Are you self-publishing your novel? Hoping to be traditionally published? Whichever route you’ve chosen, beta readers are an important part of your journey from hopeful writer to published author.
But what exactly is a beta reader? Do you really need them? And where on God’s green earth do you find them? Read on for the answers to these questions and many more!
What is a beta reader?
Beta readers are volunteers who read your unpublished manuscript and answer a series of questions about it.
Why do I need them?
By the time you finish revising and editing your novel, your brain is suffering from writer’s fatigue. And after spending months (or years) “raising” your book baby, you’re so enamored with it you’re incapable of seeing its flaws. So before you take the next step towards publication, enlist a team of betas to read through it with objective eyes.
Betas will tell you what works—and what doesn’t—in your book. Beta reading should not take the place of a professional edit (or two), but your betas can help you tighten up your manuscript as much as possible before putting it in an editor’s hands, saving you time and money in the long run.
How many beta readers do I need?
This is a very personal choice. I know authors who’ve gone through beta rounds with everything from three beta readers to over thirty. While thirty readers would completely overwhelm me, three is a bit on the light side. Ten is my sweet spot, but your preference may be higher or lower.
When choosing the size of your team, keep in mind that the more beta readers you have, the wider range of perspectives you’ll get on your novel. And when one part of your book elicits strong responses, either positive or negative, it’s nice to have more than just two or three opinions on the matter.
However, you need to balance the desire for more feedback with your ability to actually keep track of it. During beta rounds, you’ll get a deluge of information from your beta readers, and keeping it all straight takes some doing! (I’ll share my method for compiling beta feedback later in this blog series.) So as you choose your team, limit yourself to a number that seems manageable to you.
But no matter how many beta readers you start with, you can expect a few to drop out at some point (more on this below). So I recommend starting with two or three more than you think you need to account for attrition.
What makes a good beta reader?
Ideally, beta readers should belong to the target audience for your book. If your betas don’t regularly read and enjoy books in your genre, then your novel will be a point down from the word “go.” And those familiar with your genre are better able to point out elements of your story that don’t quite hit the right notes (or those that are missing entirely).
So if your book is Christian chick lit, then you’ll want your betas to be Christian women. If it’s a blood-soaked horror, then search for readers who love gory books that scare their socks off. These are the readers who will offer the most helpful feedback.
One exception to this guideline is for young adult novels. Because adult females are the largest consumers of YA books, it’s okay to choose a mix of women and young adults as betas for your YA novel.
Where do I find beta readers?
Beta readers can be recruited from several different areas of your life. However, not all betas are created equal. Below is a list of sources for beta readers along with the ins and outs of each.
While enlisting family may be an easy way to fill your beta roster, family members don’t usually make the best betas. Why? Because your family is biased. And depending on your family’s dynamics, its members are far more likely than strangers to:
- tell you your book is amazing (even if it’s not), or
- rip it (and your heart) to shreds with their criticism (even if it’s unwarranted).
Sheesh, family! Am I right?
While friends are usually more objective than family, you’re likely to run up against the same scenarios as above. And harsh criticism from a friend is much harder to shrug off than criticism from a stranger, which could color your friendship going forward. So utilize friends as beta readers with caution (with the possible exception being if your friends happen to be writers. See below.)
However, a friend of a friend is often a safe bet for beta reading. Because they’re not directly connected to you, they’re more likely, to be honest in their feedback, and knowing your friend trusts this person can alleviate some of the anxiety of sharing your work.
Writing groups, both local and online, are an excellent source of beta readers. Those who’ve studied the craft are able to point out things a typical reader might not see, like missing plot points or a weak character arc. And many writers are happy to do a beta read if you agree to return the favor when their time comes.
Because you’ve already interacted with members of your writing group, you probably enjoy some level of familiarity and comfort with them. This can make handing over your book baby a little less nerve-wracking.
Don’t already have a writing group? Check out this post for my top picks for online writing communities.
On their forum, Goodreads hosts a Beta Reader Group where you can post a call for beta readers. With nearly 20,000 members, you’re sure to fill your roster quickly. However, this option requires blind trust because everyone who responds to your request will probably be a perfect stranger. If this makes you nervous, then this option might not be right for you.
Your Email List
If you have a list of subscribers (to your website, blog, newsletter, etc.), then you have a built-in pool of people who are already fans of your writing, and many of them will jump at the chance to be the first to read your novel. They’re not quite friends but not quite strangers, either, so this can be a more comfortable option for Nervous Nellies. (No judgment here…I am one myself!)
