What Are Beta Readers, and Do You Really Need Them?

Most people who set out to write a book never finish. If you’ve completed your first draft, congratulations! Now comes the really hard part: finding someone to help you make it better. That's where beta readers come in.

Recently, an old friend asked me for advice on getting his book edited. He’d finally finished his first draft—a monumental task, for which I congratulated him profusely!—and he was ready to have it edited.

He looked around and found a professional editor who wanted $4,000 to perform a developmental review. All he’d get for his money would be a full read-through and two pages of feedback. I’m assuming that feedback would be extremely valuable and probably very helpful, but still.

So my friend kept looking. In his search, he came up with no shortage of freelance editors willing to edit his entire 200-page novel for only a couple of hundred bucks. This left him scratching his head. How “professional” could an edit be if it cost so little?

Like the vast majority of writers in the world, my old friend isn’t made of money. But he also doesn’t want to skimp on something as important as an edit.

“What do I do?” he asked me.

To which I replied, “Get yourself some beta readers, dude.”

What are beta readers?

Beta readers are like your own personal test subjects. Their job is to read your book and give you feedback on its strengths and weaknesses. Beta readers are important because they give you a very good idea of how your book will be received by other readers—not to mention agents and publishing companies you may want to share your book with.

What aren’t beta readers?

The one thing beta readers are not are professional editors. Don’t confuse the two. There are some big differences. For one, beta readers aren’t usually paid. Editors are. Beta readers don’t have to be grammar snobs or even good spellers (although that never hurt anyone).

Professional editors, on the other hand, usually have degrees in English and are schooled in the finer points of storytelling, structure, and pacing, and they can recommend changes in your writing style and choice of words to make your book better. They can also be expensive.

The average cost of a competent edit ranges anywhere from two to six cents per word, depending on the complexity of the edit. So if your book is 80,000 words, expect to pay anywhere from $1,600 to $4,800 for a professional edit.

That’s a pretty big spread. But here’s a tip that could save you thousands of dollars on editing:

The better shape your book is in, the less you’ll pay for editing.

This is where beta readers prove invaluable. They’ll help you identify the main problem points of your book so that you can address those issues before sending it to a professional editor, who might look it over and decide all you need is a line edit and a thorough proofread.

Just like that, you’ve saved thousands.

By now, you’re probably sold on the idea of rounding up some beta readers and having them lend a literary hand. But where do you find such people? Read Where Do I Find Beta Readers? to learn more.

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