On Valuing the Mighty Beta Reader

The least we can do is value them.

Now that I’m into the process of publishing my second novel, the experience of publishing the first has really colored much of how I see things going forward. I’ve learned so much this past year. Heck (yes, heck) I’ve learned a lot since my launch in October. How to build a following. How to promote. How to Instagram (did you know that’s a skill?), including how to hashtags. I realize how little I actually knew, which amuses me greatly because during the progress of The Hold in the World, I was overwhelmed by how little I knew. You might say this year I’ve had hindsight that is 2020 (*badum-tish*).

One thing really stuck out to me this round, and that is just how valuable my beta readers were to the development of my novels. As a fanfic writer, I was used to the give and take of exchanging beta reads for beta reads, even if it at times became an uneven thing. I never gave thought to compensating them. I’d even seen posts everywhere about how you should NEVER pay a beta reader. At the same time, I knew authors in certain genres (primarily romance) who keep paid beta readers in regular work with an (albeit very low) per-word rate. It started me wondering why, as authors who want to be compensated for our work and time, do we undervalue these incredible first-liners?

I think part of that disparity lies in expectation. With some totes scientific Twitter and Instagram polling, I was able to get a feeling of the climate of authors’ expectations and opinions on the topic. I’ve seen everything from “They’re not professionals and deserve nothing,” to “I always pay them x-amount,” and everything in between. It seems there is no actual standard. Why is that?

I also asked fellow authors what their expectations of their beta readers are. Once again, they ran the gamut from “I just want to know if they like it,” to “I use beta readers instead of editors.” (Um, shame on you in that last category, bee tee dubs!) If you’re the former, and all you want to know is if it’s subjectively good or bad, I can see working in beta-for-beta. Maybe an early peek at the work. If you’re asking more, though, it seems we as authors should be offering more.

When I ask someone to beta-read, I have a set of questions I want answered. Naturally one of them is “Do you like it?” but it’s not the most important thing. Tastes vary, even within genres. Everything is subjective in storytelling. Most important to me is Does the story make sense? While yes, my current beloved beta readers are friends familiar with my work, that may not always be the case. For the last two cycles I’ve been lucky to get brutal and honest feedback. The lovely beta readers tell me where the story might lose them, if something doesn’t seem logical to the setting, and point out areas where I assumed knowledge as the author that the reader simply would not have. In other words: my story is often not as successful without this feedback. I can’t dismiss that. I’m also guilty of doing exactly that.

Asking around, some of the critique of the idea of compensating our beta readers relates to them not being “professional editors”. No. They shouldn’t be. Or at the very least, not a replacement for. Sometimes professional editors will beta-read, but you don’t have to have an English degree. Just enjoy reading in this particular genre. If there’s a glaring error, I hope my they will point it out. I do not expect a beta reader to develop my story, or to fix my spelling, punctuation, and grammar (SPAG). That’s why I pay an editor. That’s why I put my manuscript away for weeks before I edit it.

So, what am I suggesting? Certainly not paying your beta readers as you would an editor. I hope I’ve made clear above why. At the very least, a flat fee, or a per-word rate. Maybe a free copy of the work they beta-read, and/or a shoutout in the acknowledgments of the book. I wouldn’t even say it should always be monetary. If you and your beta reader want to work favor for favor, that’s great! But not ever beta reader is also a writer, and not every writer will have time to devote to beta reading. In that case, we should not be assuming free labor as part of our process. A gift card. A dinner out. One author who responded to me said she takes her readers out for a nice dinner with wine and they discuss the manuscript book club style. All of these seem ideal, and to reiterate, will depend on expectations set by both parties.

The TL;DR here is this: As authors, we should be setting both clear expectations of what we need from our beta readers, and also acknowledge that it’s a valuable service to us, professionals seeking payment. As authors we need to be better than expecting creative work from anyone for free.

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