Beta Readers: The Quiet Hero of Your Story
If you’ve been hanging around author groups, you might have heard the term “beta reader” pop up from time to time. And naturally, you might be wondering what that is.
Essentially, a beta reader is an (hopefully) objective third party who will read your novel or story and provide (hopefully) constructive feedback. A beta reader is not an editor, and often they’re not writers either, though there’s a good chance a lot of your beta readers are going to be authors as well.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- What is a beta reader and what do they do?
- Where do you find beta readers?
- Beta reader logistics
What is a Beta Reader and What Do They Do?
Okay, as we mentioned above, a beta reader is someone who reads an early draft of your book. Note that you shouldn’t be sharing your very first draft with betas. You should have already done at least a couple of rounds of self-editing before you seek out beta readers. Your book doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect, and you will still have typos to fix and line edits to do, but the book should mostly be coherent and readable at this point.
Sending someone a draft that needs too much work is a surefire way to ensure that this person who is doing you a massive favor never finishes reading your book. If you want earlier feedback, maybe even while you’re writing your first draft, then you’d call that person either an alpha reader or a critique partner.
Alpha readers know they’re getting the unedited version of your book and are there to point out any early issues or plot holes. With a critique partner, the relationship usually means you are swapping books and chapters with each other for the purpose of offering early feedback on your story.
Who can be a beta reader?
Anyone can be a beta reader. They might be:
- Family and friends
- Other authors
- Fans of your existing work
- Anyone who reads your genre*
*This part is especially important. Make sure your beta readers are familiar with and fans of your genre. Only people who read your genre will understand the tropes, themes, and expectations of readers. Seeking out beta readers who don’t understand your genre is mostly going to result in feedback that isn’t useful for you.
Beta readers are not editors
A beta reader should not be editing your work. Ask them not to proofread or line edit—your story is going to change at least a few more times anyway, and you want your readers focused on your story, not typos. A beta reader helps get your book into shape for your editor. If you’re hiring an editor, you want your book to be the best version it can be first, so that line or copy editor is working with the closest-to-final version possible.
Good beta feedback can help alleviate the need for a developmental editor though, so it’s helpful to cultivate those relationships as much as you can.
Where do you find beta readers?
This is often a million-dollar question. To start, let me say that finding reliable beta readers is tough, especially when you’re first starting out. It’s a lot to ask of people. You want them to spend hours reading your book and providing their thoughts, all for the pleasure of doing so.
Expect that people will flake on you. Expect that some people will start and never finish. Expect that some people will never start. Expect that some people will never respond when you follow up.
I’m saying this not to make you sad, but understand that it’s normal. People are busy and the day they volunteered, they thought your book sounded fun and they totally had time, but then something came up and they didn’t. So don’t take it personally.*
*A slight caveat: if no one is finishing your book or getting back to you, then it might be a signal to go back to the drawing board if you’re not hooking any readers. It’s normal for some not to finish, but if almost everyone is bailing, that could be a sign there are bigger issues. You might want to revisit some craft books, take a writing class, or spend some more time at DabbleU.
Family and friends
If you feel comfortable, you can ask family and friends to be your beta readers. Personally, I’d rather stick hot pokers in my eyes then let my family read my work, but you do you. I will caution against only using family and friends though.
Unless they avidly read your genre and unless you know they’ll be honest with you, chances are the people closest to you are going to say nice things because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
While having someone tell you your book sucks (or some aspect of it does) doesn’t feel nice, it usually means you’re going to have a stronger book in the long run. If everyone just tells you it’s amazing, then that defeats the purpose of using beta readers.
Likely one of the first places you’ll look for beta readers is through other authors. This way you can swap books and it holds you both accountable, having the added bonus of ensuring you both finish. Some places you can connect with other writers are:
- Facebook writing groups: Search for some groups in your genre and join them. Most of these groups will allow you to post asking for beta readers. You can also ask for writing and publishing advice in these groups and start to make author friends. (Make as many author friends as you can—they will be your lifeline.)
