The Importance of Beta Readers: To Pay or Not to Pay?

As you guys know, I have recently opened The Ribbon Marker Editorial Services, and I offer a variety of services, from book reviewing to content/developmental editing. My current, most used service is beta reading.

For those of you who don’t know what a beta reader is, a beta reader is the first person to take a look at your manuscript who is not a caring loved one. A beta reader is there to represent the reader’s interest and conflicts with your manuscript, such that they give the author a preview of possible problems that readers might have with their story. Their feedback gives authors an opportunity to improve things before their book is for sale and their reputation is on the line. Betas don’t necessarily have to have editing experience, but they do need to know enough about the genre for them to tell you what works in your book, and what doesn’t.

So what makes for a good beta?

A good beta reader is:

  • A reader of the genre  – being a reader of the genre means that the beta has already done the background research of what readers of that genre like, and what they never want to see.
  • Open-minded – in a continuously changing industry, where books straddle genres and sub-genres, you need someone who can see the possibilities for manuscript blurring lines and testing boundaries. Just because your book isn’t a classical contemporary romance, it doesn’t mean it couldn’t spawn a new sub-genre or theme with in that genre.
  • Critical – you don’t want a beta who says “the book was great and I really liked your characters”. You want a beta who will say, “While I like Stacy and Ben, I thought that Ben was too permissive to really be the alpha male that Stacy had hoped for the entire book (and her entire life). Particularly, I feel like he really needs to be more outspoken in their arguments. Ben is a guy who really knows himself, and he wouldn’t let Stacy just steamroll him into letting go of the argument.” Notice, there is a difference between critiquing (insightful but polite analysis), versus fault-finding and being judgmental (rudely listing all the thing wrong in the manuscript and then hatefully questioning the authors attempts).
  • Reliable – you want a beta who will actually:
    1. Read the manuscript
    2. Give constructive criticism
    3. Get back to you in a timely manner
    4. Keep you appraised of their progress
  • Supportive – at the end of the day, you want a beta who wants to help you make your book into the best version of your book that they can, from the reader’s perspective.

To Pay or Not to Pay?

There is a lot of debate on whether authors should go with free beta readers or paid beta readers. Actually, someone posted a quite nasty response to my offering my beta reading services on Goodreads, and it spurned a lovely discussion on the difference between free and paid beta readers.

Free Beta Readers

Free beta readers are exactly what who they say they are. They are readers of the genre who don’t mind reading early drafts of a manuscript and providing their reader’s opinion in exchange for a free read.

Paid beta readers

While I can’t exactly speak for other paid beta readers, I can certainly tell you about my own beta reading process. I am the type of person who tends to over invest themselves into each project. I am so passionate about books and looking at their composition, that I find it difficult not to invest fully into a project.

When you ask for me to read your book, I am going to look at: character development, believability, pacing, plot holes, information gaps, information overloads, inconsistencies, and the overall “feels” of your book. Because I invest so much time and energy into giving a solid critique on the things you have done well and the things that need a little more love, I do expect compensation.

You’ll note that I do book reviewing in exchange for a free copy of the book. My book reviews are quite lengthy (both written and videos), but that is a brief gloss over compared to the things I cover in my beta read feedback reports. Even for the most basic silver package beta read of a short 10k story, I write at least 4 pages of single-spaced, 12-point, Times New Roman, .5 inch margins text, critiquing the manuscript. It is a process that takes time, consideration, and energy.

I find that money plays a big role in ensuring the full commitment of both parties. If an author is serious about their project, they will invest in it. I want to work with dedicated people, who are eager to hear how they can improve on the story, because it means that they are as dedicated to the project as I am. Sometimes free betas pour all their attention and energy into giving really awesome critiques, and the author disappears or is not really ready to hear the truth about the manuscript. This can literally put off some people from beta reading (why someone won’t ever beta read again). Money is a good incentive for both parties to timely give constructive feedback (beta reader) and to being receptive to that feedback (author).

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t both types of people in both camps. You may have a paid beta who disappears on you, just as you could have an unpaid beta who really gives your manuscript the time and attention is deserves.

That’s why I offer three levels of beta reading. Most people start with the silver package to get a sense of what kind of feedback they can expect from me, and for me to know what kind of writing I should expect from that particular author. Return clients can then go for the gold package when they really want to get deep into the story and character development, or the platinum package if they are published authors who have been contracted for a set number of books and are assured to be published.

At the end of the day, it is the author’s decision on whether it is worth it or not.  As someone who spends most of her week reading submissions from authors who clearly didn’t read through the manuscript before sending it to the publisher, or didn’t stop to check if readers of the genre would be happy with the book, I appreciate the authors who do get a couple of beta readers to go through their stories. It enables the author to present a more polished and complete manuscript: less work for the editors acquiring it, and a more pleasant read for readers.

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