Sharing your story can be frightening, so I’ve asked the experts at BetaBooks to talk about how to get the most out of beta readers.
Please welcome guest writer, Paul Kilpatrick and learn the best practices in beta reading. In this context, beta reading is having someone else read your novel and get them to give you feedback that helps you make it a better story.
Check below for a special deal…
Over to Paul.
Why, When and How to Beta your Book.
by Paul Kilpatrick.
Hi, I’m Paul Kilpatrick. My partner Andrew Burleson and I founded BetaBooks, a software tool to help authors organize their betas. Since it launched, our software has helped authors beta over 1000 books. We’ve had countless conversations with authors and readers about why they choose to run or participate in Betas. So let’s get into it.
Why to Run a Beta
There are at least four great reasons to beta.
1. Big-Picture Editorial
You can use your beta to identify oversights and problems in your book. This is what comes to mind for most authors when they think of beta-ing their books. For beginning authors, it is one of the most valuable reasons to beta. A group of people can spot character inconsistencies that you have overlooked, draw attention to plot problems you can’t see, and let you know when you are straying from genre conventions. What you do with that information is up to you.
2. Market Research
Movies have test screenings before they open, bands test out new songs on good crowds before they go on albums, and plays schedule out of town runs, all to get early reactions so they can make their final product as tight as possible, giving them the greatest chance of success. Authors should always be looking for ways to do the same, and the beta is an amazing tool for that. What if someone just released a book in your genre with a similar twist? What if people are reading subtext into your story you did not intend? What if you are unaware of that go-to plot move that people are tired of? Getting your book in front of people in a low stakes setting is a great way to gather that information.
On top of all that, if you are starting out, it is a fantastic opportunity for you to test out different ways of selling your book. Experiment with and keep track of what you said to convince different people to read your book. Those techniques will help you sell your book to the world.
3. Community Building
You want fans who are invested in your books, and beyond that in you as an author. Inviting them into your process and making them feel important is a hugely powerful way to build reader engagement with you and nurture long term relationships. The beauty of beta readers is that they are important to your process. There is no artifice of marketing necessary here. A direct interactive relationship with the readers who are most invested in your work is invaluable. Don’t pass that opportunity up.
4. Sensitivity Reading
If you are writing outside of your own experience, it is essential to seek out people who can give you an honest response to characters like them. If you are not a lawyer but have a lawyer character, get a lawyer to read your book. Many people are so tired of seeing laughable versions of what they do represented in media they will be happy to give it a whirl. This can extend to any experience outside of your own. Write whatever you want but take the opportunity to make sure you are doing it respectfully by seeking out people who are like your characters.
When to Run a Beta
It’s best to beta after a few thorough self-edit drafts (possibly done with the input of a writers group or mentor), so the work will be clean enough for readers to enjoy. It’s also best to do it before a final meticulous copy edit and type setting, because you may make substantial changes based on the feedback you get.
That having been said, we have seen people beta their books at just about every phase of writing. Some authors beta chapters as they write them, and use that super early feedback during their first editorial pass. We have also seen authors use their beta as a last stop before publishing to give them just a little more peace of mind, or as a perk for their core fans to help build buzz before the launch.
There are two questions you should ask yourself before you decide to run a beta:
Am I mentally ready to accept feedback and make changes based on what an outsider says about my book?
Too late in the process and you may dismiss something because of the amount of work it represents. Too soon and you may not be happy enough with the story to avoid feeling attacked and hurt.
Is this draft in good enough shape that I am respecting my readers’ time?
The people we know who invite beta readers super early are practiced and know that what they write in their first draft is close to their final product. Other authors we know won’t show anything to a reader that hasn’t gone through half a dozen of their own revisions. This is not a statement about author skill, merely about process. Do not conform to anyone else’s timetable if you feel it encourages you to waste people’s time.
How to Run a Beta
There are three things you need to do to get the most out of the process. These are macro principles to keep in mind. If you want an in-depth step by step, we have written one here.
