Beta Readers – An Author’s Hidden Resource

Situation: You are an author and are in the middle of writing your story, or you have already completed a draft copy that you want feedback on prior to submitting for publication or editing.
Challenge: How do you go about receiving the input you need to ensure your story is on the right path and that there aren’t any glaring holes?

Well, as an editor, naturally one might expect my first response would be to hire an editor and pay them to go through the story with a fine tooth comb. That sounds like a natural process, right? However, many authors don’t want to go through multiple rounds of paid edits as the costs can add up quickly. Luckily, the online world provides the writer with a wide range of feedback generating mechanisms that can help improve their manuscript both during the writing process and after draft completion.

A challenge with hiring an editor early on, or at all, is that the feedback you receive will depend on the type of edit you request. You may receive a mechanics-only (grammar, structure, style, etc.) edit which doesn’t address the meat of your manuscript, the story. You may pay for a more in-depth developmental edit which focuses on the story, flow, and other attributes of the script. So, as an author, how do you go about receiving substantive feedback about the story, rather than simply the mechanics, prior to publication? How do you ensure your story flows appropriately, that you don’t have any plot holes or inconsistencies, or that you haven’t left out critical details that make the story incomplete?

The recommendation I provide to you with this blog post is the concept of beta readers. The idea of beta reading is not a new one and has been going on for some time. Publishing houses and independent authors oftentimes solicit feedback for a draft copy of an initial manuscript. Back in the pre-ebook publication days, pre-release copies were sent out for feedback. This allows the author to go back and adjust areas based on reader critiques and can lead to a more complete final product.

What is a beta reader?

As I mentioned above, a beta reader is simply someone (a close friend, a previous reader, a complete stranger in a social media book group) who provides you feedback on a draft copy of your work.

NOTE: Be careful with close friends or family. While this may seem like an easy way to gain a beta reader and receive feedback, there is a tendency for these groups to only provide positive feedback as a way to motivate you. However, as an author, you should welcome truthful feedback as that is what will be given once the manuscript is released to the masses. It is better to find out what you can now rather than waiting until post-publication.

How do I go about finding beta readers?

Finding a beta reader is actually quite an easy process, especially in the age of the world-wide-web and social media. Below is a list of recommended locations to start looking for beta readers:

  • Social Media Groups – Look for groups focused on your specific genre. These groups typically have readers with a wide range of exposure to titles in the genre and can help ensure you stay true to the genre, if that is your goal, or if your change in style actually helps shift the genre into a new direction. Likewise, social media groups allow for direct and immediate feedback with many readers looking for their next great read.
    • It is important to note that while genre-specific groups are a great way to receive feedback, don’t forget about general reading or ebook groups as a way to get new readers. These groups are generally a great way to expand your beta reading audience and gain new reviewers for your final published manuscript.
  • Previous readers – Always look to your existing fan base. This can be achieved through contacts made from your websites contact me form or readers you’ve talked to in the past.
  • Newsletters – If you don’t have a newsletter, it may be time to consider one. A newsletter provides a way for your readers to directly interact with you, providing you a way to shine a light on what is going on in your writing world, your life, or whatever else you choose to share. This can also be a means of soliciting beta readers to look over manuscripts that you feel are close to ready for publication.

What can I expect from a beta reader?

First, let me be upfront about what to expect from a beta reader. You must be ready for several different types of feedback. You must also be ready for the good and the bad. The internet is not a kind place, and you will often receive very blunt input, along with inputs that are not helpful to improving your writing. One simply has to view the comments section of a news article or social media posting to see what I am referring to. Below is a simplistic, not all-inclusive list of different styles of feedback you can expect:

  1. Substantive feedback: This is the feedback most authors seek for their works. This is feedback that is constructive, relies on examples, points our plot holes or inconsistencies, and gives you a clear path forward on what may need to be addressed in your script. An example of this could be: “At the beginning of your story, you mentioned that character X had a fear of flying but when they flew on a plane in chapter 11, they showed no signs of anxiety as part of their trip.” This can provide a way to let you know that you may need to highlight the fear of flying, especially if it is a critical component of the plot.
  2. “This doesn’t make sense” feedback: Moving down from substantive feedback that is clear and actionable is this more simplistic in nature. Basically, this feedback can point out a problem without getting into the nitty-gritty of what the reader may be attempting to address. These types of comments are best addressed through multiple beta readers as you can typically identify a pattern or trend if similar comments are made at the same point in your script.
  3. The not-at-all helpful feedback: Everyone knows these types of comments as I am certain you have read them online at some point. Comments such as “This sucks, What were you thinking here?, Why didn’t you put this in the story?” are almost certain to come across. As difficult as it may sound, you cannot allow these comments to be taken personally. While every author hopes for feedback more in line with the substantive type mentioned above, not all readers are out to provide that style of feedback.
  4. No feedback: This is something you will almost certainly encounter in the beta reader community. As someone who reads and listens to a large number of physical, digital, and audiobooks, I often take part in offers to provide an honest review in exchange for a free copy of a book. The challenge with these opportunities is that they are completely dependent upon the reader to uphold their end of the deal. In the above case, the social contract is that the reader/listener will provide honest input for the story in the form of a review on Amazon.com, Good Reads, Audible, or some other forum. However, there are no real means to enforce this as these cases are offered up in good faith.
    • The above information holds true for beta readers as well. While the idea seems pretty cut and dry as far as receiving a free copy of a book for honest feedback, some readers may be bogged down with other life priorities. Some may have multiple books in their to-be-read list and yours was just added as the latest entry. Other readers may have no intention to actually provide the feedback you seek and just want a free book. You must be prepared for each of the cases above.

So where do I go from here?

So, with all of these ways to have beta readers provide you feedback prior to seeking out an editor for your final draft, where do you begin?

If you don’t already have one, I recommend creating an author page on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. This can provide a way for your readers to find you, without opening up your personal profiles, and allow you to interact with them in a very upfront and direct way. You can then leverage these pages to ask for readers who may be interested in beta reading.

Second, as mentioned above, look to groups dedicated to the genre of your manuscript. Seek out ebook or print book groups where participants routinely discuss books they’ve read, are reading, or want to read, and groups where authors are encouraged to participate. When you use this method, always ensure you abide by the terms of the group so as to not find yourself blocked or black-listed. Some groups have rules as to where, and how often, authors, editors, or publishers may advertise their books and/or services.

I hope you have found this blog useful. I also hope it provides you with an understanding of how to receive free feedback from your reader community so that you can produce the best product possible.

If you have any questions, comments, jokes, or funnies, please feel free to contact me.

Thanks for reading!

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