- Beta reading groups: There are some groups specific to finding beta readers on Facebook, as well. A few of these to get you started are:
- Beta readers and critique partners
- Beta readers find authors
- Beta readers
- Beta Reader Writers Club
- Beta and ARC Readers
- Critics, beta readers, and critique partners
- Goodreads: Goodreads has a beta group with thousands of members. Set up a post and give it a go.
- Absolute Write: Join their beta reading forum.
- Story Craft Café: With numerous genre channels, you can post here to look for beta readers.
- Critique Circle: This site is dedicated to matching up writers for the purpose of giving each other feedback.
- SavvyAuthors: This writing resource offers lots of great classes and forums, and does a critique partner matching program.
- Twitter: Get active in the writing community on Twitter. You can post a call out for beta readers there and sometimes people will run events under the #betabash tag. You can even host your own!
- Social media: If you have an author-based social media platform, you can ask for beta readers there, too.
Those are just a few ideas. As you write more and find an audience, you’ll likely develop a reliable circle of beta readers who you know are always willing and ready to read your stuff. It takes time to build this though, so don’t get frustrated.
Paying for Beta Readers
Sometimes, despite all your best efforts, you’re not finding anyone reliable. Or you do find someone who will read your book, but they don’t offer much feedback. One of the tough parts of finding the right beta readers is finding people who can articulate when something isn’t working for them and, even better, if they can say why.
The good news is that there are professional beta readers out there who you can hire. The bonus is that you know they’ll finish reading your book and their feedback is generally going to be better than a family member who doesn’t really understand how to give it.
When I first started writing, I paid for a handful of betas and let me tell you that some of their feedback was just as good as any developmental editor for a fraction of the price.
Some places to look for paid beta readers:
- Ask for recommendations in some of those writing groups I mentioned above. A lot of people use paid readers and are happy to recommend anyone’s services they’ve been happy with.
- You can also check out the Professional Beta Readers group on Facebook.
- Fiverr and Upwork both offer tons of options for paid beta reading with a wide variety of price points. Check the reviews and ask for references if possible.
- Some editing companies will offer paid beta reading services as well. The advantage of these is they’re generally anonymous so the readers don’t need to worry about hurt feelings and can be truly honest with their thoughts. Some to check out are:
- Darling Axe
- Entrada Publishing (I can personally vouch for this one—I used them once and was very happy with it.)
- Writerfull Books
But what if someone steals my work?
Look, this is a fear that a lot of people have, especially when they’re first starting out. I’m not going to tell you that no one is ever going to steal your work, but I am going to say that it’s not that likely and it doesn’t happen all that often.
There is very little actual value in your incomplete manuscript. Sorry, but it’s true. If it were that easy to take a partially edited book and turn it around into a profit, then we’d all be doing that. If you’ve been publishing for a while, you know how untrue that is.
Sometimes you have to weigh the benefits to the risks. The benefit of having solid feedback that makes your book better outweighs the off chance someone is going to steal your book. (Incidentally, actually published books are stolen literally all the time, so you know, it’s just one of those things we all have to deal with.)
I’ve heard of people suggesting readers sign an NDA…don’t do this. First, no one is going to agree to that. Remember, these are volunteers and this is too much to ask. Also, it’s not going to do anything. If someone wants to steal your book, they’re going to steal your book.
Swapping with other authors can help alleviate this fear as most authors are way too busy with their own writing to ever consider taking someone else’s (plus integrity). And if you truly are that worried about it, then use a paid beta who has been recommended to you.
But, mostly get over it. You’re going to have to show someone your book at some point.
Beta Reader Questions
Okay, so you’ve roped some fortunate soul into reading your book. What exactly do you want from them?
Give this a little bit of thought. What are your specific questions about your book? Is there something you’re not entirely sure about?
