How to Work With Beta Readers

Looking for a beta reader?

BetaBooks is an online productivity app for authors which makes sending manuscripts to beta readers easy. BetaBooks keeps your feedback organized and searchable, giving you new insights into your book. Often when authors start looking for beta readers for the first time, their main concern is usually where to find beta readers to critique their work. BetaBooks allows authors to coordinate everything easily from putting their manuscripts online, inviting people to read it and collecting feedback from beta readers in one well-organized, highly-searchable place. The following step-by-step guide explains the process of preparing your manuscript to be beta read.

How to Beta Your Book

Finishing your manuscript is an amazing achievement. You should feel great!

Next the task of editing to polish, refine, and improve your book begins. Eventually it is ready to be read. Those first readers can give you valuable feedback and insight to help you continue improving your work.

This used to be called early reading. You will probably have run across “Thanks to my early readers” in the afterwords of your favorite books. Now we have adopted a software term and call it “running a Beta on your book” or “beta-ing your book”.

I help design and run a productivity app, called BetaBooks, that helps authors organize their beta. Through this platform I’ve advised, assisted, and observed hundreds of betas.

Working with so many authors, I’ve learned that an organized Beta is hugely valuable no matter how it is run, but there are some easy ways to maximize the positive impact it can have on your processes. Today I’ll share my top recommendations on how to run a great beta in the ever popular 5-step breakdown.

STEP 1: Being Beta Ready

How you prepare is the single most important part of your beta. You should be ready to send out a clean, proofread draft of your book – get it as close to finished as possible. Then, ask yourself 3 questions.

1. Who are your readers going to be?

Decide on how many people you want to read your book then invite 3 times that number. Assume 1 in 3 will finish your book and be happy if more do.

Invite members of your target audience. Fans of your genre and age appropriate readers

Include non-writers in your beta pool, you don’t just want a group of all writers we read differently than non-writers.

If you are writing a character far outside your experience consider finding or hiring sensitivity readers.

2. How are they going to read?

You need to decide and inform your readers of when and how you want them to comment. Inline or stream of consciousness commenting will get you the most feedback but will not get you feedback based on a natural reading rhythm and often results in comments being made that are then answered and over specific nitpicking

End of Chapter feedback is the most common and allows for readers to pause at a point you intend them to and give feedback on what stands out the most. End of Book feedback captures the broadest feedback and can be a good option when your book has already gone through rigorous critique or when dealing with young readers.

3. What you are going to ask them?

Asking readers a few key questions allows you to focus your readers and sort and process their feedback.

My go-tos are:

■ What did you like most about this chapter?
■ Was there anything you found confusing or hard to believe?
■ What are you curious about?
■ Did the ending hook you and make you want to read the next chapter?

You know best what you want people to tell you, so choose what will most help you.

STEP 2: Executing Your Beta

We suggest sending out your manuscript in a non-editable form. We designed BetaBooks just for this purpose, but you could also use a private blog, or make it work with a PDF, ePub, or read-only Google Doc too.

As feedback comes in DO NOT leave it sitting in your inbox, collect it somewhere permanent so you know where to find it. Nothing will kill your productivity and motivation like spending 45 minutes searching for that one emailed comment you remember getting weeks ago.

Either as your beta proceeds, or at the end, your should sort your feedback. I recommend organizing comments by person and chapter, then triaging each comment as follows:

■ Ignore: off-target feedback, or stuff you disagree with.
■ Keep: positive feedback about things the reader loved.
■ Consider: feedback you’re not sure about.
■ Todo: suggestions you agree with and want to incorporate.

Never ignore or gloss over positive feedback! This is how you know what is working and what you are good at.

STEP 3: Feedback Management

Now that you have gathered and organized all your feedback, it’s time to process all the information you have gathered. You can continue to use a spreadsheet, if you prefer something tactile to sort write them out on notecards, or use an online platform.

Here’s the workflow we recommend:

1. Take the feedback you marked “ignore” and do just that, put it off to the side and forget about it.

2. Take the feedback you marked “keep” and put it off to the side, but keep it handy. You’ll come back to it later.

3. Take the feedback you marked “consider,” and think about it. Decide if it should be marked “ignore,” “keep”, or “todo.” If you’re not sure, you should ignore it. You’ll have plenty of work to do anyway.

