If you hang out in indie publishing circles you’ve likely come across the term "beta reader" a few hundred times. It’s a concept that mirrors the start-up approach to a product launch (another huge trend I’ll be writing about in a future post) and it seems like it’s here to stay.
Originally, beta readers were touted as something authors would use early in the writing process but, more and more, they are offered as an alternative to professional editing. Is this another example of indie authors hacking the traditional approach to publishing? Does it work? Let’s weigh the pros and cons of each approach.
Reasons to Use Beta Readers
- They are cheap, if not free. Honestly, I think this is the driving force behind their mass adoption as many first time self-publishers don’t want to invest money up front.
- They are often people who might actually buy your book. This is a huge benefit to the idea of the beta reader. Particularly for authors of genre fiction, beta readers are usually rabid fans who love the idea of getting in on the ground floor and helping you turn your manuscript into a story they would buy. Platforms like Wattpad are especially great for this.
- They can help you develop a fan base. This is linked to the benefit above in the sense that, if your beta readers are fans of your genre they probably talk to other fans and could generate some buzz before you even publish.
Some Words of Caution
- They are cheap, if not free. See what I did there? Self-publishing is like anything else – you often get what you pay for. Sure, you may luck out and find a beta reader with knowledge of the craft who can provide great developmental feedback. You are more likely to find someone who says “I didn’t like it.” You can mitigate this by providing clear directions to each beta reader you employ. Ask one to read for voice, another for pacing and another for character development. But keep in mind there are no guarantees when it comes to quality.
Reasons to Hire an Editor
- They are highly-trained, experienced professionals. I shouldn’t have to say it but editing a book is a skill that requires specific training and develops over time. Not everyone with who took anatomy in college can perform surgery, and not everyone who was good at English can edit a book.
- They understand the market. Beta readers may have a sense of what’s hot right now, but editors have a deeper understanding of market trends and can help you develop a story that feels fresh to readers.
- They are SERIOUS grammar nerds. Sure, beta readers may be able to point out an errant comma or two, but the editors I know eat, sleep, and breathe the Chicago Manual. With the deluge of books published every year you simply can’t afford to put out work with typos and misspellings. Readers will move on.
- They know all the boring stuff. Somewhat related to the above point, but do you think a beta reader can advise you on the proper pagination style for front matter? Might they have an opinion on the order of appendices? Beta readers can be great for the guts of your story, but when it comes to how a book should be presented there is just no beating a professional editor.
Ultimately, your self-publishing journey is your own and you have to make the choices that are best for the project. Beta readers can be great and I know writers who have had wonderful experiences with them. However, if you are going to spend money anywhere I would strongly urge you to work with a professional editor. Yes, it will cost, but it is the single best way to improve your book and that is always money well spent.
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