Making the Most of Beta Readers
Organizing a beta reader round is a great way for writers to get critical feedback.Beta readers help authors find the problems in their books before it's too late—the types of issues that can make the difference between bestsellers and poor sellers.
Even better, sending your book to several people for a beta reader round can help you solicit honest and critical feedback from multiple sources whom you trust. You want pointed feedback on your writing style, dialogue, pacing, plot, story arc, and character development—and on the readers' satisfaction with the ending.
Although gushing praise feels great, such praise is useless to you unless the beta reader articulates how, why, and where the book deserves such praise.
When planning the scope and schedule of the round, decide how many beta readers you want. I’d suggest between 12 and 30. You want readers who represent your target reading base, but you also want some diversity of opinion, so it’s okay to include readers who generally don’t read your category.
When I did beta rounds for the novel my wife and I wrote, we found that the best feedback came from complete strangers who weren’t afraid to offend us. It’s difficult to receive critical feedback from friends and family members. They’re often starstruck by knowing an author and might think that your every word is golden or be reluctant to hurt your feelings.When you’re ready to start recruiting, put out a call for beta readers on Facebook, Twitter, and popular online forums that cater to your target readers. Tell potential readers to invite friends to create extra degrees of separation and to expand your readership. Yes, a beta reader round can be a marketing tool. Use Google Forms to create applications, and provide full details about the round up top.
Here’s what your form’s introduction might look like:
Thank you for your interest in serving as a beta reader for my debut novel, Amber Scott, P.I. This fast-paced comedic detective novel features Amber Scott, a free-spirited dog walker with a knack for communicating with pets to solve murder mysteries. I’m looking for honest, critical feedback, which I’ll use to guide my final revision prior to publication. All selected beta readers will receive a free digital or printed copy of the manuscript by March 1, along with an accompanying questionnaire. Completed questionnaires will be due by March 23. All readers who complete the questionnaire by the deadline will be credited by name in the acknowledgments section of the final published book! Thank you for your interest and support.
And then the application questions can follow. The application should collect pertinent information to help you select participants and communicate with them. Fields might include applicants' favorite authors and how selected beta readers would prefer to receive their manuscripts.
In my example above, note how you could offer the reader the choice of hard copy or digital file. This increases accessibility for readers. For simplicity and cost reasons, you could choose to only provide a digital file.
Next, decide how you want to collect feedback. I’d suggest you again use Google Forms.
When I did my first beta reader round 12 years ago, back before Google Forms, we provided readers with printed questionnaires within a printed manuscript. We placed questions after key chapters, as well as at the end. After the first chapter, for example, we asked, “How is the pacing (too fast, too slow)?” and “If you were browsing this book in a bookstore, would the first chapter make you want to read on? Why or why not?” This approach can yield more context-sensitive feedback. We included a self-addressed stamped envelope that they could use to deliver their feedback to us.
Today, in the age of e-books, you can accomplish the same feat digitally by inserting hyperlinks to different Google Forms within key points of your book. If you don’t want the multiple short questionnaires, another option is to simply provide a final questionnaire at the end. And, once the round is completed, thank each beta reader by name in a personal email.
You’re not obligated to agree with all the feedback. You’re the author! Use the feedback for insight and inspiration.
Mark Coker is the founder of Smashwords, an e-book distributor.