Beta readers, test readers, pre-readers, or early readers, if you are a writer you have encountered the concept. These are the invaluable, possibly even saintly individuals who will read your book and give you the honest, sometimes brutal, feedback that will, hopefully, turn your book into something a wider audience will enjoy.
ASIDE: Critiques, copy edits, and beta reads are all different things. The exact line between them blurs depending on who you talk to. We will point out vital characteristics of a beta read as we progress.
What is it the Beta Stage of a book?
The stage of a book at which an author finds a group of people to read their mostly finished manuscript, ask for helpful impressions and use that information to make their book ready for the public or an agent or an editor.
It is the stage of your book where you seek high level feedback about the big picture of your work. Are your main characters relatable throughout the arc of the story? Are plot points foreshadowed too much? too little? Is the world fun to spend time in? Does the tone of the writing remain consistent?
Seems simple, it is not! As an author you are exposing yourself to people and saying "please, show me my flaws." That is crazy and brave. As a reader you are reading someones art, essentially a bit of their soul is given into your care. You are crazy and brave to do that as well. It can get messy!
Enter into that relationship aware and prepared. Let's talk about it.
Step 1: Are you at the Beta Stage?
First things absolutely first. Authors, are you ready for beta readers? How do you know?
A Beta Read is a specific type of reading of a specific product for a specific function. Which is why specifics help, more on that later.
Is the story is finished? A book ready for beta readers is a complete story. It has a beginning middle and end, there aren't three chapters missing in the third act. You don't need to give your reader a quick 15 minute introduction to a character's backstory. A reader doesn't need to have read a previous draft to understand what is going on. Everything a reader needs to enjoy and understand your work needs to be present! Otherwise it is not a beta read.
Have you have proof read it?
Your book needs to be in the most professional state you can manage. You should have gone over it at least once, hopefully multiple times looking for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. You want your beta readers to understand that you respect their time, every time they have to comment on a simple error you could have caught yourself that feeling is eroded. Don't stress too much about errors, stress the right amount, your readers know you are human. I hope.
If you find story elements you want to change during your proof read, it is a pretty good sign you are not ready for beta readers
Are you happy with it? I hear your immediate sarcastic asides as they buzz through the ether. I will adjust my statement to "happy enough". Why? You need to be in the best possible place to accept feedback, most of it will not be fun. The more content you are with what you have created the better able to receive feedback you will be.
Step 2: What does getting a Beta Read mean?
The terms beta read and beta reader are fantastic. Beta is an appropriation tech industry term that, ironically, defines a stage of the writing process better than any term writers have ever come up with.
A Beta is the stage of development where a company first releases software to a larger group of uninvested people. They carefully watch how the software works, what resonates with people, what has been overlooked and where unforeseen problems arise. They direct users with very specific instruction about things to try and question users, often aggressively and exhaustively, about their experience. It is expected that beta users are not part of the development of the product and are not overly influenced by the products success of failure.
Everything you need is there in the beta test model.
Step 3: Who should my Beta Reader be?
Trick question. You should never have a beta reader. You will need a group.
Opinions do vary on who should be in it. Luckily we have our co-opted software development term to fall back on. We know that beta users are "not part of the development of the product and are not overly influenced by the products success of failure". There are also two inferred qualities we need to be aware of: target audience and process knowledge. Let us unpack how those 4 traits relate to beta readers specifically.
Trait 1: "Not part of the development" Any reader who has had an inside look at how your story developed will have their read influenced by what they already know. Did you have a long conversation about the main character's brother with the author but none of that is in the finished book? Then your reader's view of the main character may be completely different from what the book communicates. Are you a part of the writers group that critiqued every 2000 words as they were written and once a week for a year got into a fight about a plot point? You may not be fully objective. Ideally a beta reader will be no different from a person who wandered into the appropriate genre section of their well curated local book store and picked up your book.
Trait 2: "Not overly influenced by the products success."
Is the reader the author's mother? Then how good you feel about the book might be more important than if it is good.
Will the book's financially success pay your bills? Then you may be, even unconsciously, biased in how you approach the read. Is the reader trying to date the author? Don't need to finish that one. Your readers should not care too much about your feelings.
Trait 3: "Target Audience" Pretty obvious one here. If all your beta feedback starts with, "I have never read this genre before but..." you may need to find some more readers. If you are writing a YA book and everyone reading it is 40+ years old, you need to find some more readers.
