Beta readers have always been an important part of the writing process. Lately, there has been some debate on them, some things more sensical than others. This blog should help you understand the changed attitude towards them and how to best make use of your beta readers.
What are beta readers
As self-publishing grew in popularity and different editing and marketing processes grew more common, the role of beta readers changed.
About thirty years ago, a beta reader was comparable to a beta tester. In politics, this is known as a focus group. A representation of the target audience is selected and is asked questions about a candidate to see how certain messages would be received. What slogan resonates best? What does that picture of the candidate make you feel?
Beta readers were used much the same. What do you think of that character? Are there any boring bits? Would you buy this book? These questions would be answered by the target audience: readers. Those could be familiar with the genre of the book they beta read, or outside of their usual picks. The beta read was the last check to see if the book was marketable, or if it needed more changes.
How they work nowadays
Nowadays, beta readers come into play much earlier. Lots of writers use a number of betas (often other writers) before considering querying to find an agent. Writers who choose to self-publish may have multiple rounds of beta readers go over their story in between edits, sometimes even after a first draft.
Some people consider using beta readers before you’re about to publish wrong. Others think that is outdated and comes too late. Writers can benefit from beta reader feedback way sooner. Personally, I think that as long as you don’t waste their time with far-from-ready drafts and the story improves from using their feedback (i.e. the writer doesn’t brush off unwanted comments but uses it as constructive criticism), you can make use of beta readers any way you want.
However, this fluid definition does mean you have to communicate with them about what you expect from them, and what they expect from you.
Communication with your beta readers
The standard idea of beta reading is that your readers will provide feedback. But, what kind of feedback? Do you want detailed, chapter-by-chapter feedback on your grammar? Are you looking for concept-edits? Do you want opinions on the development of your characters? These are things you need to communicate about. Make sure that your volunteers know what to look out for.
One useful way to prevent any misunderstandings is to send them a form with questions that you’d like them to fill out after every chapter. That can either be one standard form or you can add a few questions after every chapter.
Ask your beta readers if they will print it out to make notes on the paper, or if they will read and comment through software. When they all use Microsoft Word, for example, you can merge the documents after so you end up with all the feedback in a single file. If they all make notes on paper you may receive a few printed packages with different versions, all with different notes on each version.
How to thank your beta readers
A debate has been going on in the #WritingCommunity, about how to thank your beta readers. And of course, the answer to that question is, it depends. After all, are they reading it and giving a short response as if they would give a quick review? Or are they nitpicking through it to catch any and all mistakes, down to the last comma? How hard was it to find one, and do you want them to keep on beta reading for you?
What matters most, according to me, is that you and your beta readers are clear on what you can expect from each other. If there is payment, make sure that it is dealt with professionally. If you buy them dinner, have them pick the restaurant.
When you live on separate continents—as I am bound to run into—offer your betas something that makes them know that you appreciate them. That could range from an online gift-card to sending them a signed copy, to returning the favor when they ask you to beta read for them.
How do you find beta readers
Whenever possible, find beta readers from reliable sources. I have advocated for writing groups before and I’ll say it again: writing groups are awesome. Knowing what kind of feedback you want from your beta readers is priceless. What does the beta reader know about your writing upfront? For example, Pine has been helping me with my writer’s voice recently. If I were to send them a beta reading copy now, I know they’ll pay attention to that in particular.
If you don’t have the luxury of a writing group or haven’t invested in that kind of relationship before you got to this point, don’t worry! You can find beta readers on Twitter through #CPmatch or other tweets about beta readers. Another great resource is Goodreads, or maybe try TCK’s Beta Reader Service. You may also have luck scouring IndieCall, a more recent platform resulting from Twitter.
Issues with beta readers
Despite your best efforts, you will run into issues with beta readers. Luckily, most of them you can anticipate upfront. For example, Pine’s US-based opinions on my amount of Norse mythology name dropping will be different than that of beta readers who grew up in Norway and learned about the Vikings and their religion in elementary school. They will very likely have conflicting opinions. Then the question is: who is this book intended for? Do I want to market my book to the US, or aim it towards Scandinavia and Western Europe, where the Vikings are part of the country’s history?
Other issues with beta readers you will run into is that not everyone you enlist will deliver. Some people lose interest, they have life getting in the way, they underestimated how much time and effort it would cost, or whatever other reason. The solution? Enlist more people than you actually need. Assume that about 25–50% won’t be able to finish their read. If you have had good experiences with your beta readers before, that percentage will be better.
One of the more painful issues with beta readers is when someone who doesn’t finish the beta read is a friend. It doesn’t matter if you know them through a writing group or an acquaintance in real life. Whatever you do, don’t get angry at them. Chances are that it won’t have anything to do with your story. If it’s getting in the way of your friendship, let them know you’re not taking it personally is often enough to start a conversation about how and why they didn’t finish.
The one question you should ask yourself before starting the process is: what is important to you?
- Which task do you want your beta readers to complete?
- What information do you want from them?
- How will you repay their kindness?
If you want a more professional approach for your manuscript, reach out to an editor instead. My services are available over at Vanir Editing.