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11 Things to Remember While Working with Beta Readers

I’ve always loved this piece of advice from Stephen King:

“Now let's say you've finished your first draft. Congratulations! Good job! Have a glass of champagne, send out for pizza, do whatever it is you do when you've got something to celebrate.
If you have someone who has been impatiently waiting to read your novel-a spouse, let's say, someone who has perhaps been working nine to five and helping to pay the bills while you chase your dream-then this is the time to give up the goods...if, that is, your first reader or readers will promise not to talk to you about the book until you are ready to talk to them about it.”
Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Why acquire beta readers?

‘Beta readers’ is just a fancy way to say test readers, really. Voracious readers who would love to give your book a read and provide a neutral third-party opinion about it, before it goes to your Agent, or Editor or even Publisher.

I’ve met many a writer, who for the sake of keeping their story or book a ‘secret’, have not attempted to receive any feedback from test readers. Their plans have been to send the manuscript directly to the agent or the editor and subsequently to the publisher. Or have published directly, without having a third set of eyes take a look. I can assure you what a grave mistake it is to do that.

Beta readers are a resource that every first time author should exploit. And more often than not, their insights turn out to be more valuable than anything else. What else can be more essential than having a small section of your target audience give you objective, first-hand feedback on your work, before it hits the market?

With that feedback you can fine tune your book, address gaping holes, if any, and increase the chances of your book becoming a commercial success.

Where and how to find them?

Working with beta readers however, is not a random endeavour. It requires a certain amount of planning on your part.

Identifying a beta reader is essential. You need them to be people who like to read books in the same genre in which you have written. Bonus points, if they are readers who have been following you and your work on social media platforms, or those who have actively interacted with you on your work while it was in progress. Uninterested readers will not provide accurate feedback and will be a total waste of your time, I can assure you.

11 things to remember while working with beta readers:

  1. Ensure your profile photo, bio and signatures, are all updated on your media platforms.
  2. Post a call for beta readers on your website and all the writers’ groups that you are a part of. This could be a tweet or an Instagram card, or a short video request uploaded on your Youtube channel. Sourcing beta readers from the writing community is always a plus, because as writers themselves, your readers will already have a hunger for reading and critiquing new work.
  3. When you’re choosing a beta reader also note their age, nationality or cultural background. This will give you fair idea of which section of the population will enjoy your books more.
  4. Not all beta readers will agree to critique your work. Some may agree and then not respond at all. It is essential, to have back-up readers on your list, who you can contact and ask for help. Anything from 10-30 beta readers is good. Less than 10 is inadequate. More than 30 will become overwhelming for any new writer. Note that, for your first book, the process may seem really hard. It’ll get easier with your second!
  5. The relationship between you and your beta-readers works on a mutual barter system. Which means, that for unbiased critique and reviewing, you will have to give something back in return. You can offer to be a beta-reader first and in exchange ask for your work to be read. You can offer free copies of the final book (hardback, paperback or e-book) as gifts, to your beta readers. You can also pay them a nominal fee. It is rare, but not unheard of. Send them thank you notes after they’re done. I would even suggest that you thank them, by name, in your Acknowledgements.
  6. Agree on a file format (PDF, DOCX, EPUB) before you start sending files back and forth.
  7. It is essential to decide how structured you want their critique to be. I know writers who hand a list of questions to their beta readers, which is a great idea, because the writer gets to choose what part of their book they think needs critiquing and the beta readers will provide answers that will be to the point and relevant. Then there are writers who take it as it comes, without having a proper structure. Needless to say, beta reading without a structure can be overwhelming for a new writer, because information will flow in freely and you won’t know how to organise it or process it. So have a structure in place. You could ask about the characters and their backgrounds, or just focus on plot development, or ask your readers to analyze your writing style and so on. You can, of course, make these questions optional, in case some beta reader prefers to provide you their opinion on something entirely different. Keep it structured, but flexible.
  8. Don’t forget to include a time-frame. And clarify if your reader can stick to it.
  9. If you’re working on a non-fiction book, it may be more wise to go for fact-checkers rather than beta readers.
  10. I don’t have to tell you this, but be open to criticism. Don’t get too defensive about your work. Ultimately, you can choose what critiques you want to ignore and what you want to listen to. Remember, if more than 50% of your readers criticise the same thing, you know you’ll have to change it.
  11. Beta readers are not replacements for editors. If you’re self-publishing, use beta readers to polish up your manuscript. Then get a professional editor. As someone going for traditional publishing, use beta readers to polish up your manuscript before starting to query agents. If you want to submit to a publisher directly, then get your manuscript edited professionally, as well.

Great Beta Reader and Critique Groups that you can be a part of: 

That’s all for today, folks. I go into much more detail about working with beta readers and critiques, in the book. The chapter in the book talks about where and how to source readers from, what questions to ask them and how to work with their feedback, with examples and interviews from writers and experienced readers. Let’s Sell Your First Book: Marketin 101 for First-time Authors will be available for pre-order from 1st Jan, 2018!