I had a great time at Life, The Universe, and Everything last weekend, my first time speaking at this conference! (My first time attending it at all, in fact!) I am very impressed. Definitely coming back next year as an attendee if they don't want me to teach anything or participate on a panel. My panel discussions went pretty well, though, so I think they'll let me help out again next year. Mark your calendars!
One question that arose many times in various different contexts had to do with beta readers. What are they? What do they do? Where do I find them? Do they volunteer, or do I have to pay them? How do I make sure they actually do a beta-read? As a beta reader, how can I best serve the author? How do I manage my beta readers and keep track of how much they have read and the feedback they have given?
That's too much to cover in a single post, so let's begin with the basics.
A beta reader is not an editor or a proofreader. (Someone who offers you free critique or proofreading in exchange for reading your manuscript is an "alpha reader"! Technically, anyone who reads your manuscript while it is still a work in progress might be called an alpha reader.)
A beta reader is a fan of your work or your genre/topic, someone who gets a first look at the finished product in exchange for some helpful feedback. Ideally, they will do this for free because they are fans: they are just thrilled to get a "first look" at your latest story or your new book just before it is published. Getting that early copy for free, and having that privileged relationship with the author, is payment enough.
If you don't have any fans yet, you can hire beta readers (if you must) or ask your writer friends and colleagues if they would be willing to be your beta readers. Folks who are themselves authors or publishing professionals of some kind, like editors or agents, will often agree to do a beta read for free, if they know you and like you. They are doing you a favor, in this case. You owe them one.
But serving as a beta reader for your fellow authors is a great way to help one another out, to get acquainted with other authors in your genre or who write about the same topic you do. Volunteer to be a beta reader for authors you admire— it's a great way to get to know more experienced or more accomplished authors. Plus you get to see their latest work for free. (See? It really is a good deal. Recruit some of your own fans to be your beta readers!)
If someone takes you up on the offer to beta-read for them—now what? You'll read the manuscript, of course, but what does a beta reader do while they read? What should an author hope to get from a beta reader?
Here are five, maybe six, questions to ask yourself as a beta reader, or to ask your beta readers:
- What worked well in this story? Or in nonfiction, what part of it was most compelling? Generalities are good, but it is even better if you can point to particular passages, and tell the author "In this scene the story really came alive," or "in this paragraph you really convinced me." It's even better if you can be specific about why that part worked well: "I loved this turn of phrase" or "the story came alive when [this happened, was revealed, etc.]" or "this was especially convincing because [evidence, inference, reference, metaphor, mental model, etc.]".
- Where did I lose track of the story or the line of reasoning? Is there a point where the writing seemed confused or confusing? In this case, it is especially important to be able to tell the reader exactly where their writing went off the rails. Or as exactly as you can; sometimes it isn't obvious. Don't over-analyze this or try to play George Scithers, just trust your instincts. Let's say at one point you were enjoying the book, and later, you weren't able to anymore. At least identify the window in which that shift happened: this scene, this half of the chapter, or that section of the book. This is where a beta reader earns their free copy of the book. Even though the book is supposed to be finished with the editing process by the time you get to it, if a beta reader book points out someplace that the book doesn't work, it isn't too late to fix it before it is actually launched. That's why beta readers are so valuable. That's also why beta readers ought to be drawn from your actual audience: if something doesn't work for them, you need to fix it. (If a beta reader isn't a fan of your genre or niche, take their negative feedback with a grain of salt. You don't want to waste time fixing something your audience wouldn't think is broken, or worse yet, eliminate something your audience would love.)
- What three adjectives best describe this book, overall? The author can use these adjectives from beta readers in the promotional blurbs for the book, either as a pool of descriptors to draw from while you write the book description, so the readers will find it accurate, or as advance praise for the book: "readers agree, this book is [insert most common praise here, from actual beta readers]".
- What three adjectives best describe the author's voice in this book? This is more personal feedback. Sure, it can be used in the same way as the book adjectives, but it can also help the author develop their distinctive style. Many authors are surprised to hear their readers identify specific attributes of the way they sound in their writing; those insights can be profoundly encouraging, motivating, surprising, revealing. Beta readers: Candor is crucial here. Choose adjectives that are based on the text, not your personal knowledge of the author (if you know them). It's okay to offer constructive criticism for #3 or #4, too. As long as you are not snarky, it's all good.
- After finishing the book and writing your answers to these other questions, what stands out most in your memory, about this book? Usually, the most memorable parts are where the author connected most deeply and effectively with the reader, whether in fiction or nonfiction. Authors: reflect on why those things were so memorable to your readers. Can you catch that lightning in a bottle over and over? If you understand it, perhaps you can. There is nothing more valuable to ponder.
- Bonus Question for beta readers: Who do you think would love this book? You can ask this as a generality as you are refining your understanding of your target audience, or you can make it specific: ask for the name and email address of someone whom your beta reader believes will love your book. In exchange, you might email that person a link to become a beta reader too and read your book for free, or just buy it at a discount and write a review if they like it. You could even send that lucky person a free autographed copy of your book, and credit your beta reader for inspiring the gift! Be creative with those leads ...just don't ignore them.
A good beta reader's referral can create a triple-win scenario: their friend gets a free book (one that they will very likely enjoy), the beta reader gets credit for the gift, and the author grows their fanbase and email list! Sure, it's the very definition of slow, incremental growth. But it is also "word of mouth" made strategic and measurable.
And with any luck, that new reader might become a fan of your work in general, and a beta reader in their own right!