editors and beta readers self publishing lessons

Self-Publishing Lessons Part 4: Editors and Beta Readers

What Editors and Beta Readers Do

I’ve been nipple-deep (I’m short) in the indie/self-publishing community of authors for over a year now, and most of you make me sad. Have a sit and allow me to explain to you what editors and beta readers are, and what you should expect (and demand) of them.

This is going to take more than one column, FYI.

I’ve already told you that indie self-publishers need to take the good things traditional publishing has learned, and use them to develop their own processes. I’m not going to delve into too much detail, but there are a few things that anyone attempting to write fiction for a living needs to understand. So let’s start at the beginning. It is, as I’ve previously noted, a very good place to start.

Developing a Process

You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you, if you want to do this thing right. And you do want to do this thing right. So be prepared to prepare! (It won’t be that bad. You can do it.)

A good, professional process should look something like this:

  1. You write and finish a manuscript. Remember to finish it. If I had a nickel for everyone I’ve met who’s “writing a book” I’d be on a beach somewhere sipping a 7&7, getting fanned by naked native lads, and throwing cash into American politics.
  2. You revise and rewrite said manuscript until you feel it is as good as you can make it. For fuck’s sake, don’t skip this step. Writing is rewriting. Good writers are rewriters.
  3. You utilize beta readers to critique (not criticize, not edit, not proofread) your text. I’ll help you with that later in this column.
  4. You revise and rewrite said text in keeping with the valid feedback from your beta(s).
  5. You utilize a developmental editor to edit the work.
  6. You revise and rewrite said text in keeping with the instructions of your developmental editor.
  7. You (or your developmental editor) utilize(s) a line or copy editor to edit/check the text.
  8. You revise said text in keeping with the instructions of your copy editor. At this point, it’s a book.
  9. You utilize proofreaders to proofread the galleys and catch any errant typos, glitches, or freak accidents.
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Now obviously, being self-published, you are going to want to condense some of these steps, but be careful you don’t skip the reason for having the step to begin with. So that’s what we’ll talk about next!

Three Kinds of Editors

Developmental editors, copy editors, and proofreaders are all three very different beasts. Each aspect merits at least one dedicated post, so today I’ll just give you a sketch of them and focus on Beta readers, since they are going to affect your work before any editor.

Developmental Editor

Developmental editors analyze your manuscript from several perspectives: literary considerations like pacing, voice and audience, themes, characterization, continuity, and plotting are all considered in broad strokes.

They also have to look at the book from a sales or marketing standpoint, as well as the publisher’s bottom line considerations. Many of these things may surprise you, being absolutely irrelevant to the content of your work from the author’s perspective (e.g., glue technology isn’t as important as it used to be, but many a novel of the past has been edited down simply because the final product was too big for the glue to hold together after it was printed; another example is the unforgivable removal of the final serial comma to save money on ink, which I’ve previously bitched about; even worse, but possibly relevant in self-publishing, is what else will be in your shelf space when the book is released, who the competition is, what the trends will be by the time your book gets into the wild, and so on).

These things do matter to the reader, even though they don’t realize it: you don’t want your books falling apart, or seeming overpriced, or looking like a ripoff of something another place released a week ago. In self-publishing eBooks like we’re talking about, some of these matter less.

Rewrites demanded by a developmental editor can be enormous, and their cuts can (and often should) be brutal—cutting out entire subplots or characters,  demanding that your next draft is half as long as the previous draft, etc.—but generally speaking, everything they do, or require of you, will make your work qualitatively better, more appealing to readers, and more profitable for everyone.

Line Editor

Your line editor is what Word’s grammar and spell check tries and fails to replace. The line editors are the ones who really get their hands dirty with the red ink, dealing with grammar and clarity questions, continuity issues that have been missed, and anything else they notice. Line editors don’t look at your work on as large a scale as developmental editors, but they do the heavy lifting in the editing world. This is concerned with the nitty gritty, the craft, where developmental editing is almost more concerned with the art (and, unfortunately for big houses, the business—anything wrong with that picture? Yeaaaaaaah there is…but stay on point, Callie).

They once were the last step before the manuscript got typeset (which is where the term ‘galleys’ comes from, in the olden days of printing when they used movable type). Now in the computer age, it would be stupid not to let the proofreader have a crack at it before it goes to the galleys.

