A Few Notes to Authors on the Subject of Betas

Last week I talked about how to become a beta reader, what is expected of the position, and tips for being a good one.  Today, I’m here to add a few notes to authors on how to have a good relationship with your betas.


Communication and Honesty
Consider the demographic of the beta.  Are they your target audience?  If they are, their reactions will let you know whether you’re properly reaching them or not.  If they aren’t, you can still learn a lot of things from their feedback, because story structure and characterization are (or are supposed to be) measured against a more-or-less fixed standard.

Make it clear to your betas when something is a first draft vs. a more final version.  This helps them tailor their comments accordingly.

If you need a specific kind of feedback, make that clear; whether it’s just ‘do you like it or not’ or something more detailed.

Accept all feedback politely.  THINK about it before you dismiss it as being of no use.

Don’t make excuses for yourself.  If you can’t accept honest feedback, then you either aren’t ready to become a serious author or you shouldn’t be writing at all.  Learn to tell the difference between constructive critique vs. someone attacking the story or you for having written it.  The former is good, the latter justifies dropping a beta reader.  If you think a beta hasn’t understood something correctly, it’s fine to explain and invite further commentary, but don’t argue with them.  If they disagree with you about your signature writing style, morals, or ethics, politely thank them for reading the story and move on.  Find another beta.

PAY ATTENTION TO THE DETAILS OF THEIR FEEDBACK.  If they say, ‘hey, this is one of my favorite genres but I didn’t like this book because your plot and characters felt too cliche and inane’, DO. NOT. reply with, ‘oh, well, this genre isn’t for everyone.’  It’s rude, it’s arrogant, it tells your beta that you don’t actually care about their feedback- which incidentally defeats the purpose of betas- and it’s a surefire road to making some betas never want to read another one of your books, published or unpublished.

Ultimately, if a beta’s style isn’t what you need or want and if they’re not really helping you at all, it’s okay to say, ‘no, thank you’ and find another beta reader who does fit your needs.

This is probably the hardest area in which to deal with beta readers.  Let me tell you right now that you are going to get this part wrong at least once.

For starters, let’s distinguish between two types of beta readers: those who don’t understand and those who can’t:
They can’t understand part or all of the book because you wrote an unclear story and need to adjust the writing or plot.

The book is beyond their level of understanding or maturity level.  This doesn’t make them stupid, it just means the book isn’t their type or they need to wait a few years to read it.

In the first instance, you can take their feedback and work with it.  In the second instance, you’re going to have to thank them politely and move on and try not to be too frustrated.  If they’re in the middle of the project, diplomatically offer them the chance to back out.  Don’t insult their intelligence by making it clear that they just ‘don’t get it’, but if you can handle this tactfully, them leaving can save you both some frustration.  (There are some who will want to finish the project and that’s fine, just tamp down your frustration over the unhelpful feedback.)

There is a fine line between the two and usually only time and experience will teach you what it is.  You are going to get it wrong at least once.  (More likely, you’ll mess it up half a dozen times.  Be comforted, legions of other authors will wave sympathetically to you from their seats in this province of mistake-land.)  Take your falls with good grace and get back up again.  Apologize to anyone you insulted or hurt, and then remember the lesson for next time.

One more thing: try not to assume that just because a reader doesn’t like the story, they don’t understand it.  This assumption is insufferably arrogant and sensible readers hate it.  There is a line between personal taste and understanding and a good beta will make it clear which side of the line they’re walking in regards to your story.

Last week I stated that editing was not the job of a beta.  I stand by that statement.  The purpose of betas is to give you feedback on plot and story, NOT edit.  If they catch editorial errors in their reading and inform you, that’s great.  But, it is not their job.  It’s above their ‘pay grade’.

It’s hard to find good editors and harder still to find them at affordable prices, especially for indie authors.  But just because you can’t find or afford an editor doesn’t mean that editing becomes part of your betas’ job.

NOW, this does NOT mean that people who have been/are betas can’t or shouldn’t edit, nor am I calling out authors who do have editing arrangements with their beta readers.

Just realize that if you ask a beta to edit for you, you need to compensate them for it, because it’s a different service altogether.  You pay a professional editor if you have them edit your book.  A beta whom you’ve asked to edit becomes an editor of your work and thus also deserves some kind of compensation.  How you do this is between you and them.  It can be anything from an exchange of editing services between you two, to paying them for their time and work like you would a professional editor, to gifting them a free copy of the book (ebook or print form) when you publish it.  That’s private business.

NOTE: this does NOT apply to betas who add editorial commentary as part of their feedback.  It’s not their job, but if they choose to do so WITHOUT you having asked for it, it’s their choice and you’re not obligated to compensate them for it.  (Just do make sure that they know they’re not required to provide editorial feedback.)

Make sure your betas know that you deeply appreciate their time and attention.  Never underestimate the value of someone’s willingness to read something you wrote.

I’ve had a wide variety of betas over the last few years.  Some I loved.  They gave me the kind of feedback I desperately needed and they were honest without being condescending or acting like I was stupid/should have known better.  On the reverse side, I’ve had those who were irritating, stuck up, and still others who were ‘useless’ to me as betas for various reasons.  But I’m grateful to all of them for being willing to read my book.

As time passes and you experience your own variety of betas, you will learn which ones have styles that mesh with yours and that knowledge will shape your future beta practices.  Just take a deep breath and remember that this isn’t rocket science.  It’s okay if you make mistakes, as long as you learn from them.  Which brings me to my final note.

I am offering ADVICE, everyone, not giving you the Law of Betas from the Medes and Persians.  If you can benefit from it, take it and use it and you’re welcome.  If you can’t, well, most fortunately, it won’t affect gravity or the rising and setting of the sun.  Trust me, I’ve double-checked it to make sure.

Merry Writing… and betaing!


2 thoughts on “A Few Notes to Authors on the Subject of Betas

  1. Kendra E. Ardnek says:

    So, yes, on the betas editing –
    1. I never ASKED any of my betas to edit for me. The ones that do, do it because that’s the feedback they enjoy giving.
    2. Those that have edited know that, if at all possible, I will return the favor. If they send me their book, and I have the time, I’ll send them an edit just as thorough.

    My beta team is an amazing group of girls, though. I don’t know what I’d do without them.


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