Trait 4: "Writing Knowledge" Some of your readers need to be able to speak to the craft of your manuscript. Experienced writers and readers will best be able to articulate issues. Not complicated but true.
You may say, "What if I find someone who fits all 4 criteria? Do I only need one beta reader then?" What? Who are you that wants to limit the number of people reading your work? You should be excited to show this to people. Besides what if that mythic person had a bad spring roll with lunch right before reading chapter 8-12? You want the only feedback you have on your climax being the result of bubbly gut?
I don't think you need to exclude friends, significant others, writing group members, or people you brainstormed with, in fact their input can be very valuable but you need to make sure they are not the only people reading it and be aware that their experience will be clouded. Most readers have the potential to strengthen your book just try to make sure you have some people who hit your 4 main traits.
How may beta readers do you need?
With all your beta traits covered you will need enough people to collect varied opinions and have a sampling large enough for repeated comments to be apparent. An individual may be a beta reader but one beta read does not mean your book has "gone through beta". Common opinion seems to hold that 3 people is the minimum number for a beta read and I have heard of authors trying to get 50-100 reader on their manuscript. The only real downside to a larger group is managing and organizing reader feedback (more on that later)
Be aware that a small number of varied readers (ages, genders, backgrounds) may be better than a large group of the same type of people
Step 4: An Author prepares for a beta read?
In addition to having a beta ready book there are bunch of different ways to direct, question, and inspire your beta readers. It all depends on what you want from their read.
Be aware that the type of questions you ask will also influence what the reader thinks about the book. If before they read your book you ask them to pay attention to how scary Character X is you are already coloring their read so be careful.
How do I direct my beta readers?
This is largely a matter of preference but there are a few things to remember:
Be specific, many of your readers will be willing to adjust how they approach your book based on your requests. Be up front and open about the type of feedback you want. Make sure readers know if you do or don't want line edits or word choice comments. Do you just want broad notes on character voice? What about diversity sensitivity? World building critiques? Never assume that your readers know what you want before you tell them. The more specific you get in your request the more applicable the feedback will be.
I know authors who appreciate a stream of consciousness commentary. Many writers are hoping their beta readers will allow themselves to read at a casual engaged pace that mimics their normal for pleasure reading, leaving notes at chapter breaks. Still others prepare a document of questions to be answered only once a reader has finished a book.
Questionnaires or brief surveys at the end of the book are also a good idea. Always make sure your readers know that you are happy to hear things that had a strong resonance with them because you don't want to close your self off to surprises. Examples of areas you can ask readers to focus on: plot, tone, character voice, world building, pace, relationship believably, favorite characters/moments, least favorite characters/moments, most confusing moment, most boring element, favorite set piece, best action, or coolest idea
*At the start of the article I mentioned that critiques and copy edits are different from beta reads. Then I just referenced both those things above. Some readers will offer in depth critiques and/or point out grammatical errors out of habit, other may be willing to point them out if you ask. Neither are technically in the purview of the "beta read". Asking for those things is something each author will have to feel out with their specific readers. Just be aware that you are asking readers to do something in addition to beta reading when you ask.
Two Examples) Recently a reader told me that skipping a spelling error seriously inhibited any further reading until they went back and made a note of it. In the last week another reader said that they ignored spelling errors because they were not their job as a beta reader and pointing them out was a waste of their time.
How should I treat my beta readers?
Nice, respectfully, courteous, politely. The golden rule applies here as much as anywhere else. Very few people enjoy being disliked. Beta reader are agreeing to be honest with you and risking that so accept and appreciate that gift. All writers get feedback they are not happy with or disagree with. You may get angry or disgusted, take a deep breath and step away for a day or two. Tell yourself that the feedback probably originated out of an honest desire to help, and remember you always have the option to ignore something. Their time is valuable and they are giving it to you so that you can improve something you are passionate about. At the very least if they are also a writer you should offer to return the favor and beta read their work.
I have a very high opinion of good beta readers. That being said they are not all good. You may even encounter good readers who just don't work with your process. If a reader is toxic or unhelpful to your writing you should not be reluctant to proceed without them in the future. Try to be as polite as possible as well as acknowledging the contribution they have already tried to make but don't open yourself to abuse or obstruction of your process.