Have your book ready
There are authors who invite people to beta a few chapters of a work they never finish writing. Please don’t be that person. Not only are you wasting people’s time with your actions today, you may be turning potentially great beta readers off forever. Do everything you can to make sure you draft is in good shape. This will mean that a) your readers are getting the best experience possible and more importantly b) you have an easier time accepting feedback.
Set clear expectations
Clear guidance about what you, as the author, are looking for is essential. Kristina Stanley, for instance, has a blanket “Tell me when you skimmed” request. Other people ask readers which character they liked most in a chapter. Still others ask about specific beats, tone and believability. Ask 2–3 questions to start and then decide if your readers can handle more questions at a time. Giving a deadline is also a good idea, as a lot of people work better when they’ve got one.
After all of this, know that if you are building a beta team for multiple books, which I hope you are, you should be thinking of this as an opportunity to train and grow a part of your team so that the process can be better for everyone in the future.
Be ready to Engage Honestly
The final piece of macro advice I can give you has to do with your state of mind as an author. You are asking people for their honest feedback, so be ready for that feedback to hurt sometimes. Don’t blame the reader or try to defend yourself. Say, “Thank you,” and either move on or to try and fix the problem. Do not be discouraged. A beta that reveals a lot of problems you had overlooked is not a bad thing, it is an opportunity; and it means you did not release a subpar book into the world. Conversely, if you are getting a lot of positive feedback, take note and see what you are being praised for. Accept and enjoy it, but try to learn what you are doing that people like so you can lean into that in the future.
On Finding Readers
Now that we’ve covered, the Why, When, and How of running a beta, I want to delve briefly into how to find readers. Betas can contribute greatly to a book’s success, but many beginning authors have trouble even getting one off the ground because they are intimidated by finding readers. Don’t be one of those authors!
The two most frequent complaints about betas I hear from authors are: “It is impossible to find readers.” and “I just can’t find any good beta readers.” On both of these, I call baloney.
“It is impossible to find readers” is code for “I’m afraid to ask people to read my book.”
Asking people to read your book is uncomfortable, but it is also the job. Most people who are driven to be creative have a host of baggage that goes along with their creative drive. Imposter syndrome is real. So is introversion, self-doubt, self-loathing, low opinions of our own work, and a collection of other negative internal voices making it difficult to ask people to read our books.
The truth is, to find a good group of beta readers, you are going to have to ask a lot of people. It isn’t impossible. It isn’t even difficult, not really. It isawkward at first, and tedious and repetitive, and it opens you up to rejections. Those hurt, but accepting them is also an essential part of any writer’s journey. Hand-selling your book to someone is the most basic element of what makes a person an author. Many people write, but not all of those are authors. Convincing people that your work is worth reading and eventually worth money is what makes you an author.
Approach it as a challenge and accept it as necessary for your development. Sure there will be rejections, but these are the small rejections that help you build up your author armor. Finding beta readers is a numbers game. Posting an open call for people to do you a favor on your facebook page or on a forum will not get great results (and is another way to avoid actually opening yourself to specific rejection). Instead, ask everyone you know what kinds of things they are reading then see if they will read your book and give you their feedback. Be ready to get nine “no’s” for every “yes,” and know that only a third of the people who say yes will even finish.
It is worth repeating: finding a group of readers isn’t impossible or difficult. It is tedious and requires persistence, but with each person you ask it will get easier.
“I just can’t find any good beta readers,” is code for “I just can’t find a developmental editor who will edit my book for free.”
This one is really amusing to me because, duh. A beta reader isn’t an editor, and if what you want is an editor, go hire one. Beta reading is about gathering and sifting a reasonable amount of feedback into helpful and actionable changes to your book, not finding a silver bullet to save you time and money.
Each author does things her or his own way. It is one of the joys of being your own boss. Experiment with your beta so you get the most out of it and so your results complement your goals and process. This blog post lays out ideas we frequently see authors using to get the most out of their betas. If you are curious to read more about betas, you can check out the BetaBooks blog. We also tend to talk about betas a fair amount on our podcast How Authors Work. If you are running a beta soon, why not look at BetaBooks, and take the free trial tier for a spin? It might help you out.
Thank you for your time and good writing!
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