Managing the Beta Reading Process

by | Apr 8, 2015

By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

Maybe it’s the time of year. All those NaNoWriMo manuscripts are beginning to stir, and they’re popping up like crocuses through the dregs of this winter’s snow.

And what’s on every author’s mind? Beta readers. At Beyond Paper, we’ve been up to our eyebrows in beta readers, too: with two books set to launch soon, we’ve been querying, contacting and attending to the details of this stage of writing.

The result? Our beta readers have obliged in a big way. Now it’s our turn to manage all that great feedback coming our way.

Be Specific

This time last year, we wrote about how to get the most from your beta readers. We suggested that giving beta readers specific things to look for would go a long way to ensuring you get helpful information. In our case, beta readers who’ve offered to read The Ebook Style Guide: Creating Ebooks That Work for Reader have been asked to read for clarity, correctness, and missing topics. (Of course, being editors and proofreaders, our beta readers couldn’t help but flag a few typos and inconsistencies as well—and we thank them for this!)

Know Your Audience

At least one of your beta readers should be a typical reader—someone likely to buy your book. Both of the books we’re about to release are written for a dual audience: self-publishing authors and the editors who work with them. We expect each group will provide unique feedback that will tell us where we need more information or clarity.

Do you write for a dual audience? Maybe you do and you aren’t aware of it. A recent article at The Guardian asks, Why are so many adults reading YA and teen fiction? We won’t subject you to our theories here, but suffice it to say that teens and adults will provide different—but equally helpful—responses to your writing. So, when drawing up a list of potential beta readers, consider who might read your book, then consider who else might read your book.

How Many Beta Readers Do You Need?

In APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur—How to Publish a Book, Guy Kawasaki recounts sending his finished manuscript out to 250 beta readers and receiving approximately 60 of these back, with comments. Whoa! That’s a lot of beta readers, and a lot of beta reader feedback!

Experienced self-publishing authors have their own sense of how many beta readers is enough. We know one author who prefers more—around 15—and divides specific reading tasks among them. Keep in mind that the more beta readers you engage, the more time it will take to sift through their comments. And the larger the crowd of betas is, the more this process is like crowdsourcing. Are beta reading and crowdsourcing the same thing? That’s a discussion for another day, but we’ve touched on it here.

Is More Better?

What’s our ideal number of beta readers? Five. Remember the law of diminishing returns? We’ve found that beyond five readers, feedback becomes repetitive and burdensome in its sheer volume. And when we queried the wise authors on Writer Unboxed about the optimum number of beta readers, the prevailing opinion was the same as ours: between three and five is just about right.

We’d also posit that the more confident you are about your book, the fewer beta readers you need. Asking dozens of readers to weigh in on your work might be construed as saying, “here’s my book, I’m not too sure about it, but tell me what you think anyway,” and then allowing consensus to guide you.

Multiple Formats

Whatever number of beta readers you settle on, make your book available in multiple formats. As we say (repeatedly) at Beyond Paper, it’s all about the reader, and it’s about the beta reader, too. Readers will likely request a format they’re most familiar with to ensure a pleasant reading experience.

Tips: Put file formats in a shared Dropbox folder. Give a deadline.

You have many file formats to choose from, too: Adobe PDF, epub, Google Docs, mobi, Word, and WPS Writer, to name a few. The Slideshare table below features the e-readers and apps available for beta readers and the file formats they’ll read. The accompanying article Tech Tools for Beta Readers goes over each tool’s features.

Tools for Beta Readers table

Receiving Beta Reader Comments

Ideally, beta readers will be familiar with the format they’re using to review your work. It’s critical, too, that they can conveniently transfer comments to you, whether that means copying Kindle notes to a Word doc and emailing them or emailing you a PDF mark-up.

Google Drive presents an interesting option for beta readers, too. If you put your book into a Google doc and share the link, multiple beta readers can add comments in the same document. If you have just a few beta readers, this option is wonderfully convenient, as you have all feedback in one place. Beware, however, that a heavily marked-up document begins to look like a crime scene when too many reviewers weigh in.

Develop a System for Incorporating Feedback

However your beta readers read and however you receive their feedback, you’ll need to record their feedback, decide whether to act on it or discard it, and revise your manuscript (again!) accordingly.

