Everything You Need to Know About Beta Readers

If you’ve published a book, then you know publishing is a joyful process. But recently, an author sagged when I recommended beta readers.

“I’d rather not,” he said. “I’m tired of writing. I’m ready to publish!”

I get it. After years of working on his manuscript, he’s ready to plow forward and finally see his book come together. But beta readers are worth the wait.

I know the author is a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, so I explained to him that The Lord of the Rings trilogy may not have been as successful without C.S. Lewis’ feedback. The encouragement did the trick: The author paused his process and invited beta readers to review his manuscript. A month later, he met his beta readers at a restaurant to discuss his book, hear what they liked, and take notes on what they thought could be improved.

Afterward, he beamed. “That was a great experience,” he said. “I feel reinvigorated. I’m glad I did it.”

I encourage you to do it, too. Here’s everything you need to know to form an effective beta group for your nonfiction book.

The author met with his beta group at a restaurant in Houston to hear constructive feedback on his nonfiction manuscript.

What are beta readers?

Beta readers are people who access your manuscript for free ahead of the book release. They give feedback that can play a valuable role in shaping a book into its best form.

 

Authors work with beta readers for a few reasons: 

  • Receive early feedback that ensures the book meets the needs of their audience

 

  • Build advocates who will spread the word about the book

 

  • Generate book reviews early and quickly

 

Tips for working with beta readers:

  • Before choosing beta readers, define your target reader. Your friends and family may or may not fit your ideal audience. Consider people who are trustworthy, honest, and able to provide constructive feedback without sugarcoating it.

 

  • Select as many people as you feel comfortable. Some authors work with just one or two trusted beta readers, while others prefer a group of twenty or more.

 

  • Consider the best format for reading and feedback. Will your beta readers be satisfied with a digital version, such as a pdf or Google doc, or will some prefer a printed version? Will you want comments added to your manuscript and emailed back to you, or will you schedule a meeting or discussion group? 

 

  • If you’re concerned that your manuscript will be shared without your permission, mention to your readers to keep your manuscript confidential. But keep in mind a truth asserted by bestselling author Seth Godin: “Your problem is not piracy. Your problem is obscurity.”

 

  • Set expectations for beta feedback. Do you want your beta readers to notice proofreading mistakes? Do you want them to focus more on meaning? Whatever you want to find out, guide your beta readers by providing a few critical questions, such as, “What is your overall opinion of the book? What would make it better?” To avoid feedback that is too broad (“I loved it!”), give a prompt that encourages specific feedback (“I like/don’t like this part because __.”)

 

  • You don’t have to accept every piece of advice. If you don’t agree with a comment, put it on the back burner and employ the “two people in agreement” rule. If another beta reader or editor makes the same comment, then it’s a signal that you should reconsider.

 

  • Resist arguing or taking offense. You may run into a beta reader with a personal ax to grind, but generally speaking, most betas aren’t out to get you. So give the benefit of the doubt and assume they just want to help you, even if they’re wrong. If you’re face-to-face with a beta reader, set aside negative knee-jerk reactions and simply nod and smile as they explain their thoughts. If you need clarification on a point, be sure to ask with graciousness and humility, then say, “That’s a good point. I’ll take that into consideration.”

 

  • Give the edit some time. Most of us need a little time to process a critique, especially if it’s harsher than we expected. Before outright rejecting a beta reader’s critique, give yourself a week or so to process the comments. Step away from the manuscript and let those initial emotions brew for a while. When you’ve cleared your head, come back to the critique and evaluate the true worth of the beta reader’s offerings.

 

  • Resist asking for editing help. Editing requires as much time and effort as critiquing, so don’t assume that just because people agreed to read your manuscript, they’ll also want to help you fill holes. Pointing out the holes is their job; filling them is yours and your editor’s.

 

  • Respect your readers’ time. Beta readers are giving you the gift of many hours of their time for free, so respect that gift. Consider their existing commitments and priorities and agree on a reasonable deadline. Don’t pester them for progress updates, even if you might feel annoyed at how long they’re taking to acknowledge or read your manuscript. Only after the deadline has passed without response, send a gentle email asking if they’ve had time to look at your book. If they haven’t, tell them it’s okay, and look elsewhere for other beta readers. Many people have good intentions but are over-committed. 

 

  • Show gratitude. Even if you disagree with everything a beta reader said, never discount the effort that went into making those comments. Treat your beta readers with gratitude and humility, and the process will be a joy and a blessing for everyone involved. Thank your beta readers in the Acknowledgments page of your book or in a blog post on your website. 

 

  • Return the favor. It’s an unspoken rule in the writing world that if you receive a critique, you should also be willing to give one. Offer upfront to return the favor, and when that favor gets called in, do your best to promptly, kindly, and professionally fulfill the duties of the beta reader as well as you’d like to have them fulfilled for you.

 

I encourage you to invite beta readers to review your nonfiction writing before your finalize your manuscript. A little feedback goes a long way to producing a stellar book!

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