Why You Should Have Beta Readers as an Indie Author
Learn what beta readers are, and how to use them to make your novel as strong as possible.
I’ve got a question for you: what’s the step between writing and editing in the creation process for a piece of writing? Any ideas?
If you said reading, you’re on the right track. Authors usually have quite a few readers before they have the book published - and chief among them are beta readers. This invaluable group of people can be the difference between a book that shines and a book that…well, is a bit dull. They offer fantastic feedback and necessary support so that you can always put your best foot forward.
So what exactly do they do, and where can you find them? Let’s talk about it.
What is a beta reader?
Imagine you were creating a video game. After you create the first playable version of the game, you might want to see what people think of it before you make it widely available, so you ask a group of people to play this early version of the game and give you feedback. Maybe they’ll find bugs (hello, getting-stuck-in-the-wall glitches), maybe they’ll get stuck on a puzzle because the clues aren’t obvious, or maybe they’ll really really like a certain mechanic that you haven’t used as often as they would like. You would then use this feedback to create the next version of the game.
This version of a game, sent to a small group of players, is called a beta. See where I’m going with this? Beta readers are a small group of people whom you choose to read your book before it’s sent out for publication. They’re people who offer you opinions on the main character, the story structure, worldbuilding, character development, and the overall appeal of the book.
Betas are especially important to self-publishing authors as they add an extra level of outside critique and a set of fresh eyes to the process and can tell you if a certain element isn’t working, if certain characters deserve more fleshing out, or point out plot holes (an author’s nemesis). For non-fiction books, beta readers can help check for any factual errors and offer feedback on the reputability of sources. Beta readers can tell you in general if they enjoyed the book or not, and why, which can help you narrow down which portions of your story need to be refined or revised.
Beta readers vs alpha readers
So it’s important to note right now that a beta reader should never be the very first person to see your finished manuscript. If they are, you’re likely to get a lot of the same feedback over and over again, from a lot of different people, which can be overwhelming.
Instead, it’s a good idea to find an alpha reader or a critique partner. These are people - usually fellow writers - who read through your first draft (terrifying, I know) and put it through the criticism wringer. Of course, you’re normally doing the same thing for them - that’s why you’re partners. It’s a fairly equal relationship.
Critique partners and critique groups offer technical support. They tell you when you’re overusing a word, when characters randomly switch names and stories, if your grammar is out of whack, any typos you’ve left in by mistake, and any other craft shenanigans that only another person in the publishing world is going to pick up on.
Beta readers, on the other hand, aren’t normally authors themselves, and don’t expect you to critique anything of theirs in return. They’re likely to give you more emotional feedback than technical feedback, so while you won’t hand off the manuscript to professional editors until after they get it, you’ll want to provide betas with a draft that’s already gone through the self-editing process at least once.
Beta readers vs sensitivity readers
Another thing that beta readers get confused for frequently is sensitivity readers, but those are very much not the same job.
A sensitivity reader is someone who combs through your manuscript to make sure that it doesn’t contain harmful or offensive portrayals of the characters’ real-life counterparts. This means that they’re looking for racism (either intentional or accidental) and how it’s handled, how characters react to real-life traumatic situations of their own and their companions, stereotypical writing, and issues with perspective.
A good beta reader may point out these issues if they spot them, but they aren’t specifically looking for them. They may not even be able to spot these issues if they aren’t part of the represented group themselves; sensitivity readers often have either life experience or specific training to help them see from multiple points of view.
While it’s not strictly necessary to hire sensitivity readers, it’s never going to be a bad idea. While no one (well, almost no one) is actively trying to hurt other people with their writing, sometimes we create plots and characters that can be inadvertently damaging. Sensitivity readers help us review what we’ve written and see if there are real-life people that would benefit from some revisions.
How to find beta readers
So, beta readers are important! Awesome!
…how do you get them?
It’s actually relatively easy. Here are a few popular methods for pickup up a good group of beta readers.
