Finding beta readers and proofreaders for your self-published indie novel

Posted on June 7, 2013 (Subscribe to Blog)

Should indie authors pay for a professional proofreader? What makes a great beta reader, and are family members and friends to be avoided at all costs? These are some of the questions self-published authors face after they've completed their manuscript.

I received an email recently that gave me warm fuzzies AND set me thinking about this matter. First of all, here's the letter (which the writer kindly gave me permission to print):

I just wanted to write to you and say thank you. I have been an avid reader and writer all my life but life has always had a habit of getting in the way of me actually accomplishing my goal of writing a book.

About 4 years ago an idea came to me in the night and I started writing Gaea, then life got in the way again – first with happy stuff then with heart breaking stuff and for the past 18 months I have not read nor written anything at all – until I stumbled upon a free sample of your first book. I had to buy it, then the second, then the third and there is no doubt in my mind that I will buy them all! I especially like the authors note at the end of book three and as I have started writing again with a clarity of mind I have never experienced before I will definitely be contacting your brother sometime in the near future! Grin.

So, thank you. Your wonderful writing and amazing story has inspired me and helped to wake me up again. I am not lucky enough to have proof readers as family and friends but I am confident the universe will figure something out for me when the time comes and for the first time in a long time I am really looking forward to it!

Right, onwards to book 4.

So naturally I was chuffed to bits when I received this. But it also made me think about beta readers and proofreaders, and where to find them.

When I finished Island of Fog back in 2008, I was apprehensive about it. At that point, nobody but me had read it. I thought it was okay, maybe even good enough to start shipping around to publishers, but it might equally have been terrible. Up until then, the only writing buddies I had were from a writers' group I was a member of. We'd shared critiques on several chapters of our novels, and also short stories, but we'd never beta-read or proofed entire manuscripts. In that respect I was kind of on my own.

I found a highly recommended professional editor, took a deep breath, and paid $700. This was a monumental expenditure for me back then, and still is to date. I don't regret it, though. The overall feedback was very good, and the sheer number of red marks throughout the manuscript proved she'd read the book carefully instead of just brushing over it. I learned quite a lot and, above all, discovered that it was "worthy" of publishing, and that I was on the right track. All this was back in October 2008 (see The manuscript is back!).

This set me on the road to self-publishing, and through that book and the ones that followed, I gained an audience including a few fellow authors such as Brian Clopper and Roger Eschbacher. Also, my brother Darren was developing his own Iguana Proofreading business. Suddenly I had a close circle of professionals that I could call on to proofread my books, and of course I returned the favors in whatever way I could.

I always edit, edit and edit until I think I have a highly polished manuscript. Then I pass it on to fellow authors and my proofreading brother. More recently I've started asking for beta readers, too. These are generally readers only, in my case fans of the Island of Fog series, and they're more than capable of spotting typos and commenting on larger issues but not so concerned with comma placement and some of the finer details. Beta readers are supposed to read the book and get a feel for the overall story rather than get bogged down by details.

When I requested beta readers for Chamber of Ghosts, I ended up with this list:

  • 1 author
  • 1 wife
  • 14 fans
  • 1 put-upon brother

The author (Brian Clopper) was first in line simply because he's so fast. I also gave the manuscript to Darren, knowing that his critique would be the last I received but probably the most detailed and comprehensive. Meanwhile, my wife and fourteen others were given a few weeks to read the book and get back to me.

My wife and most of my fourteen betas gave me very detailed lists of typos and inconsistencies and general issues to look at. Many of the typos were mentioned several times, but each beta reader found stuff that others didn't. Some of the larger issues that were brought up were mentioned two or three times, so I felt a need to address those issues.

Because the feedback came in at different times, I was able to put things right bit by bit, which wasn't as daunting as working on all feedback at once. Fixing typos is easy. Correcting awkward phrasing is easy. Deleting scenes and reorganizing things is fairly easy. Dealing with large-scale issues is a challenge, but luckily I didn't have much to fix in that respect.

