Beta-Reader Burnout: When Good Betas Go Bad
This post presupposes you both know what a beta reader is and have already worked with them, but for the uninitiated, beta readers are the beta testers of the literary world. These readers test-drive early book drafts to see if they’re on the right track. Beta readers are not paid to do this, and they’re rarely professional editors. They are invaluable tools for the self-published author, and many, many words have been devoted to finding and keeping them (see here for a great etiquette guide).
Today, though, we’re focusing on what happens when your relationships with your beta readers run out of gas.
So you’ve finally built up a group of trusty betas. You’ve sorted out the bad apples—the know-it-all grammarians, the emotional bulldozers, the chronically unresponsive, the ones that inexplicably volunteered to read your novel even though they despise [insert your genre here]. Now, all your betas are prompt, friendly, and enthusiastic about your writing. They all loved your latest book, aside from pointing out a typo or two. So all is wonderful in Booklandia, right?
Fast-forward a few weeks past publication day: your book has tanked. Hardly anyone bought it, and the few reviews left by people who weren’t given a free copy are scathing. Reviews like “predictable,” “hated the characters,” “weak,” or the dreaded “DNF.”
Where did you go wrong?
First, time to diagnose the problem. Take another look at your beta readers. How many of them have you used before? And how many of your books have each of them beta read before? If the answers are “all of them” and “seventy trillion,” you’ve contracted beta-reader burnout.
Symptoms of beta-reader burnout may include friendly email exchanges with more baby pictures and Jensen Ackles GIFs than actual feedback about your book. Risk factors include being related to your beta readers and/or being in the same author critique group since the dinosaurs roamed the earth. Additional aggravating factors may include that time you totally ignored your beta reader’s ridiculous three-page rant-fest about your favorite scene in your last book.
Your first reaction? Probably something like disappointment or betrayal. Maybe you even get up the gumption to confront one of your not-so-trusted beta readers about the problem (warning: not a recommended course of action). What’s their response? Probably something along the lines of “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” Which, of course, accomplishes the opposite.
Before you Hulk out on your beleaguered betas, though, remember what it feels like from their perspective. These people know you outside of Booklandia. Even if they started as strangers on the Internet, you’ve developed a rapport with them over the course of multiple books. They’re no longer comfortable pointing out your shortcomings, or they feel the need to soften any blows. Or they may not know how to back out of an obligation that takes more time and effort than they realized.
Whatever the problem, they undoubtedly entered into this arrangement for the best of reasons: they wanted to help you. So thank them, wish them well, and move on.
How do you avoid another BRB flare-up in the future?
- Get at least one new beta reader for every book. Rotate all your betas to keep them fresh-eyed and under-burdened. Let them know what you’re doing so they don’t feel like you’ve dropped off the face of the planet.
- Get new beta readers from new places. Don’t ask friends, family, coworkers, or other authors (see below). Use social media to seek out fans of your genre—not necessarily of your books—whose reviews include thoughtful critiques without snark or judgment. Goodreads is your best bet for this approach.
- Don’t ask a fellow author to be a beta reader. You want reader feedback, not another writer’s. I know this puts my advice in the minority on this topic, but an author’s urge is to fix the problem, not just report the problem to you. You want reader reactions unfiltered by writers who think they could write this scene/book/series so much better than you could.
- Be honest with yourself: Were you always as professional as you should have been? Did you drop beta readers that didn’t have enough good things to say? Alternatively, did you go out of your way to befriend any beta readers who started out as strangers? How hard did you try to maintain a polite distance?
- Don’t saddle future beta readers with too much stress. Don’t ask for a book report, don’t give them a worksheet to fill out, don’t argue with their criticisms, and don’t beg them to turn around a critique in a small amount of time. Ask four people to beta read your book, and expect at least one to fall through. Life happens, so build in some slack.
It is a human failing that we find it easier to criticize someone we’ve never met. This is usually a bad thing (particularly in Internet comment threads). But in beta reading, distance is the key to your success.