Step 4: The Author Beta Reader Relationship
This is less of a 4th step and more a few house keeping details to calm some fears that arise. Just so you know as I start that I am not a lawyer and the length what comes next is inversely proportional to how important this section is.
Can I trust my beta readers? aka I want to make sure I protect my unpublished book is sharing it with beta readers safe?
As authors get to the beta stage some begin to worry about protecting their intellectual property. News stories of high profile lawsuits and huge patent cases keep this fear in the popular consciousness. This generally takes four forms
1. What if they steal my idea? An idea is not something you can protect legally, bummer. Here is the great news, your book is only based on an idea its beauty is in your execution and perseverance which no one else has. The truth that accompanies this is that there are very very VERY few new ideas and even if it was genuinely new when you had it with 6 billion people on the earth a couple thousand have had it since you thought it. Worrying about it is less productive than writing.
2. What if they steal my manuscript? Authors can become stymied when they want to control how they share their manuscript for fear it will be copied. Here is the simple reality check, if it can be read it can be copied, word docs, pdfs, hardcopies, once it leaves your sight it leaves your control. So how can you protect yourself? 99.99% of cases you don't have to. The effort of getting an unknown author's manuscript published and then profiting from it is hard enough without the threat, and more importantly the cost, of legal action looming over the thief's head. When you add that to the fact that publishing is as much about writing a second and third and fourth novel in a unique marketable voice, which the thief won't be able to do, you have little to worry about.
3. What if they steal my style? Writing in the style of another author is hard, very hard, you have to be a good author to do it. If a person can do that, is writing, and doesn't want to create anything original then they are already using that skill. They are using it to write like someone with a few dozen bestsellers under their belt, getting a nice cover blurb from the author they are mimicking (imitation being the sincerest form of you know) and their books are sitting at the end of the chip aisle.
A mildly humorous aside from the world of film Just so you feel better if you are having these twinges everyone gets them. I was once told a story by someone who worked in advertising. They had been hired to promote an upcoming feature film. So naturally they asked if they could see a rough cut or a script or something 2 months of asking later the studio finally agreed to tell them about the movie by letting someone read the script to them over the phone. In the end the movie that came out was unrecognizable from the script they had heard, and yes they made the reader do voices
All the above can be capped off with this. If you have a large group of beta readers who you have a good relationship with they will have your back if something comes up. This is also a good case for getting involved in a local writers group because they will all have seen your work as it develops as well.
4. What if they talk about my book? A rational human with a pinch of common sense will assume that an unpublished work that they are being asked to read before you shop it around or show it to the public is something you want kept private. Everything about the beta process from the name to the description to promise of future drafts implies a desire for privacy. Still always make sure your beta readers know that you would like them to keep both the content of your book and their feedback to themselves.
The best way to sleep easy is to beta swap, not only is it the polite and cool thing to do but then everyone has the specter of mutually assured destruction/revelation/spoilers over their heads.
My Beta Reader/Author is a dick!
Yes is happens and it sucks. Avoiding dicks completely is as achievable as dodging raindrops. Happily we live in the world of the internet where a dick with a history has a much harder time hiding than it ages past. I don't have a fool proof plan for how to deal with the dick you will encounter. They are all terrible in their own awful way, like evil leering snowflakes. There are some sensible first steps to take. When you encounter one and the drama hole they invariably create looms below you, take a deep breath and walk around the block. Talk privately to some trusted friends for advice. Then remove yourself from that relationship and if you feel comfortable doing so politely make others aware that you had a bad experience. I would suggest something like, "I did not have a positive experience beta reading for author X." or "Beta reader X and I did not really mesh stylistically." Instead of, "Author X is a omega %^$^& &^$$, dispensing &(^% %^&%%^, lost weekend of ^&% (&(&^&% &(^^ and jellied eels." Dealing with unpleasant people is sadly an aspect of being a public figure, embrace your calluses as they form.
I like hand written thank you notes. I even have a special fountain pen for writing them. Let your beta readers know you are grateful for their time and effort.
If you are ready don't hesitate start getting eyes on your book. Tap people you already know, find some new ones, start getting feedback and sharpen your work. If you are so inclined check out the web app Andrew and I have built to help manage beta reads. We call it BetaBooks, and hope you'll like it!
Update 8/23/2016: I failed to give a description of what a copy edit and a critique are. That omission has been corrected.