The Ultimate Guide to Beta Readers: Definition, Why They Matter, and How to Find Them

If you’ve looked into the process of publishing a book, you might have heard the term “beta readers.” But what are beta readers? Do you really need them? And when do they come into the writing process?

The Ultimate Guide to Beta Readers

A couple hints: yes, if you’re going to publish a book, you need beta readers. And no, they’re not a replacement for hiring a professional editor.

Even if beta readers aren’t technically a part of the editing process, since they’re not editors, they are essential to impacting positive revisions.

Beta readers can—and will—do wonders for your book. If you know where to find good ones, and how they can positively contribute to your stories.

This is how I found knockout beta readers. Ones that made a big difference in making my story it’s best draft.

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I released my first novel, Surviving Death, last fall. I’d worked on this book for a very long time and put it through countless edits. There came a point in the process where I knew I was done with everything I could do for myself. To my eyes, my book looked publishable.

But I needed fresh eyes.

I needed beta readers.

I knew the beta reading process was a necessary part of publishing a book, but that honestly didn’t make me feel much better.

I was scared. It was the first time I was sending my baby out into the world. Not only that, but I was purposely asking for people to poke and prod and find problems! Yikes.

Still, I knew I needed betas. I knew by doing this, it would make my baby stronger in the long run, and that any aches in pains that came from my own worries would be worth it.

So I took a deep breath.

I developed a plan and asked around (more on how to ask people to beta read later in this post).

It turned into quite a wonderful process that (luckily) didn’t have me rewriting my book from scratch. Most of my betas loved my book, and gave me the confidence to move through with the publication process. (If you’re reading this and were part of my beta team THANK YOU again!)

I want to help create this same experience for you.

With a little knowledge about beta readers, you can get this part of the process over and not lose sleep over it.

Let’s get started!

What IS a Beta Reader? (And What a Beta Reader ISN’T)

If you’ve ever been on the internet (and if you haven’t, what magic are you using to read this?), you’ve probably heard of “beta testing.”

Software companies use beta testers to work out all the kinks in their programming before the product goes live. It’s an important step in the development of anything.

A book is no different.

For a quick definition of what someone means when they say you need beta readers, they mean you need THIS type of reader:

Beta readers look at your manuscript as a reader with an eye for entertainment mistakes. They are not the first person to read your book or work as a replacement to an editor, but they do read your story prior to publishing so that you can revise your book with mindful critiques.

The process of beta-ing your book is just like software companies beta testing their products. You give the manuscript to a group of readers so they can “test” it for inconsistencies and major problems.

Beta readers read your manuscript with the eye of a reader. They are not an editor, and cannot replace editors in any way, shape, or form. (You need an editor, guys. I especially recommend a development editor before publishing.)

Unlike with copy editing, it is not the beta’s job to catch all your grammatical errors (though they will probably catch some). It is also not their job to brainstorm solutions to plot problems or fix your boring dialogue.

Don’t confuse beta readers with alpha readers or critique partners, either.

An alpha reader is the first person who reads your manuscript, normally when it’s in the very early stages. (Mine is my husband, who has to put up with reading my first drafts. Poor guy.)

Critique partners are other writers who look at your manuscript as another writer would: with an eye for writing craft mistakes. They provide constructive criticism with a more trained eye than alpha readers, since they’re writers themselves.

Beta readers do read with different intentions because they read like readers—in other words, they don’t need to be professionally trained on the elements of plot or the writing craft (although the could be).

It is the job of a beta reader to tell you if a character is flat, or if your world rules don’t make sense—or if a plotline is confusing. Any of these issues take away the entertainment value of your story, which will leave readers at the end of the book feeling disappointed.

A beta reader exists to minimize reader disappointment when you release your book.

Beta readers are also important for all kind of publishing: self-publishing, hybrid, or traditional.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll emphasize it again. You need beta readers.

Learn more why here.

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Why Do I Need Beta Readers?

You might not want to hear this, but there is something wrong with your book. Hear me out.

