll be more likely to stick to deadlines and answer all of your questions. It’s also polite to pay people who are doing a service for your book.
Disadvantages: If you have more than a dozen beta readers, paying each one could very quickly break the bank. In addition, not paying beta readers means you’ll only have readers who genuinely care about your book, which could give you better feedback. Readers who are passionate about your story may care more about making it the best it can be.
Like everything else covered so far, whether you pay beta readers is really up to you. Paying beta readers has become more common in recent years, but it wasn’t always common practice.
Asking beta readers to read your novel is an important step in getting your novel published. They’ll make your novel better and give you a preview of how your audience will respond to your novel.
There are a lot of ways to use beta reader feedback to your advantage. The more specific questions you ask your readers, the more specific feedback you’ll get.
It may be scary to finally let someone else read your work, but don’t skip this step. Beta readers will act as your safety net and let you fix any lingering mistakes before you query literary agents or self-publish.
You can find beta readers from online platforms like Fiverr, Goodreads, or Reddit, or you can ask your friends and family to beta-read for you.
Don’t be shy about asking for feedback, and your novel will be all the better for it!
Have fun and happy writing!
Hey! I'm Chelsea and I'm a professional book editor at Stand Corrected Editing, my independent editorial business in the UK. If you would like to have your manuscript thoroughly edited by myself, please get in touch!
With my book editing and proofreading services, I hope to spread my knowledge and expertise on how to make your novel a success, and be a mentor to others who desperately want to pursue a fruitful career as an author!