How to Find and Work with Beta Readers to Improve Your Book

beta readers

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Note from Jane: Today’s guest post on beta readers from Kristen Kieffer (@ShesNovel) is an excerpt from her upcoming e-course on self-editing, Self-Editing Success.


No creative act is a solo endeavor.

Editors, designers, marketers—it takes a team of professionals to help authors bring their novels to life. But lurking behind the contracts and cut checks is a valuable set of hands many authors fail to exploit: beta readers.

Just as film directors benefit from the insight of test audiences, authors can learn much about the state of their novel’s appeal by working with readers willing to critique their story before it hits the market. With these readers often offering their time and feedback free of charge, what’s not to love?

Working with beta readers can provide authors with invaluable insight, helping them see their work through that pesky objective lens. With the feedback digested, authors can use what they’ve learned to better tailor their novel for marketable appeal, increasing their chances of releasing a commercial and critical success.

But not all beta reader experiences are created equal. As with any interaction involving an honest critique, working with beta readers can quickly grow into a regrettable experience if it isn’t designed for the benefit of both parties.

Let’s avoid any mess the first time around. If you’re ready to screen your novel with a test audience for honest and invaluable insight, here are eight steps to follow for an ideal beta-reader experience.

1. Identify Your Ideal Reader

There’s no use in sending your manuscript to an uninterested reader. By taking time to discover your novel’s ideal reader before sending out beta copies, you’ll be able to cultivate a list of betas who most accurately represent your future readers, saving you—and those unenthusiastic partners—a wealth of time and trouble.

How can you identify your ideal reader?

Think about the type of person most interested in your novel, then create a quick profile. Here are a few questions you might answer in your sketch:

  • What is their age and gender?
  • Do they read to be entertained or emotionally engaged?
  • What are their favorite books, television shows, and movies?
  • What makes them happy, sad, or angry?
  • What do they fear or regret?
  • Why do they enjoy reading?

If you’re struggling to form a strong image of your novel’s ideal reader, run a Google search of books related to your own. Begin reading through the reviews for each listing to identify the type of person who most enjoyed the work. Use what you learn to strengthen your answers to the questions above.

2. Cultivate Relationships with Beta Readers

If you’re starting from scratch, you’ll need to identify a group of potential beta readers to whom you’d like to pitch your manuscript. Though the easy route would be to email the first interesting person you find on the internet, I highly encourage you to take a step back.

The work of beta readers should not be taken lightly. To read a novel may be a simple task, but to analyze each element with a critical eye in search of weak areas, errors, and inconsistencies is anything but.

Before contacting strangers to ask for their help, take time to cultivate strong relationships. You can do this by first identifying the group of prospective beta readers you’d like to work with.

If you haven’t yet made any connections, begin by creating an account on the social media site where your ideal readers hang out. Young and new adult crowds are often found on Twitter or Instagram, while more mature readers usually congregate on Facebook.

Once you’ve chosen a platform, it’s time to establish your presence. Begin by adding a headshot for your profile picture and a succinct profile bio. Then, like or follow the feeds of other authors and notable creative figures. This will help potential beta readers gain a quick understanding of you and your interests as you begin to interact.

Speaking of interacting, your next step is to find and follow potential beta readers. Not everyone you eventually contact will accept your proposal, so I suggest following at least thirty potential betas. If you reach out to all and only a quarter accept, you’ll still have a fantastic group of beta readers to critique your novel.

To find potential beta readers, follow popular writing tags like #amwriting and #writercommunity. Make sure to use these tags when you publish your own posts. You can also find prospective betas in online writing groups, such as Writers Helping Writers or Fiction Writers.

Once you’ve found a few potential beta readers, begin interacting with them by liking and commenting on their posts and statuses. Offer friendly conversation, sharing in their daily joys and challenges. After a few weeks of genuine interaction, it’s time to move on to step three.

3. Don’t Ask for Beta Readers—Offer to Be One

Unless you’ve built incredible friendships overnight, your potential beta readers probably won’t be too inclined to read and critique your novel without receiving something in return. As we discussed above, beta-reading is difficult and time-consuming work. Your potential beta readers are entitled to more than just a thank-you for their effort.