This doesn’t mean your story idea isn’t good, but there’s something wrong with your story in its first drafts, Often second and thirds, too.

If you think there’s something wrong with your story idea, you can double check before writing a manuscript by writing a premise.

But when it comes to a finished first draft? Get a beta reader!

You know how you can read the same page twenty times and then someone comes along and points out a typo? Yep. We’ve all been there.

Proofreading is an important step in our revision process. But that doesn’t mean we can substitute as quality beta readers of our own books.

The same thing can happen with major issues in your book. Things like inconsistencies in world-building, character development and description, main and sub plotlines, and even misplaced objects in the story can throw your readers out of your book. This will probably confuse the heck out of them!

For example, one of my beta readers caught the fact that I had my characters shackled and then a couple of paragraphs later, they were swinging fists and fighting.

Where did the shackles go? Good question, dear beta reader.

It was something distracting that I needed to fix.

Other beta readers questioned a slang word I used. It was an old slang word from the 1920’s and they had no idea where to even start with understanding what I meant. That’s a problem.

A couple others pointed out a missing explanation for magic in my world. I swore it was in there and thought that I’d just read it before I’d sent it to my betas. But on yet another read-through I found I’d cut it. I was thoroughly familiar with my world and didn’t realize I’d chopped something so integral to reader understanding.

I filled in blanks with the world facts I knew. They, of course, did not.

Another problem.

Beta readers will catch issues like this, ones you never will because you’ve spent os much time in your story.

You need someone to look at your story with fresh eyes. To pull back the lens! In all different kinds of ways.

Why do you need beta readers? Because you will inevitably be blind to problems with your book, and those problems don’t have to be as simple as a misspelled word.

You could have major disjointed issues and not even realize it.

All the more reason to gather up some some amazing beta readers before publishing.

Do Beta Readers Get Paid?

Ah, the big question on every struggling author’s mind: how much money do I have to fork out for this?

The answer, in general, is none. Betas don’t get paid. Or, you don’t need to pay a beta reader to have a good one.

There are professional beta readers out there for hire, but most indie authors go the free route, mainly because . . . well, we don’t have money.

As I mentioned earlier, most people are super excited and honored to be asked to do something like beta a book. Most are more than happy to volunteer. When we offer our beta skills to a burgeoning writer, it’s likely we’ll find a writing friend who will offer the same service back.

Keep track of your betas and their contact information!

Just because you don’t pay them doesn’t mean you can’t offer them some great perks for their awesome time and contribution to your story,

It’s only polite to thank these beta volunteers when they’re finished. It’s also common to send them a free copy of your published book.

If you’re beta readers helped you a ton, consider thanking them in the acknowledgments.

It takes a village, and there’s huge benefits to helping each other out.

How Many Beta Readers Do I Need?

More than one, fewer than a hundred.

I know, that’s an eye roll-worthy answer.

It really depends on how much feedback you think you need and whether you’re going to want to do two rounds of beta-ing.

One person is not enough to give you a consensus on your book’s problems.

Fifty is too many to not only coordinate in the process, but to coordinate their feedback into something useful.

Do keep in mind that you may have many people agree to beta for you, but they probably won’t all finish (or sometimes even start) reading your book?

Look for about a third to half of them to finish, and keep that in mind when you’re deciding the ideal number of beta readers for your book.

How many betas do I like? I had about thirty-five for Surviving Death. About ten made it all the way through the book in the time frame I gave them, and another five or so made it partially through. So I got feedback from about fifteen people. And that’s plenty!

For me, that was more than enough.

4 Qualities You Need in a Beta Reader
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It can seem tough choosing a beta reader. Where to you start? You’re tempted to just ask friends and family, aren’t you? Stop right there.

Your grandma probably isn’t the best option.

While you love dear old Grammy, she also loves you, and she’s most likely just going to shower you with praise rather than give useful feedback.

The same goes for your significant other (also why my husband is my alpha reader, not my beta reader), your best friend, your parents, your siblings, or any of those people closest and dearest to your heart.

