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Beta readers: to pay or not to pay…

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

Inez breaks down the writing development process and explains that the answer to "Should I hire a beta reader?" is *spoiler alert* not simply a matter of "Do you have the money?"

Hi everyone, Inez here again.

As usual, I’m still waffling on about beta readers, but this time, I’m talking about paying for one. I’m sure that you, like most writers, have seen beta readers advertising their services on Twitter, Goodreads, or platforms like Fiverr and Upwork.

The Good

With so many options, it seems appealing to hire a beta reader because:

  1. You don’t need to beg anyone to do it for free, and you can avoid asking your friends and family (who will NOT be objective beta readers!).

  2. You can avoid doing a swap where you will need to spend countless hours giving feedback to another writer.

  3. There is a higher chance a paid beta reader will be objective and critical.

  4. Paid beta readers are experienced and will be able to offer better constructive criticism than casual readers.

The Bad

In my opinion, all of the above reasons are good IN THEORY. However, you should also be aware of these unfortunate truths.

There are no formal qualifications for ‘beta readers’ or ‘editors’. That means that anyone can call themselves a beta reader or editor, regardless of their experience, education, or expertise. Being an avid reader doesn't necessarily give us the critical eye required to actually identify issues and solve them.

There is a strong incentive for paid beta readers to praise your work and very little incentive for them to give you critical feedback. Why? Well, think about it. Is it their job to give readers the best possible experience? No. You, the writer, are the customer. You will be the one who pays them and who leaves the review. If you are so offended that you refuse to pay them, leave a negative review about their service, or talk poorly of them to other writers, that’s bad for business.

From the perspective of the paid beta reader, it’s better to praise you and make you feel good. That way, you walk away a happy customer. They will probably give you some critical feedback, but it’s highly likely they will pull punches when it comes to giving you the really critical feedback.

The Ugly

So, what am I saying? Is it never a good idea to hire a beta reader? Not at all. It’s important to understand the pros and cons so you can make an informed decision about if and when to hire a beta reader. This is my advice:

If you are just starting your fiction writing journey, don’t immediately go to a paid beta reader. Instead, find a CP on Goodreads, Twitter or through a Facebook group and set up swaps with fellow writers (Not sure where to start? Check out this article). This will help you understand the feedback process and you’ll get better at spotting when someone knows what they’re talking about.

By giving feedback on others’ work, you will also develop a sharper eye for critiques, which will help you in your own work. Did you find another writer’s travel scene long and boring? Do you have similar uneventful scenes? Did they do a fantastic job setting up the love interest? What did you like about it? Can you use that technique in your work? It’s like they say, a paid beta reader can give you a fish, which will feed you for a day. If a writer learns to fish, it will feed you for a lifetime.

After you’ve done some beta reading swaps and/or worked with critique partners (CPs), assess if you’re ready for a paid beta reader. After doing a lot of the work yourself, you’ll have a better sense of what you need to improve and what your revision process is like. This way, you can give a beta reader better guidance about what to look out for. Maybe you have a glaring plot hole that you’d like help to address, or other beta readers have been consistently expressing confusion about your worldbuilding and you’d like guidance for fixing. If you are self-aware and have a stronger sense of your weaknesses, you might be ready to proceed with a paid beta reader. If so, continue to the next two points.

Carefully read the reviews and listen to previous customers’ accounts. If they say things like “The beta reader identified key issues and suggested solutions” or “They pointed out major flaws and transformed my manuscript”, it probably means you’ll get the constructive criticism you need. Unfortunately, glowing reviews about how nice the beta reader was, or how easy the critique process was, does not bode well.

Assume that the beta reader is treating you like a customer. That means you might need to push for criticisms (even if its painful) and try not to react negatively when you do get criticisms (even if it’s KILLING you not to explain how, actually, the beta reader just *doesn’t understand your genius*). Just smile, nod, and scream into a pillow because if the beta reader is afraid of a negative customer review, they might retreat into the safety of telling you everything is fine and “Just move this comma and you’ll be the next JK Rowling!”

Remember, writing is a marathon, not a sprint! Paying for a beta reader is not necessarily a shortcut to success and, in fact, it might even set you back a few steps because you’re not learning to identify your own weaknesses. I’m not saying don’t do it, and especially if you’re self-publishing, I would say definitely DO it, but make sure you’re doing it at the right moment and for the right reasons.

Then, when you decide you are ready, carefully check the reviews and make sure you are doing everything you can to get the most out of it. Need help identifying a good beta reader? Check out my guidance for identifying GOOD beta readers and warnings about BAD beta readers.

If you're struggling to find a good beta reader who will provide constructive criticism and is sure to help you improve your writing, you're not alone! Why not enter the Slushpile Monster's writing contest to win a free critique from an experienced beta reader?

Inez Rodk (@inezrodk) is obsessed with all things fantasy and sci fi, both as a writer and reader. When she's not lost in a book, you can find her getting rowdy at a pub, travelling to a place she has never heard of, or doing questionable home repair projects. She is an official beta reader for the Slushpile Monster's writing contest.

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