5 Things You Should Know about Working with Beta Readers

by | Mar 19, 2014

cover image for beta readers showing a woman reading on a beach
By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

If you’re a self-publishing author, you’ve likely either read or been told that you need to hire an editor. But a professional edit costs money, and while self-publishing gurus will recommend that it’s money well spent, not every author has the wherewithall for such an investment.

Strange words coming from two editors, right?

If a professional edit isn’t currently in your budget, what do you do? Answer: find a beta reader! While beta readers are not editors — they likely won’t have the training, years of study, practice, or the inclination to snuggle up with The Chicago Manual of Style, just for fun — we do think that they can be helpful additions to your publishing team.

Profile of a Beta Reader

The point of acquiring beta readers is to garner information that will help you write a better book. So ideally, at least one of your beta readers should be the kind of person who’d be most likely to buy your book. Why? Their response to your book will help you gauge which parts of the book will work for your audience, and which parts may not.

We also recommend that you find a beta reader who knows more about writing craft than you do. (As editors, you knew we’d say that, right?) Think about it. One of the best ways to get better at anything is to get feedback from someone who’s more skilled and knowledgeable than you are. And if you can find a beta reader who has read lots of books in your genre and has a clear understanding of how your genre works, you’ve struck gold.

Where to Find Beta Readers

One way to find beta readers is to work your social media platforms. If you’ve been spending time to develop a positive online presence and a reputation for being helpful, an unforced opportunity to ask for help may present itself.

If you’re still building your author platform, consider joining a site like Scribofile, where you can offer feedback on other people’s writing to amass “karma points,” which you can then spend on acquiring feedback for your work. Wattpad is another option for finding beta readers. You can upload your book and write a compelling blurb that inspires people to read and respond to your book.

Local writing or critique groups may be an option for face-to-face feedback. Go to meetup.com to see if there are “crit” groups in your area.

Working With Beta Readers

Now that you’ve found your beta readers, consider the rules of engagement that will help you to create a healthy working relationship. Authors don’t usually pay beta readers, so any interaction needs to be positive and affirming. Presumably, this won’t be your last book, and treating your beta readers right will leave them open to helping you out next time, too.

  1. Don’t Give Them a Draft Your beta reader is still a reader — a reader who might tell other readers about your book. It’s important to treat your beta readers right, and that begins with what you ask them to read. Don’t give them your first draft. In fact, be sure that what you give them is the very best writing you can produce on your own. Write your draft and set it aside for at least a week. Go back to it and rewrite it if you need to. Then set it aside for another week — again. Revise, revise, revise, until it isn’t remotely possible for you to do any better.
  2. Your Manuscript, Their Way Before you send your manuscript to your beta readers, ask them what format they’d like it in. Beta readers might want to print your manuscript or read it on a Kindle. If they prefer the latter option, send them instructions for how to get your manuscript on an e-reader. Do whatever you can to remove any obstacles that will prevent your beta reader from carving out time to read your book.

  1. Give Them Guidance Let your beta reader know what kind of feedback you’d like from them. Develop a checklist with questions you’d like answers to. Do you want readers to comment on the strength of a character, or the organization of a concept? If you create a specific list of questions around content, beta readers won’t spend their time punctuating sentences. Adapt your revision checklist to meet the needs of each book your write.
  2. Don’t Take it Personally Remember, it takes a great deal of time to read and respond to a book. And your beta readers will have opinions that might sting a little. Be gracious for any feedback a beta reader gives you, even if you don’t agree with it. Ask yourself, “Will addressing this comment make for a better book?” If so, take their advice and apply it to your next revision. If not, whatever you do, don’t defend yourself. Your beta reader already knows your position (you’ve done as you’ve seen fit, as evidenced by your manuscript) but they don’t agree. Thank them for their comments and move on.
  3. Return the Favour Remember, you’re not paying your beta readers to read your book. They’re offering feedback because they want to help or they’re interested in your book’s premise or topic. If your beta reader asks you to be a beta reader in future, seriously consider returning the favour. And when it comes time to publish your book, give them a mention in your acknowledgements. Everyone likes to see their name in “print.”

Beta readers can play an important part in helping you to create a better book — particularly at the revision stage of writing. After you’ve revised your book, based on their feedback, and once again made your book the best it can be, you’re ready for an editor (you knew we’d say that, right?).

Photo: bigstockphoto.com

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

30 Comments

  1. Michael Riley

    Thanks for writing on this topic. I am a teen guy and have done beta reading for YA authors. Personally, I have found using Fiverr as a good tool for connecting with authors.

    I know that there are a variety of opinions but using a paid beta reader can be a good option to gain added feedback. Fiverr.com allows authors to see feedback and reviews that a beta reader has received. This can help an author determine if their book could be a good match.

    Thanks again for posting on this topic.