This is why I recommend sourcing your beta readers from the writing community. When you finally get in touch, you won’t have to beg or plead for their help; you’ll be able to bring your own offer to the table.

That’s right! When you ask your new acquaintances for help, you should offer to beta read their latest manuscript in return. Not only will this make the experience beneficial for both parties, but you’ll gain more practice in reading with a critical eye. This will help immensely as you continue to edit your own works.

When reaching out to potential beta readers, make sure to be personal and professional. Let them know their services are highly valued by contacting them directly (and individually) through email rather than on a public feed or in a private social media message.

4. Simplify the Process

Once you’ve compiled a group of committed beta readers, it’s time to ship them a copy of your manuscript. Though some authors may choose to send a paperback copy to their beta readers, a digital PDF or EPUB file is the most common option and both are perfectly acceptable. Ask your beta readers which format they’d prefer.

Simplify the critiquing process for your beta readers by including a list of questions you’d like answered. You can inquire about characterization, plot and character arcs, pacing, the quality of your prose, and any errors or inconsistencies your betas may have noticed.

When you contact your beta readers, clarify that these critique questions are an optional guideline for the feedback you’d like to receive. Allow each beta to pick and choose how they present their feedback, and never demand they work according to a specific process.

It’s also helpful to include a preferred time frame for the critique in your initial pitch. If you need feedback before a certain date, ensure your betas know that before they agree to read your book.

Be upfront and honest about the type of critique you’re looking for, but never believe you’re entitled to receive it simply because you’ve offered to beta in return. Writers lead busy lives, and sometimes they simply don’t have the time or desire to meet your needs.

5. Learn to Love Criticism

No matter your age or experience, learning to swallow your pride and accept an honest critique is a difficult endeavor. It’s also necessary. Learning to love criticism will only make you a stronger writer.

That’s why it is important to recognize critiques as advice rather than admonishments. The manuscript you send to your beta readers is not perfect. No story is, not even the most critically acclaimed works.

Rather than viewing your beta readers’ critiques as flaws or nitpicks, recognize them for what they are: the potential for improvement.

If your beta readers have sent you truly constructive criticism—feedback that encourages as much as it critiques—you can trust it to be an inside look at what future readers would think if your novel were published as is.

This means their criticism comes from an honest desire to see your work improve, rather than the chance to tear you down. Seize this opportunity. Recognize your chance to take these critiques and use them to your benefit. Better your novel and you’ll better its chances of success.

With that said, don’t make every change your beta readers suggest. They’re only people. They may not see or understand your vision for the book or have the same desires as the rest of your beta readers.

If you don’t agree with a critique a beta reader has pointed out, take a step back and put that critique in context. A good rule of thumb is to only make a change to your manuscript if it’s something you wholeheartedly agree with or if more than 50 percent of your beta readers made the same critique.

6. Show Your Gratitude to Beta Readers

When you receive feedback from beta readers, make sure to show your gratitude for the time and energy they’ve spent critiquing your novel.

If you previously offered to return the favor, make sure to follow up. Ask your beta readers if they would like you to critique their next project. If they agree, pencil the time to complete the review into your schedule.

If a beta reader doesn’t need you to critique one of their upcoming projects, offer to promote or review a project they have already published. Show them you care by taking time to inquire how you can return the kindness they’ve done you.

And finally, if your beta reader isn’t a writer, offer to send them a few copies of your novel once it is published. Make sure to sign each copy. You may also want to include a personalized note of thanks to show your appreciation.

7. Take an Honest Approach When You Serve as a Beta Reader

If you return the favor by completing a few critiques for your beta readers, these final two steps are for you.

First things first, you want to be honest in your communication. If you simply can’t make the time to critique a beta reader’s manuscript, let them know. Don’t let their hard work go unappreciated, but be honest in what you can and cannot make the time to do. The only thing worse than not reviewing their book is sending a poorly constructed critique because you couldn’t spare the time to do it right.

If your beta reader appreciates your critique as much as you did theirs, let them know you’d like to maintain the relationship. Rather than finding a brand new set of beta readers for your next work, you’ll have a group you know will put in the time and effort to do the job right.

