By Tom Chalmers
The term beta is most commonly used in the world of software development. Before an app is deemed ready for public consumption, it’s usually sent out to a group of people tasked with putting the software through its paces.
Known as beta testers, this helpful bunch will sniff out bugs and offer constructive feedback on the usability of the app, amongst other things.
The same methodology is now being applied to self-publishing, with beta readers becoming a common fixture in aspiring authors’ toolboxes.
Just like software testers, beta readers lend their eyes to completed drafts in order to help the author refine their work for the intended audience.
If you’re yet to dip your toes into the world of beta reading, or actively campaign against the very idea – they’re not for everyone – here is some insight into how they can be used effectively.
Look for them in the right places
How do you find beta readers? The first step is to make sure you look for them in the right places for people to read your book.
If you attend a local writing group, there’s a good chance you’ll meet face-to-face with such people, but failing that, social media is the ideal hunting ground.
Providing you’ve invested time in your own social media profile and presence, you’ll have the perfect platform on which to connect with potential beta readers.
As you go about your daily social media business, take a look at your followers and those who engage with you – the perfect beta reader may be lurking within.
Don’t just ask your Auntie or Uncle…
Unless of course, they happen to be Margaret Atwood or John Grisham.
The idea of beta readers is for them to be people you don’t know, or at least not very well, and as such will be able to give a completely objective opinion and to react to your work as a reader would on first seeing it.
Friends and family support is great but you are not looking for reassurance or comments from someone who has heard about the work since the original idea was formed.
When you ask someone to read your manuscript, you are looking for honest and impartial opinions not faint praise.
Think about your target audience
You should always think about your target reader if you are self-publishing, or even publishing traditionally. After all, they are the ones you are counting on to buy your book and help make it a success.
It is not always the case, but if you have a specific reader profile in mind then make sure they are included in your range of beta readers.
For instance, if you are writing something crime-related then make sure you have approached nearby crime reading groups or social media groups focussed on fans of crime fiction.
It sounds like common sense but you might be surprised by the number of people who don’t follow this simple step.
Online or in person?
Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
People you meet with regularly, such as a critique partner or those in writing and/or book groups may well be able to give a more detailed reaction and enter into a longer discussion.
However, those online may feel they have the distance to be more honest than if they were discussing your hopes and dreams in front of you. Therefore, a mix of both is probably the best approach.
Don’t give them a draft
Beta readers should be treated as final readers, so don’t send them scraps here and there. When you work with a beta reader, your best first draft is the absolute minimum you should send their way.
However, if you can refine it further yourself until you can see no further improvements, then that’s the best time to pass on your work for review by a good beta reader.
Be mindful of formats
Beta readers consume books in a variety of ways and will likely have a preferred method. It, therefore, pays to ask them the format which works best for them before sending your work.
Some may want to read it on a Kindle, while others will prefer an old-fashioned printout. Bow to their requests where possible – you don’t want to put any unnecessary roadblocks in their way.
Will they correct your spelling and grammar?
Beta readers are not intended to be proofreaders – you will need to ensure your work is well proofread, omitting all typos and other basic errors before sending it.
A beta reader is meant to replicate the reader experience. You are asking them to review the quality of your writing, not your grammar and spelling.
Do beta readers only help ahead of publication?
Not necessarily – their reactions can help with your sales and marketing plans as well.
For instance, if a particular type of beta reader liked your work then you could focus on that customer profile when it comes to promoting and selling your work.
If a beta reader particularly liked your work they may also be happy to promote it through their social media channels leading up to, and after, the book launches.
You could think of beta readers like traditional product focus groups – they help with the product development but also in terms of how it can be marketed and sold.
Don’t lose heart
The likelihood is you’ll receive some negative feedback and, no matter how constructively it’s delivered, there’s always the danger that you’ll take it personally. Try not to.
Remember – a beta reader’s main job is to bring out the best in you.
Take any criticism on the chin, listen to their point of view and recommendations and act upon them – you won’t make the same mistake twice.
Give them something to go on
Handing over a manuscript with the parting words “let me know what you think” is unlikely to result in optimal feedback.
Give your beta reader something to go on; tell them the kind of feedback you’d like by highlighting what they should focus on.
Maybe you’re unsure about a certain character, plot holes and twists or elements of your writing style.
Whatever it is – tell them to focus on how they can help shape the final edition of the book.
So, what do you think? To beta test or not to beta test?
I think it’s worth the time investment. As a self-published author, editors are hard – and expensive – to come by.
Yet a second set of eyes, or a number of sets of eyes, on your writing, remains absolutely essential if you’re to produce your best work and realise how best to promote and sell it.
Tom Chalmers set-up Legend Press in 2005, a book publisher focused predominantly on mainstream literary and commercial fiction. He has since built a number of successful publishing-related businesses, founding New Generation Publishing (NGP) – a leading UK self-publishing service dedicated to helping writers to sell their books- in 2009.