Line editors do much more editing than proofreaders, who should really be doing little more than spell-checking, and sometimes more than developmental editors, depending on the process and the author.  “Easy” authors (those who are highly skilled and turn in very polished, low-edits-needed final drafts) need more copy editing than developmental editing.

Although honestly, everyone could use both.


A proofreader used to be someone who read the galleys (proofs, the ‘test printing’ of a book) before the publisher committed to the final print run. This allows the publisher (i.e., editor on their behalf) to catch any problems, before any problems cost real money.

They still largely work that way.  In big publishing, where they have no problem wasting money (as long as it doesn’t go to an author!), they still edit print proofs, though they keep getting cheaper about it. Galley proofs are often unbound and sometimes are still professionally offset printed. These are used for author proofreading, in-house proofreading, and ARCs (advance review copies) most of the time.

(Page proofs, the very last proof before the print run starts, are actual books minus the fancy cover. These aren’t really proofs, if you ask me. The author gets to check these too, in pro publishing, but if they have to change something in the page proof, someone gets an ass-chewing, so these basically are just ‘here’s what you’re gonna get for the first print run’ kind of things.)

As a self-publisher, you need to keep in mind that there’s more to a book than just what the author writes in the manuscript. Someone needs to double check all that shit, especially when there are ISBNs and that kind of thing involved.

Chances are, your proofreaders will prefer working on paper. But the times they are a-changin’, and we don’t need to worry about that. If they want you to cover their ink costs, it’s worth it. Proofing from a screen is one way to guarantee yourself a mighty fine headache.

The important thing about proofreaders is that they are the final set of eyes to contribute to the final product. They may just be the last few nameless soldiers watching the gate, but they play a critical role in defending the castle. Typos and misspellings can ruin an otherwise good book, and unfavorably skew a reader’s opinion on you as an author.

In the KDP age, you’re usually your own last line of defense, unless you allow someone to proofread your preview manuscript from Amazon or your final document prior to uploading it for publication.

Take it seriously. Be rested. Be fresh. Make sure you haven’t been poring over it for hours before you try that final read. Hell, give it a day (or better yet, a week) to sit.

Beta Readers and How to Use Them

The editing process does not include Beta readers!

That’s part of the rewriting process.

As an editor, I don’t give a shit if you have no beta readers or a thousand, whereas I do care if you have copy editing and proofreading. As an editor, I care about the text of your work and the potential final product on the shelf. And while, as your editor, I want you to succeed—because that’s good for everybody—if you don’t, I’ll still have a job when your contract expires. There are always more wannabes who plugged away long enough to have something to submit.

This is important to understand when you develop your process. Your editor gets paid before your book ever goes live on Amazon or Createspace or gets shipped from the printer to Barnes & Noble, if you’re paying them. You ought to be, if they’re doing a good job, but more on that in the future.

The more I look around the indie erotica scene, the less I think anyone has any idea what a beta reader really is, or how to use them. I’m sure this isn’t entirely true, but it seems that way, from my anecdotal point of view.

The onus of the burden for your book is on YOU, not the reader. This is exactly true out of getting something useful from your beta readers, too. It’s on you, not them. Even if I’m beta reading for you, which I probably won’t, you’ll have to know what you want from me or I won’t do you any good (well…I would, but not as much as possible).

So listen up, because this shit is important.

What is a good Beta Reader?

A beta reader is the same idea as a beta tester. Someone who takes your book and runs it through its paces to see if it does what you want it to do and what you intended for it to do.

All authors think their final draft is solid, even if it’s imperfect.

You could be wrong. It may not work at all as you think it will, and beta readers are your impartial way to figure out where you’ve gone astray, and where you’ve nailed it, and where you could do better.

Anyone who’s ever participated in a beta test knows that the feedback is rarely just ‘whatever you happen to notice that you want to tell us.’ They tell you what to watch for, they ask focused questions, sometimes they get specific as hell.

Beta reading is not editing. Beta reading is an experiment the author runs so the book can become ‘impossible to misunderstand.’ Beta reading is your peek into the head of your potential True Believer readers. If they notice something wrong, you must fix it. But it’s on you to figure that out. Most of them just say ‘loved it!’ or something.

Who makes a good Beta Reader?

You can make a good beta reader out of anyone, if they meet two simple criteria.