On the other hand, if you don’t want to maintain a relationship with a beta reader, be honest but kind. Let them know you appreciated their work and was happy to return the favor, but be clear about ending the relationship.

8. Give the Value You Desire to Other Writers

If you reached out to beta readers, it was likely with the expectation they would offer you valuable insight you could use to better tailor your novel for success. You should give this same kind of value in return.

Constructive criticism is a flinch-inducing phrase for many writers. They view it as a series of negative remarks rather than as commentary on both the strengths and weaknesses of their manuscripts.

For every element you critique when completing your review—be it characters, plot, setting, etc.—include at least one comment that’s encouraging. Every writer should know what they’re doing right; we build upon our strengths. So where did they excel?

Do you have any other tips for an ideal beta-reader experience? Share your wisdom in the comments below!


For more from Kristen Kieffer, check out her site, ShesNovel, or sign up for her upcoming e-course, Self-Editing Success.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice and tagged , , , , .
Kristen Kieffer

Kristen Kieffer

Kristen Kieffer is a fantasy author and the creative writing coach behind ShesNovel.com, where she teaches writers how to craft novels that will endear readers, excite publishers, and launch their writing careers. You can find her on social media @shesnovel.

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37 Comments on "How to Find and Work with Beta Readers to Improve Your Book"

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[…] Learn how to find beta readers and make the most of the experience through these eight steps.  […]

Bridget-Now Novel (@nownovel)

Great post, Kristen (and thanks for hosting this post, Jane). You hit on something very important in general in the book world: reciprocity. As writers and readers it’s important that we create a mutually supportive space for writers of all genre interests, backgrounds, positions, etc. Thanks for the illuminating and practical advice in this area, am sharing it.

Hannah

Thanks for all the great advice. My book is in desperate need of critiquing, but I am having a hard time finding beta readers. I think sending a few chapters at a time to betas through email is another great way to interact with them as I personally prefer chapter by chapter critiquing.

Alyssa Hollingsworth

This is great! I’ve discovered and maintained great betas through NaNoWriMo and CampNaNoWriMo, among other sites (like Ladies Who Critique), events, and classes. But I can still remember the days when I was banging my head on the computer screen, trying to find someone. Your guide is a fabulous resource for writers in that place!

Harald Johnson

Excellent post. Probably the best I’ve read on Betas. I especially agree with this:
“A good rule of thumb is to only make a change to your manuscript if it’s something you wholeheartedly agree with or if more than 50 percent of your beta readers made the same critique.”
Not exactly manuscript-related, but I’m designing the cover of my WIP, and two of my three Betas interpreted my latest cover design in a way that never occured to me. I was so close to it that I didn’t see it. Once pointed out to me, it was obvious. I’ve changed the cover.

chitrader

I solicited beta readers mainly on my blog as well as reaching out to a few writer colleagues. One way I “screened” them is to send each of them the first ten pages so they could read and understand what the novel was going to be. If they liked what they read and said, “I’m in,” I sent them the full mss. I had really good participation. Six out of seven who indicated interest ended up reading the entire book and giving me excellent feedback.

Chris

chitrader

Harald, good idea about having beta readers look at your cover design too. I’m going to steal that idea if you don’t mind. 🙂

Chris

blondeusk

Great article – very useful!

Harald Johnson

[note: I’m not seeing proper nesting of replies here so I’ll just leave a clue]… @chris “Harald, good idea about having beta readers look at your cover design too. I’m going to steal that idea if you don’t mind.”

Go for it, Chris! BTW and not sure what the protocol is here, but I’ve created a “Book Cover Reviews” group on GoodReads. If you want serious feedback on a DIY cover, especially from a design and technical POV, check it out; been kinda quiet lately 🙂

Traci Kenworth (@TraciKenworth)

This is a great post!! Very helpful for future use!!