Friends and family
The first place you might turn for free beta readers is your own social circle. You might ask your friends and family members to read over your work and give you their thoughts on it. This is a pretty cost-efficient way of doing the whole beta reading thing; your family and friends are more than likely not going to ask you to pay them to read your book. It’s also a good way to get gentle, meaningful feedback - these are people that care about you, so you know that their criticism is coming from a place of good faith.
On the other hand, though, friends and family are inherently biased. If your mom is the one reading your work, she’s likely going to be over the moon that you’ve written anything at all (ask my own mom, who proudly displays my books to her officemates while I cringe). This can be a confidence booster, but it can also heavily color the kind of feedback they offer; they may miss or gloss over glaring issues because they love you and don’t want to hurt your feelings by saying they didn’t like something.
To avoid this, I recommend setting out basic expectations for your betas. Tell them that you know that they care about you and you’re happy for their support, but that you need legitimate, thoughtful feedback. Make it clear that you expect and welcome critiques, and then stick to your guns! If someone has a valid negative opinion, thank them and ask for more details so that you can incorporate their feedback. Remember, they care about you and you care about them; one negative comment about your writing doesn’t mean these people suddenly hate you.
If you want slightly more objective opinions (though, with beta reading, it’s all subjective anyway), you might choose to source your betas from writing communities. These are places including review sites like Goodreads, various social media groups (hello, Facebook groups, Book Twitter, Bookstagram, and Booktok), author or reader forums, and your local writers’ groups, organizations, and clubs. It’s really quite easy to pick up betas here; simply put out a post and wait!
In your recruitment post, you’ll want to put:
- Your name
- The basic stats for your book including title, genre, synopsis (think back of book blurbs), length, and any general warnings you have
- The number of betas you’re looking for
- The general schedule for the process
- The general outline for how the process will work
- Whether or not this is paid work
- Contact information
I’ll get more into how beta reading actually works in a minute, but for now, just know that this is what potential readers need to know. If they’re interested, they can reach out to you and, if they’re a good fit, you can start working together.
You should know that finding beta readers this way can lead to some slightly scammy situations. Bots might reply to you trying to promote another author’s work or a fake promotional page (pOsT iT oN wRiTeRLyFe##!). You may also get some bad-faith readers who show up just to trash talk your work, especially if you write from a marginalized perspective. Be careful to vet your potential betas by looking into their profiles and history of beta reading, and by talking to them before you agree to let them read. Oh, and delete any spam comments on your recruitment post; wouldn’t want anyone getting any viruses.
Additionally, and I know this is probably worn-out advice, but please be careful with your information online! Have a dedicated beta reader contact email rather than using a personal one, and don’t give out your personal information online. Stick to your professional accounts and the information that’s already available to the public.
Freelance Beta readers
If you really want to and you have the money, you might choose to hire paid beta readers through freelance contracts. These professionals offer beta reading services for a living, most of the time. They’ll have profiles on popular job boards like Fiverr and Upwork so that you can find them easily; all you have to do is search “beta reader” on the site and pick the people who match your criteria.
Keep in mind that this is a professional contract. Your betas will expect you to keep a relatively strict timeline and pay what you offered. Conversely, you can also expect a high caliber of beta reader feedback in a timely manner with this method.
Your author website
Of course, if you already have a dedicated reader base, you might choose to pull Betas directly from it. Even if you don’t, you might offer the option to become a Beta reader through your author website.
When you’re building it, you might choose to include a “Become a Beta Reader” page; here, you can include all the information I noted from the recruitment post and a direct contact form people can use. This method is likely to give you more targeted beta readers who are already familiar with your style. It’s also a great way to build a reusable template and communication method for beta reader gathering for future projects. If you have a regular newsletter (which most authors should), you can direct people to your sign-up page from it.
