You’ve written your novel, you’ve self edited it as well as you can for an early draft, and you’re ready for the beta reader stage! This blog outlines the pros and cons of using beta readers prior to self publishing your novel, as well as tips to ensure a positive beta reader experience.
Pros of beta readers
Free/low cost feedback
Obviously, the most beneficial aspect of recruiting beta readers for your manuscript is the potential for free or low cost feedback. However, free or low cost doesn’t necessarily equal quality. Check out the five tips for a positive beta reader experience at the end of this post.
Easy to organise
Organising beta readers is fairly easy and straightforward. I found mine through dedicated Facebook groups (Beta readers and critique partners / BetaReader Connect – Find Beta Readers & Critique Partners) and also by using the hashtag #betareaderswanted on Instagram. After checking out a few of the other posts, I gave the following information when I requested beta readers:
- The premise of my novel
- My novel’s word count and genre
- That I was looking for betas to read some or all of my book
- What elements I specifically wanted feedback about
- That I was happy to beta read for other authors in return
- My preferred timeframe for feedback
This meant I stood a better chance of recruiting beta readers who were fans of my book’s genre, were able to give me feedback by a certain date, who understood my expectations, and what I could offer in return. By being more explicit from the outset, I hoped to find a few betas who were reliable and interested in my story. On the whole, this worked! I recruited five betas – two who offered to read my whole novel for free (as they were avid fans of the genre), two who I arranged beta swaps with (see beta swaps section below), and one paid beta reader.
Beta swaps (part or full)
Some betas offer to read part or all of your novel if you return the favour for them. This is a good idea – being a beta reader can be quite a time investment, so a reciprocal beta reading arrangement holds both parties to account, and encourages more empathy when feeding back.
Depending on their availability (and reliability!), you could begin to receive beta feedback on your novel quite quickly. Some betas offer snippets of feedback as they read or at the end of each chapter, whereas others give feedback after reading the full amount agreed. If you are only looking for feedback on the opening of your novel, or the first few chapters, you could receive comments sooner rather than later.
Potential critique partner
If a beta swap goes well, it could potentially lead to an on-going critique partner arrangement. Expanding your author network is always positive and beta swapping with fellow writers is a great way to build mutually beneficial relationships.
Cons of beta readers
It happens. People say they’re going to beta read for you, or you arrange a beta swap, but after an email or message (or two), it all goes quiet. It’s frustrating if they don’t let you know they can’t/don’t want to do it anymore, especially if you were prepared to fulfil the commitment you made to beta read in return. However, just move on – you don’t know what’s happening in other people’s lives and as the pros sections covers, finding additional/replacement beta readers is always possible. One of my betas dropped out without explanation but because I had five lined up, I still had plenty.
Not genre specialists
Just because someone ‘likes’ reading the genre you have written, it doesn’t mean they’re genre specialists. It’s always preferable to ask for betas who are familiar with your genre but the chances of finding your ideal reader from those who reply to your beta request is probably quite slim. You are wholly reliant on the kindness of people who are willing to spend time reading your work for free (or a small fee).
Although one of the positives of beta reading is free feedback, one of the negatives is flaky and/or insensitive feedback. Insensitive or flippant comments could result in a confidence knock, especially for a first time author. Out of the four beta readers I received feedback from, only one veered towards critical rather than constructive. After a few less than helpful messages, I politely thanked her for the feedback so far and suggested we left it there!
Although beta readers are perfectly entitled to their opinions (that is the point of the exercise and their role is to be honest, as readers/reviewers will be after the book has been published), polite, helpful and constructive feedback is so much more beneficial to an author than flaky and/or insensitive feedback.
Disregard/disrespect feedback parameters
This also ties into being a bit flaky. If you’ve been clear about your expectations and preferred method of communication (via email after the beta reader has read what they agreed to read, for example) but the beta disregards this (by bombarding you with late night messages via Facebook messenger perhaps), that’s not a sign of a positive collaboration.
Conversely, pestering betas for extra feedback after they have already commented on your novel is not good practice. Consider how you would feel if the roles were reversed.
Too high expectations
It’s important to remember that beta readers are not friends or professional editors. Reading a book takes a few hours and if someone has offered to spend time doing that AND commenting on your work, especially for free, that’s fantastic in itself. Remember, you need them more than they need you so be reasonable in your expectations.
Conversely, betas might have high expectations of your book, so it’s important to be considerate with what you send them. If your book is still at quite a raw stage, at least let them know that in advance. They can then decide if they’re still happy to read it or not. Nonetheless, a manuscript containing a mess of fonts or riddled with typos does not bode well for positive feedback, regardless of how good the story might be.
Tips for a positive beta reader experience
Follow these five tips for a better chance of a positive beta reader experience:
1. Organise a range of beta readers
A selection of free and paid beta readers, as well as beta swaps, maximises your chances of quality feedback. Recruiting a range of betas also allows for any ghosting or mismatches. After my own beta reading experience, I highly recommend @katmorrisbooks on Instagram. Kat offers a paid service but it’s very reasonably priced and she offers extremely thorough feedback within a set timeframe.
2. Set deadlines/expectations straightaway
Ask for betas by stating your genre, word count, brief blurb, preferred timeframe, and whether or not your’e willing to beta read in return. This sets a more professional tone from the outset. It also helps potential betas determine whether they want to offer their commitment straightaway.
3. Ask specific questions
Knowing which aspects of your book you most want feedback on really helps you and your beta readers. Sending your betas a few specific questions about your opening scene, or your characters, or a particular sub-plot, or general pace etc. helps them give you focused feedback, if that’s what you’re hoping for. It also helps them feel less overwhelmed if you’re only asking them for comments about one or two elements, rather than the whole story.
4. Copyright/watermark/protect your work
Although recruiting beta readers from trusted sources (such as Facebook groups or fellow author recommendations) should reduce any worries you might have about sharing your work with complete strangers, you may still be concerned about plagiarism. At the very least, copyright your manuscript. However, watermarking it or making it a read only document should give you even more peace of mind.
5. ‘Fire’ them if you need to!
If it’s not working out with a beta reader, it’s okay to ask them to stop reading your book and giving you feedback. You will immediately get a sense of who might not be as kind, helpful or as constructive as you had hoped, so don’t feel bad about listening to your gut instinct and ending those betas matches. The one star reviews that ALL authors get prove that some people just enjoy being negative!
If you’ve found ‘Pros and Cons of Beta Readers for Indie Authors’ useful, you might also enjoy reading: