Beta reads? Yea or nay?

I’ll be honest. I could not provide a reasonable beta read for free. There is no incentive to ploughing through something, analysing it, and compiling a coherent report, for nothing. To some authors, paid for beta reads are anathema.

No one should have to pay for a beta read goes the thinking. But if you read some of the dire stories of people who haven’t paid and have waited for months for nothing or a one-liner you can see why editors have added beta reading to their portfolios.

I’ve been surprised that two of my recent beta-read authors have been award-winning media professionals. Surely these are the sort of authors who don’t need beta readers? Or, do they want a view from someone with a similar professional background?

Here’s Cynthia’s view:

That Extra Pair of Eyes

Her review and report — she writes a thorough report — were excellent. A former journalist – she asked great questions, made key observations.

Back I went to the manuscript — polishing, polishing.

Congrats to her keen eyes, skillful suggestions and empathy for anxious authors. Other authors tell me she’s also a wonderfully professional editor, which makes total sense to me. But even if you already have your own editor, I’d still recommend her, as an extra pair of eyes.

Thank you, Cynthia for that glowing endorsement. Much appreciated. There’s a little bit of me that goes zzzzzing when a colleague from my industry applauds my work.

Cynthia's verandah
Cynthia’s verandah
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44 comments on “Beta reads? Yea or nay?

  1. Interesting roughseas. You know when I was the Safety Director of a tanker company, I used to have to go for a”ride-along” with each driver upon occasion (they tried to get me to do it yearly but some required more and some less). One if the characteristics of the best drivers was their excitement at having me come along and critique their driving and work. they were proud of their skills and got those skills by learning. They had turned the job from trucking to learning and they soaked up information on whatever topic was being discussed- including their skill set. I too used to enjoy those ride-alongs and I never had one that I didn’t complete without taking away yet another lesson. We learned form each other.

    The less skilled drivers dreaded my ride-alongs even though I was very positive in how i presented flaws. (i.e. – that would be a perfect response to such and such a situation and in this situation perhaps a better response would be ‘x’ ). They were often defensive and pushed back. Obviously this was fine tuning as they would not have a job if they were anything but skilled and safety conscious.

    My point being that I am not surprised that your best authors used betas – my best drivers were always looking for “input” or criticism – that’s how they got to be the best. In fact when I designed the driving test i included a fairly large section on how the driver took criticism and would mark applicants down if they were poor at this.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Confidence is critical – you are right roughseas. They knew me and my work and had grown confident that they could trust my input.Plus, the obvious confidence in their own work too – knowing that whatever they did with reason would be seen as reasonable.

        Liked by 1 person

        • But that’s not paying for something, agreed confidence in a mutual work scenario, but in a freelance writing situation when people are paying for evaluation I think it is different. But hey, if you have a different view, happy to hear.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. If I could afford them, I’d do them. Plus, I don’t think it’s right to demand that people read stuff for free. Personally, if someone is going to add value to your book, that person needs to be compensated for it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I totally agree with your thinking. If you ask someone for a professional skill, then they should be paid for it. I’m not thinking about me, but someone asked me about auction houses. I thought of someone I knew. Why should he provide his professional skill for nothing? So I didn’t get involved. People’s skills should be respected. Whatever they are.

      As for free betas, go for it … you may get something decent.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I never heard of that term, Beta readers, but guessed that it involves getting a professional and honest opinion about a written manuscript. I looked up the term on Google. I suppose, a lot depends also on the quality and credentials of the Beta reader, their personal likes, dislikes, and above all their honesty in giving positive and constructive criticisms. No good saying ‘ oh I hated this bit or loved that bit, without giving a good reason.
    The same applies to unwarranted or over the top praise.
    I feel too, it should be paid for. With my own first book. I went for the POD ( print on demand) method and had praise and criticism. Took both in, and am now on my second book. At my age, some urgency and lack of time is of the essence.

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    • Forgive me for jumping in here, but I think there are beta readers, and then there’s what Katherine does. To me, that is far over and above what the average beta reader does. Katherine brings a trained editor and reviewer’s eye to her work. She is strong on storytelling, and loves language, and is rigorous in her critique of what works well and what could be improved. All with a generous respect for the author but no shilly-shallying. She writes a full report.

      Katherine’s service is a professional product at a very reasonable rate. Especially if you are an Indie — but even if you’re not — you can’t not afford to have someone like Katherine read your work and helpfully critique it before it’s published.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you Cynthia. Always happy for people to comment on other comments. Makes it more of a rounded discussion.

        I think the issue about betas, is that they can vary so widely. That’s if they even provide feedback. I probably provide what I would like from a beta read. Some people like it to be done via track changes, which I think doesn’t really allow for commentary about the overall impression, and I think that’s critical. To me, it’s I liked this book because … and then the next level is the detail about what does and doesn’t work and why. I think Gerard gave a good summary of what it should be too.

        One thing to avoid, as with editing, is not trying to impose your personal opinion on the author, ie ‘I would have written it like this’. If I was an author I’d be saying ‘go and write your own book!’ I think this is where objectivity is needed (as with editing and reviewing) because whether we like dogs, children, gardens, cooking, old houses, whatever isn’t relevant. It’s how well the author writes about the subjects that we should be concentrating on. Yes, there’s room for a few personal comments, but not at the expense of critical analysis of the writing and the book as a whole.

        And while it’s time consuming, it’s not as exhausting as editing! Admittedly my pricing isn’t cost effective (for me) but I appreciate many indies are on tight budgets. What people see is what they receive, not the time I’ve put into it. If people pay for what is basically a very optional service, then I think they deserve a decent and considered report. Whether or not someone acts on what I have written is another matter – or even likes it – but I at least want people to think they have received VFM. I suppose I provide a cross between a free beta read of whatever calibre and a paid for MS appraisal – which often comes in at around four times the price from other editors. Of course, my report depends on what stage I get to read the unpublished version. Yours was pretty near completion, but I’ve also read unedited ones and first drafts. They’re all very different.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Guess it depends how you define ‘professional’. Are other authors professional? Friends and family are unlikely to be, but a lot of people use them. Is an editor always professional? For example, authors-turned-editors after writing a few books and wanting another income stream?

      For me, it involves two or three reads of the book, but that’s how I work. That, plus writing up a full report looking at various aspects, eg characters, dialogue, pacing, structure, and giving examples of errors, takes a lot of time. And, I totally agree, honesty and reasons for comments are essential. Plus, we need to highlight the good areas as well as those needing improvement. I enjoy doing it, because I like the analytical nature of it. Most of my beta reports are objective, but I will add the personal view too. A combination really.

      There are plenty of ‘new’ authors in their 70s, you aren’t alone. At least you have the time. British author Mary Wesley started late in life and went on to write a number of books with at least one – A Camomile Lawn – being televised. Good luck with book number two :)

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an honest comment! You could always unpublish it I suppose. Or re-edit it. I’m coming to the end of re-editing a whole series of books for an author. So, you could always ask your current betas to do a post publication review of your first book, and then re-edit it. If you have the will, that is!

      It’s interesting people say they should be paid, whereas reading around the advice is no one needs to pay. I guess if you get lucky you might get some decent free ones, but then you are obligated to provide the same in return. So I can see why people pay for two reasons, 1) a professional read and 2) personal time constraints. I did one last year and the author paid for two reads. She said it was helpful, as you have, because we both provided contrasting (but not necessarily conflicting) povs, rather we highlighted different aspects.

      Thanks for your comment Kathy.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What a wonderful endorsement! Interesting perspective, though. I’ll be honest, I’m of the “don’t pay for a beta read” camp, but I suspect I have a different definition of beta readers. My experiences with betas (both reading and being read) aren’t as comprehensive as what you’re describing, but there’s no question that beta-ing takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. I’ve had beta readers I know are strong in grammar and mechanics, while someone handing their manuscript to me would be more likely to be asking for crits on characterization, overall flow, or dialogue. It’s something I do rarely now, only if I know the author’s work and level of writing. (I’ll sometimes crit a few pages, or the opening chapter, but if it’s someone who isn’t close to “there” and is still at a point where they don’t understand how to pull back and interpret the crit, yah, I don’t have it in me anymore) If I was a professional editor it would be a different story–and if I was handing my manuscript to a professional editor I would never expect them to do it for free.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed it was. Authors love posting their good reviews – and why not? But editors rarely get the same opportunity, so it’s nice to be able to bask a little :)

      I think part of the problem with beta-ing is that it is such a variable. It means one thing to one person, and something else to another.

      Searching around after I posted this, I read one discussion where one person thought it was a bit like a book review. A few pars on Am. ‘I liked this, good characters, and interesting story’ sort of approach. So natch, they were doing it for free. I mean, no one would pay for that – one read and a few vague comments?

      But it seems a lot more people, including editors, authors and readers are charging. Sign of the times? All offering very different reads though.

      Depends what people provide I guess. I read one person who does a single read, provides a 500–1000 word report for, I think, approx 50–100 Aus dollars. My reports are 4–6,000 words for £50 ish (ie 100 Aus dollars). Horses for courses.

      If I wanted a beta reader, I would want what you provide. I think that’s the essence of it. I provide the extra grammar/errors as part of the report because I’m incapable of ignoring it :D But I don’t see beta reading as a trial free proofread, and I don’t think people should be beta-ing if they are just looking for missing full points or ones in the wrong place.

      I’ll also look at opening chapters only, but I think that can give a skewed view. I’ve read books that started slowly or blandly and yet turned out well.

      It’s up to the author though. They need to specify what they want.

      I enjoy it, because a) I have spent a lifetime writing reports! b) I like the challenge of looking for what works and what doesn’t c) it’s rewarding to see the published version, whether or not my comments have been taken into account.

      But no to free. It takes me ages to beta read and write a report. So far though, I’ve not had any neg feedback.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hi Rough Seas! I have used beta readers for FREE in the past on my first big novel. Of course, it helped because I’d be nowhere, grammar and story wise. Each chapter had different betas, so quite possibly there was too much input and some I had to ignore. I’m ready to have have a knowledgeable paid-for beta to assist me. I want that. I have sent my manuscript in for query, always hopeful, but uncertain. Can I send to you? Your charge is 100 US dollars?

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      • Sounds fair, all the way around. If I was ever to decide to self-pub, I would definitely pay an editor. Within the realm of trade publishing, though, no. I absolutely agree that it is a rewarding thing to do. :)

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  5. Authors supporting authors with beta reads isn’t a bad thing… If they didn’t, no one would be able to afford to have their book published. Why on earth do editors need to add beta reading to their repertoire? There are plenty of folks out there willing to do it I don’t see the point in asking an editor to be a beta reader. Editors are going to be reading the work when they do their editing. I don’t get it.

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    • Each to their own – we’re all different in how we go about something. Some people have great free beta readers, others fail to get feedback, some people don’t worry and rely on their editor. But not all editors are the same either. Some will comment on structure, pacing, flow, dialogue, others will concentrate on technical aspects and not provide the beta aspect. Maybe some authors use paid-for betas instead of editing. Hell, I don’t know!
      I think the rationale for using paid-fors is like anything. You have a reasonable idea of what you will get, ie some sort of outline/areas for comment, an approx word count, whatever. That contrasts sharply with ‘this book was ok, character X was good’ that some readers offer. It’s not just editors that offer beta reading, plenty of readers now charge as well. I think the difference between paying a ‘reader’ and an editor is that you are more likely to get an additional editorial input as well as the beta read, but depends, as ever on the person.
      One of the maxims that I find interesting is that friends and family don’t make good beta readers because they won’t be honest. Don’t know about friends but I often ask A to read some of my work, and he is brutally honest. Which leads me to conclude if there is no honesty what does that say about a relationship?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Everyone has to find their own way, I guess it depends on needs as well as perspective. I started out down the route of having family (not my dearest of course) reading, commenting, and editing… NEVER AGAIN! I don’t know what I was thinking since none of them had even enrolled in an undergraduate program, never mind, being educated. Although, the one I did expect more from had supposedly done some creative writing courses that were supposed to be part of some kind of diploma… I was impressed until I realised in her own writing she didn’t even know which ‘there’ to use… among other wrong uses of similar kinds of words. I figured all that out in junior high!

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        • I think needs is a totally valid point. Which is why, if people are trading like for like, it can be a fair exchange. Or if people have nothing better to do (?!?) than to beta read raw MSS. Reviewing is one thing, but beta reading involves (or should) a lot more work. Reviewing should only involve one read, maybe with annotations. Beta-ing involves a minimum of two reads but I suspect some people treat it as a review.
          Luckily I only have one close person to ask so I couldn’t fall into your trap :D but apart from a partner I wouldn’t ask anyone I knew socially or familywise.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. A couple of years back I read a book which had been beta read by twelve volunteer readers. I found three errors in it, two minor and one serious, so I would recommend using a professional pair of eyes and paying for it. Which is what I intend to do. I am encouraged by this post.

