It doesn't take a village to write a good book: an acquisitions editor questions the supremacy of beta readers

December 7, 2015

Call me late to the party, but I didn't hear the term 'beta reader" until a few months ago, when one of the writers I was coaching apologized for the rough state of her manuscript, noting that it hadn't yet had any "beta reviews".

 

As I understand it, beta readers are generous individuals who offer to review a writer's work-in-progress for free.  Often beta reviewers are emerging writers, themselves.  And, in that case, they are the internet's equivalent of a writers' group.  However, in a writers' group, fellow writers eventually go home, whereas, beta reviewers are aways just a click away.

 

I joined Amazon's Goodreads' "beta readers" site online to try to better understand what was, for me, a curious ad hoc group of critics whose only qualification for providing

professional writing advice was the fact that they love to read. 

 

I offered Goodreads' writers a free review---from a traditional publisher's perspective---of the first 3000 words of their manuscripts.

 

Dozens of writers took me up on the offer.  Of those, there was one who had sample material that was truly powerful: sharp and affecting dialogue, intriguing storylines, and vivid contextual details.   However, all of this wonderful stuff began in the middle of the first chapter.  An easy fix.  I advised the writer to lop-off the first 2000 words, and go for it!

 

He thanked me for my time and said that he would "run the idea" by his (it is always possessive) beta readers.  The betas had worked with him on that first chapter for months and he wanted to get another round of their opinions before making any major revisions. 

 

Well....Okaaaay......

 

I began to feel a growing crowd of disgruntled beta reviewers gathering around my desk.  

 

I reviewed the next writer's 3000 words, and the next, and the next.

 

I did not find any more potential winners.  All of the material that I read was weak, often, fatally flawed.  Still, dutifully, I shared my critical feedback with each writer, trying to be candid, but kind.

 

The writers' responses were similar.  They were grateful for my time; but they remained dubious about my comments on their work, because my observations were not consistent with the opinions of their beta readers who were adamant that their manuscripts were strong, now, after incorporating the betas' suggestions.

 

I was coming to realize that my professional opinion---hard-won over a 20-year career in New York book acquisitions---paled next to the enthusiasm and "constructive criticism" of each writer's club of cheering betas.      

 

After I pointed out a dozen necessary cuts in a writer's prologue, she positively bristled as she told me that the overwritten prose that I had suggested cutting wasn’t actually hers.  Those descriptions didn’t even exist until a totally incompetent beta reader insisted she add them. 

 

She assured me that she had "fired" that beta reader right away! 

 

I didn't ask her why she had fired the bad reviewer, but kept the bad edits. 

 

Another writer argued vociferously that he had to keep the vague language and opaque allusions in his first chapter, because they "piqued the reader's curiosity and it was imperative to "leave the reader asking questions", especially at the beginning of a novel.  Only "Beta Reviewers United" could have come up with that specious (and potentially disastrous) criterion. 

 

After I reviewed the first 3000 words of her manuscript, another writer was miffed because my critical remarks contradicted the feedback that she had received from her betas who had reviewed the whole manuscript, not simply the beginning, as I had.  She informed me that once a reader gets into the story, "it is really exciting!"

 

Usually, I take none of this personally.  

 

However, this case was different.  I was miffed that the writer was miffed.  

 

I couldn't resist sending her a quick retort.  "Oh, ok, but before you send this novel out into the world, make sure you find someone who can correct the huge number of grammatical, semantic, and spelling errors that your beta readers missed".

 

I felt a little thrill as I pressed 'send'.  

 

Then I heard deep growls and the gnashing of teeth, as an entire village of betas moved in for the kill.

 

The writer, no doubt weary of my expertise at this point, shot back a final email:

 

"Maybe you're write (sic).  Or maybe you're wrong.  Only time will tell."

 

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