On occasion I act as a beta reader. I am currently beta reading the latest psychological thriller by the Bristol based author, A. A. Abbott (aaabbott.co.uk) – and thoroughly enjoying the process.
A beta reader is a test reader of a completed, but unpublished, work of literature. The term is derived from beta testing computer software before it is released on the public. Although it is not unusual for the task to be performed by another author, the role of the beta reader is to provide feedback as a reader, not a writer, and help the author give a final polish to the story before publication. They are there to offer comments and advice on the plotting, pace, consistency and characterisation. Honest feedback is important (if authors just want uncritical praise, they should give the manuscript to their grannies), but not to nit-pick, or suggest major changes.
Some writers are very clear what they want from their beta reader and will provide a template on which to return feedback. Others are rather vague – ‘Tell me what you think …’ Which runs the risk of just getting a vague response – ‘It’s fine.’
Beta readers do not get into correcting spelling and grammar – that is for the proof-reader; or suggest major re-writes or deletions (that’s the role of the editor, although publishing houses seem to do less and less of this these days – hence some of the doorstep sized tomes on sale which leave a reader feeling the work would have been so much better if 50 or so pages shorter). Alpha readers have a different role too, getting involved, as the name suggests, when a manuscript is still in a pretty rough state, maybe not yet completed, and plots and characters etc are still embryonic.
Sensitivity readers are a specialised kind of beta reader that some publishing houses have started to employ to offer advice to the writer on a different culture. This can be helpful, but some writers, for example Kate Clanchy, have complained, that if several such readers have been consulted, they can end up receiving contradictory and confusing (if not downright incorrect) advice.
Many beta readers provide their services for free (or maybe a copy of the book when published), but for some it can be a modestly lucrative side-line – the average pay in America is around $3,000 a month. For me to agree to be a beta reader for someone I have three simple criteria in regard to the process:
- If asked, do I look forward to receiving their manuscript?
- Once I start, am I keen to keep reading or do I find, as a critic once said of Nancy Mitford’s biography of The Sun King (Louis X1V) ‘Once put down, I found it hard to pick it up again’?
- Will the writer thank me for the feedback, and respond positively to at least one of my suggestions?
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