What’s an editor and do I need one?

The word ‘editor’ is one of the most unhelpfully elastic words out there. There are several different editors involved in the book production process – here’s a quick taxonomy:

Book editor (for a multi-contributor book) – the person with overall editorial responsibility for commissioning and approving the various contributions, and typically will write/compile any prelims and endmatter too, eg preface, introduction, bibliography. This is typically the person who has the direct contractual relationship with the publisher, and who is responsible for the further dissemination of royalties if appropriate. This could be you if you’re working with a collection of authors. (There are also series editors, who do a similar job at a higher level, identifying authors for new books in an existing series and ensuring that all new books meet the appropriate quality requirements and are consistent in tone and emphasis with the other books in the series.)
Commissioning editor (also known as acquisitions editor) – this is someone employed by the publisher to develop a list in a particular area (eg business books). They will have a clear strategy for how they intend to build that list, and if your proposal doesn’t fit with that strategy they’re unlikely to accept it, even if it has real merit. Commissioning editors work with the book editor or, more usually, the author (you!) on editorial issues such as the overall structure, level and length of the book, and manage contractual issues, deadlines and so on.
Development editor – a professional editor who gives more detailed formative feedback on the draft manuscript, assessing structure, consistency of tone, appropriateness for target market, etc, making recommendations on how to improve it plus identifying any systematic issues such as permissions requirements, libel etc. Not all publishers provide development editors – at Practical Inspiration we think this stage is hugely important. If your publisher doesn’t provide this kind of support, it’s worth investigating whether you can employ someone to work with you directly.
Copy-editor – another professional editor managed by the publisher – but often working as a freelance rather than as an employee – who checks the final manuscript line by line for typos/errors, picks up any repetition or ambiguity, queries inconsistencies or missing references, and creates the structural mark-up for the typesetter. They are focused on polishing the manuscript and correcting errors rather than suggesting significant structural changes or improvements.
So if someone’s offering their services as an ‘editor’, make sure that you’re clear on what exactly they mean by that before you agree to work together!

How long should I give beta readers to give their feedback?

We recommend that our authors give their draft manuscript to beta readers at the same time as they hand it over to us to go to the development editor for review, so that you can work through ALL the feedback in parallel. If two or three people tell you a section isn’t working, you know it isn’t working. If one person doesn’t ‘get’ a metaphor but another thinks it’s brilliant, it’s important to balance those two pieces of feedback. The development editor’s read takes 2-3 weeks so we suggest that for beta readers too – that’s long enough to be able to look at the manuscript in detail, but not SO long that it slips to the bottom of the to-do pile and is forgotten. (Of course, there may be a good reason why a particular beta reader might need more time, so in this as in life, you must use your judgement.)

How do I choose and use beta readers?

First of all, it’s GREAT that you’re planning to use beta readers. Getting input on your beta draft is one of the best ways of ensuring that the final book will really be useful for its intended readers. For that reason, it’s important that at least one of your beta readers qualifies as a target reader! We suggest that you aim for 4-6 beta readers in total: as well as target readers, you might want to choose experts in closely related fields, or professional connections who can add a helpful perspective. It goes without saying that they need to be capable of constructive criticism and also that they need to be reliable – the most insightful reader is no use to you if they don’t send you their feedback.
Don’t just hand over the manuscript with a vague request for feedback. Think carefully about what each of your beta readers can most usefully offer: for a target reader, for example, you might want to ask whether they understand all the terminology, whether the argument is pitched at the right level, or whether there are specific use cases or issues that aren’t covered. For a professional peer you might want to ask whether you’ve incorporated the latest thinking and research, or whether there are any gaps in your coverage. But always give your beta readers the freedom to give feedback that you DON’T know you need too, eg finish with a phrase like ’These are just suggested questions to keep in mind as you read: I’d be grateful for any other thoughts or suggestions that occur to you in addition.’
You may get conflicting advice from different readers: it’s your responsibility as the author to consider all the various perspectives and decide whether and how you take those suggestions on board.
And don’t forget to invite your beta readers to provide an endorsement for the book (if they liked it…), and to thank them in your acknowledgements too!