Self-Publishing Series Part 2: Beta Readers & Editors

A post by Jess Gately

Image by Anne Karakash on Pixabay

In the traditional publishing process, a lot of the editorial process is undertaken by the publishing house that decides to accept your manuscript. But when you decide to self-publish you need to undertake this process yourself. At different stages of your manuscript development, it’s recommended that you engage the services of beta readers and professional editors who can help you ensure that your book has the polished look and feel of a traditionally published book.

As mentioned in the first post of this series, self-publishing suffers from a bad reputation as a result of poorly edited works that are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors as well as plot holes, rambling prose, and a lack of tension or story structure. Beta readers and editors can help you address these issues in your own manuscript; their job is to help you ensure that your manuscript reads well and fits the market you are aiming to join.

What’s the different between a beta reader and an editor?

Beta reading is generally the first point at which you’ll get feedback on your manuscript. It offers a general overview of your manuscript and what the reader likes and dislikes, and where they feel the manuscript needs improvement. It’s generally recommended that you have several beta readers look over your manuscript so that you don’t just get one person’s opinion. A good beta reader will give you feedback on whether the characters are likeable, engaging and distinct enough from each other; whether the ending is satisfying; if there are any plot holes or unresolved story threads; whether the story is believable; and if there are any problems with continuity.

Editing, on the other hand, tends to be more specific and in-depth. There are three different stages of editing: structural, copy and proofreading. Each stage will have a different focus for your manuscript and will involve in-depth reports and mark-ups on your work.

One important distinction to make is that beta readers don’t, and indeed shouldn’t, offer solutions or specific changes to your work. They are there just to give you an overall feel for what is and isn’t working. Editors, however, read your work with the intention of suggesting specific changes to improve the overall story. Depending on the type of editing you are undertaking, such changes may include lengthening or shortening or indeed cutting certain scenes altogether to build tension, changes to word choices to make sentences clearer, and the correction of spelling and grammar.

Due to the more intensive nature of editing, it tends to be more expensive than beta reading, which is why most people will start with beta readers. This ensures that when you approach an editor, your manuscript is really ready for that level of work and you will get the most out of the money you pay for your editor.

What’s the difference between a structural editor, a copy editor and a proofreader?

A structural editor (also known as a global editor or a developmental editor) usually undertakes the first stage of editing on a manuscript and concentrates on the big-picture elements of your story. A structural edit involves a close examination of the narrative structure and character development. It addresses whether the conflict and the obstacles to the protagonist are believable within the context of the narrative and whether the characters have recognisable motivations that fit their decision-making. Structural edits also look at technical details like whether your tone and style of writing are consistent and whether you have a clear ‘voice’. While you may get the odd bit of mark-up on your manuscript, you’ll usually receive feedback in the form of an in-depth report. A developmental edit normally goes first because it is the type of edit that usually requires larger rewrites and can even involve the rearranging of chapters.

Once your developmental edit has been undertaken, you can move on to the copy-editing stage. This is the stage of editing that most people think of when they consider the editorial process. A copy editor focuses on spelling, grammar, punctuation and the overall clarity of the text. They may suggest rewrites to phrases where they feel the intent isn’t clear or cutting words that they feel are redundant, verbose, out of character or jarring. They may point out where you overuse a particular word or where your tone has inexplicably changed. Copy editing is marked up on the manuscript, normally using track-changes in a Word document so that you can simply accept or delete the proposed changes. Even the cleanest manuscripts by the most meticulous authors will have tens of thousands of suggested changes, comments and edits! A copy edit should improve the flow of your manuscript without impacting your tone or voice.

The final stage of editing is a proofread. Proofreading takes place after your manuscript has been typeset and is normally provided to an editor in PDF format. While a proofreader will look for any last spelling or grammatical errors that have either been missed in the prior process or introduced during the typesetting process, they also look for errors in the final design of the product. Things like the font changing size, the chapter or page numbers being wrong, the margins changing, the letter spacing making a sentence too hard to read, or whether the figure numbers on images and tables match the numbers in the text. Proofreading is marked up on the PDF and many changes will need to be addressed by whoever did the typeset and internal design. It’s the last stage of editing before your book goes live or to print and ensures that the final product has that professional finish internally.

How much should I expect to pay for these services?

While it is possible to find beta readers for free, you’ll often find that professional beta readers are worth the money you pay for them. Most have specialties and industry insight which makes their feedback invaluable. For novels between 800,000 to 100,000 words you can expect to pay between $150 to $250 per reader according to most professional websites and forums.

Editing is a bit harder to give a flat estimate on. There are numerous things that will have an impact on the cost of these services. Things like the word count and the level of previous editing (i.e. how many spelling and grammatical errors exist) play a big factor in figuring out the cost. Most editors charge on a per hour basis but will give you an estimated project cost based on you providing a sample. The hourly rate can range from as low as $25p/h for an inexperienced editor to $60p/h for a very experienced editor. As a vague idea though, you’re normally looking at paying a minimum of $2500 for a professional editor and that is for a relatively inexperienced editor.

Often, editors will suggest a sample edit. Some editors will provide this service free of charge while others will request payment for their work but will deduct it from the cost of the overall project if you decide to go forward with their quote. Sample edits can cost anywhere from $50-$150 per 1000 words and you will normally supply the first chapter or the first 1000-5000 words. This gives the editor an opportunity to see your writing style and what state the rest of the manuscript is likely to be in so that they can make an accurate estimate of how long they think the project will take. You can then see what their feedback or mark-up looks like and decide whether you think you’re a good fit together.

Keep in mind that some editors will offer packages if you undertake multiple parts of this process. Having said that, it’s worth engaging multiple editors for different stages of the process. Each new set of eyes will pick up different things, and the more feedback from as many different sources as you can get, the better.

By now you should be able to see just how in-depth the editorial process is. The cost of this process may also give you pause for thought on your self-publishing journey. Engaging the expertise of beta readers and professional editors can be costly, and there is no guarantee of seeing a return on your investment, but ultimately it is a beneficial and crucial part of the self-publishing process if you want your story to truly be the best it can humanly be.

While a beautiful cover design is always the first thing people think of when entering the self-publishing journey, your readers spend more time with the words than with the cover, and your words need to be strong if you want to keep people hooked and ultimately recommending your book to other readers.

It’s important to make sure you do your research when choosing beta readers and editors. Look for people who have an interest and experience in your genre. You want someone who knows the market and its expectations well. Likewise, you also need to consider the personality of the editor and their feedback style. Do you want a no-fuss feedback style that does away with the fluff and focuses on what needs to be done? Or will you respond better to an editor who couches their criticisms a little more delicately? Remember, you need to pick a style that is not only going to improve your work but also that will keep you motivated to keep going.

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