By Mark Wayne Adams
Beta readers are non-professional readers who can provide useful feedback and suggestions for your book before you hit publish or submit your manuscript to an agent or publisher. They read a pre-release manuscript or sample book to find and improve items such as grammar, character development, plot or information gaps, or to assist in fact-checking. Using beta readers is no substitute for editing or proofreading, though. In fact, paired with your self-edits, feedback you get from beta readers can raise the quality of your manuscript beyond what you can do entirely on your own. Let’s take a look at what it takes to make effective use of beta readers on your next manuscript.
Who should your beta readers be?Asking your parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, or closest friends to be beta readers is not a good idea. Because of their inherent biases or desire to see you do well, using family and friends isn’t likely to yield valuable feedback that can help you improve your craft. The best beta reader groups are a mix of individuals who represent your ideal reader or target audience and other readers who know something about the craft of writing. Of course, you will want to pick readers of the right age for your work. For example, if you write middle grade fiction or young adult, recruit readers in the age you are targeting. Above all, your readers should have the following three qualities:
- an interest in your genre – you don’t want to ask someone who hates history to read your historical romance, or someone who has never picked up an urban fantasy in their life to try giving feedback on yours
- honesty – someone who will be open, respectful, and forthright in delivering their feedback
- reliability – a reader who will follow through with what they agree to do for you
Where can beta readers be found?Seek out local or regional writing groups for members who might want to exchange assistance: they read your manuscript and you read theirs. If you do use another author, select someone who isn’t familiar with your work yet. Teachers and librarians are often willing to support writers too. If you are a blogger or have a website set up to gather email addresses of individuals interested in your work, then reach out to them. Readers are often flattered to be asked and are willing to support someone whose work they admire already. The same applies if you have developed a social media platform and have Twitter followers, Facebook friends, or LinkedIn connections. Reach out to those people, too.
How many readers are needed and how much time do you give them?The number of beta readers needed can depend on the length of the manuscript. A children’s chapter book or young adult novel may not need as many readers as a mainstream adult novel. New writers might want to use more readers, especially if they have not workshopped their book or never shared it in a small critique group. As a general guide, you may not get enough feedback to make significant improvements in your story with any fewer than three beta readers. Any more than eight could result in an overwhelming number of comments to sift through. How much time you allow your beta readers also depends on the manuscript length, as well as the depth of the questions you ask and feedback you expect. Be reasonable and as flexible as you can within your timeline goals and be respectful of their other obligations, but also be firm about the deadline you set.
What types of questions should you ask your beta readers?Beta readers’ time is valuable. Asking specific questions will gain you more detailed and actionable feedback. Ask not only about the negative aspects of the book, but also items that are strong. This helps you build on the weak sections and recognize your writing strengths. Of course, gather the reader’s name, profession or title, full address so you can mail them a complimentary book or personal thank you, and their email address for future contact with them. The questions you ask will depend on your genre and on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. If you are aware that you have challenges around character development then ask your readers to pay particular attention to that. As an illustrator, I like to get feedback on the book’s design as well as the content. Here are examples of some of the questions I ask:
- Would you like to receive a complimentary book upon release?
- Would you like to provide an endorsement quote for this book?
- [If your book is part of a series] Would you like to participate in future beta reads for this book series?
- Rate each of the following areas from 1 to 10 (10 being excellent). Please provide any suggestions or accolades regarding each section.
___ Timely/Interesting: is this book’s topic timely or interesting?
___ Appropriate: is this book relevant to the target reader?
___ Entertaining/Informative: does this book entertain and/or inform?
___ Complete: does this book cover the subject well or tell a complete story?
___ Content Organization: is this story or information well organized? (This applies to both fiction and nonfiction)
___ Interior Design: is this book’s interior well executed, organized, and easy to read?
___ Font Size: is this book’s font easily of a comfortable height and serif?Often, I ask about the front and back cover and the spine, too, which means I must design these elements before I begin the beta reader process. From these items, I ask questions such as, are they appropriate and relevant for the target reader? Does the artwork explain the subject well or tell a complete story? Is the font readable?
A few final guidelines
- Never give your beta readers a draft; finish your book first.
- Make the process easy for your readers; ask what format they prefer for reading your book—print, or an e-file such as a PDF. Ideally, ask at least one reader to read on their e-reading device.
- Set a due date and make sure each reader is aware and agrees to it upfront; a tentative reader isn’t likely to follow through.
- Treat your beta readers well in case you want to use them again.
- Thank them and return the favor; put them in your acknowledgments.
In 2016, author, illustrator, and publisher Mark Wayne Adams and host Gina Hogan Edwards held a discussion about Beta Readers: Why, When, and How to Use Them on our free author series CONVERSATIONS Around the Writer’s Table. If you’d like access to this audio, please contact me at Gina(at)AroundTheWritersTable.com.
Mark Wayne Adams is an award-winning illustrator, author, publisher, and owner of Mark Wayne Adams, Inc., an independent book publishing company. He has a Bachelors of Fine Arts, has illustrated fifty books and published fifteen books, working with more than eighteen authors. Adams has nineteen years of experience in graphic design and has worked for companies including Walt Disney World Company, SeaWorld Orlando, and Sprint Print, Commercial Printing. He is also a board member and past-president of Florida Authors and Publishers Association. Mark serves as the international Readers’ Favorite Illustration Awards judge.
Gina Edwards is a retreat leader, a certified creativity coach, and a book editor. She is also a writer, so she’s intimately familiar with the challenges and elation that come with being one.
She supports all writers—published and aspiring—who want to write as an act of courageous and necessary self-expression.
Walking the writer’s path hand-in-hand with her clients and students, she helps them establish a writing practice and define a creative life on their own terms.