Beware of Beta Readers

In indie comics, editors are often the first link in the production chain to get tossed.

C’ya wouldn’t want to be ya!

It’s a big mistake, but money talks and bullshit walks. (That is to say, it’s hard to hire an editor when you broke.)
Many times, writer/creators attempt to fill the whole left behind from a missing editor, with beta readers.
The logic: a bunch of randos will provide the same feedback to improve the story/script that a single editor would provide.
Beta readers CAN add something to the production chain, but of course they’re absolutely no replacement for a good editor, and more to the point, there are some serious potential downsides to using beta readers. If you’re not ready for those problems they can jam you up far more than help!

Beta reader pitfalls:

#1: Unreliable.

If you could pay your beta reader(s), you probably would have hired a real editor in the first place.

Asking anyone to do anything for a few hours for free is always a hard sell. Even friends with the best of intentions get sidetracked by life. What you often wind up with is a lot of positive, enthusiastic folks who never actually get back to you and deliver any feedback. You wind up chasing after them or they simply totally forget and never even follow up.

It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but if you’ve gone through the trouble of recruiting some beta readers, you’re probably really relying on that feedback. In a best-case scenario beta reader unreliability can create unexpected, unappreciated production delays… in a worst-case scenario, they can REALLY jam up your schedule.

An unfortunate side effect of #1 is that it can strain or even sometime break friendships.

#2: Unqualified.

Go to Walmart, grab one of those folks in sweatpants holding on for their life and a wife-beater so full of stains you can point out what they ate each day of the week… take them back to your car and roll out the blueprints to your new ultra-modern three-story oceanfront property home.

Ask them how they could improve the design and structurally integrity of the house.

Would you trust a single thing they said?

Of course not.

Unless by luck of the Gods, you snagged an engineer, opinions of anyone who didn’t really understand the intricacies of structural engineering, building code, physics, etc. couldn’t give you anything substantiated to implement.

This is exactly the same scenario with beta readers.

Just because everyone has an opinion, doesn’t mean their opinion is practically useful.

Even worst, unqualified people have a knack for giving harmful advice. “Ohh man, these blueprints are awful nice,” spittoooey, “Why don’t you elevate that pool indoors? Looks like you have some room right there, over the garage.”

Sometimes harmful advice may sound good to your ear. And let’s face the pink elephant in the room, if you could decipher what needed to be fixed or improved in your script, you wouldn’t be asking others for their advice.

There really is no substitution to a professional (I’m gonna link my story potential article in case you missed it, because it really stresses the reality of this point).

#3: The Shim Sham Flim Flam.

In the last point I noted practically useful.

When an editor comments on a script, 99% of the time, the comment doesn’t come from personal preference or opinion, but from some other elements of the script and your personal goals with the work. Most of the time, it’s tied to a structural story element.  Point is, it’s substantiated in the material, not pulled out of a rabbit’s arse.

When you recruit a bunch of randos, often they completely contradict themselves.

“There wasn’t enough action in this script, you spent too much time developing the characters.”

“There was too much action in this script, you could have spent more time developing the characters.”


“This story was great, Emiko was my favorite character, I wish you would have done more with her.”

“This story was great, but Emiko was my least favorite character, I wish you would have done less with her.”

I call this the Shim Sham Flim Flam effect.

Yeah, yeah, you can still extract useful information from this kind of feedback… sometimes.

But what happens if you were on the fence, unsure if you developed Emiko too much or too little. Most of the time, unsubstantiated opinions just drive you nuts and can often leave you worse off than when you started.

#4: Bias.

There are two specific biases we need to talk about.

First, the “everybody wins an award bias.”

Friends, family, or fans often don’t want to upset you. They may be too eager to please, or afraid to say anything negative. This can make it difficult for them to provide objective feedback. In turn, stifling their honest feedback for what they think will be most helpful to you–often this becomes an echo-chamber of praise.

Second, folks are bias based on their own preexisting likes and dislikes.

