Curse of the Friendly Beta Reader

Imagine that you bought an expensive ticket to a play.  This play has won some recognition in a few festivals, and you are eager to experience what the judges have praised.

You enter the theatre to discover that every other seat has been turned to face the back of the theatre.  As you hand over your ticket, the usher beckons a woman to your side.

“Ashley will be your narrator this evening,” the usher says, as he guides you to your seat.  One of those facing away from the stage.  Ashley takes her place beside you, facing the stage.

You’re confused and beginning to suspect this evening will be nothing like you expected.

As the lights go down and the curtain goes up, you strain to see over your shoulder.  But it is impossible to turn in your seat and see anything of what is happening on the stage.

Instead, Ashley begins to tell you about the action happening behind your back.

“A man is entering from stage left.  Oh, he looks angry.  I wonder why?

Now a woman opens the door at center stage and walks through.  She seems surprised to see the man.

Oh my!  He rushes at her and hits her across the face.  She’s lying on the ground.  I wonder why he did that.  Now she’s starting to cry and plead with him not to hurt her.”

This narration goes on for the entire play… you never get to see what is happening on stage, and there is no dialogue for you to follow.  You’ve spent your money to enjoy a play that has garnered some level of acclaim, and yet you are not able to experience it on a real, immediate level.

Halfway through the evening, you recall that the name of the play suggested certain characters were the lynchpins of the plot.  Yet according to your narrator, they only stick their heads around the curtain a time or two, and then disappear.  You begin to wonder if you’ve wandered into the wrong theatre.

You stay for the entire performance, expecting every moment that something will change, that the backward-facing seats will reverse and allow the play-goers to watch the story as it unfolds.  But that never happens, and now the play has reached its conclusion and you are furious with the failed promise of what the purchase of that ticket meant to you.  You vow never to attend another play by this playwright, never to attend another show in this theatre.  As soon you leave the theatre, you want to warn your friends and family not to buy tickets to this play.

That’s pretty much what happened to me this past weekend when I sat down with a book (the first of a series) by a self-published author.  Reading the cover blurb, and the kudos from book festivals, raised the level of my anticipation.

At last I had time in my schedule to relax with an entertaining mystery novel.  And it totally failed to deliver on its promise.

Remember Ashley, the narrator from the theatre, and how removed you felt from what was happening on stage?  Well, this author wrote the entire story as seen through the eyes of narrators watching the action from a distance.  In the rare instances the reader was allowed a chance to be in the same room with the main characters, instead of showing the action and employing dialogue between the characters, the author chose to allow the characters to “think” what was going on.

By the end of the first chapter I was mystified by the author’s approach.  But I always, always try to find what works in a manuscript or book, so I carried on.  As each chapter ended my frustration grew, until by the end of the book I was frustrated angry to have wasted the hours I spent reading the book.

Flipping back to the acknowledgements page, I verified that the author had thanked a handful of people who were beta readers and editors for the book.

Now this is going to sound harsh.  But it needs to be said.

Friends and family are not good beta readers or editors, especially for self-published authors.  Why?  Because they like you.


They are enthralled with the mere fact that you put words on paper to create a story.  They want to like your book.  They would read anything you put on paper, because they love you.  They don’t want to discourage you.  They don’t want to hurt your feelings.  If they do see problems with the manuscript, they may be reluctant to tell you.  Or, they may see none of the problem areas, because in their eyes everything you do is brilliant.

But that’s not the kind of help you need.  You need someone who looks at your work without the emotional investment of a relationship between the two of you.  You need someone who dispassionately lists the things that do and don’t work.  You need someone who will read your manuscript with the same expectations as the reader who purchases your finished book.

And if you have a problem with the idea of paying to receive a discerning editorial analysis of your manuscript before you present it to the readers of the world, I have to ask you… who are you writing for?  Are you writing for your own ego, to be able to say you have published a book?  Or are you writing for the readers who eagerly search out new books in which to lose themselves?  Are you writing because you always wanted to call yourself a writer?  Or are you writing to bring pleasure, entertainment, or knowledge into someone’s life?

As a fast, voracious reader, I’m here to tell you that there are more books being published every day than even I will ever be able to read. Far more than enough so I have the choice to avoid those authors who have disappointed me, and still be able to fill every room of my home to overflowing with well-written, well-edited books.

It’s sad, because this author’s cover blurb laid out an interesting, thought-provoking mystery – and I really wanted to like the book.  Although I don’t know how the voting was done, I still can’t wrap my mind around the honors (honorable mentions and finalist) this book received at a couple of book festivals.  “Best of…” for any category of publishing or genre should be reserved for excellence in every aspect of writing.  We writers owe that to our readers.  Whether traditional or self-published.  Period.


Have you ever been so disappointed in an acclaimed new author that you’ve decided never to buy his or her books again?  Without naming those authors, share with us, in the comments, what caused your disenchantment with their work.


3 thoughts on “Curse of the Friendly Beta Reader

  1. Great point Suzanne. My sister is often my first beta reader because she helps me grow some much-needed confidence … but then I turn to my writer’s critique group. They’re much tougher on me, but it’s always worth the work.

    1. Hi Emily. Isn’t it wonderful to feel that love and support from family and friends? Your process takes you into the love and comfort that create the confidence and the thick-skin we all need when we share our writing with someone who holds us accountable to do our very best work. You’re blessed to have both in your writing life. Give your sister a big hug for her help! And it sounds like you have a wonderful writer’s critique group.

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