Gathering betas from your website, as I mentioned, works best if you have an existing readership. While a first-time author definitely can offer beta reading as an option, it’s unlikely to garner much traffic without additional incentives. You might try offering a free copy of the finished book, or some other perk, in exchange for their help.
How to get the most from your beta readers
Once you’ve found your organically sourced free-range beta readers, you’ll want to make sure that both you and they are getting the most out of the experience that you possibly can. You want the most constructive feedback possible, and they want a worthy investment of their time and energy. Here’s how you do that.
Start with clear expectations
I mentioned earlier, in the list of things to put in your recruitment post, that you’ll need to offer some pretty important details. Here’s what to consider for those details.
- Who do you want to beta read? You should have a specific kind of reader in mind for your beta reading group; if your scifi horror novel is being read by a romance buff that incidentally hates your guts, you’re unlikely to get much in the way of constructive criticism. So, be sure that you’re getting people in your target audience, who like the genre you’re writing, and with whom you personally get along, at least to some degree.
- What type of feedback are you looking for? Are you going to give your betas a defined list of specific questions to answer? Should they offer you more open-ended responses? What elements are important to you when it comes to feedback? Make sure you’ve got a clear idea of what the responses should look like before you send them off to read.
- How will you deliver the book? You can either send it all at once or chapter by chapter. All at once is slightly easier to coordinate but chapter by chapter gives you more detailed and timely feedback.
- How long do they have to read? The average person reads between 125 and 400 words per minute, meaning it can take someone between two and seven hours to read a full-length manuscript uninterrupted. Assume that your readers are not going to speedread your manuscript in one sitting, though; offer them plenty of time (at the very least a full week from receiving the book) to read at their own pace.
- Are you going to pay them? Some beta reading communities require payment to receive betas at all, but most indie authors opt to compensate their betas non-monetarily (mostly because indie authors don’t have the largest budgets). Usually, this means that they receive a free copy of the finished book, their name in the credits, or other perks. That being said, if you’ve got the budget for it, go ahead and offer some kind of payment; betas are, after all, providing a valuable service. Decide how you’re going to compensate your betas before you start recruiting.
The Dos and Don’ts of beta reading
Once you’ve sorted out the details and gone through the whole process of picking up beta readers, you’re golden! Here are a few parting tips for you with regards to what you should or shouldn’t do with beta readers.
- Do set and stick to an effective schedule. Not only is it important for betas to have enough time to read your book, but you should also give yourself time to incorporate the feedback you’re given into your work.
- Don’t expect robots instead of people. Remember that your beta readers have lives of their own that they need to attend to; you and your work are most likely not their top priority, so it’ll take them time to get back to you.
- Do find a way to organize feedback. You’ll be getting a lot of emails or form submissions! I suggest gathering all of your feedback into bullet points in a single document. I would also organize by chapter if possible, but you don’t have to.
- Don’t overwhelm your betas. Getting a sheet of 10,000 questions and a 5-page rulebook for your beta session would freak anyone out. Make sure everyone understands what’s going on and what you’re looking for, but give them some freedom to respond properly.
- Do take constructive criticism into account. It hurts to think that our work is less than great, I know, but the whole point of beta reading is to improve. I’ll say it again: your beta readers care about you and about the story you’re writing. When they point out a flaw or something that doesn’t work, they’re doing it so that you can correct it and make the finished work even better.
- Don’t try to please everyone. On the flip side of this, there may be one or two bad apples who claim that everything you write is utter garbage. When reading feedback, only take the pieces that are specific and in good faith into account.
- Do remember to proofread. I cannot overstress this: proofreading after beta reading is incredibly important! You can have the perfect story and still have typos!
Whether or not you choose to use them, it’s a good idea to know how the beta reading process works and how it can benefit you as a creative. Heck, maybe you want to get into beta reading yourself!
Beta readers can be an extremely valuable asset for any writer. They’re the in-between step for writers from fresh manuscripts to editors, and add an extra layer to the metaphorical filter to pull out the gems from the sand and stone.