When new authors go through the Beta Process the first time, their first question is often where the heck do I find people to read this thing!?
Below I've assembled a guide to the whole process. Here are the 5 best ways to find beta readers:
Before we begin
Before you even start trying to find readers, ask yourself, is your work ready to be read? If you're having a hard time finding readers it's probably because, as Steven Pressfield would say, nobody wants to read your sh*t!
When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer, must give him something worthy of his gift to you.
When you, the student writer, understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy. You acquire that skill which is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs: the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your imagined reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is this fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is she bored? Is she following where I want to lead her?
-- Steven Pressfield
Once your work is as good as you know how to make it, it's time to start with source number 1.
1. Friends and Family
This sounds obvious, but a lot of people are hesitant to start with friends and family. Don't be! Building an audience is a hard process so you need to start where it's easy.
When I tell people this I often hear objections like:
- "My friends and family will be too nice."
- "They won't be honest."
- "They care too much about my feelings to be truly helpful."
- "I won't get good feedback from them."
You've probably heard that, or thought that too. Those reasons not to lean on family and friends might be valid, and someday you may find they apply to you.
Hard truth time! If you don't have any beta readers at all, and no one has ever read your writing, friends and family are who you need and probably all you can handle.
If you have never had anyone read your work your writer's spirit is pink and soft, vulnerable to damage. You need to build up some calluses. You need to learn how to accept, interpret and implement it. Feedback from people you already have an established relationship with will be the easiest to handle.
By the way, you may think your friends and family will be too nice, but they won't. They just "will be too busy" to read your work, or will tell you "it's not my style." That's code for "it sucked and I put it down after three paragraphs."
Another reason to start with family and friends? It forces you to admit to them that you're writing. A lot of new writers don't want the world to know they're writing until they strike it big. Guess what? If you try to hide your writing until your big break -- you're never going to break out. Being an author means a lot of self-promotion before you even publish.
You need to earn your first fans and build that support network around you. These are the people who will encourage you to keep going. The best people for the job are your family and friends.
Getting over the first reader hump is a psychological victory and you may get better feedback than you thought. The worst that can happen is that people won't like it and the people who like it the least may teach the most about your book.
Once you've gotten used to handling feedback from family and friends, you're ready to venture out into the scary world of strangers. From here on out you are throwing yourself at the mercy of people who don't love you or care about you and may not be nice to you at all. And if you think these people are bad, just wait until you get your first Amazon reviews! Be brave.
2. In-person Writing Groups
If you don't have beta readers you probably are not a member of a writing group either. It's really important to find a writing group. These are the people who will challenge you to up your game, and really help you make it as a pro. Plus, asking a friend in a writer's group to read your finished manuscript, or swapping a beta read, is a natural progression of the relationship.
If you are in a writer's group but do not want any of them to be beta readers, ask the others in your group if they have possible readers who might be willing to read your manuscript. After all, their friends and family are strangers to you and vice versa.
A quick aside. Many authors rave about the benefits of their writer's group, but you'll also have no trouble finding examples of established writers disparaging writers groups. Some will say all kinds of unpleasant things about them, or tell horrific personal stories about their experiences.
This doesn't mean you should write-off those groups. Rather, it means those authors spent time in bad groups. What they don't say in their complaints is they probably still learned something and grew as a result--even if what they learned was how to ignore jerks.
To find a local writer's group the best resources are your Local Library (really!) and Meetup.com
Don't underestimate how much your library might be able to help, local libraries are still a vibrant part of writing culture!
3. The Internet. A.k.a. Online Writing Communities. A.k.a. The Internet is for Writers. A.k.a. Get Thee to the Internet, Go. A.k.a. Seriously, log on it's where all the writers are!
The internet is a writer's paradise. This makes sense, as the internet was originally just words. Lots and lots of words.
Writers are everywhere on the internet, and writers are readers and readers are what you need!
How will you entice them to beta read your book? The currency of all internet writers is the swap. You read mine, I'll read yours. This might be in reference to a chapter, a couple thousand words, a pitch, a tweet, a novel or any other manifestation of writerly effort.
Where specifically are all these writers hiding? They aren't. Every digital destination you frequent is frequented by other writers. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram (a thousand words at a time?), LinkedIn (really!), even Pokemon Go (that reference is going to age terribly).
Start talking about writing and others will too. This is part of you coming out and being public with your writing, you just need to get out in the world and let people know you're doing it! Just this week, an engineer I met briefly four years ago (and friended on Facebook, never to see again), started posting about her writing group. There's a new potential beta swap in the making!
You'll also find a huge variety of organized writing groups online. Some are designed to mimic groups that meet in person with small memberships and private forums or even just email communication. Others are populous communities that give a writer access to feedback from large number of people. They all have their own rules, idiosyncrasies, and unique cultures.
These are great ways to find and meet other writers and just like you those writers will need beta readers at some point. Do some shopping get involved in one you like.
Here are some of the popular places where writers congregate:
- Goodreads Beta Group: This is the granddaddy of them all, the biggest online beta reading group. It's really easy to post here asking for readers, and you should get a few replies. Just be sure and read the rules carefully, and check other people's posts for examples of how to successfully solicit readers.