While awesome outside your writing career, they’re too close to you to view your work as a volunteer or business relationship. And because of this, they’ll probably be too gentle in their critiques.

The good news is, other than those closest to you, anyone can be a beta!

I would recommend these four qualities when making your selections:

1. Your beta readers have to be readers.

This seems obvious, but I’ve had several people offer to beta for me that never read.

If the person has only read one book since they graduated high school, you’ll probably want to skip them. They won’t be able to give you any kind of feedback simply because they don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to literature.

You know how they say you can’t be a writer if you don’t read?

While beta readers might not be professional trained in writing, they will have an implicit knowledge on how story works simply because they read so much.

These are the people you want giving feedback—they can provide more specific feedback on what’s missing, and why it’s muddling their read.

2. Your beta readers need to be reliable.

They can’t have years to finish reading your book.

You need to get it released at some point, and just like deadlines are important for your writing process, so are deadlines for your betas.

After all, receiving beta feedback is part of your writing process, and you need to keep to your calendar.

Choose betas who have the time to commit to your writing.

If someone you ask doesn’t have the time, that’s fine! Maybe next time.

3. Your beta readers need to be willing to be honest.

Sometimes brutally.

You’re not looking for Grammy’s praise, remember? You’re looking for honest feedback from a reader’s perspective so you don’t get bad reviews on Amazon when your book is published.

In fact, if you’re not getting any suggestions on what to change, that’s probably a red flag your beta choices aren’t the best.

You need a variety of feedback.

Some will be based on taste and preferences (which by the way is important, not everyone is going to love your book and that just means you’re writing for a niche—and you need a niche!). Others will be based on major storytelling concepts, like if a character is likable or plot elements don’t make sense (remember my slang problem).

All of these will be important for you to make decisions on what to change or keep.

Ultimately, it’s YOUR story. You don’t need to change everything your beta readers suggest.

But if they don’t suggest anything, what’s the point in asking for feedback?

Praise is great! You’re hoping for positive responses, too! But there’s beauty in the balance.

4. Your beta readers should read your genre.

There are two reasons for this:

One, if they don’t know anything about your genre, they can’t provide great feedback because they won’t understand genre musts or trope, and—

Two, if they don’t read your genre, chances are they’ll get bored and never finish your book.

However, if you have a B-Story plot that goes into another genre, you can look for a couple of betas to help you with that.

For example, if you’re a horror writer that has a romance subplot, you may want to recruit a romance reader to help you out with those love scenes. (The book I’m currently writing has this setup, and I will definitely be tapping into my romance-writing friends to give some feedback.)

Just don’t stack your deck with fifty people who don’t know a thing about your genre or care to read it.

If you do, not only do you risk their feedback being misguiding—but possibly not getting fresh thoughts at all. Yuck.

What Makes a Good Beta Reader—With Examples

So you know what make a bad beta reader. Now you might be asking, “Who’s left if I can’t ask my friends and family?”

“Who is a beta reader worth asking?”

Luckily, there are plenty of people out there that will be willing to help you out. Why? Because you asked for help. (And they think it’s really cool to be in on the process of bringing a book into the world.)

Good beta readers might include:

1. A work colleague, a friend of a friend, or an acquaintance

I didn’t say you couldn’t know your beta readers at all.

I said they can’t be the kind of person who loves you so much that they praise you just for getting out of bed.

People you know are fine, as long as they don’t like you too much. It’s great to have optimistic cheerleaders for your work, but beta readers need to give a bit more than applause.

2. Members of your online community

You know these people, but don’t really know them. Plus it’s easier for people to be honest from behind a screen.

You can pull these from your followers or interest groups you’re a part of—many niche groups can be found in Facebook group. Or Goodreads. Online book clubs would also be a great place to ask.

Or make a critique groups with your own writing community!

Just keep in mind that you should know if these people read in your genre. Hence why finding the best writers’ groups for your science fiction or romance books. (You will write a better book when you find your peeps.)

And don’t forget the tip about rewarding them with a copy of your book, or at the very least, a thank you card!

