Beta readers are an important part of writing a good book, but most authors don’t use them. 

When an author’s book fails to thrive in the market, they wonder what they could have done differently. Sometimes they try to fix the problem by paying for marketing, but good marketing only helps a bad book fail faster.

If you use beta readers, you won’t be wondering what went wrong, and you’ll be able to write a book that will sell and be loved by readers.

What is a Beta Reader?

The term comes from the software development world. A beta tester is someone who uses an unfinished version of a software program to find the bugs.

When we developed MyBookTable, we had a beta period where users volunteered to try the early buggy version for free in exchange for providing us feedback on how to make the plugin better.

Beta readers function in the same way. They read an early version of your story and expect to find character inconsistencies, plot holes, or characters who need development. They give you feedback on your story in the early stages so you can correct errors or rewrite scenes that your readers found boring.

Their feedback will help you publish a better book.

Why Beta Readers?

You need beta readers because you are too familiar with your work. You need a pair of fresh eyes to look over your story. Since most authors spend years writing their books, they’re emotionally invested and can’t evaluate their own work objectively. Neither can most spouses.

Beta readers provide that fresh perspective without the emotional or relational hang-ups. 

Hollywood employs a similar method when they run screenings for test audiences. In the first screening of Pretty Woman, Richard Gere and Julia Robert’s characters did not get together, and people hated the ending. The producers rewrote the ending, and the rest is history.

Who should I ask to be a beta reader?

Develop a Beta Reader Profile

Describing your ideal beta reader is like creating a reader persona. You’ll want to create a character profile for the kind of reader you want to get feedback from.

Consider the following factors 

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Why do they read? (Why do you write?)
  • What types of stories do they gravitate toward in books, movies, and TV shows?
  • Do they like giving reviews on Amazon or Rotten Tomatoes? 
  • Can they easily express how they felt about a book or show?
  • Have they given a thoughtful review of a book or movie in writing or in person?
  • Is this person a fan of your genre? A romance reader may think your aliens are too evil, while a sci-fi reader who loves the genre would expect nothing less.
  • Are they familiar with the genre’s tropes? If so, they can tell you if you need to take a different angle to make your story unique.

Finding and Choosing Beta Readers

Once you’ve determined the kind of reader you want and need, where do you find them? 

Friends and family are great supporters, but sometimes strangers who aren’t emotionally invested in you are better at providing useful feedback. They’re not as worried about hurting your feelings, and their opinions don’t have as much emotional impact on you. 

I recommend creating an application form on Google Forms to vet your volunteers.

Where do you find readers of your genre who might be willing to read your book and give you feedback?

Email list

Your email subscribers are your super fans, so you might find some fantastic beta readers among your email friends. Readers who’ve loved your previous books make great beta readers. They already like your writing, and they’re eager for more. 

Facebook and Twitter

If you’re writing Sci-Fi, consider joining a Facebook group of Sci-Fi readers and “listen” to how they discuss the books they’re reading. Are their posts helpful to the group? Do they notice character inconsistencies? If you see someone making useful comments, you might consider asking that person if they’d be a beta reader for your book.

Goodreads

If you spend time on Facebook trying to connect with readers, remember that only 30% of the population has ever read an ebook. But on Goodreads, 100% of the users are readers, and most of them are passionate about the books they read. 

You can join a Goodreads beta readers group to connect. Learn more about connecting with readers on Goodreads in our episode on How to Use Goodreads to Promote Your Book.

Kickstarter Backers

When I published my book, I ran a Kickstarter campaign. At the $50 level, people paid for early access to my manuscript and became my beta readers. People who pay for early access can be great beta readers because they are invested.

Super Fans

If you have readers who have left you a raving review on Amazon or Goodreads, invite that person to your beta reader team. They will likely be floored and honored to receive the invitation and therefore willing to participate. 

Coach your beta readers so that they know what kind of feedback you’re looking for. At this stage, you’re not looking for copyeditors to make sure it’s grammatically correct. There’s no point in editing grammar in a scene that will be deleted. 

You want beta readers who can tell you whether your story was interesting or if a scene was too fast-paced or dragging. Make sure they know you value their honesty. 

Other Writers

Be careful when choosing writers to be on your beta team.

If you have writers on your team, find out what genre they’re most familiar with. A writer of your genre can help you write within the conventions of the genre. 

A writer who is unfamiliar with your genre might be helpful, but be careful not to write to please someone who doesn’t read (or write) in your genre. Still, a romance writer might be able to bring a unique perspective to your sci-fi novel. If you take their advice, make sure it falls within the conventions of your genre.

Should I use a Word doc or Google doc to receive feedback?

Google Doc Pros

If you provide your manuscript to readers in a Google doc, they will be able to see and comment on each other’s comments. If someone offers to fact-check you, another beta reader might fact-check the fact-checker. 