If you have a social media platform for your writing, then you can use it to recruit beta readers. As with your email list, those who follow you on social media are already your fans, so many will be happy to beta read for you. But they may also be strangers to you, so use your own judgment to determine whether you’re comfortable with this option or not.
Do I pay my beta readers?
No, beta reading is done on a volunteer basis. However, it is customary for the author to send a small thank-you gift (more on this in a later post) to thank betas for their time. Most authors also send beta readers a copy—either digital or print—of the book when it’s published, and many mention their beta readers in the acknowledgements section (if they have one).
When should I start beta reading rounds?
Ideally, your novel should be as clean and tight as any you’d find on a bookstore shelf when you send it to your beta readers. Anything less will color their opinion of your entire story (and you), and a sloppy manuscript invites sloppy feedback. So I recommend not beginning beta rounds until you’ve fully revised and edited your novel.
However, I know many authors begin the process when their manuscript has been revised but not edited. (What’s the difference? I explain in this post.) I understand the logic behind this. After all, editing material that may be cut when you make your post-beta revisions seems like a waste of time. But sending an unpolished manuscript to beta readers is risky. Some betas just will not be able to see the overall story through all of the errors—bad grammar, awkward sentences, incorrect punctuation, etc.—that should be caught in the editing phase.
How do I know I can trust my beta readers?
This is a big worry for many writers, and for good reason. We live in a digital world, so piracy and theft of intellectual property are on the rise, making it more important than ever to choose beta readers you feel you can trust.
The best way to do this is to recruit people you already know, either in person or through a mutual association (writing group, critique circle, mutual friend, fan club, etc.). I’ve had great luck finding beta readers through my writing groups, and because we’ve interacted through the group, I feel comfortable sharing my work with them.
If you’re recruiting beta readers from a pool of people you don’t know, then you can screen prospective betas by having them fill out a brief application, of sorts. You’ve poured your heart and soul into your novel, so it’s perfectly reasonable to want to know a little about the people you’re handing it over to. I’ll cover this in more depth in my next post, so join me next time to learn how to handle this step.
And to give you a little more peace of mind, you should also have your betas sign a Beta Reader Agreement (I’ll share mine with you in the next post). Not only does it provide you with some legal protection should one of your beta readers do something hinky, but it also sends the message to your betas that you’re no shrinking violet when it comes to protecting your work.
But even without these safeguards in place, your book is protected by copyright law from the moment you write it. If you feel the need, you can go one step further and register your copyright ($45 for a novel) with the US Copyright Office.
Can I fire a beta reader?
Absolutely! Your book is your magnum opus. Your baby. Your blood, sweat, and tears. And if one of your beta readers just doesn’t feel like the right fit, then feel free to cut ties with them.
Some reasons you might fire a beta reader are:
- His criticism is unnecessarily harsh
- Her comments are minimal or not helpful
- He fails to meet your deadlines
- She rubs you the wrong way
- He has a funky cowlick
Okay, that last one is a little extreme, but you get the point. You have the right to “fire” anyone at any time for any reason.
However, if you do choose to sever ties with a beta reader, you should do so diplomatically. A disgruntled ex-beta reader can become a nasty reviewer when your book is finally published.
Some of my beta readers dropped out. Does this mean my book is terrible?
Beta readers are the angels of the writing world—but they’re also human beings with busy lives. And sometimes, no matter how well-intentioned they are when they agree to beta read, they’re just not able to fulfill that commitment. So losing a small fraction of beta readers is completely normal.
However, if half (or more) of your beta readers drop out, this could be an indication that your book doesn’t have the chutzpah to hold a reader’s attention for two hundred pages (or more). This can make you feel absolutely gutted, but it’s better to know this before you publish your book rather than after. Reach out to those who dropped out and politely ask if they did so because they just didn’t like the book (and why, if they’re willing to share). And ask them to be completely honest; kindness is not a mercy at this point.
The FAQs above contain a lot of information, but we’ve just scratched the surface of the beta reading process! So stay tuned to the blog for parts two and three in my series about beta reading.
Penny for your thoughts…
Have you ever run beta rounds for a novel? What are some of your best tips for how to do it? Share with us in the comments below!
Next time on Work in Progress:
In my next two posts, I’ll share my step-by-step guide to beta reading, which covers everything from how to set your deadlines to how to organize all that wonderful feedback. Part 1 will be posted in two weeks, so come back then to check it out. Until then, buckle up, buttercup, and let’s write!
In case you missed it: Knowing how to write a great sentence is a must for every writer. So last time on WIP, I put on my teacher hat and taught a class on Sentence Structure 101. Give it a read—it’s an easy A.