Beta-reader Beware

I did something incredibly rash and foolish. I gave my manuscript to a total stranger to read.

A couple of weeks ago, I met a new author on a Goodreads group discussion. She was looking for beta readers and I volunteered. We seemed to have similar opinions on critiquing and we agreed to critique each other’s works. I promptly read and critiqued hers, but when it came time for mine she didn’t seem to be in a hurry. As the days dragged on I started to freak out. What had I done? I had given my manuscript to a person whose real name I didn’t even know. The more I thought about it, the more I worried. Although I can easily prove copyright, I started to think about what I would do if someone stole my ideas, my manuscript.

Beta readers are critical to an author. An author needs someone independent to provide feedback. Usually you would rely on an editor for that, but with smaller independent publishers you don’t always get that type of editor. They focus more on grammar, typos etc., and less on flow, continuity, characterization. So far I have managed without beta readers, using my own judgement on what I write, and it hasn’t been a problem—but those were short, simple novellas. I have just written my debut novel and it is much longer, has plot twists and clues, and it really needs an independent eye to make sure that it all works together. Unfortunately I don’t have a writer’s network right now. My friends are either a) not interested in my writing career or b) not really into the genre. I feel like when I ask them to review I am forcing them into it. And I also question whether they can be unbiased enough. So I was eager to jump into having a beta reader without thinking through the repercussions.

It’s scary stuff sending your baby off to a stranger. Not only because of the possible feedback, but because you don’t know what can happen with your story. With self-publishing it is so easy to steal someone else’s work and very difficult to punish the offenders. In the end, everything seems to have worked out. My beta-reader provided some critical feedback, and after my initial melt down I realized she was right and that I had made a very obvious mistake which I should have caught myself. Now I am busy reworking my novel; while I’m not exactly thrilled about that, I know it is the right thing and I would rather spend the time now than publish something less than perfect.

Would I do it again? I’m not sure. I still see the value of beta-readers but I think I will have to find a better way that doesn’t stress me out so much. An environment where I can have more trust. For any author considering using beta-readers here is my advice:

1)      Be up front with your beta reader about your expectations. Make sure they can be honest. If you want them to focus on a particular aspect let them know. Make sure they are comfortable with your genre. Set a reasonable deadline. Beta readers are volunteers. Even though they say they are available and excited to review your work, sometimes crap happens and they can’t get to it. It helps to think of your beta reviewer as a potential job candidate—what would the job description look like?

2)      Take the time to get to know your beta reader first. Giving something to a beta reader requires trust, and I am not a very trusting person. I only wish I had remembered that at the time. How do you know this person won’t make a copy or steal what you gave them? Are they a writer too? Think about where you met them. Are they using a pseudonym?

3)      Don’t use friends or family as beta-readers unless you are absolutely sure they will give you the level of unbiased feedback you need and also really want to read your stuff. The people close to us sometimes have a hard time saying “no”. Not everyone is as enthusiastic about your story as you are and it’s easy to become resentful if they don’t take it as seriously as you do. It can affect relationships. I learned this the hard way, asking a friend for help with my mystery and then waiting two months for feedback which never came. Knowing that she couldn’t spare 5 hours to skim my manuscript (no matter how bad) hurts more than any critique or just saying “I don’t want to” would. I’m still struggling to get past this.

In the end it’s up to you authors. An independent review never hurts—just be safe while doing it.

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