  • They have to enjoy reading. Hopefully, they also enjoy reading in the genre you write. Half-illiterates, or people who despise your genre, should not make your list of betas.
  • They have to want you to succeed. Enough so, that they will gladly read your work, and be honest with you about the pros and cons, as they see it, in your manuscript.

Don’t ever pay a beta reader!

People who charge for beta reading are running a scam, even if they don’t know it. Think of paying a beta reader as an ‘ignorance tax.’ Be free right now, because you don’t need them. You have at least one person who can fill the role perfectly in your life already, and they’d be happy to do it.

The standard for beta readers is, by far, the lowest bar of anyone in the process you’re developing. They just have to want, and be willing, to read your book. Damn near anyone can do this for you.

How do I ‘make’ a good Beta Reader?

Simple. You ask them to read your manuscript and answer questions about it afterward.

You can’t expect them to give you usable feedback. People don’t know what the fuck an author needs to know, even if they are authors themselves. (Editors do, but even then, when they read something by a friend, it’s only human to be more forgiving—which can cause blind spots.)

Think about your style, your work, your own potential blind spots. Everyone has them.

Make a list of things you want the beta readers to watch for and make notes about. Give the list to them before they read the text. This should be just a couple brief things like:

  • If you find yourself losing interest, skimming, or getting bored.
  • If you get confused by anything, even for just a brief moment.
  • If something strikes you as particularly noteworthy, good or bad (a setting, a character, an emotion or vibe, a ‘light bulb’ moment).

Make a list of questions for them to answer after they’ve read it, which will give you the insights you need even if you don’t trust them to be completely honest with you.

They usually won’t be. If they like you, they will like your writing, or at least try to, almost every time. These questions should let you get useful information on top of the “I loved it! It was great!” useless emotional feedback. Questions like:

  • What was the book about? or:
  • How would you explain the book to someone who has never heard of it, or me?
  • Did anything about what happened surprise you? Did you like the surprise?
  • How well did you like (likable character) or (unlikable character)? Why?
  • Are you confused by anything now that you’ve finished it? Is there anything that seems like it isn’t explained well enough?
  • Are there any questions left unanswered that you expected to be answered?
  • What were your favorite and least favorite scenes or parts? Why?

You get the idea. Ask questions that give you actionable answers. When you do your next rewrite, keep all of this feedback in mind, and preferably on paper or in a reference document. (You already missed it once, don’t trust yourself not to miss it again. You will.)

Also: revise and reconsider the questions you ask every time you have a new book for your betas. Get more personally focused as you learn your weaknesses and blind spots.

Get better.

After five or six times through this, you’ll have beta readers to die for, and your final manuscripts will be a pleasure to edit.

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8 thoughts on “Self-Publishing Lessons Part 4: Editors and Beta Readers”

  1. Great pointers. At this moment of my “career” I finish the manuscript, I read, edit and re-write it, pass it to beta readers, consider their criticism and suggestion, some of them I follow, others I directly ignore. The next step is to get a copy editor to edit it and fix all the grammar (last time I used a copy editor she mentioned she couldn’t think of anything to fault me in terms of storytelling and character development so that was reassuring). However, at this point even the cheapest development editor is beyond anything I can afford. I guess that is the reason I’d never make a bestseller. 🙂 In another life, maybe.
    These are wonderful series of articles, Callie, keep them up.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Lilah!

      That’s a good system, and it’s the kind of thing everyone should be doing. I’ll be tackling that ‘developmental editing is stupidly expensive’ problem in the next one. It’s all about the principles behind the idea!

  2. Highly insightful as always, Callie! Amazingly, I’m on the right track. Having been an academic line editor in a past life (I know, weeeee!), it’s quite a different process with fiction. I’m a ‘do-it-all-myself’ kinda gal, but I really want to find some beta readers who are anonymous and who could likely become regulars for my smut. Where can I find some?

    1. Anonymous beta readers? No idea, lol…maybe ask on twitter or facebook? As for finding readers who become regulars, when I figure that out, I will let you know 😉

  3. Thanks for taking the time to write these! I am a walking typo, so I really appreciate all of these self-publishing lessons that you are posting. The big takeaway is that I need a pile of people working together to clean up every last drop of my mess.

    1. Oh, we’re just getting started! You don’t need a lot of people once you understand the principles, you just need a good system to simulate it.

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