4. Now you’ve got a big stack of “todos” left. Read through them and notice where you see patterns. When you see a common thread, pick out those todos and line them up like a timeline from the beginning to the end of the book.

5. Look through your “keep” feedback, and if any of it relates to the thread you’ve created, insert it into the thread. Remember, you don’t want to kill the parts people love!

6. Now you have several editorial threads. Each one will naturally focus on a major idea like “the protagonist needs to be more active” or “remove that subplot.” Give each thread a label so you can keep track of it.

7. Lastly, rank these feedback threads from most compelling to least compelling. Whichever thread you think would make the biggest positive impact on your book should be first.

When you deal with all this feedback, be mindful that you are preserving your authorial voice. It’s important to respond to useful feedback, but just as important to develop your own unique writing style. Sometimes you’ll get a good and thoughtful comment, and you’ll need to go with your gut and ignore it anyway.

STEP 4: Reflect, Then Revise

One of the hardest thing to recognize is whether or not your book really works. People are generally too nice to say this straight up, so consider the balance of feedback. Great books tend to get a lot less feedback, so it’s up to you to read between the lines. This may be the most important thing your beta can reveal.

If you’ve gotten really negative or mixed feedback, and the editorial passes look more like storyboards for alternative books rather than revisions of what you wrote, this may be time to reflect on whether or not your book works.

If you decide it doesn’t work, don’t feel bad. It’s an amazing accomplishment to have written a book, but it gets easier the more you do it. You’re not throwing everything away if you start a new idea, because you get to take everything you learned with you!

Hopefully, though, your feedback was mostly positive and you’ve pulled manageable editorial threads. In this case, it’s time to revise the manuscript.

Editorial approaches vary as much as writing styles, but if you have followed the above process you will have the basis for at least one or two editorial passes. These threads are like a blueprint for the changes you’ve decided to make. Pick the single thread you think is most important, then work your way through the book from front to back and address it the issues as best you can.

Editing through the book one thread at a time has a lot of advantages. It helps keep your book intact – that is, it prevents you from accidentally messing up the timelines or events, or mixing up characters, etc. It breaks the work down into smaller and more manageable chunks. Finishing an editorial thread will also give you a nice feeling of accomplishment and motivate you to keep going.

After you finish the most important thread, take a look at the next most important. Consider whether it still applies, given all the changes you’ve already made. If it does, then go ahead and make another editing pass.

If you continue in this way, you’ll probably change the book enough by the second or third pass that whatever remaining threads you identified in your beta feedback no longer apply – either you already solved the issues, or you changed the story in a way that the issues just aren’t there.

STEP 5: Reflect, Then Repeat or Move Forward

You now have a sparkling new draft of your novel and you may want to Beta it again. Depending on how much work you have done you may have a dramatically different book, and in that case, I’d say go for it! Keep in mind, though, that repeat betas yield diminishing returns. After running two betas, if you are still not happy with the book, you might need to give a manuscript a rest for a while.

One thing to remember about your second beta is that you can approach the same readers or find new ones. You will get very different responses depending on which you choose. People re-reading your book will be able to tell you quickly where things have improved but will also be carrying the baggage of previous drafts. New readers can’t tell you if they approve of the changes, but they will give you a better sense of whether the new narrative really works on its own.

After one or two betas you should be ready to query or self-publish. Congratulations! Remember the positive feedback you received and see if there is anything you can pull from it to help sell your work, and don’t forget to thank your beta readers in your acknowledgements.

Final Thoughts

This process is a list of best-practices we’ve observed at BetaBooks, but don’t feel bound by the format. Betas are part of your development stage, and there is no single “right” way to do one. Take the ideas that work for you, incorporate them into your process, and make them your own.

Happy writing!

~ Paul

About the Author: Paul Kilpatrick is the co-founder of a website that helps authors manage their betas. You can read more about betaing books on his blog or follow him on twitter.