Finally, Darren's critique came in. Some of it was dealt with already, and some was no longer relevant because scenes had been deleted. But there was still a ton of extra fixes to deal with, much of it that NONE of the beta readers had picked up, technical things that frankly most readers don't even notice or care about, like whether a comma should be placed before "but" and so on. It's all really important stuff that I want to get right, but it's not something beta readers are asked or expected to report. (See how that "but" in the previous sentence needs a comma before it? It often does but sometimes doesn't... like this example here!)

Finding beta readers is not difficult. They don't have to be fans of your work. They just need to be voracious readers. I've found that many readers love getting involved. In fact, one of my betas posted on Facebook about how she felt "honored to be part of the process," and her friends and family congratulated her and asked how she "got so lucky"... my point being that many readers just love the idea of getting involved no matter how utterly unknown the author is.

So if you need beta readers, ideally ask your own readers, who will have the added insight of knowing your characters and caring about them, and can comment on the arcing plot between books. If you're a new indie writer and have no fans yet, then trawl social networks and ask for readers to critique your book. Not all of it will be great feedback, but those who offer will generally be helpful.

Don't pester friends and family, though. Your best friend may feel obliged to read your book but might be the worst possible beta reader. You're better off avoiding family and friends and instead going to strangers who are genuine fans of your genre and have nothing to gain or lose by offering their feedback. Friends and family tend not to "get" that honest criticism is far more useful than simple glowing praise.

I pestered my wife, though. She likes my books and generally offers very useful feedback, good or bad. I always tell her not to hold back, and she doesn't. She's not one to pick up on technical writing errors, but even with fourteen other beta readers, an author, and a proofreader brother, she still looked up from the book, frowned at me, and told me something everyone else had missed. Every beta reader has a different way of looking at things, and having at least ten of them will give you a really good overview of what's wrong – and right – with your book.

One thing I will stress, though: find beta readers who are familiar with your genre. Otherwise you'll have some bright spark saying, "Wait – Hal's a shapeshifter? That just doesn't happen in real life, though. Consider changing this idea to Hal being psychologically damaged and just thinks he's a shapeshifter. You don't want to lose your readers." Seriously, someone started reading Island of Fog once thinking it was a suspense thriller, and he was completely turned off in the first chapter when a manticore appeared. "A monster? Are you kidding??"

Author Brian Clopper and I beta-read an urban fantasy romance recently. We both found problems with it, particularly in the final scene, and although it may have looked to the author that we ganged up on her, in fact we came to the same conclusion separately. As far as we were concerned, the ending just didn't work. The author insisted it was fine, that the problem was more to do with the fact that we were guys who weren't interested in the romance genre. Hmm. I hope the author reconsiders. I still don't think romance readers will go for an ending like that, but the experience has made me vow not to beta-read romance-type books again – because if I don't know the genre enough to know what works and what doesn't, then how can I be of any use in my feedback?

Beta readers are everywhere. You don't need to pay them (except with a copy of the final edition) – just let them be a part of the process, thank them profusely for ALL feedback good and bad, and NEVER get argumentative and say they don't know what they're talking about. The thing about readers is that they're actually more professional at their job than many authors seem to think. The only qualification for being a professional reader is reading a lot of books.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that my dad picks up typos as well, in my books as well as in these blog posts. I think my mum is afraid he's going to upset me by nitpicking, but the opposite is true. So when I write blog posts, I check them carefully but am always wondering what else I've missed! Luckily, my dad usually has it covered. :-)

Comment by DARREN ROBINSON on Saturday, June 8, 2013...

This particular iguana looks forward to proofreading Gaea - to the author, I welcome it with open eyes...!

Comment by HAKEEM on Sunday, June 16, 2013...

Thanks for the edvice. i'll have to remeber not to ask my sister not to profe read anymore, she was more of a peast then any real help. Thow I did ask some one in my church that likes the same reads as me and she was vary helpful. Besides telling me the gramer mistakes, she told me what I can do to make it more intresting. I should get back to work, I'm almost done with the first chapter

Comment by MICHELLE on Monday, June 17, 2013...

Hi Keith,

I'm so glad to say I'm back in the land of Hal and his friends after an extended absence (life gets messy doesn't it).