    Reply
  2. LDL

    Overall, this is a very good article and can be quite helpful. Unfortunately, I have to take exception to the last point you make.

    I’m a freelancer. I offer beta reading services along with proofreading, editing and ghostwriting. I am not going to take a beta reading project if it isn’t paid because then I have to set aside my paying projects or defer my own personal writing time just to comment on a manuscript that I may or may not like without even a ‘thank you for your time’ email.

    Gratitude is very thin upon the ground in today’s society. Most people under the age of 30 seem to feel that the world owes them for inhabiting it which is why beta reading has become a non-paying job.

    People asking for a beta reader think we only read through the manuscript once. This isn’t true. It’s not even true for a proofreader or editor. The first read is to get a feel for the story. If it’s too jarring it’ll get sent back as needing proofreading and editing prior to a proper beta reading. The second reading is where we read it to make comments. Imagine how long it takes you to read a 100k word book for enjoyment. It takes 3-4 times as long beta reading. Imagine what would happen if a freelancer like me gave up paying projects to do an unpaid beta project. I’d lose more money on that one project than I could have made on the 5-6 that could have been completed in that time frame.

    Reply
    • Prisca

      You’re not really a beta if you require to be paid.Then you’re really just a shitty editor, to be honest.Ideally, you’d recruit social media followers, not the Literary world’s version of “pay to play.” You also kindly earn yourself an eye roll, and the likelihood of someone you paying you to be a beta is slim.

      For anyone who sees this, and needs beta readers avoid folks who want to pay, and submit chapters one at a time, and then interview them, immediately after (it would be best if you did it the second they finished the page). Ask questions regarding their thoughts, their predictions, what happened in the plot, and what they thought about the characters.

      Reply
    • Molly Seay

      You’re right. My best betas are one that I paid because they gave the best feedback. Some free ones were good, but most I never heard from again. Even a paid beta isn’t an editor, though. An editor works very hard for the money as far as plot holes, characters writing weaknesses ect, but a paid beta is great for me once my editor and I finish.

      Reply
      • Mark

        Interesting. With my lack of experience on the subject, I assumed a writer would start with beta reader(s) and then go to a paid editor.

        Reply
        • Anita Lemaire

          As a writer I think a beta reader is useful at earlier stages to see what is working / what is confusing etc. An editor is for the end of the process. They are two very different functions

          Reply
    • Mary Vanko

      I agree. I am a freelance editor as well, and I rarely do beta reads, but have actually always been offered a modest fee for completing a thorough beta read. We are not sh–y editors for accepting payment, but are professionals that take the time to do a worthwhile job.

      My last beta read I agreed to do for the $50 fee offered and, after I presented the author with the written report, he was so thankful that he paid an unexpected bonus, made changes to his manuscript based on my report, and even named me as a contributor and thanked me in the book! This manuscript had been edited twice before I did the beta read.

      Reply
    • Hazel

      I understand what you’re saying, but I have to disagree with the part about people under the age of 30. I know many people, including myself, who fall in that age group and we all say thank you and please. We were taught manners and use them on a daily basis. Yes, some people in that age group are ill-mannered and believe the world owes them, but that’s only a small few. To say most people under the age of 30 are ill-mannered is like saying those who have manners, which makes up a big part of that group, are nonexistent and don’t matter.

      Reply
    • TERESA MATTSON

      What would you charge for a Beta Reading project?

      Reply
  3. Lauren

    Fantastic article. Thanks for the tips.

    Reply
  4. Angela

    Great article!

    I am currently looking into some paid beta readers for my first novel however I not looking to send the completed draft as you suggested. I am at the 25,000 word mark and I am ultimately looking for some feedback on whether the first part of my novel is a compelling enough read.

    Would you advise against this 100%?

    I would assume that a lot of writers sometimes get discouraged and need either the negative – confirmation that the story hasn’t got enough in it or the positive – that they are capturing readers in the first 25,000 words and therefore receive that extra boost they need to complete the draft.

    Reply
    • C.K. MacLeod

      Thanks for your kind comments, Angela.

      It can be helpful to get confirmation and direction in the early stages of writing. In fact, getting feedback early in the process is wise, as it can prevent existing problems from snowballing. If you have beta readers at the ready, it can’t hurt to send them your manuscript to see if the story draws them in.

      Alternatively, you could also find an editor who does partial manuscript evaluations. An editor can tell you if your story is working and also offer suggestions for how to fix it if it isn’t. A manuscript evaluation is usually far less expensive than most kinds of editing. I think that if more authors invested in a manuscript evaluation, they’d have to spend less on a full on edit.

      Reply
  5. Hanne

    Hi

    I wonder is it ok for an author to request his/her readers to buy the book to be a beta reader ? I’ve seen this several times, and in my opinion it’s not fair. What do you think

    Best wishes
    Hanne

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Hanne,

      Thanks for your question. I’ve heard that this happens sometimes—that authors are asking beta readers to purchase their book.