3. People who haven’t beta’d for you before

Keep it fresh.

Not only do you not want to impose on the same group of people all the time, you also need new eyes on your writing.

Readers tend to get more forgiving the more they read an author. You still need your betas to catch those problems!

When you’ve never used a person as a beta before, they aren’t aware of some author habits or stylistic decisions you might make.

So, they might call attention to something your previous betas could miss because they know your style and already like it.

How Do I Find Beta Readers?

It might seem like a monumental task to find a group of people willing to volunteer to read your manuscript and give you good feedback. Luckily, it’s not.

Most people are more than willing to give you a little help. You can find beta readers just about anywhere.

Here’s a list to get you started:

Most people are more than willing to give you a little help. You can find beta readers just about anywhere. Tweet this
1. Writing communities

These are probably the best places to look for beta readers.

The people in these groups are writers (duh!) and will totally get what you’re needing from them. They’ll also be more likely to know what they’re talking about when it comes to recognizing plot holes and characterization problems.

They also might be finishing up a manuscript of their own and looking for their own beta readers. This swapping of stories is what writing communities are all about!

Don’t have a writing community? We’d love for you to join ours, The Write Practice Pro.

2. Local writing groups

These are another great place to shop for betas, for the same reasons as above.

3. Your mailing list

This is another go-to spot to pick up some beta readers.

If you don’t have an author site yet, you need to get one! Asking people on your site’s mailing list is great because they’re already interested in your work enough to subscribe (also known as being a member of your target audience).

Why wouldn’t they want to beta for you? You’re already sending them such great material, and you know this because they haven’t unsubscribed.

Keep in mind here that you don’t want to give your book away to ALL your subscribers. Otherwise, who will you sell it to when it’s released? Choose a couple top picks and move on, starting with those who you think will be most dedicated to meeting your beta reading deadline.

Don’t have an author website yet? Here’s how to build yours.

4. Acquaintances

These are a great way to go for a few reasons. They’re people know you, but who don’t know you well enough to not give you honest feedback. (Not family and close friends.)

You can ask some folks at work or put out a request for help on social media.

Maybe even ask these people if they’d like to fill out an application if they’re interested in beta reading your story.

Remember, when searching for beta readers, you need to make sure you’re collecting honest readers. People who’ve only read one book since high school are not going to be helpful.

How to Ask People to Beta Read for You

Now that you know where to look, how do you go about asking?

It’s tough to ask for help, especially for introverted writers. It’s especially tough to ask for free help.

The great thing is, as I mentioned earlier, most people are more than willing to give you a hand.

Everyone I’ve ever asked has jumped at the opportunity.

I’ve had strangers on the internet, other writers, and random people from my husband’s work (whom I’ve never met) agree to beta read for me.

It’s really astounding how excited people are to beta read. They’re normally honored to be asked and curious what it’s like to be inside the process of writing and publishing a book.

So ask away! Think, “if you ask them, they will come!”

A tip for asking on social media: 

Start your post with actually asking for a favor. Don’t write a really long post explaining everything about your book. Don’t act like it’s a huge imposition on people. Don’t act like your book is “probably just okay” and be apologetic. Just ask!

Here’s a sample post:

Hey, can I ask you to do me a favor? I’m looking for beta readers for my latest book and would love it if you could help me out! PM or email me at randomemail@random.com if you’re interested!

That’s it! Easy as pie. (And way easier than writing a book!)

5 Steps to Working With Beta Readers

Now that you have a group of beta readers ready and waiting for your book, what’s the next step? What should you dowith these eager readers?

Here’s how to give your beta readers the best experience and ensure you get the most useful feedback.

[/share-quote] Learn how to give your beta readers the best experience and ensure you get the most useful feedback in this post. P.S. Don’t forget to use the free beta reader template in it! [/share-quote]

1. Prepare your manuscript

Edit. Your manuscript shouldn’t be full of crazy typos and notes you’ve made to yourself. It should be as clean as possible.