I was horrified to see I'd missed three new novels in my time away and bought and devoured them eagerly. Unfortunately my review site was hacked severely and due to an ambitious house remodelling I'm not reviewing books (or writing any of my own) at the moment but will endeavour to put a review up on Amazon as soon as I can.

I simply wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed 4, 5 and 6. My first review of Island of Fog is as relevant to the 6th book as it was for the 1st. I promote your books to every parent, public and school library that I can. I really feel that you have something truly special on your hands (or pen) and often present you as my favourite author of this genre.

I am so excited that the story will make it to film. It was a hope I had for you after closing the 1st book.

Making a comment now about this particular blog entry. I myself was a beta reader for an Australian writer last year and found it exhausting only because the expectations weren't clearly defined at the time of 'asking'. In the end it was 6 months of constant editing and re-editing as I was sent chapters as he was writing them (unedited by him). If I could have just read the book once and suggested corrections, offer my feelings/opinions about scenes then I think the experience would have been a pleasure.

I think it's important to note that author's need to be very clear about what they want. I was deeply buried in the process before I realised that what was being asked of me was HUGE. Many of my suggestions were just adopted word for word into the manuscript and it felt more like a collaboration than a 'beta-reader/author' relationship. So being invited to be a beta-reader is wonderful and I'm not trying to deter anyone from doing it... I will certainly do it again myself... but I suggest a frank discussion about the process first to make sure they (the author) have realistic expectations (wish I had!). I don't consider my predicament was caused by 'taking advantage' but rather a very passionate author who perhaps didn't notice that his passion wasn't as 'potent' in others.

Thanks for reading and I can't wait for book 7 Mr Robinson!
kind regards
Michelle

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Tuesday, June 18, 2013...

Thank you, Michelle! — and welcome back to the internet. :-)

I had noticed your long absence but figured you'd be back someday. It's good to see your reviews of my first three books are still in place on your blog at Torch Under The Blankets, and I really appreciate you plugging the books for me every chance you get.

I'm sorry to say that my post about Island of Fog making it to a movie studio was an April Fool's prank (or just wishful thinking). The day after the prank, I edited the title of that post so it was clearer. Funny thing is, I believe that post has brought in a few new visitors — people who must have thought it's worth reading if it's going to be a movie! — so hey, maybe it's a neat marketing ploy? No...? Oh well...

I totally understand about your proofreading experience. I haven't gotten in THAT deep before, but I do remember critiquing short stories on an old writers' workshop where the story was so flawed and obviously a quick first draft that it was painful to wade through. I learned early on to be wary of who and what I critiqued, asking for a "test chapter" first. Beta-reading a book is supposed to be a reasonably painless experience for the reader. What you were doing was a full edit for which you should have been paid. The author definitely took advantage of you in some way, inadvertently or otherwise (the opposite being advertently? vertently? hehe).

Also, based on my own writing experience, there's no way I could ask someone to edit, beta-read, or proof my chapters one by one as I'm finishing them. By the time I get to the end of the book, I've gone back and made multiple changes to earlier chapters to allow for foreshadowing and to fix inconsistencies and all sort of things, and that's not to mention the number of read-throughs I do as a whole. I can't imagine releasing ANY of my chapters to somebody else until the book is completely written, edited, and read 5-6 times over. So if anyone asked me to critique chapters as they were being written, I would respectfully decline. In fact, an author asked me this very thing not so long ago, and I said no. His sample chapters were actually very good, but even if they were 100% error free, I still would have said no just because I'm aware how much I go back and alter as I'm going along. Not everyone is like me, of course — some authors may write their chapter, polish it highly, and never need to look back at it, and the end result might be fabulous. If so, they're far better at this writing lark than I'll ever be!

So yes, it's important for the author to be clear about what they want of their beta readers, and to realize that while beta readers are passionate about reading, they're not necessarily passionate about writing!

Comment by MICHELLE on Tuesday, June 18, 2013...

HA! Had me suckered about the movie... that'll teach me to skim read. :D Have to say, one of my first comments to my dear one after I finished Book 1 was that it would make a great pic! I'll keep the faith and hope.

Comment by KEITH ROBINSON on Tuesday, June 18, 2013...

Thank you — me too! :-)

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