You’ve finished your book, you’ve edited it as much as you can, you’re more or less happy with it – but is it any good? Have you achieved what you set out to do? You need to know the answers to these questions before you invest any more time and effort on a book that may not be hitting the right way. You haven’t reached the final draft of any book until others have read it too.
Which is where beta readers come in.
What Is A Beta Reader?
A beta reader is someone who’s prepared to read your entire manuscript at a point where you feel it’s ready to be read, and whose opinion you trust. Whether you know them personally or not, ideally you will have chosen someone who is the same demographic as your intended readership who you know should enjoy your book (you wouldn’t ask your 89 year old religious grandfather to beta read your paranormal erotica, for instance). You also need to be able to trust them to give constructive feedback on a number of questions you will ask them prior to reading.
So, if beta readers exist – does that mean alpha readers do too?
The answer is yes – but they’re slightly different. Whereas beta readers come in to play once the book is complete and you need someone just like your readers to look at the entire book with fresh eyes, an alpha reader is generally someone who is there at the beginning of your book’s journey, helping you shape the story from the onset. For some writers this may be their agent, for others a close friend they like to bounce ideas off, or even a fellow author who always helps with plotting, language and pacing.
Alpha readers are important – not just to help you get your book off the ground but for motivation and resilience too – but it’s beta readers who will direct the next stage of your writing journey. They are the one who will help perfect your latest draft into hopefully the last draft. It is your beta readers who stand between you and an agent, editor or your readers.
Why Are Beta Readers Important?
You may be thinking ‘my book is done now, why would I risk a load of criticism at this stage after spending so much time on it?’ The answer is that if you don’t get feedback on the initial draft of your novel, you run a higher risk of agents, editors, and eventually readers having the same problems with it too.
A beta reader is not there to tell you your writing is bad – they are there to answer specific questions so that you can be happy in the knowledge your book has achieved what was intended.
How Many Beta Readers Do I Need? And How Much Do I Have To Change?
The answer to both of these questions is the same – it’s totally up to you. I would suggest you ask at least three to five beta readers to read your work at one time, perhaps a mix of friends, family and other writers. And remember, you are simply garnering opinions…it doesn’t mean you have to act on every one of their comments.
With my last novel I sent it out to five beta readers and most of them said the same thing about the same parts (which means they were totally right, it needed changing). Other times their opinions were contradictory, meaning they were approaching the book from different angles. At this point I asked myself what was subjective and what was something I was comfortable changing.
Where Do I Find A Beta Reader?
If you are a new writer, the idea of anyone reading your work may be terrifying – let alone someone who then has to give you feedback. The easiest way to find fellow-minded readers is to join an author community. At Jericho Writers we offer free membership to our writers community, with thousands of people at different stages of their writing journey coming together looking for help, support and even to swap books and get feedback.
Likewise you can join one of the many writing groups on Facebook, follow the #WritingCommunity hashtag on Twitter and Instagram, or join a local writing group.
Then simply take a deep breath, be brave, and befriend other writers. I strongly recommend you look for others who write the same genre as you, and are also at the same stage of their journey as you.
If this is your first book and you have no agent or deal in place, it’s highly unlikely that a published author with three bestsellers under their belt will have the time to read your book for fun. They will probably already have a team of their own beta readers, critique partners, and an agent to guide them. Likewise, you should be seeking out writer friends to grow with so you can share the same trials and tribulations together as you progress on your writing journey.
You can also ask friends, family members, or even your social media followers if they’d like an early glance of your book in exchange for feedback. You’ be surprised how honoured people feel when asked and how eager they will be to be part of your process!
Do I Have To Pay Them?
No. Because a beta reader is normally a friend, a fellow writer, or already a big fan of your work they should be happy to help. Although they may ask you to repay the favour by reading their book too, and /or thanking them in the acknowledgements.
Is A Beta Reader The Same As A Sensitivity Reader?
No, although you may want to hire one at the same time as having it beta read. A sensitivity (or ‘authenticity’) reader is paid and they are vital when covering topics, themes, and/or characters that you don’t have personal experience of.
Hiring a sensitivity reader is no different to paying a lawyer to double check your legal crime thriller, or a police officer checking for any inconsistencies in your detective novel. For instance, if you’re a straight, white, man and you want to feature, say, a gay Indian girl with disabilities in your novel – it’s a really good idea to pay a disabled queer Indian person to read your book and check that you haven’t misrepresented an entire community.
Like beta readers, a sensitivity reader is not there to silence you or censor your writing, they are there to strengthen the contents of your book. As authors we are all free to write about whatever we want, but if you want to cover themes that involve aspects of life you haven’t had direct experience in, it always helps to work with those who have, in order to add a level of authenticity, accuracy and (most importantly) respect to your work.
Unlike beta readers, sensitivity readers are paid and often someone you don’t know. That way they can offer feedback that is unbiased and fair.
How Do I Work With My Beta Readers?
A beta reader is not:
A sensitivity reader
All of those jobs are performed by a paid professional who is there specifically to look at structure, spelling, or a certain theme that they represent. A beta reader is simply a friend, book-lover or fellow writer, who will read your book and give you their opinion of it based on a set of questions you have prepared for them. They will understand that this is not the very first draft…but likewise, it’s not the final one either. It’s a few drafts before the final one, where you still have the chance to move things about and hone characters and plot points.