If you’re writing a sci-fi piece and one beta reader is a die-hard Star Trek fan and the other a Star Wars fan, you can expect some seriously different feedback. While seemingly harmless in nature, biases, especially biases you aren’t aware of, can really skew the perspective of the feedback.

You may have an element, character, or theme executed perfectly, but due to a beta reader’s bias, they hate it (or conversely, love an element that’s executed poorly, just because it connects to their bias).

Beta reader bias can send you for a real loop. And ultimately, waste a lot of time.

I remember way back when, I had a beta reader read my King Arthur prequel novel. I told this one dude it was a “hard fantasy,” quasi-historic in nature–King Arthur’s grandfather during the Roman times. His feedback in the end, “I don’t really like hard fantasy and didn’t enjoy it.”

Dude!? What the heck did you read it for if you were bias against hard fantasy in the first place?

#4: Genre Ignorant.

My last example of the fantasy beta reader not really being into fantasy (good grief Charlie Brown) hits onto one last specific point…

Specifically, when it comes to the beta and your story genre, if these two are out of alignment, you’re totally sunk. A lot of times beta readers will have the best intentions, honestly open to giving your material a shot, but their secret dislike of a genre makes them completely ineffective.

If a horror fan reads your horror script, but they have a bias toward jump scare horror… OK, you can still probably extract some useful info from their critique, BUT, if someone says they’d love to read your horror script, and they’re not really a fan of horror at all… Or, if they actually really don’t like horror, but aren’t consciously aware of it. You’re not gonna get anything useful out of their critique and in all likelihood are gonna have to work hard to figure that out!

Sometimes beta readers have genre biases they don’t even know about!

Being familiar with genre conventions and to some extent the larger body of work in the genre really leads to more relevant feedback.

This is why it’s commonly understood to find an editor that specializes in your genre.

I wouldn’t pimp myself out on a Romance Novel. While I can write and recognize romance in fiction, my library of romance novels is few and far between.


Rolling with Beta readers instead of an Editor

If you’re gonna cut your editor and roll with beta readers instead… JUST STOP.

Don’t do that.

Save your money, find an editor that will work with you on your budget (read my article on hiring better talent with less money).

The value of a good editor is worth a thousand beta readers. And there ain’t no way you’re gonna get anywhere near close to a thousand randos to beta your script.


OK, so you’re going to go ahead with beta readers anyway… or, you already have a great editor, polished your script and both decided you want to get some outside eyes on it.

The number one benefit of using beta readers is to make a running list of the strengths (elements you believe carry the narrative) and weaknesses (problem areas) you currently see with the work. Use your beta readers to confirm whether these assumptions are true or false.

  • When you put out a call to beta readers, be clear about what kind of feedback you looking for, you can even give them a short prioritized list; plot, characters,  pacing, etc. DON’T put a spotlight on any specific issues, let them catch it themselves… or not. If nobody catches an issue (and your betas are not brain dead, that issue might not exist).
  • Be sure to convey an accurate synopsis of your story. It’s not the beta readers fault if you tell them it’s a fast-paced action story, when it’s really a rambling fantasy world-building-heavy clunker. You don’t want that high praise bias, BUT, getting betas who actually want to be there does make a difference.
  • Coincidentally, sharing your properly developed logline will go a long way in getting the right beta readers’ attention.
  • Lastly, be sure you’re open to feedback, even if it’s negative. Really, especially if it’s negative. I always say “any feedback is the best kind of feedback.” And the reality is;

You don’t improve by people patting you on the back and telling you how awesome you are. You improve by identifying your flaws and mistakes, and fixing them! <Before you go to art, in comic land!>

If you are considering using beta readers, hopefully this article threw out some light on some of the pitfalls. Truth is, GOOD beta readers are valuable and have their place, even when you’ve got a great editor in your pocket. But a bunch of rando beta readers, sometimes those cats truly ain’t worth the effort on your part.

About the Author —
Newcomer or veteran writer, if you’re working on a project that needs commercial success, Nick urges to you read this intro article.
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, Amazon, and in select stores around the U.S.