Beta readers are an invaluable part of the publishing process and one not to be skipped over. Though it’s tempting to publish your manuscript as soon as you’ve edited every line within an inch of its life, handing your work over to beta readers to hear what they think before going to print prepares you for a wider release in a way nothing else does.
What is a beta reader?
Beta readers act as representatives of your larger reading audience who will “test drive” your book before you sign on the printer’s dotted line. It’s a chance to hear someone’s honest opinion while you still have a chance to fix any problems or to add material you may have missed. As they haven’t seen the book before, they’ll be able to take a fresh look and notice things you or an editor may have missed.
Who do you ask to be a beta reader?
When searching for beta readers, find at least one person who is representative of your intended audience. For example, if you are writing for children, find a child or two willing to read your book. If you are working on a cookbook, give it to someone who would like to try creating a few of the recipes. Also consider a person’s writing skills. An experienced writer in your genre will be able to give you more detailed feedback.
When it came time to find beta readers for my own book, I wanted a variety of people who were not only representative of my audience but who could also focus on different aspects of the manuscript. Having written a book of poems on deep spirituality and love, I looked for at least one professional poet who would keep a close eye on my poetic technique and word choice, one or two high-caliber authors of spiritual books who would look at content and the developed story-line, and an excellent editor who could keep an eye out for any errors slipping my notice.
Finding three to five people is a good number of readers as you’ll have diverse perspectives but not too much overlap. I selected four. When choosing who to ask, ask yourself who will be bluntly honest with you? Who has the time? Who has the required skill set and attention to detail? Do you know people who enjoy reading your chosen genre? Beta readers can be found among friends, critique groups, professional acquaintances, friends of friends, or fellow writers. Don’t ask someone in your immediate family as you want them to be objective and free to give their real opinion.
When do you give beta readers the manuscript?
I’ve heard of people using beta readers at various stages of the writing and publishing process. Some people like to give the first draft of their manuscript to a beta reader so they can fix holes in a storyline early on. Others hand over their work mid-way through the process after they’ve already worked with an editor. Others, like myself, use beta readers at the very end to catch anything missed up to that point and to find out early on what kind of feedback they are going to hear once their book is for sale. Genre also plays a part in the process. A fiction book may have more beta readers along the way, a non-fiction book may be read mid-way through by an expert in the field, and a poetry book like mine would be shared only as the last step before publication. How you use beta readers is up to you but keep in mind they don’t take the place of a good editor or your own critical eye. Beta readers are there to give an overall reaction, not nit-pick over your syntax. They are there to “try out” your book, not to work with you on writing it; that’s what an editor is for.
Before you do hand your manuscript over to be read, make sure it contains your very best writing. Though you won’t catch everything (that’s why we have editors!), go through it with a fine-tooth comb. I revised my own manuscript again and again, working with my editors, making sure they have approved the book before I ever let someone else have it. It may even help to put your manuscript aside for a few days and then read it again yourself to make sure it’s as in pristine a condition as you can possibly make it.
What questions do you ask beta readers?
What questions you ask readers to consider depends on the genre of your book.
For fiction or memoir, you may want people to focus on questions such as these:
- Is the dialogue realistic?
- Are the setting descriptions too much, too little?
- How is the pace of the story? Do you ever find yourself getting bored?
- Are the characters believable?
- Is the storyline ever confusing?
- What scenes do you really like?
- What parts resonate with you?
- Are there any inconsistencies?
For non-fiction, your questions may include some of these:
- Is the information organized in such a way that’s conducive to understanding?
- Is the material engaging?
- Are there resources you know of I haven’t included?
- Are there additional tips or instructions I should include? Illustrations?
- Are there any inconsistencies?
- Do I repeat topics unnecessarily?
- Is there anything missing?
- Is there anything you wanted me to spend more time on?
- Is there anything that could be condensed?
- Have I defined all industry-specific terms?
Of course you will want to tailor questions to your own book, to how far you are in the publishing process, and to the feedback you’re looking for. For example, my own book has already been thoroughly edited and is about to be published. As I’m a professional book designer, it’s also already in final form. Normally, you would always give the beta readers the book before it’s designed but as this is poetry and thus flexible, and as I am the designer and author, it’s as easy for me to change something in Indesign as in Word. Thus, my questions are:
- Does the introduction make you want to read the book?
- Are there pieces missing in the storyline? Is it smooth? Is there too big of a transition anywhere?
- Are there any poems that stick out inappropriately in the storyline?
- Does it end well?
- Any spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors?
- Do all the poem titles work well?
- Are there any poems needing additional work?
- Are there poems that should be justified on the left, right, or centered instead?
- Are the poems broken into stanzas in the right places?
- Were there any clichés or a part that seemed trite?
- Does the design add to the book or is any part of it distracting?
- What parts did you resonate with?
- Do the book descriptions in the back make you want to read those books too?
- Please share any overall impressions.
Do you pay beta readers?
Typically, you do not pay a beta reader to read your book. Though the questions can be detailed (as above), they only read the book once through and share with you their opinion as a reader. If want help with the writing, hire a skilled editor who works with authors professionally. There are those who charge for the service of beta reading and there is nothing wrong with paying someone for their time if that is what you choose to do. Just make sure expectations are clear from the beginning. Personally, all four of my beta readers are volunteering their time.
How do you send the manuscript to beta readers?
Ask your beta readers how they prefer to read your book. Some will want to comment in Word, others can add comments to a PDF, and others will prefer to have a printed manuscript. Making it easy and convenient for them helps to ensure they’ll get it done on time. One of my readers lives half-way across the country so she requested I send her the PDF file. Another who travels a great deal also requested a PDF so she doesn’t have to carry a stack of paper on a plane. My two local readers requested a printed manuscripts which I will hand-deliver. When you do send them the book and what questions to consider, add a note that is positive and encouraging, thanking them for their time and effort. Also make sure to let your readers know how long they have to read your book and get back to you. Give them at least a couple of weeks.
In what form do you request feedback?
When a beta reader has finished with your book, they can either send you the electronic document with their comments, reply via e-mail, call or skype with you, or meet with you in person. It all depends on where you each live, your availability, and comfort level. My own preference is to meet in person if possible or to talk on the phone if we’re too far apart or they’re too busy. Keep an open mind no matter what they say and don’t take it personally. You may not be as far along as you thought and may need to revise once more. No matter what, always be polite. Finding out what still needs work is why we ask beta readers for help.
How do you thank a beta reader?
Beta readers are doing us a huge favor by reading our books and telling us what they think of them. Thus, it’s a kind gesture to include their names in the acknowledgments section and be sure to send them a free copy of the book once it’s published. If they’re writers themselves, you can also reciprocate the favor if they ever ask you to read a book of their own.
It’s a bit nerve-wracking to have your book in someone else’s hands for the first time. It’s rather like watching your child head off to kindergarten that first day—you’ve poured yourself into one thing for an immeasurable amount of time and even while you want to protect it, you know the time has come for what you love to stand or fall on its own merits. You have to unclench your fingers and hand it off to someone else. But don’t worry, you’ll get through it and at the end of the day, you’ll have the feedback you need to hear while you still have time to make any adjustments; your book will be the better for it.
Beta Reader Group on Goodreads – This is a community of beta readers and authors working together and is also a good resource for tips and guidelines.
“15 questions for your beta readers – and to focus your own revisions” – Great article with questions for fiction writers.
“A Quick Guide to Beta Reader Etiquette” – An informative article on beta reading etiquette for both the readers and writers.