SCENE: Flat 2a, four-hundred-and-something Chester Road, Sutton Coldfield. Ben Kitchen sits at the table, painting war-gaming miniatures (Seleucid soldiers from Antiochus’s Indian campaign if you must know) and trying to ignore Nerys Thomas who has come downstairs to get Ben’s opinion on her latest lingerie purchases. In walks Jeremy Clovenhoof (Satan) clutching a lulu.com package in his hands.
CLOVENHOOF: It’s arrived.
BEN: What has?
CLOVENHOOF: My beta-reader copy of Clovenhoof.
CLOVENHOOF: That’s me. These two groovy hep-cats, Heide and Iain, have written a book about my exploits amongst the puny mortals of Birmingham.
NERYS: ‘Groovy hep-cats’?
CLOVENHOOF: Yes. I’m down with the kids. I speak the language of the street. Word.
BEN: And that’s the book there?
NERYS: No, no. [Rip, rip] This is the beta-reader copy.
BEN: As in beta-testing?
NERYS: You mean for proof-reading?
CLOVENHOOF: No, proof-reading comes later. They’ve produced this for me and a few select people to read and comment on. I’m going to tell them what’s wrong with it and then they’re going to change it before publication.
NERYS: That’s proof-reading.
CLOVENHOOF: No, proof-reading is finding an apostrophe missing in ‘They all stared at Clovenhoof’s dangling manhood’. Beta-reading is saying, “Please change the above sentence to, ‘They all stared in awe and adoration at Clovenhoof’s elephantine manhood.’”
NERYS: Oh, so it’s editing.
CLOVENHOOF: If you like.
NERYS: But won’t the editor do that?
CLOVENHOOF: They’re not using an editor.
BEN: But every book needs an editor.
CLOVENHOOF: Does it?
BEN: Of course. The editor is an industry professional whose job it is to work with the writer and turn the original text into a polished manuscript that is ready for publication.
CLOVENHOOF: So, a beta-reader?
NERYS: Beta-reader, test-reader, editor. It doesn’t matter what name you give it, a proper editor is a professional.
CLOVENHOOF: Ah, you mean they charge for their services.
NERYS: Yes, but that’s because they are an expert.
CLOVENHOOF: In what?
NERYS: Prose, books, character, notions of story.
CLOVENHOOF: I know what a story is. I bet these jiving hep-cats know what a story is too.
BEN: Perhaps, but a writer can sometimes be too close to their own work to objectively see what’s wrong with it. It’s like that book Nerys wrote, How To Be The Perfect Man.
NERYS: You Can Be My Perfect Man, Ben.
CLOVENHOOF: Doubt it.
BEN: Point is, Nerys spent months working on that, slaving over it. It became her life. She became so wrapped up in it that she couldn’t see that it was…
BEN: Er, not suited to a large print-run.
NERYS: You mean it was no good?
BEN: It was a bit… niche.
NERYS: Just because you refused to stock it in your shop. There’s no need to rub salt into the wound.
CLOVENHOOF: Quiet, children. But these guys are going to get some objectivity by asking their beta-readers for comments.
BEN: Bad idea. Getting your mum and your best mate to offer critical views on your work is never a good idea. Remember, when you brought home finger paintings from primary school and your mum would go, “Oh, it’s lovely” and stick it on the fridge? It’s like that, only with a book.
NERYS: My mum didn’t do that. She graded them and used them for kindling if they weren’t good enough.
CLOVENHOOF: It’s amazing you grew up to be such a well-rounded woman who doesn’t constantly judge others and seek personal affirmation through sexual encounters with strangers.
BEN: Your mum scares me.
NERYS: All women scare you.
CLOVENHOOF: Anyway, these beta-readers are mostly other writers, people used to giving constructive criticism. Oh, and that Iain fellow’s sister.
BEN: See? Also editors also understand what the readership wants.
CLOVENHOOF: I think all readers know what they want.
BEN: Yes, but they understand the mood of the market. Is the market in search of bespectacled wizards or teenage vampires this year or poorly-researched mysteries about the Illuminati?
NERYS: Don’t make me laugh. Editors and publishers are trying to second-guess a market that can’t be second-guessed. They don’t know what will be popular in a year’s time. That’s what makes it such a volatile industry.
CLOVENHOOF: Hang on. Are editors and publishers the same thing?
BEN: No. Editors might work for publishers, although a lot of them are freelance. But they do have links with the publishing world which I bet your friends, doodad and thingummy, don’t have. Editors are part of the established process of publication.
CLOVENHOOF: Established? Oh, you petty short-lived mortals. There have been writers for millennia. But professional editors? They are a distinctly modern phenomenon. I mean, when the Other Guy was dictating the Old Testament, I did try to give some pointers but he ignored most of them. I did manage to sneak a verse of my own into Deuteronomy.
NERYS: Was that the rule about men with squashed bollocks not being allowed into Heaven?
CLOVENHOOF: Thought it would be a laugh. For me, not them. Obviously.
BEN: Editors – with the exception of Jeremy’s contribution to the Bible – add quality and value to a book.
CLOVENHOOF: But they are just one person. Their opinion is a totally subjective one.
NERYS: But it is a clear, well-considered opinion of a single professional. A bunch of beta-readers is like a herd of cats. They’ll pull in all sorts of unhelpful directions.
CLOVENHOOF: Haven’t you heard of the ‘wisdom of the crowd’?
NERYS: When have you heard the phrase ‘designed by committee’ used in a positive way?
BEN: What’s that on the cover of the book anyway?
CLOVENHOOF: That’s me.
BEN: Looks nothing like you.
NERYS: It’s a picture of Brad Pitt with horns and a goatee painted on.
CLOVENHOOF: I thought it was a good likeness.
NERYS: Well, let me give you my objective opinion…