Every writer needs beta readers. Just like every writer needs editors. Don’t be a Keith and think you can go and query just because a couple of friends read your work and had only nice things to say. After I queried without any success, I decided to see if my work could be improved with the help of input from people who didn’t know me.
Yep, they had lots of good input! I learned a lot more than I was blind to a lot of stupid editing issues (if you haven’t noticed by now, I cherish run on sentences), I learned how stuff in my head often didn’t make it onto the page/screen. Of the three novels I’ve finished, I’ve had a total of 62 readers. One of the things I learned, which was just as important: blurbs matter. I was overselling the romance aspect (having cheekily decided mine was, without having read any to that point) and wound up with a number of disappointed readers, some militantly so.
I also paid a number of readers. My notes say I paid 24, ranging from $22US to $150 with a mean of $40 and an average of $18.75. (The novels were all between 75-80K; size does matter.) My opinions are the paid readers provided about the same quality of feedback, on average, as the free ones, though please note the variation was substantial in both pools.
I’ve also done beta reading (for free) and feel I’ve learned at least as much doing my own beta reading as I did from those who read for me. There’s nothing like seeing your bad habits in other people’s writing to drive home the feedback your own readers have given you. My notes say over the last year I’ve read all or part of over 100 novels or short stories for 90 different authors. Those authors ranged from jaw dropping jealousy inducing stories and prose to… not so much. I try to be gentle when I give feedback, but I also feel I do no one any favors by sugar coating it. I won’t say “you suck!” but I will let you know if I think you’re making systemic mistakes and need a lot of work.
I don’t charge when I read because I feel it gives me the flexibility to say, thanks but no thanks, if I don’t feel I’m a fit. Sometimes I’m not grabbed by a story even if the prose and imagery is excellent. Sometimes the story, as written, is hard to read due to prose issues. Plus, I’m paid well in my day job and a lot of authors are working on shoe-string budgets (or less), so I feel reading for free is a way to give back to the community. And to top it off, I got to read some amazing stories, for free. Hard to beat that when a book can easily cost $7-10 today!
So, get input from people who don’t know you and have no reason to tell you pleasing things. And get professional editorial input. And, if you’re going to self publish, all that and proofing as well.