      I agree with you: I don’t think this is okay. When you ask beta readers to read your book, you’re asking them to do you a big favour. As an author, it’s in your best interest to set your beta readers up for success.

      Provide your beta readers with a copy of your book in whichever format they prefer, whether that’s a mobi or epub file to use on a tablet or e-reader, or a pdf that they can print out.

      Also let them know what you’d like them to focus on. Create the conditions that will allow your beta readers to give you the most honest and helpful feedback. Asking them to fork over their own money to do this is not the place to begin!

      Best,

      Carla

      Reply
  6. Julia Bourne

    What is to stop an unscrupulous beta reader from plagiarizing your work? Although it’s unlikely, they could take the whole thing and self publish as an ebook. I know you own the copyright when you create work but I’m wondering about copyright protection, maybe including a copyright page at the front (as it suggests on this website in Self-Publishing Basics).

    Reply
    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Julia,
      Plagiarism can be an issue, for sure. And having a copyright notice on the first page will not stop someone from plagiarizing your work if they’re determined to do so (I’m speaking from experience, here).

      This is yet another reason to choose your beta readers carefully. If you choose people you’ve developed a relationship with, they may think twice about pinching your content.

      There are ways of monitoring your content to see if it has been plagiarized, but that’s a topic for an entire post (thanks for the idea!). In the meantime, I’d highly recommend The Little Book of Plagiarism, by Richard A. Posner for an insightful discussion of the topic.

      Reply
  7. James Jean-Pierre

    Thank you for sharing this information. My question is, if you already used an editor for developmental and sent it to someone else for a developmental critique would you still recommend using a beta reader or would that be enough?

    Reply
    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Great question, James.

      If you’re getting professional help with your book, do you need beta readers?

      A developmental editor will help you with the content and structure of your book.

      A beta reader’s feedback will depend on that beta reader’s skill set. For example, I recently ran a book past my ideal readers: editors and self-publishing authors. The editors noted copyediting inconsistencies, and the self-pubs focused on clarifying content. I still had my book professionally copyedited. All of these participants made for a better book.

      Your book may need different things, and you may need different people to point them out to you. So, be sure to choose your collaborators with a great deal of thought.

      Reply
  8. Jason Kong

    What are your thoughts about using people from your existing fan base as beta readers if you’re a fiction writer? Maybe soliciting help from your most loyal readers on your email list, for example?

    I suppose that would be case of having folks quite likely to buy your book, but those not necessarily more skilled at writing.

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Jason,

      Thanks for your question — and what a great question!

      It hadn’t occurred to me that a writer could look to her email list as a source of beta readers, but what better place? So yes, loyal readers would make excellent beta readers, and for a few reasons.

      For one thing, you want someone who is familiar with your genre to check out your manuscript. Whether they realize it or not, they have internalized the structure of the genre — they know when the action should be rising and falling, and they also know when something doesn’t feel “right”.

      In the same vein, a reader from your email list will likely be reading other authors in the same genre. They’ll be able to tell you right away if your story fits the trend — and whether you’re exploring similar themes, describing similar characters, and so on. They are doing a lot of background research without knowing it!

      You don’t necessarily want a beta reader who has particular writing or editing skills. Your editor will take care of this. A beta reader, on the other hand, will weigh the emotional connection you’re able to make with a reader, how quickly you can accomplish this, and whether this connection is authentic. I’d argue that there’s no one better than a loyal reader to measure this, and it’s crucial. Readers can be unforgiving if this sense of connection and trust is violated.

      One caveat: Be careful to avoid readers who are so loyal that they will overlook faults, flaws and weaknesses in your manuscript. You want a beta reader who can be impartial. If they are loyal fans, they need to be able to look at your work and comment on it objectively,
      even if it means that they must be brutally honest and critical in the process.

      Hope that answers your question — thanks again for your comment!

      Carla

      Reply
  9. Tina Chan

    Oh man! This article hits so many points head on regarding beta readers! (which is funny because I actually wrote a blog post listing the pros of being a beta reader a few weeks ago, lol) It really, really helps beta readers if you give them a “checklist” of some sorts (haha, kind of like guided questions you get in school for a reading assignment) so they know what kind of feedback to give. Also, it’s good to note that while betas will probably help correct a type here or there, we’re not professional editors (we’re usually just people who love reading and would like to help out authors)

    Another good place to find beta readers is in Goodreads forums. As a beta reader myself, I often check Goodreads for any budding novels that might catch my eyes :-)

    Reply
    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Thanks for the Goodreads tip, Tina.