We find a spreadsheet works well for tracking this information:

Beta Readers image

Wrap Up

If you’ve received enough meaningful feedback to gauge your book’s readiness for the next stage, don’t worry about waiting for all comments to trickle in. If you’ve set a deadline, and if most of your beta readers have been able to meet it (this isn’t always possible), then you should be able to tie up loose ends quickly.

Do remember to thank your beta readers. Send them a free corrected copy of your book, and add them to the acknowledgements. Make a note of those whose feedback you found especially helpful, and be prepared to reciprocate, should the opportunity arise.

Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla DouglasCorina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas of Beyond Paper Editing are Contributing Writers for The Book Designer. They are also authors, copyeditors and proofreaders who work with and instruct self-publishing authors.

You can learn more about Corina and Carla here.

 
Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Amazon links contain my affiliate code.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit

16 Comments

  1. Will Gibson

    I used beta readers extensively to help me edit my book. But, I used them in a less formal way.

    When printing a first edition with CreateSpace in 2011, I then gave away about twenty books in the next year and received feedback from about a half dozen readers. In some ways, it was like having a developmental editor in them saying, ‘I liked this but I didn’t like this.’ In other ways, it was like having a copy editor when receiving comments about repetitive word usage and other ‘quirks’ about my writing.

    Beta readers are a very important component for self-publishers, but don’t excessively worry about cataloging and analyzing their feedback. If you can just take their input to create a better book, then you have succeeded if utilizing their very important feedback as early readers of your book. I found that if two or more readers mentioned a problem, then it was probably there. Take heed and change it.

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Thanks, Will. I like your longer term and more casual approach to working with beta readers. Receiving feedback over a year? That’s almost unheard of now. It gives the readers time to review your work, and it gives you time to process what they’ve said and to look at your book again with fresh eyes.

      I’m curious: Did you then go back into your file, upload changes and then publish a second edition with CreateSpace?

      How much you classify and analyze feedback may be more important if you’ve given readers a specific task. Otherwise, as you’ve said, you just need to watch for items that two or more readers flag.

      Thanks for commenting,

      Carla

      Reply
      • Will Gibson

        With CreateSpace, I would upload my changes about every three months and produce a new proof and a new ARC that I would then give away again. It seems most people needed a few months to read the book and then get back to me. Also I kept self-editing random sections while waiting. I should mention that I pulled my book from distribution during this time. So, in about a year and a half, I printed five different proofs with CS.

        I switched printers and distribution to Lightning Source for my second edition. The book had largely been rewritten by then with a new cover. I also took my time with this edition, printing three different proofs through LS until finally releasing it for sale about nine months later. As a self-publisher, I knew my book needed ‘the editing that I couldn’t afford’ so I did it this way. I think it’s quite clean now and I learned a lot about my writing. But I won’t do it for my second book, once was enough.

        Reply
        • Carla Douglas

          That’s such an interesting process, Will, and lengthy, too. I applaud the time and care you took to produce a clean final product, especially with no budget for editing. And as you’ve pointed out, you learned a lot in the process—subsequent books won’t take so much time.

          Thanks for this info!

          Carla

          Reply
  2. P.D. Workman

    I find that I get comments back from about half of my beta readers. Others don’t get around to it, are dealing with sickness or family issues, are behind at school, etc. and can’t fit it into their schedules like they thought they could. So if you need feedback from 3-5 betas (which I agree is a good range) then be sure to get 6-10 to start with!

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Excellent tip, PD, thank you! We’ve found the same thing—people are busy, and can’t always meet your deadlines. So begin with twice the number you think you might need. It’s sort of like estimating time needed to write a blog post, a chapter, or a book: Decide what you think the right number of hours should be, then double it. :)

      Thanks for your comment,

      Carla

      Reply
    • Deanna Fugett

      Totally agree!

      Reply
  3. Jason Matthews

    Super info, Corina and Carla! Beta readers: don’t write a book without them.

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Thanks, Jason! Agreed—they are indispensable!

      Reply
  4. Alex

    That’s an interesting summary of the organisational, creative and technical aspects of the process with beta readers.