Because this person is someone you have recruited, like with anything it’s important to be respectful with them and clear about your needs. If they are a trusted friend or fellow author, they may have asked for a favour in return (ie ‘please beta read my wip too’ or ‘mention me in the acknowledgements’) and all you have to do is honour that agreement.
But if you have put together a group of beta readers made up of people you don’t know well, you may wish to create a Facebook group, and clearly state the guidelines. Within those guidelines will be what you need from them, a deadline for feedback, and what they can expect in return. Likewise, you may want to offer them an agreement or NDA to sign, to ensure your story is not shared outside the group.
NDA templates can be found online. Although, legally, a simple agreement you have drawn up may not carry much weight – it will at least show that you trust them and both parties are clear re: expectations.
What Questions Should I Ask Them?
Are the first three chapters engaging?
If they aren’t, then you’re in trouble. It doesn’t matter if you are trying to grab the attention of an agent, an editor, or someone on Amazon who wants to read the first few pages to get a taste of the novel before buying. If you can’t hook your reader in the first three chapters then they won’t keep reading. So ask your beta readers whether they were intrigued from the start.
Plot and themes
This is an obvious question – but do they like what the book is about? Is it interesting? Is there anything they would cut that slowed down the story? Or is there more they need you to elaborate on?
Are the characters rounded?
Are they likeable or scary or whatever it is you are trying to achieve. Are their backstories clear? Are they all needed? Sometimes you can combine two characters into one to have them supporting the MC in the same way. Not all characters have to be ‘nice’ or likeable BUT they do have to be interesting enough that people want to keep reading.
Is the book consistent?
If you are working on a series and your beta readers enjoyed the other books, ask them about continuity. Have you forgotten some world lore? Or do your characters act or sound different this time? And even if your book is a contemporary stand alone, you still need to make sure your world makes sense. You don’t have a nurse living in an apartment and halfway through she’s a doctor living in a large house!
If you are writing fantasy, it’s really important that your readers understand your magic system and how your fantasy world works. The same goes if you are writing history – is this world believable and accurate? Again, this is important if part of a series as you need to ensure there’s consistency.
If it’s a thriller, were they on the edge of their seat? If it’s a romance, was their heart beating in the right place? Did the story sag in any places? Or was it too rushed or light in other places? Pacing is really important when it comes to engaging a reader and keeping them turning the pages.
Do they like the way the book is written? It’s OK at this stage to ask them for any errors they find (ie if the wrong ocean is referenced or a date is wrong) but I wouldn’t worry about proofreading as you still have a long way to go until you present a final ms and a lot of the words may be cut anyway.
What they loved and didn’t enjoy
And finally, it’s a hard question to ask, but knowing what parts of the book they enjoyed and what they didn’t enjoy will give you a clear indication of what your final readers will think. Opinions are subjective, which is why it’s ideal to have three or four beta readers, and then if they all agree you know it’s something you shouldn’t ignore!
How I Use Beta Readers
I write both fantasy and thriller novels, and I absolutely love working with my beta readers.
When I was a debut author I put together my own team of readers. I created a blog that explained I was looking for a dedicated team of readers, and I sent it to those who I thought would suit the trilogy best. I literally approached each reader, one by one, from Facebook writing groups and Twitter, ensuring they represented a diverse mix of readers. Those who accepted signed a confidentiality agreement and were added to a Facebook group. I capped it at 25 members and after around three weeks my beta reader gang was formed!
The group lasted a few years, and they were instrumental in helping me develop my fantasy series. I would ask them questions and opinions, I’d run competitions to name a character or to be picked to read an early draft, and in exchange they not only got to be part of my journey but were mentioned in the acknowledgements and all received a free book once it was published.
Having a squad like this (especially when writing YA or fantasy) is really helpful once you are published too, as these readers have supported you from the very beginning and will continue to support you. My team went on to shout about the book online, creating a lot of organic buzz that’s hard to build naturally.
Now, five years after being published, I have retained some of my beta readers plus have added lots of fellow published authors and a few friends and family members who want a sneaky peak. I have five key critique partners, all successful authors in their own rights, and we bounce idea off one another as well as alpha/beta read one another’s work.
I find it helpful to have a mix of professionals and book-loving friends on my beta reading list as that way I receive feedback in general (ie ‘I couldn’t put it down’ and ‘I got bored in this chapter’) as well as more structured professional feedback (ie ‘the pacing was off in chapters 5-7’ and ‘the motivation isn’t strong enough for the MC in the third act’).
Plus having critique partners who are also authors means I get to show off that I have read some of the best author’s books years before they make it to the shops! Being part of that book’s journey is a real honour!
Find The Beta Mix That Works for You
I hope this article answers all your beta reader questions and has inspired you to put your own group together. Remember to be brave and offer to swap books with a writer who’s at the same stage of writing as you…you may be surprised and find they’ve been just as eager to read your work as you are to work with them! If you don’t reach out, you’ll never know.
And most importantly, if you don’t get all those new eyes on your new book, you may well miss the opportunity to change something fundamental that could be standing between you and your perfect agent, editor, or five star review.
My books and my career would not have progressed as far as they have without my beta readers, and I truly hope you find your perfect gang too. Good luck!
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