There are a few ways you can organize your beta readers:
- Ask your questions after they’re done reading.
- Ask questions throughout if you have something specific you want to highlight. I like to use the comment function in Word or Google Docs for this.
- Ask questions at the end of every chapter or at specific checkpoints, such as after every ten chapters.
- Ask questions at the beginning to give them something to keep in mind while reading.
You can do a combination of these, too. It will depend on the type of feedback you’re seeking.
For example, I recently wrote a book that used a lot of hints and clues to draw the reader to the end. Since I didn’t want to influence any of their thoughts, I didn’t ask any of my questions until they were done reading so they were going in completely fresh. The one exception was that I was worried about the pacing at the end, so I asked them to consider that while they were reading.
Here is a sample list of questions you can ask your readers:
- How does the pacing feel to you? Too fast or too slow? Are there any parts that dragged for you or anywhere where you felt the story could be explored more?
- Did the story meet your expectations for the genre? What other book in the genre would you compare it to?
- Was there anywhere your attention waned? If you didn’t finish, where did you lose interest?
- Was there a point where you felt like you became fully invested in the story?
- Was there anything that didn’t make sense? What was confusing?
- Did the ending make sense?
- Did you notice any plot holes?
- Did you enjoy it and would you recommend this book to others?
- If you were writing a review, how many stars would you give it?
- Did you connect with the characters? Who was your favorite and why? Who was your least favorite and why?
- What was your favorite part and why?
- Did you have a least favorite part? Why?
What to do with the feedback you get
First off, if you get negative feedback, don’t react right away. Trust me, I understand how much it can hurt when someone says something bad about your book baby.
Instead of dismissing the feedback or crying in the corner, let it sit for a few days (okay, you can cry in the corner while you do that). See if others have the same reaction. If one or two people say something, then it’s probably just them. If multiple people say the same thing, then it might be something to address.
Consider the feedback as objectively as you can and decide if they had a point. If so, head into editing. If you really feel like it isn’t a change you want to make, then it’s fine. It is ultimately your story in the end.
Sometimes feedback simply won’t resonate with you—you aren’t obligated to take every suggestion. But be sure to always keep in mind why you asked for feedback in the first place.
Logistics of Beta Reading
And finally, here are just a few logistical things to consider.
How to share your document: The most common and easiest way I’ve found is to share your document via Google Docs. This way people can leave their feedback right there and you can even see it as they do. Some people like to add everyone to the same document and some people like to give everyone their own one. It’s up to you, but if you use one document for everyone, remember they might be influenced by your other beta reader’s comments.
You can also send them a Word file and they can send it back to you when they’re done, using Track Changes to make edits and leave comments Like Google Docs, you can send a OneDrive Link or individual files..
There are also services like Betareader.io that can allow you to share your work. (Personally, I’m not a fan and wouldn’t sign up for a service to beta someone else’s work.)
How many beta readers do you need? Well, that’s a good question, one that depends entirely on you. You want at least a few so you can get varying viewpoints, but having too many can lead to feedback burnout if you get too many opposing answers. This is something you’ll get a feel for over time.
How long should you give them? It’s helpful to set a deadline when you send out your work to a beta reader so everyone understands the expectations. Make sure this deadline is realistic. Most people want at least a month or two to read a 100K word book. If you’re on a tighter deadline, then make sure your potential reader is aware that you need it in a week, so they know what they’re in for. If your reader misses your deadline, be patient. Remember they’re volunteering for this.
At first, I’d recommend casting a pretty wide net. Partly because, as we discussed, some people will flake and partly because some people just won’t provide useful feedback. Hopefully, if you’ve sent it to enough people, you’ll get a few gems in there.
I hope this overview of beta reading has given you the confidence to go forth and seek out your own beta team. Ultimately, the point of beta readers is to make your book the best it can be. Since you’re too close to the source material, it can be hard to spot the problems.
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