The “Art” of Beta Reading
About six or seven years ago, an author who I was friendly with, Monica Burns, asked me to beta read what would become her novel Kismet for her saying, “You’re one of the pickiest readers I know, I think you can help me.” And a beta reader/author relationship was born. I went on to beta read five books for Monica, and learned a ton about the “art” of beta reading from her.
As word got around that I beta read for Monica, I picked up other authors. Some I beta read one or two books for, some I now I have long-standing relationships with. I’ve beta read for indie authors who self-publish and for authors who are extremely well known. But in all cases, I approach the process the same manner.
As a member of Dear Author’s review staff, I cannot review the books I beta read, nor can I mention them on Top 10 lists, or list them as DA Recommended Reads. Other reviewers here at Dear Author can review their books, but I don’t, which I think is an excellent policy. I’ve always thought it’s a conflict of interest to review a book that you’ve assisted an author with. Oh, I gush about them on Twitter, and try to do my part to get interest up via other social media means, but not through Dear Author.
I always ask authors when they send books to me to let me know if there is anything they’re worried about in the manuscript. Generally speaking, most authors want a cold read, meaning they don’t point out potential issues before I read the book. They want to know whether it even causes a blip on my radar. Sometimes I receive four or five chapters to read and react to. In other cases, I get the complete book. Sometimes I have a few weeks to react; some authors need a really quick turnaround.
For me, beta reading is much like reading for review. I pay close attention. I highlight passages that stick out to me. I try to keep track of particular issues that I’m having with characterization, dialogue or motivation. And in the end, I try very hard to give my honest opinion about what I’ve read. I do NOT read for grammar or punctuation (unless something is terribly egregious).
I make it a policy to only read for authors who write in genres that I read regularly (for example, I don’t beta read Steampunk, because it’s not a genre I enjoy). And I don’t usually read for authors who aren’t known to me. Which makes sense, if you think about it, as an author, why would you give a reader you’re unfamiliar with the opportunity to read something you’ve written before you’ve published it?
Then the fun part begins, I either call or send an email to the author with my reactions. This can spark a fantastic discussion about the work. There are times, though, that beta reading is no fun at all. Sometimes you have to tell an author you don’t like what they’ve written. Or you have an issue with some aspect of the book. Usually a conversation can resolve the issue, and I’ve never found those discussions to be anything but productive with the authors I work with. Generally, they are looking for that reader reaction and they like the fact that they have someone to bounce ideas off of. But it can be a delicate conversation. Being an author is a solitary thing, and sending your work out to a beta reader can be nerve-wracking. I always try to be really respectful of the hard work that goes into putting words on the page.
I did an informal poll on Twitter the other night, asking other readers who are beta readers how they got started and what their process is, and also asking authors whether they use beta readers in their process. I received probably 15 responses, and to a person, the authors said that they found beta reading to be invaluable to the process. But all stressed that it the success of the beta reader/author relationship is predicated on trust. First, the author must be confident that you’re not going to share the manuscript. They also have to trust your opinion as a reader. They need to know that you’re not just going to give a reaction of “OMG! I LOVE THIS BOOK!” While they love the positive feedback, it’s not necessarily helpful. I think that authors are mostly looking for the unvarnished truth about a beta reader’s reaction to the manuscript. If it’s a positive reaction, that’s great. If it’s not, what would have made the book work for you?
For many authors, beta reading is a valuable tool they use before publishing a book. For beta readers, it’s a great opportunity to collaborate with authors on their work.
If you’re an author, do you use beta readers? If so, how many? How did you find them? If you’re a beta reader, how did you get started? Do you read for more than one author, or across genres?