    Especially the remarks about “too many beta readers equals crowdfunding” got me to think. Many artists are doubting themselves by nature and I can see how having too many beta readers would confuse especially inexperienced minds.

    On the other hand, you don’t want to put too much emphasis on the opinion of one single reader by only having one in total. So it’s really a tight rope to walk on.

    The solution IMO comes with experience; you will be able to seperate critique that’s justified from critique that’s superfluous. Also, if there are several beta readers, you can look at points that a few of them make and just disregard if only one person mentions something.

    Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Thanks for your comments, Alex.

      That is my point exactly about having too many beta readers—if you lack confidence, you may allow their combined opinion too much influence. But on the other hand, it is “all about the reader,” as they say, so you want to know where the problem areas are in your book. No sense having beta readers if you won’t listen to what they have to say!

      I agree—experience means a lot. Over time you learn how to classify and gauge the value of beta reader comments. You also learn (we hope!) how to choose the best beta readers for your book.

      Carla

      Reply
  5. Frances Caballo

    What a great post, Corina and Carla. From what you say, it seems that Google Docs is really the way to go in terms of collecting comments from beta readers. I use Google Docs quite a bit when working with clients and it is convenient and saves time. I am wondering if you think Guy Kawasaki had too many beta readers. As you say, there is the issue of the law of diminishing returns. I think for an Indie author five beta readers sounds ideal.

    Finally, I like your suggestion that beta readers should be people who would likely purchase the book. Especially for nonfiction writers like myself, that would be ideal because it would prevent me from not sufficiently explaining some technicalities of social media. And for fiction writers, it has potential to strengthen the bond between the reader and the writer because the beta readers would potentially feel as though they’re in the inside circle. In general, I think having beta readers can only increase the bond and loyalty between readers and writers.

    Reply
    • Carolyn

      I can’t even find one beta reader. I belong to several online critique groups, but no one wants to take on critiquing a complete novel. I’ve asked. Ive signed up with querytracker and other places to find beta readers/critique partners. The ones I found usually dropped out within a few weeks or months. I don’t have any that stuck with me. Also, a lot of people want support. I want people to be honest because that’s how I am. Any suggestions?

      Reply
      • P.D. Workman

        That doesn’t sound like a beta reader. A beta reader reads my book when it is done; they don’t have to stick with me for weeks or months. Just a few days or however long it takes to read the book in it’s ‘final’ form.

        Reply
      • Carla Douglas

        Sorry you’re having trouble finding beta readers, Carolyn. I think most people begin with the groups they’re already members of, as you have done. There are a number writers’ groups on Facebook, too, and also a Goodreads beta reader group. I guess the key is to keep querying until you find your people. For a few more tips, here’s a post from The Alliance of Independent Authors blog: https://bit.ly/1Gxd86K

        Good luck, Carolyn. I hope you get some results soon.

        Carla

        Reply
    • Carla Douglas

      Frances,

      Thanks for your comments and kind words!

      You’re right in your observations—we love Google docs (and Google sheets) at Beyond Paper, for writing collaboratively and for tracking time and information. Using them eliminates the problem of having to keep track of the most current version of works in progress.

      For beta reader comments, Google docs are wonderful because you can see and compare all comments in one place. Potentially this could provide you with interesting data, too—which parts of your manuscript elicit the most remarks, for example, or which parts are most problematic. My only caveat is that gathering comments this way works best if you have relatively few beta readers.

      From a research point of view, having 250 beta readers, as Guy Kawasaki did for APE, is fascinating, but I do wonder how much more meaningful info he received than if he’d had only 10 or 15 people read his manuscript. And, is all the time it takes to sort and record this info time well spent? I guess what I’m saying is that you should be strategic.

      Fiction and nonfiction are so different, aren’t they? Especially for nonfiction, as you point out, knowing what you haven’t explained sufficiently is crucial. It’s not simply that you’ve got the facts right, they have to be clear and accessible, too. And for fiction, you need to know if your readers are getting your sometimes subtly delivered ideas. So know your audience! That is the thing I harp on, ad infinitum, and beta readers can be a huge help with this.

      Thanks again for weighing in,

      Carla

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Top Picks Thursday 04-16-2015 | The Author Chronicles - […] done writing, you need readers to give you feedback. Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas lay out how to…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.