In this post, we’ll talk about a resource that can be hugely helpful to the independent author—beta readers.
There comes a moment in the life of any great manuscript, a feeling that comes on you suddenly as you’re whittling away at the finer details. Your book is up on your word processor, you’re scrolling through and . . . it all looks pretty damn good. Really damn good, even.
“Someone might actually want to read this,” you muse.
Now what? “Send it to the publishing houses!” you might think—but hold your horses, hotshot. We’re not there quite yet.
If you’re feeling this way, you’re ready to have someone read your manuscript, but not just anyone (and not just your mom). Not an editor yet, either.
Then what? It’s time to consider beta readers.
Beta readers can be indispensable. Remember Andy Weir’s The Martian (which was turned into a blockbuster film starring Matt Damon)? Well, Weir praised his beta readers as being critical to his process. They could make all the difference for your book, too.
What Exactly Are Beta Readers, Again?
So what’s a beta reader? First, it’s important to understand what a beta reader isn’t. They’re not editors, and they’re certainly not people you want to send your first draft. They’re objective readers to whom you send your book when it’s about as polished as you can make it. These readers won’t be looking for nitpicky details (grammar and punctuation); instead, their job is to give you big-picture insights about what’s working and what’s not in the book. This kind of feedback can be crucial, because at a certain point just about every author gets way too close to their book to treat it with any kind of objectivity.
First, a Word of Caution
We don’t mean to be a drag, but before you go down the path of working with beta readers, it’s important to ask the question, “Why wouldn’t I work with beta readers?”
We think that beta readers are usually a net positive, but they’re not a rule of thumb, and sometimes it’s best to avoid them. A general word of caution: If you are working with beta readers, you are opening your ideas up to them, and those ideas are usually not copyrighted. This means that a beta reader could repurpose your ideas under their own name with no repercussions. This is rare, but the risk does exist, and you need to be aware of it.
However, if you’re publishing something that is innately unique and groundbreaking, the theft of those ideas might be something you want to avoid risking at all. Let’s say your book is on a whole new technique of computer coding, something you think will revolutionize your industry. If so, you need to be very selective about who reads that manuscript.
Especially under circumstances like these, it’s critical to establish dialogue and trust with your beta readers. Sometimes more than just your vulnerability as a writer is on the line. You might want to go straight to an editor in a situation like this, and we wouldn’t blame you. It’s ultimately up to you to evaluate the nuances in these situations. A little caution can go a long way to ensuring that your experience with beta readers is a positive one.
With that big caveat out of the way, let’s talk about how to find beta readers for your book and ensure you have an A+ experience with them!
Step 1: Recruit Your Beta Readers
Your first step is to recruit. Check out a few writing groups like this one on Goodreads, for example. Get to know your potential readers. Shoot a few messages back and forth and get a feel of what they typically read before you hand them your book. Someone who’s a big fan of YA fantasy novels probably isn’t the best beta reader for your historical treatise on mid-century architecture.
If your book covers a topic in a niche or specialized field, you may want to recruit a specialist. For example, if you were writing a book about vegan diets, it would be helpful to get the input of readers who are familiar with that topic. This takes a little more planning and research than a more generalized topic, but the extra effort can go a long way. Try contacting readers who have already written about your niche topic directly; they will often oblige because they are passionate about their field. You could also reach out to communities of readers in your area of specialty—a Facebook group or online forum, for example—to locate readers who are specialists.
Of course, the internet isn’t the only place to recruit. Try your local writing groups, for example. There is always the option to have friends and family read your manuscript, but their preexisting relationship with you can muddy the waters, and we generally don’t recommend them as your first choice.
How many beta readers should you work with? You don’t want to overwhelm yourself, but you don’t want to come away with vague feedback either. If you’re recruiting in a generalized way (i.e., via a beta readers message board), plan for a lower return on investment. In this situation, ten readers is a great target; if 50 percent of that feedback is useful, you’re in great shape! If you’re recruiting with a more specified, one-to-one approach, or hiring beta readers, it’s best to shoot for three to five readers. You can expect a healthy volume of feedback in those situations.
Step 2: Incentivize Your Beta Readers
In many cases, an author will ask their beta readers to read their book for free, though it’s not out of the question to hire them. You could try a service like Entrada Publishing, which offers a group of three beta readers for $150 (depending on your word count).
Even if you don’t pay them, what should your beta readers get in return? There are loads of options. If a beta reader is a writer too, you could always offer to return the favor. You could also offer to promote some of their own content on your media channels. Often, beta readers won’t ask for anything for return, but you should make sure that you at least offer something.
Step 3: Ask Your Beta Readers Questions
When you send over your manuscript, offer a choice of formats (EPUB, PDF, or Kindle), and make sure your book is formatted well. This is your chance to find out if the book is accomplishing what you hoped it would, and you don’t want the formatting to distract from that goal. Send a feedback sheet along with your manuscript so that you can collect and document that feedback. A great way to do this is using a tool like Google Forms, which lets you collect all your beta readers’ feedback in one place instead of having to sift through multiple email threads.
What specific questions should you ask your beta readers? Some basic questions include:
- Were any sections of the book difficult to comprehend or unclear? Which part(s)?
- Did the book make you want to continue reading?
- Did the book flow well? Were there any sections that felt out of place? Which area(s)?
It’s important to give your readers a rough deadline for when you can expect to receive feedback. Four to six weeks is usually sufficient, but will depend on the length and complexity of your manuscript. Be careful not to phrase this deadline as a demand, but rather as a request. Your beta readers are doing you a huge favor, and you want to make sure they always feel appreciated and thanked, not pressured.
When your beta readers do give you feedback, thank them! Feel free to ask follow-up questions if you need clarification, but don’t argue with your readers. Their objective opinion was the end-goal, and if they didn’t like your book, that’s okay. This is a terrific learning opportunity—a chance to make your manuscript even stronger before it gets passed off to an editor or submitted for publication.
Step 4: Process Your Beta Readers’ Feedback
Take a few weeks to process the feedback from your beta readers, rather than diving in and editing your manuscript. Know that some of the feedback will likely fall into the take-it-or-leave-it category; not everyone is going to love your book, and that’s totally fine.
On the other hand, if you see a common theme in the feedback, perk up. This is a red flag for you, and something that you’re going to need to address before you move on. It might be something little, or it might be something that requires structural changes. This is the time to kill your darlings. If that electrifying, twenty-page passage on window pane construction is boring 90 percent of your beta readers, you’re going to want to take a hatchet to it. You may even want to send your manuscript through a second round of beta readers if the changes are considerable.
With beta readers on your side, and the invaluable feedback they can provide, you’ll walk away with a much stronger manuscript. The next steps in your book’s journey will be much cleaner as a result. Your editor will have less to tackle too. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll have a much healthier chance of garnering positive reviews and successful sales. It’s designed to be a win–win scenario, so what are you waiting for? Put your book in some hands!