You don’t want your betas to have to slog through nonsense to do you this favor. Fix as much as you can possibly fix before you send it to betas.

2. Specify what you want

Beta readers need direction.

There’s a good chance a lot of your dream team hasn’t beta read anything before. They’re most likely not one hundred percent sure what they should be doing.

Remember beta readers are not professional editors. They’re not looking for typos. (They’ll most likely point them out when they catch them, but that’s not their primary purpose.)

Beta readers are there as a test reader market for your book. They’re to read as a reader would. You know how you read a horrible/fantastic book and then talk about the issues/great writing with everyone who’ll listen?

That’s basically what you want your betas to do.

You want their honest opinion as a reader. But you also want to keep them focused on their job. Therefore, you need a list of questions you’re concerned about.

I like to encourage betas to give general comments at the end, but also give them a few specific questions to use with their critiquing.

With my last book, I wanted to know a few key things:

Did my main character make choices?
Was the ending satisfactory?
Was my secondary character redeemable?
Did my world rules make sense?

Don’t overwhelm betas with pages and pages of questions, but do give them some focus. This is supposed to be enjoyable for them, not seem like homework.

If they don’t fill out every question, that’s fine! At least they won’t stare at a blank page and not know where to start. (We all know this feeling.)

Need help focusing your beta readers? I’ve created an insightful worksheet to help you find the perfect beta readers for your book.  Download it here. 

3. Send the manuscript to your betas

Your beta readers might have a preferred way to receive your manuscript (some may want a hard copy, for instance) and that’s fine if you want to ask them how they want to read it.

Some advice, though: if you only have two or three betas, allowing them each to choose might be reasonable.

If you have thirty-something like I did, it’s not reasonable.

In my opinion, the digital route is the only way to go with beta readers. It’s easiest for everyone and you don’t have to try to read someone’s scrawling handwriting.

Google Docs and MS Word are my top choices when it comes to manuscript delivery to your betas. It’s easy to add comments in both these programs and most people have access to them.

Remember, you need to make it as easy as possible for your beta readers.

I used Google Docs last time. Everyone got their own Doc with their name added to the title. I only allowed commenting (VERY IMPORTANT) and not editing in the share settings.

You don’t want your beta readers editing your manuscript directly! You’ll never figure out what they changed and it’s harder to compare versions.

When everyone was finished, I combined the Docs into one MS Word file so I could see everyone’s comments at once.

There are also software programs specifically designed for helping authors share their manuscripts with beta readers and get feedback in the most useful, least headache-inducing way. One such program is BetaBooks. If you’re looking for a tech solution created with beta reading in mind, you might find it worth trying.

If not, Google Docs and MS Word work just fine.

4. Give deadlines

This one is crazy important. If you do not give your betas a deadline, you will never get them to finish your book. (Well, a couple might.) You’ll be waiting around forever for that feedback and you’ll get frustrated with them. More importantly, your book release will be delayed!

I recommend a relatively short deadline of maybe a few weeks. I gave mine three for my last novel. If you give them several months, they’re likely to forget. If you give them a couple days, they’re not going to do it because that’s crazy. The average person can finish a book in three weeks.

Make sure they know the deadline, but also tell them it’s perfectly fine if they don’t get to all of your book by then.

Regardless of whether they finish, you’re moving on to the next stage after that deadline hits! (DO NOT use beta readers as an excuse to let your work languish.)

5. Be understanding

Things come up.

If your beta readers aren’t able to finish your book within your deadline, never attack them for it. Don’t hold a grudge. Don’t yell at them.

Don’t even remind them of their commitment.

Remember, they were doing you a favor to begin with.

Be understanding and respectful of their time and their lives.

And they’ll, most likely, be respectful of you.

Tips for Dealing with Beta Reader Feedback
“ The hardest part of getting feedback on your book is the waiting process. Knowing you have beta readers who will do a good job can alleviate any unnecessary anxiety. Tweet this

You’ve spent a few agonizing weeks waiting on the feedback to roll in from your beta readers. You’ve probably worked your way into an anxiety attack with all the waiting. What if they don’t like it?