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[…] How to Find and Work with Beta Readers to Improve Your Book […]

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[…] How to Find and Work with Beta Readers to Improve Your Book (Jane Friedman) No creative act is a solo endeavor. Editors, designers, marketers—it takes a team of professionals to help authors bring their novels to life. But lurking behind the contracts and cut checks is a valuable set of hands many authors fail to exploit: beta readers. […]

Jennifer Bowen

This is super thorough and dead on. I’m a writer who tried to cobble together some teenage beta readers a few years ago to get feedback and from that experience, I’ve been working on my start-up BookHive to make the beta reader editorial feedback process more seamless. Check us out if you like! https://www.bookhivecorp.com And as we are in a soft launch, feel free to take advantage of the coupon code BUZZ for $100 off. Thanks again for this awesome blog.

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[…] a fresh pair of eyes to view your work can’t hurt. Kristen Kieffer (@ShesNovel) guesting on janefriedman.com offers eight tips on how to find and work with beta […]

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[…] How to Find and Work with Beta Readers to Improve Your Book (Jane Friedman) No creative act is a solo endeavor. Editors, designers, marketers—it takes a team of professionals to help authors bring their novels to life. But lurking behind the contracts and cut checks is a valuable set of hands many authors fail to exploit: beta readers. […]

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[…] For those whose first drafts are finished, Kristen Kieffer gives pointers on how to find and work with beta readers to improve your book. […]

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[…] Kirsten Kieffer: How to Find and Work with Beta Readers to Improve Your Book […]

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[…] Below, excerpts from Kristen Kieffer’s guest post at Jane Friedman’s blog: […]

Declan @ Writerful Books
An informative article apart from the absence of any mention of remuneration. While some beta readers are happy to offer their services for free, there are others like ourselves at Writerful Books, who think that a professional beta reader should be paid like any other service provider. Having a few mates or twitter followers read your manuscript and then showering them with gratitude (or a free book after they’ve already read it) is one thing but if you want your manuscript read professionally I think it is reasonable to expect to pay the beta reader for their time and expertise.… Read more »
Jane Friedman

I thought beta readers were partly defined as being “not professional help” or someone who identifies as a reader, and not as an editor or publishing professional. But perhaps the definition of beta has evolved over time—or maybe my understanding has been incomplete.

Declan @ Writerful Books

There are many professional beta readers out there as a quick google search will show.

I understand that some authors want feedback from fans and the types of readers who would actually go out and buy their books. There is a definite need for such people. But there are other authors who think they can use beta readers in place of proofreaders or a manuscript assessment which I think is jumping the gun a little.

Kamila Miller

If you’re a ‘professional beta reader’ you’re actually serving as a developmental editor. Beta readers aren’t paid.

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[…] How to Find and Work with Beta Readers to Improve Your Book | Jane Friedman […]

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[…] Kieffer presents How to Find and Work with Beta Readers to Improve Your Book posted at Jane […]

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[…] How to Find and Work with Beta Readers to Improve Your Bookby Kristen Kieffer […]

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[…] and learned a few feedbacks and lessons. But for those who are hesitant, I’d refer you to How to Find And Work With Beta Readers to Improve Your Book, by Kristen Kiefer. Finally, Joanna Penn Shares Her Editing Process for Excellently Edited […]

Shimira
@Kristen or anyone who would like to answer. Should you work with a Beta Reader who do not enjoy your work? I hired a Beta Reader to help me with the development/structure of my novel. During the beta reading, she basically suggested ideas that basically changes the story or would cause me to go back into full rewrite. I’m convinced that she does not like my novel because she gave no compliments but stated “What a Great Attempt” in her critique (I can take criticism and critiques, but as an artist that was a gut move) I’m trying to work… Read more »
Writerful Books
Hi Shamira, Just to be clear on what a beta reader does and doesn’t do.. i) A beta reader does not give developmental/structural help with your novel. This is what a developmental editor does. Hiring a beta reader to do editorial work or to be a writing coach is expecting a bit too much from them not to mention that they may not be qualified to do so. ii) A beta reader’s job is not to like your novel and to give you compliments. If that is what you crave you would be better giving your novel to a family… Read more »
shimira

Thank you, I guess the beta reader and I are confused on what services she provides because she offers developing editing with a beta read. Thanks for your input!

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