      Disclosure: You’ve caught me out. I am a former elementary school teacher (and I now teach online courses to editors and authors), so I’m perhaps more fond of checklists than the next person. But I think that when you’re a beta reader — the person in the position of helping someone — you want to know how best to help. You need a bit of a job description. Checklists are one way that authors can offer beta readers guidance.

      And you’re quite right: you can’t expect beta readers to be copyeditors. In fact, I’d suggest that it’s in your best interest to encourage them to focus on content and clarity. Sure, someone may point out overused words or grammatical misfires, but what you really need from betas at this stage in the publishing process is to point out those areas of your book that aren’t serving the reader. You then have the information you need to go back and rework those bits.

      Reply
  10. Ceejae Devine

    I actually received a “mini-review” from a beta reader today. She’s a professional woman I’ve known for over ten years, so it meant a lot to me.

    Here’s what she said:
    “I wanted to let you know I read the first 50 pages of your book and have really enjoyed your story! At no time did I want to quit reading…but had to once because I had an appointment to get to. I like your writing style a lot. Very easy to read.”

    She’s agreed to read the rest of it, so I’m feeling really positive and now, given your suggestions, when I send the next part I will see if I can add any more to the list of things that would be helpful.

    Reply
    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      That’s very encouraging, Ceejae. Congratulations! It’s quite a feat to lead with a strong beginning that a beta reader just can’t put down.

      It sounds like you already have a list of items for your beta reader to look for. Good for you. By way of example, I ask beta readers to highlight any sentence or section that doesn’t make sense, or that they have to reread. You’ll create a list of items that makes sense for the kind of book you’ve written.

      Don’t be afraid to stare your fears down, though. If there’s some element in your book that you think you didn’t quite nail, put it on your list. As scary as that might seem, you want to encourage beta readers to look for things that aren’t working. It’s always cheaper, from an editing perspective, to do your fix-ups earlier in the writing process, rather than later.

      Reply
      • Ceejae Devine

        Great tips! I’ll make sure to ask her to use a highlighter. I have one other women who’s willing to read it, so I’ll mention that to her as well. Thank you!

        Reply
        • Carla Douglas

          Ceejae,

          Glad you find these tips helpful. The highlighter pen and the highlight feature — so simple to use, but so useful when you need to zero in on key areas in a piece of writing!

          Best of luck with your novel,

          Carla

          Reply
  11. shelton keys dunning

    This is a really good post that points out an underutilized option for self-publish-minded authors on a budget. I want to caution against some assumptions though.

    Beta-reader does not mean “free” advice. There are people out there that will provide this service without charge, and one can certainly get a lot of genuine, insightful feedback from a source like Wattpad. But. Some people charge for their time, whether they’re providing a detailed developmental edit, or a general point-out-where-you-see-plot-holes report. If you’re seeking a quality response, a professional response, then be prepared if your Beta-Reader charges a professional fee for his or her time. If someone volunteers, make sure they’re aware not only of what you’re expecting from them, but the budget you have upfront. Now, chances are that if your Beta-Reader does charge a fee, it will be a minimal fee compared to that of a developmental editor, sometimes a barter or trade like a gift card to a coffee shop or a bookstore will suffice, especially among friends.

    And while one should not expect their beta-reader to be cozy with Chicago Manual of Style, this is because that sort of edit should already be done by the time it gets to the hands of a beta-reader. Most beta-readers are equally as qualified to proof and edit a book as anyone with an “editor” title. If your work suffers from poor grammar, a good beta-reader will politely decline and point out that your story might have merit, but it should be edited for grammar first.

    Reply
    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Shelton. You’re quite right in saying that one good turn deserves another. If someone is offering to spend valuable time to read your book and offer feedback, consider how you might honour them for that effort. As you’ve suggested, you can get creative with this.

      Personally, my books don’t go through the copyedit stage before I submit it to beta readers, but I do my absolute best to to make it the best it can be before I run it past other sets of eyes. I also run it through some editing tools (more about that in a future post).
      Depending on the kind of book I’ve written, at the beta read stage, I’m looking for readers to point out content issues — anything that’s not clear, for example. I design a book-specific list of content issues that they can be looking for.

      I’d agree with you that it’d be best to sort out structural issues (how your book is organized) before the beta read stage. That’s where a structural editor who is trained to look at big-picture issues can help.

      Finally, after I’ve responded to their suggestions and made changes to my book, I submit it to a Chicago-lovin’ copyeditor. I want to make sure that content issues and structural issues are resolved before a copyeditor begins work. It’s cheaper that way.

      Reply
  12. Greg Strandberg

    I didn’t know about Scribophile, I’ll have to look into it. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Corina Koch MacLeod

      Greg,
      Thanks for your comment. There are lots of ways to get feedback on your writing. Scribofile is just one of them. It’s always advantageous to be able to hand pick your beta readers from communities you participate in, but if that’s not possible, online crit groups may yield worthwhile connections.

      Reply

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