As a first-time author, there were a lot of terms I was unfamiliar with at the start of this journey. When you add self-published to my description the list of unknowns grows exponentially. One of those terms was beta reader.
Beta Readers are unpaid readers of a manuscript that provide feedback from the POV of the average reader. The term comes from the IT world. Beta testers review software and try to “break it.” They discover flaws that need to be fixed before release. Beta readers are usually the step between a rough draft the author feels pretty good about and a professional editor.
Most writing blogs, websites, or Facebook groups I subscribe too, champion the practice of using beta readers. Conscientious posters add a disclaimer: Take Care, or Betas (as they are affectionately called) will paralyze your publishing process.
In short, you can end up with so much feedback from so many readers that you are in a constant state of revision. Your book may no longer feel like is your own. Or worse, imposter syndrome manifests and you no longer feel comfortable sharing your work with the world.
To ensure this does not happen to you; I’m sharing the five practices I employed for a successful Beta process. I believe this process works across genres.
Tip # 1: Tap Your Network: turn to the pool of people that know your genre and want to help. I bet you write about something many people in your network care about or like to read. Because well, birds of a feather…you know the rest. Ask them! Pick your favorite acquaintances; not your friends. Tap your alumni groups, parenting groups, neighbors you chat with, that co-worker you share lunch with every day (make sure its work appropriate), that cousin you always laugh with, etc.
Tip # 2: Be Selective: “average reader” is not anyone and everyone. This step is an early exercise in marketing and platform engagement. Target your audience. Ask yourself: Who in my network would enjoy reading a book like mine? Pick only those people! I write Steamy Contemporary Romance with themes and characters across the African Diaspora. It does me no good to ask someone who only reads Sweet and Clean romance novels to offer feedback on my books. Also, to ensure my cultural themes are sound; I always I have at least 1-2 Beta readers that relate to my characters background and voice.
Tip # 3: You need Five but Ask Ten: You really don’t need more than five beta readers. Any sample size over that is overwhelming. But if you want five pieces of good feedback from people who will read your ENTIRE manuscript; ask ten. Trust me 50% is the likely rate of completion.
Tip # 4: Provide Direction: Most people have never been beta readers before. If you desire useable feedback you need to be clear about the kind of feedback you need and how the beta readers can give it to you. Using resources from the web (www.firstmanuscript.com) I sent my chosen betas this newsletter when they signed up (beta reader newsletter). After they were clear on what I was asking from them I sent a Google Form I created (Google Form) asking them to rate and provide evidence of said rating for character development, plot, pacing, and readability. There is also space for them to say whatever they want. The form is a serious timesaver. Google forms creates nifty graphs from the data, and you can easily see your highest leverage feedback for revisions. That leads me to my last tip…
Tip # 5: Implement High Leverage Feedback: Look for trends and act on the trends. Do not waste your time chasing every one-off comment about your manuscript. Instead, step back and interpret the data. Are there similar comments about your protagonists’ characterization? Are 60% of your readers uncomfortable with Chapter 16? Zoom in on the trends, but not every comment.
Balance the trend data with the fact that you are the author and don’t have to change a damn thing if you don’t want to. Hopefully, you will gather group of readers that will partner with you in presenting the best version of your work! I know I did!