With Google docs, you only have one document to keep track of, and it’s constantly and immediately up to date with the latest changes.

Google Doc Cons

Research has shown that the first person who comments in a brainstorming session influences the other participants’ thoughts. 

In the same way, seeing the comments of others may skew a beta reader’s comments. If they are worried about what others think, they may not leave any comments at all. 

Google Docs doesn’t handle long documents very well. It starts to run slow if you have too many pages. You can overcome this challenge by offering only one chapter at a time. A chapter is more manageable than an entire manuscript in one Google doc.

Word Doc Pros

If you use the Track Changes feature in Word to receive feedback, each reader will have a “clean slate” when they begin reading. They won’t be influenced by comments because there are none. 

Word can handle long documents and footnotes much better than Google docs.

Word Doc Cons

Each beta reader will have to email you their edited document, and you will have to compile all the comments from separate documents into one. This process could be painful if you have a large group of beta readers.

You may want to disable Track Changes and just ask readers to email you with their overall thoughts.

You also won’t get the discussion between readers that you see when you use Google docs. 

One solution is to do your first round of edits with five alpha readers. Make changes or corrections based on their untainted comments in their five separate Word docs. Then upload your corrected (or most current) manuscript chapter-by-chapter to Google docs. Then you can receive feedback from a larger group of readers in Google docs.

How many beta readers should I have?

I recommend starting with three to five alpha readers. Steven King has his wife, his agent, and one or two others read his manuscript.

You’ll probably want 30 or less on your beta reading team. Some beta readers won’t finish the book. Life happens, and for various reasons, a percentage of your beta readers won’t be able to provide feedback. Your group should be large enough to account for the ones who won’t be able to finish.

A group of more than 30 gets unwieldy. It’s also important to remember that beta readers probably won’t buy your finished book. They’ve already read it for free. A team of 100 beta readers potentially means 100 lost sales. 

By the same token, those readers have done you a tremendous favor. It takes time and creative bandwidth to offer constructive feedback. You should plan to send each one a signed copy of your book for free with a note declaring your undying gratitude. 

As you become an established author and connect with different beta readers, you’ll find a few who offer the best and most reliable critiques. After you publish five or six books, you might only need your five best beta readers.

What do you do with your group of beta readers?

Coach your beta readers on what to look for. You might ask them to evaluate certain aspects of your book:

  • Are my characters interesting?
  • Is the story arc compelling?
  • Do you recognize the theme?
  • Do my sentences sound repetitive? 
  • Is there continuity in my world-building and my characters?

Certain readers love finding continuity errors. Don’t be upset if you receive an email from a reader who points out that your character had blonde hair in the first chapter and brown hair in a later chapter. Instead, invite them to be on the beta reader team for your next book.

Ask for What You Need Most

Figure out what you need most and ask for that. If you have several elements that need to be reviewed, let your beta readers choose which one they want to work on. You might have one beta reader who likes to evaluate themes and another who is great at making your characters more interesting. 

Provide a Framework for Feedback

You can also provide guidance by asking questions for them to answer.

For example:

  • Did the ending move you?
  • How did you feel when Fred killed Wilma?
  • Did you think this scene went too fast or too slow?
  • How many pages did you read in your first sitting? (It’s code for asking where they lost interest. You can go back to that page and see if you need to add conflict or tension.)

If you can craft a book that people can’t put down, you’ve written a winner. 

Give a Deadline

Decide on a due date. If it doesn’t work for someone, just thank them for being willing and put their name on the list for your next book’s beta reader team.

You Don’t Have to Implement Every Critique

A new writer who is still finding their voice can be negatively influenced by too much feedback. 

Helpful feedback says, 

  • I got lost in chapter four.
  • This character didn’t make sense.

Unhelpful feedback that will inhibit the development of your voice says,

  • I think your sentences are too short. (If you’re trying to be pithy, you want short sentences)
  • That character rambles. (Perhaps that’s exactly what you want your reader to think about that character).

Consider each bit of advice, but don’t allow it to change the things you’re confident about. 

Over time, you’ll become a better writer, and your beta team will become more curated. You’ll retain people whose strengths make up for your weaknesses. With each book you write, your beta team’s feedback will make you a better writer. 

How do you thank your beta readers?

  • Give your heartfelt thanks in the back of the book. 
  • List their names in the credits.
  • Thank them on social media.
  • Send a Starbucks gift card.
  • Invite them to coffee or lunch in person.
  • Send them a free signed copy of your book.

Your Response to Every Critique

Your response to every person and every piece of feedback should be thankfulness. You don’t need to explain why they should have understood something differently. If you appear to be thin-skinned, your beta readers will flee the team or stop giving feedback. 

Feedback always stings, but your job is to receive it graciously with an attitude of gratitude and say, “Thank you for your time and input.”

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