Would you want the chance to read books by your favourite authors early, long before anyone else does? Some authors offer early copies of their manuscripts to ‘beta readers’. These lucky people get to read it and give their comments back to the author. It’s a no-brainer, surely? You would get to know all the cool stuff first. You could see how Harry finally managed to defeat Voldemort before anyone else got anywhere near a copy. You could be the first person to hear about what happened to Katniss in Mockingjay. That would be brilliant.
Or would it?
Authors like beta-readers because it’s good for someone to read a new book cold. They can pick up on nuances which are hard for an author to see. For example has one character started out really mean and become much more likeable over the course of the book, just because the author has grown to like them more? Does the story need that, or are the early scenes with him or her being nasty now just plain wrong? It’s easy for that to happen. Writing a book takes a long time and your view on people (even ones you’ve made up!) can easily change. So for an author, the feedback from beta readers can be brilliant.
But the beta reader doesn’t always get the best of it. The version of a book which they read may end up being substantially different to the one which finally makes the shelf, and they will never have the pleasure of reading the finished and polished article for the first time.
On the other hand, a good beta reader can sometimes influence what the finished book it like. The suggestions they make may fundamentally change something about the plot. How brilliant would it be to have a suggestion which you have made being included in the final published version? It’s quite common for authors to thank beta readers in the acknowledgements, too. Your name could be in every copy of that book ever published!
As an author it’s a tricky choice too. Beta readers need to be representative of your target audience, you need to trust them, and you need to believe that they will give you some constructive feedback (when all we ever want to be told is that it’s perfect already). Who to choose?
I’m nearing the end of the first draft of my new book. My alpha readers – my husband and daughter – are reading each chapter as I print it out. This infuriates Ellie as she just wants to race on and read it all in one go, and I’ve not finished it yet. My husband is almost stupidly brave, telling me things I really don’t want to hear, but I’m taking note of all his comments and will end up including almost all of them in the second draft.
And then, once I’ve polished that, it’s the turn of the beta readers. I hope I pick some good ones.
What about you? If you got the chance to read the next Jacqueline Wilson or Charlie Higson early, would you take it?