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    • I think the issue with betas is that they all read/look at different aspects. An author could end up with a brilliant combination of readers, some looking at plot, at characters, at dialogue, others looking for plot holes, spelling and punctuation errors, factual inaccuracies.
      I suspect the reason people are going down the paid for route is for a number of advantages. One, there will be a beta report, there is no ‘I didn’t feel like it/was too busy/went on holiday’ response. Two, the author is quite clearly in control and can specify what they want. It’s a transaction. Three, with writing circles, one starts to get into the friend loop and giving honest opinions can become difficult. Someone making a living at this can not afford to say poor is good. There are others, eg, the experience of the beta reader in whatever aspect, the fact that an author has money to pay, the ease of the process ie one, two or three paid-fors compared with compiling 12 lots of feedback (ugh!).
      Regarding errors … I don’t think that is a beta’s main role even though I include it. Beta reading is no substitute for editing/proofreading, but it’s better than nothing. I read very few error-free books. A few trad published big names, and exceptionally a couple of Indies, Tim Stevens’ Ratcatcher comes to mind. But the trouble is, errors can be ambiguous. Punctuation, spelling (compounds), numbers, are just the start. Anyway, I am encouraged that people are paying for professional reads, but still think it is good that others will provide a free beta. Of whatever quality. There is room for both.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Comments here are intriguing. I would think most would want to pay for a higher level of reading and anaysis. And you get a different group of beta readers. Seems like first reads would be mainly about story/character structure and consistency. (Although hard to ignore gramar, sentence structure, and spelling for many of us)
    The old “you get what you pay for” is fair and pretty true statement. Is there possibility that writers ask other writers to read for free with the understanding that they will return the favor? Curious about bartering.

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    • Yes, the theory is that there is a mutual deal. You show me yours and I’ll show you mine in fact. Whether you like what you see is another matter. Also, they can come as rough drafts or polished ones. For example, looking at An Honest House, I saw an almost finished version, which was good for me. It’s very difficult for a beta reader (this one anyway) to concentrate on plot, character, dialogue when every page is littered with errors of some type or other. I feel as though I’m seeing stars. And then, there is poor writing. How do you even start to constructively comment on that? Uf. We’re all different though. I read a book recently with a significant number of errors. Another editor said they hadn’t noticed any. So it’s probably easier to beta read if you don’t see errors …

      Liked by 1 person

  8. oh, what a fantastic endorsement that is from Cynthia – and well deserved, i am sure. kudos!
     
    i could pass on the dogs – simply because Timmy and dogs don’t mix. just this evening Timmy managed to sneak out of the front door, where he noticed one of our neighbours with a small dog on the leash. if i hadn’t grabbed Timmy, i think he would have attacked the dog. such hissing and howling! amazing the vocalizations that cats are capable of. ! i tried to tell him the dog was a neighbour and that he should be nice, but he would have none of it, of course. i finally carried him inside, but he stayed near the door to ensure the pup wouldn’t come into the house. who knows what kind of experiences he has had with dogs in the past. in any case, the dogs would not work out – but the rest of that verandah is quite lovely.
     
    anyhow, i’ve just jumped into the fray here – despite officially being on a blogging hiatus. oops! – and i have to say this is a whole new concept for me. this is the first time i have come across the term ‘beta reader’ and i too had to google it.
     
    lots of food for thought here – and my overall sentiment is that service that is worth being rendered is deserving of pay. i found the question above about bartering interesting, too, and at the same i wonder if every writer would have equal skills (probably not) which would make it seem that bartering might not always be a fair trade.
     
    anyhow, this is a brand new experience for me, and i have obviously got lots to learn – but not tonight anymore, or this morning rather. have a great day! i am calling it quits for now. good night!

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    • Goof night, oops, good night kris :) 💤
      Cynthia was indeed kind and generous with her praise, and a pleasure to work with.
      Dogs and cats are interesting. For example they will live together, but not accept non-pack members. Like people I suppose. I would have taken a local street cat but Pippa and cats were a disaster guaranteed to happen. The latest two are no better. Anyway our neighbour homed Topsy who we still see when he prowls elegantly around the guttering. A veritable cat burglar.
      I agree about the differing levels of skills. In my experience bartering does not work well although the theory is fine. There was a LETS initiative in Britain in the 90s that never really took off as I recall. People would trade skill for skill, it was quite radical as I recall, as everything was regarded as equal, and sadly in life, we aren’t all equal. My partner decorated a cafe for someone. He was sick of free breakfasts by the time he’d worked off his fee. I think the bloke just didn’t want to pay.
      But yes, imagine spending days reading and annotating a MS only for the same author to send you back a one-liner. Or at best, a paragraph. Or saying they didn’t like it because they don’t like cats, or whatever.
      Services and skills are being devalued enough as it is, so it’s good to hear people are happy to pay for a service. But, if the mutual swaps work for some that’s good too. Sometimes though, a financial transaction can be simpler.

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