A novel has to pass through many stages during its lifecycle. In my job I get to do all of them, although not usually more than two on any one project, as otherwise I start to see what should be there rather than what is there. So what’s the difference?
A beta read is for the author’s benefit. It provides feedback on the pace, the characters, the setting – anything that impacts on the structure and style of the story is fair game. When I beta read, I’m aiming to give the author an idea of the strengths and weakness of both story and style, and spot any plot holes or major omissions early in the publication stage, so they’re not too painful to fix.
Sometimes the beta read can be very tough (or, strictly speaking, an alpha read), and that’s when it’s even more important to really get stuck in and figure out what the problem is. As I make a small charge for a beta read, I’m going to make every effort to read the whole manuscript, and give you whatever advice I can.
What doesn’t get looked at
At a beta read stage I will not be worried about sentence structure except to comment on any style issues, or where the meaning is unclear or confusing. Nor will I be picking up on spelling mistakes or punctuation errors, unless to comment on those that are frequent/misleading.
An edit involves pulling the manuscript apart, to a greater or lesser extent. A structural edit can be very thorough, while a copy edit will be for consistency of plot and style. At this point I’m not only pointing out every error I see, but making suggestions on how to fix them. This is accordingly the most expensive and time-consuming of the types of read.
At the editing stage, depending on the level of editing booked, everything in the novel should be looked at.
A proofread is the final stage before publication. When proofreading, the aim is to pick up any last remaining errors and check for issues with layout. Because of this, the proofread should be carried out on the final file, or as close to that as possible, because every time the file is converted/changed there is the possibility of introducing errors – such as incorrect page numbers in a print document, or blank pages in an ebook file. The purpose of a proofread is to make sure the work is as error-free as possible, so that the reader does not get distracted by any issues with either the language or the layout.
What doesn’t get looked at
Style and structure.
With a review, the focus has changed. A review is not for the author’s benefit (although having public reviews of a book can help sales). A review is for the benefit of readers, to help to know what the book is about and to give them some idea of the strengths and weaknesses of it. When I review a book, I’m looking at how well it entertains and how well the style, structure, characters and setting work towards the end product, or if it’s non-fiction I’m looking at the purpose of the book, how useful it is and what sort of reader it would help best.
I very rarely review anything that I’ve worked on in earlier stages, because I’m too familiar with it, may have had a lot of input into it already and because my time is limited and I would feel the need to reread in order to check I’m reviewing the published version. However, as a member of the Amazon Vine programme I’m often offered books to read and review, and if I read anything for pleasure I will often review that as well.
What stage does your manuscript need?
At various stages in the production cycle, all these stages are needed. Please do not fall into the trap of assuming beta readers will deal with all the other stages. You might be lucky and get a brilliant beta reader, but even so, they are unlikely to have the experience and knowledge that an editor/proofreader brings. As an author, it is your responsibility to your readers to produce the best piece of work you can, and this involves making use of professionals in the process where appropriate.
Self publishing is not producing a book cheaply. It is taking on all the business costs yourself, overseeing the project yourself and collecting more of the income from it.