Hello writers, readers, and bloggers!
While most of you know what the term “beta read” means, or at least have heard the phrase, let me break it down in simple terms and then share why I am proud to be one.
A beta reader is someone who reads a piece of writing before its debut. The work could be by a newbie or an established author, and may be everything from a work of fiction or non-fiction, to a comic book, to a poem. I am a novel beta reader, partly because that is what I write, and partly because I love to read fiction.
So, what does a beta reader do besides read? Firstly, beta readers read for free. We are (commonly) asked to read for fun, but if any typos jump out, we are to let the publisher or author know right away. While this may sound like an author is simply looking for free editing, this is absolutely not the case. Before a reader is asked to look at a piece of work, the work will already have been proof-read and hopefully close to perfection. Often times the publisher is trying to establish one or more of the following: a target audience prior to publication; early reviewers; reader blurbs to place on the book cover or to use in publicity; last-minute typos; timeline or other continuity discrepancies; or opinions on the best book cover.
So, you may ask, if a reader reads a book for free in order to help out a writer, what’s in it for the reader?
Lots. An author should offer you the following: your name in the acknowledgements; the opportunity to see your blurb on a book cover; a signed copy of the work when available; book marks; other swag when applicable. Additionally, if you are an author trying to build an audience, blurbing other authors’ works can work in your favor if the book ends up with good reviews. Not a bad thing to have your name and blurb at the top of Rainbow Rowell’s latest book! And what’s cool is the name of your own novel will follow your blurb. Example: “Rowell’s latest book is a true masterpiece!” ~Leslie Tall Manning, author of the award-winning Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town.
How should an author request a beta read? This can happen in different ways, depending on if the author has a publisher or publicity person working on her behalf, or if the author is independently publishing, it still usually it works like this: A writer or publisher has heard about a particular reader (perhaps they have a blog or a review site), or they have found another author who writes in the same genre (like sci-fi or steampunk). They trust that this reader will A) actually read the book; B) be able to do it within the allotted time frame; C) enjoy the genre; D) be honest about their review; and E) write a review that is positive enough to pull a blurb to use on the cover.
Out the gate, the reader needs to be up front about whether or not the book is up their alley (ie: if you detest rom-com, do not offer to read rom-com). Writers, just like readers, do not like to waste their time.
What happens if a reader does not like the book? This is a common question that first-time beta readers ask. I have my own rule of thumb, and that is if the book does not grab me by the first 40 pages, I am done. I will politely tell the author or publisher that the book is not up my alley, then I will thank them for trusting my consideration.
Case in point: I was recently asked to read a Young Adult romantic novel, with a family saga as a secondary plot. The publisher is a big one, and the book sounded like something I would enjoy, even though I’d never read this author’s work before. The novel is third or fourth in a series, but I was told this did not detract from the book being read as a stand-alone. I am not sure how the publisher found me, perhaps through my agent, or by scouting award-winning YA authors. In any case, they approached me via my website. All they were looking for were blurbs from established authors, not any kind of editing whatsoever. Being an incredibly busy person (I write twenty hours a week, work as a private tutor fifteen hours a week, and market most of the remaining hours) at first I hesitated. But I am a relatively fast reader when it comes to YA, and all I had to do was read it for entertainment, so I thought why not? The payoff would be that my blurb could make it onto the front or back cover of a well-known YA author’s book.
So I began reading. Within the first ten pages, I had already circled (this is the cursed editor in me) about 20 times that the main character either rolled her eyes or shrugged her shoulders. And then it got worse. I started noticing that there was a lot of chuckling going on. Like over and over again, the characters were chuckling. Look, I am NOT a literary snob. I love to be entertained by all kinds of writing. But I honestly could not get past the rolling eyes and the shrugging shoulders and the constant chuckling. It was driving me so batty, I wasn’t even sure what the story was about! And while there is a chance that those issues would later be rectified, it was shocking to me that it was sent out for blurbs. I actually found myself feeling sorry for the author that they didn’t recognize their own overuse of words and gesticulation, and that their editor didn’t either. And this pity stopped me from reading past page 40.
What did I do? I went the honesty route. Could I have lied in favor of the author? Sure. But that is not how I roll. I find it to be a disservice to a writer to pretend I like something when I do not. It would be no different than a bad or average singer going on American Idol and having the judges tell her she is wonderful. That does nothing for anyone. I am old school. I do not give out trophies just for showing up to a game. You win or you lose. And if you lose, you can either work on getting better, or you can walk away. Life is all about choices. That said, if a writer is in the early stages of a book that they ask me to take a look at, that is a different story. I expect typos and global weaknesses in first drafts. But not in a final copy. What did I tell the publisher? I was tactful, of course. I wrote her an email that said the book didn’t hook me, and that I didn’t want to pretend to love it and leave a fake review. The publisher wrote back, and thanked me for my honesty, and that was that. I’m sure she had sent the book out to dozens of people, so my rejection probably didn’t change much for the writer. And I will say it was an interesting feeling as an author to give an editor a rejection for a change!
So then, do some reviewers fake it? You betcha. I see blurbs all the time that wax poetic about one book or another, and the book is total trash and subsequently receives scathing reviews. It could even be that some of these readers don’t really read the whole book. I am asked all the time to read only the “first few chapters” of a book before reviewing. WHAT? Are you SERIOUS? I don’t care if you are Stephen King or John Green. I am not going to read three chapters and then send them my review. If I do not get past page 40, I do not review. Ever. Period. How can you review a book if you didn’t read the ending? This makes no sense to me. What a waste of time for everyone. And what is really hurtful is this: Some of these books, with proper editing, could be better. Maybe editors are sending the books out too quickly. Maybe there needs to be more care given, both by the writer, and also by the editor. I’m not saying that every book needs to take years to write like White Oleander or To Kill a Mockingbird, but books should be cared for and loved like children. They are pieces of art. They are going to be out there forever, for the public to read, over and over again.
I used to know a guy in the 90’s who wrote a book about golf. He got a famous golfer that he used to meet on the greens to blurb the book in order to help it sell. You could tell the guy never read it because the book was awful. I mean, typos everywhere after publication, and no continuity whatsoever. It shocked me, even back then, that this was something that was happening in publishing.
So why am I a beta reader if I have little time and some of the books that come my way aren’t ready for reviewers’ eyes? Three reasons: I get a kick out of reading something before the masses, I become a better writer with every book I read, and Karma. There is something sort of sneaky about reading a book before anyone else, and being trusted to do so. Also, the more I read others’ works with a discerning eye, the less mistakes I make within my own work. I run control-finds on things like eye rolling and shoulder shrugging. I go over every single sentence before I ever send to an editor at a publishing house. I do my work, because in the end, I want a symbiotic and long-lasting relationship with the editor. Finally, Karma is important to writers. Every time you help another author, you have a better shot having them return the favor.
It is solely up to you whether or not you want to be a beta reader, or ask others to be one, but in the end, it is a great way to help a book reach potential readers, as well as marketing the most beautiful piece of work possible.
That’s it for now. I am beta reading this weekend for a friend in the UK, and I have to get on it.
And by the way, the book is wonderful! I am past page 40, and so far, no one has gone off in a fit of chuckling. Thank goodness!