- Scribophile: great for new writers and short-form critiques, and once you're part of the community you can start to make friends and arrange longer swaps.
- Critters: a huge community that trades critiques every week by email. There's a bit of a wait to get in the queue, but you get a ton of feedback this way and it's very predictable when it will arrive. Also a great way to meet new people.
- Critique Circle: Another popular community, this one is a little more private and structured than Scribophile or Critters.
- Absolute Write: A popular writing blog with an active forum, this is another good place to go join the community. When you get involved and make friends, you'll have no trouble finding people to swap with.
- Destructive Readers: If you're brave enough to post here they'll show you no mercy, and you'll be better off for it.
Critiques of smaller chunks of writing tend to be at the center of many online communities. Remember those calluses I hoped would form on your soft pink writers spirit? Those are for the net. Don't take things personally. This will be very important online. People will be mean. Sometimes by accident, or because they're just mean. Sometimes because they're telling you the truth and it sucks. You have to deal with it either way.
Choosing who to listen to is hard. K.M. Weiland recently posted a great article about how to find a good critique partner which is full of good advice on this.
Another great thing about finding beta readers (or, more accurately, beta swaps) online is that the internet makes shopping for potential swap partners a breeze. You can read a chapter or two of someones work before you commit to reading the whole thing and see if you like what they are doing. Just remember they can do the same, don't take it personally if they don't love your stuff.
4. Beta Swaps
There are organized beta swaps out there. They happen from time to time through out the year, people submit, groups are created and a schedule devised. You will read 3-4 other people's books they will read yours.
These are great but there's a slight catch-22. These tend to grow out of online writing communities, and before you can get in on them you need to prove you are not all talk and that you can give and receive criticism in a helpful manner, generally by being involved.
That is why this is #4 and not #1. I mention it on the list primarily because it's the best part about online communities, but you have to get involved first before this one will pay off.
5. Paid Beta Reads
Finally you can pay to have your book beta read. This is a tricky proposition. The way I see it there are 3 possible reasons to pay someone to beta read your book, one reason makes a ton of sense, one reason is a preference thing and one reason is bad. In reverse order:
A bad reason to buy a beta read:
If you cannot find anyone to beta read for you, you should not pay someone to read your book. If you're getting out and networking like you should be, you'll be able to find people. And if you can't find people because you're not networking, then it's very likely that:
Your work probably isn't ready for readers.
You probably aren't ready, emotionally or professionally, to hear what a reader has to say.
Seriously, if you have never had anyone critique your work you probably expect to hear good things and will handle criticism badly when you first get it. You're likely to get defensive, to justify, rationalize, deny, or explain away things you don't want to hear. If you are a rookie writer, or just a rookie at showing your work, then that is nothing to be ashamed of.
You and your work need to get used to tough criticism. Don't pay for it yet, you're not going to get your money's worth.
An okay reason to buy a beta read:
Maybe you've gotten a few betas, maybe even a lot, but you want a few more from people that you have even less of a connection to. You've already processed that feedback and updated your draft accordingly. You've found a service or a recommended reader, and you have the disposable income to afford it.
In that case, go for it. Just make sure you are not adding a step to your beta process and avoiding sending your book out to agents or deferring self-publishing because you're scared.
No work of art is ever truly finished--but at a certain point you have to call it done and put it out there, then move on to the next.
A good reason to buy a beta:
Writing about characters different from yourself is one of the joys of being a writer. When those characters are based on people outside your own culture it is wise to be careful. Luckily there are sensitivity readers and the internet has made it easier to find all types of people.
A sensitivity reader is a person who will read your book with a special eye towards issues of representation and possible cases of stereotyping, mis-characterization and bias in how you portray their culture.
Example: Meet Hank, a middle-aged white guy who has never left his home town of Dayton, Ohio.
Hank has written an awesome story about the adventures of a Japanese American teenage girl from the Pacific northwest and her first generation Punjabi Sihk best friend, as they go on a road trip to discover what happened to her great uncle during the WW2 internment of Japanese Americans. (It's really good for an imaginary book. I imagined reading it, and imagined it being very interesting!)
There are a lot of things in that book that are outside Hank's normal experiences. He's not Japanese, not Indian, not a Sihk and not a teenage girl. It might be wise of him to have some people who are actually from those groups read his book to make sure he is writing them in a respectful, accurate, and enjoyable way.
There are a lot of pros available to help in these areas, folks who can add a lot of insight and value to the book by the authenticity they bring. One great place to find them is Write in the Margins.
These aren't the only places to find beta readers, but they're good places to start.
Remember: Building an audience is hard work. Finding beta readers is, in many ways, the first step of building the audience that will someday buy your book.
There's no silver bullet, no effortless way to get a bunch of people to read something you wrote. Remember, nobody wants to read your sh*t!
Part of being an author is embracing this challenge. Finding readers is the job you've signed up for!
Once you've got work that's ready to be read, and readers ready to read it, you might find BetaBooks is a big help. Rather than coordinate everything with a bunch of word docs and epubs and emails, you can just put your manuscript online, invite people to read it, and collect all their feedback in one well-organized, highly-searchable place. I hope you'll check it out!