Why Self-Published Authors Need Beta Readers

The number of self-published authors has and continues to explode with the growth of e-readers and the ease with which authors can put out their work in digital formats. The publishing world is beginning to accept indie, self-published and hybrid authors as legitimate, and we’re starting to see self-published titles on bestseller lists. So why are there still so many awful self-published titles on Amazon? Because it’s easy, fast (relative to traditional publishing channels) and writers are in a big hurry.

Authors who choose to sidestep traditional publishing still need to put their work through the paces to deliver a quality product to market because those bad books are hurting the legitimacy of really talented indie authors. Beta readers — people who read unpublished work with a critical eye to improve the story before it’s published — are a necessary step for self-publishing authors because they will catch things that a single professional editor may not.

Right now I’m plodding through a self-published novel (which shall remain nameless) because I was impressed with the author’s presentation of the work. I never would have known she self-published if I hadn’t looked up her publisher (which did not exist). The cover art was beautiful, the story sounded compelling, and it was well-reviewed on Amazon. Oh yeah, and she was giving it away for free. That’s what tipped me off to check the publisher.

Once I started reading however, I found myself critiquing the editor rather than the author. There were spots where the author used the same word twice within two lines, and there were things the protagonist would say that sounded unnatural to me — like the author’s voice was coming through the character’s. These are all things the editor should have caught (I say this as an editor), but it’s a tricky relationship in self-publishing because the author pays the editor.

There’s nothing wrong with this relationship. The author wants to be published, and it’s absolutely necessary to have an editor who knows what she’s doing. The author also had a proofreader (and I suspect a professional cover artist). All great things to do as a self-published author. But I suspect she skipped giving her book to a handful of beta readers before she put it on Amazon.

Here’s why beta readers are important:

1. Everybody needs an editor.

This is something my executive editor always says, and it’s true. After a long day, editors can get screen fatigue, space out and plow through edits when they’re tired. They should read through it twice, three times or more, but they’re less likely to catch their own mistakes after they’ve read the same sentence three or four times. You always need at least two pairs of eyes (that aren’t the author’s) on a piece of work — and a lot more I would argue if it’s something long and permanent like a novel.

2. Beta readers are invested.

Not necessarily all beta readers will be; some might be random people the author knows from Twitter. But the author will likely give a copy of the manuscript to her mom, her neighbor and her best friend, too. These people are invested in the author’s success. They want the author to sell a million copies and become rich and famous. An editor the author hires would probably like that too, but she’s not as invested in the author’s success. She gets paid the same regardless of forthcoming fame and fortune. If the editor is a good friend, that’s great, but refer back to No. 1.

3. Your beta readers have no problem being honest.

Editors shouldn’t either, but when an author hires an editor, she also holds the power to fire said editor if she gets offended. A sensible author wouldn’t, but I’m sure it happens. If I wrote a book and gave it to my dad as one of my beta readers, you can bet he wouldn’t hesitate to tell me he JUST DIDN’T GET this part or he JUST DIDN’T LIKE that character.

I’m a big defender of the democratization of publishing and the written word in all its forms. That’s why I’m begging indie and self-published authors to take their time and get some feedback before publishing. In the end, it will benefit readers, the author and the industry.