What if you have to do a major rewrite? It’s scary!

Wait. Seriously.

It’s going to be tempting to start looking at your feedback as soon as one of your beta readers lets you know they’re finished. Don’t do it!

It’s a bad idea to look at the feedback from one reader at a time. Why? Because you’re not seeing the full picture. And getting the full picture was what you sent your manuscript to beta readers for to begin with.

So wait until the deadline (you did give your beta readers a deadline, right?) passes before you look at anything.

Combine Documents

Back to the idea of the full picture, you’re going to want to combine all the documents from every single one of your beta readers into one master document. You can do this easily with MS Word, or there are software programs out there (like BetaBooks) to help you out.

But now you’ve got a huge document with possibly hundreds of comments. That excitement you felt at seeing how much your beta readers loved your book is waning and turning quickly to dread. It’s time to freak out!

Take a Deep Breath

All those comments look daunting, so go ahead and get your freakout over with. I don’t know if this is a necessary step in the process for every writer, but it is for me. I can’t help but feel like every comment is bad and it makes me want to trash the book.

The fact is any point in the revision process is a point where a writer wants to give up. Don’t. Especially not now. You’ve come too far for that.

So take a deep breath and remember you’re trying to make your book as good as it can possibly be.

You Don’t Have to Accept Every Piece of Feedback

The fact that you can ignore some pieces of feedback should set your mind at ease.

I’m not saying you can just scoff and think your betas “don’t get it” and throw all their feedback out the window.

I’m saying quite a few of those hundreds of comments are probably things like, “Oh I love this description!” or “Wow that’s freaky!”

While beta readers are just trying to help (and I love reading those types of comments), you can just go through and delete those. They’re not really helpful at this point, other than for an ego boost.

There are a few other things you might ignore. If someone comments that they are confused and might have missed something, yet no one else says they are confused at that point, most likely that person actually missed something while reading.

Double-check to make sure you didn’t forget something vital, and then delete.

But You Do Have to Listen

That sentence that three people said read weird? Pay attention to that.

The character that no one likes? You might want to have another look at that person (unless no one is supposed to like them!).

Read each and every piece of feedback and commentary and consider before you decide if it’s something you should take seriously or if it’s something you can safely ignore.

Next Steps to Finding Your List of Betas

Hopefully, your manuscript was in pretty good shape and you don’t have much to change. If that’s the case, you can move on and send your MS to a proofreader.

Some people do another round of beta readers after they tweak their manuscript just to make sure they didn’t mess something up. I don’t, simply because I’ve already run it through The Write Practice Pro before even sending it to betas.

If you do opt for beta round two, make sure you use a new batch of beta readers, not just to avoid asking the same people for favors.

But to make sure you get fresh eyes on the story.

There’s nothing like reading a new story for the first time.

There’s no taking that back.

It’s a Favor
“ The biggest thing to remember about this entire beta reading process is that your beta readers are doing you a favor.Tweet this

The biggest thing to remember about this entire beta reading process is that your beta readers are doing you a favor. Make it as easy as possible for them every step of the way!

Never treat your beta readers disrespectfully, and make sure you thank them for all the hard work they’ve done.

I thanked mine profusely in a personal email (no mass emailing!) and sent them a free e-copy of my finished book (the fancy one with a cover and everything). They also got the opportunity to join my launch team, where I ran more giveaways for swag and signed paperback copies of Surviving Death.

My beta readers significantly contribute to the best draft of my book.

And I’d love to support them now on their writing process.

How have beta readers helped shape your manuscript? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

It’s time to find your beta readers! To do this, download my beta reader worksheet here. Then, spend fifteen minutes filling out the information, and share some of the highlights in the comments.

Also! Don’t forget to comment on others who post their thoughts and written work.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll find your dream beta reader here, right in the comments section of this post.

The post The Ultimate Guide to Beta Readers: Definition, Why They Matter, and How to Find Them appeared first on The Write Practice.