How to Work With Beta Readers
It has taken months, but you have finished a draft of your novel. Hopefully, it’s the best thing you’ve ever written, but how can you be sure? How do you know if the story, the characters, the plot, and the setting will resonate with the right people?
Feedback from beta readers will help you discover the answer.
What is a beta reader?
A beta reader is a person in your target audience who loves to read. You will pay them (yes, pay them) to read a draft of your novel and give an honest critique of your work.
The term comes from the tech world, where beta testers try out new products in the early stages of development, such as an app. This helps the product team understand if customers will like the app and how they can improve it to give it a better chance of success in the market. The earlier they get feedback on a working version of the product, the better the product will eventually be.
This is the same as working with beta readers, but you will need a complete draft of your book to send to them. Published authors like Laura Davis have shared the value of gaining a potential beta reader’s point of view and useful feedback when worldbuilding an early draft of a new book.
Developing the Right Mindset for Beta Reader Feedback
Receiving criticism about your book can be scary. I had been working on my first novel for 12 years before I started seeking feedback from beta readers. My book was my baby. How would I survive my beta reader tearing my work to pieces? Criticism is always possible, but there’s no need to catastrophize about this. Here’s why.
I think that anyone can write a book. Anyone who tries for long enough can write 80,000 words of whatever garbage comes out of their brain (as our first draft of anything often is). But, I believe it is incredibly hard to write a good book; a book that people want to share with their friends. So, I would only consider working with beta readers if you want to write a good book. Very few of us will succeed at this, but you should want to try.
Next, you will need the correct mindset for the beta reader process. The goal of getting feedback from beta readers is for you to learn how to improve your book. Criticism from your beta reader is helpful information that will enable you to improve your book. Better to learn now than when you’re pitching agents or you self-publish it and it flops.
How To Work With Beta Readers
1. Get A Complete Draft Of Your Book Ready To Send
When you go to approach beta readers, you are going to send them your entire manuscript. You will not send them the hypothetical manuscript of the book you wish you could have written, planned to write, or wanted to write but didn’t. So finish your draft, run a final spell-check so you minimize typos and grammatical errors, and prepare to send it off.
Please be kind to your beta readers and make sure your word count is in the realm of normalcy for your genre. Just as you wouldn’t send an agent a 140,000 word manuscript, your beta readers are also humans with limited attention spans. The draft of my novel I sent to them was 79,000 words, which is right in the sweet spot of 50,000-90,000 for my genre of teen romance fiction. You can find the acceptable range of lengths for your genre here.
Join whatever writing communities you need to get through this stage in the process. My favorite writing group is The London Writer’s Salon, which hosts free sessions with fellow writers four times per day. It’s amazing how much progress you can make writing for one hour per day.
2. Find And Approach Your Beta Readers
Your ideal beta reader is someone in your primary target audience who loves to read. If your book is best suited for retired Canadian gardeners, and you send your manuscript to your tech bro friends in Miami, their feedback will not help improve your book.
For example, my novel is a teen romance story set in London. Both my main characters are 15 years old, so my primary target audience is 15-year-old girl-identifying females, followed by people finishing high school or starting college, so under 23. Of course, women in their 50s who love English-themed literature could also be an audience for my book, but they are more of a secondary audience. I encourage you to identify whoever is in your primary target audience who loves to read and find those people. If people in your primary target audience love your book, you’ll know you have hit a home run.
Now my challenge was to find 15-year-old girls who love to read. I was 26 at the time I did this, so unsurprisingly I had very few personal contacts who fit this description. How did I find my beta readers? I asked my family members and close friends. One of my cousins was 15, so I sent it to her and some of her school friends. Another friend’s younger sister was 16 and a huge reader so I sent it to her. I reached out to them on social media (Instagram).
I returned to some of my good beta readers for multiple rounds of feedback. In this way, it helps to establish a rapport with them and tell them you might need their help for future rounds if the first round of feedback goes well (even if it takes you a couple of months between drafts).
You could also find beta readers in Facebook groups and Goodreads or ask other indie authors how they did it.
3. Payments And NDA Contracts
Your beta readers are taking a lot of time to read your book, and I believe they should be compensated fairly for that. I paid my beta readers $75 (US Dollars) for each version of the manuscript they read and returned to me with detailed feedback in a Google Doc. This honest feedback was invaluable and took my book to the next level. If your book is much longer, like 140,000 words, I’d consider paying your beta readers over $100 to read and critique it. I paid them through Venmo, but you could also use Zelle, Cash App, PayPal, etc. I imagine you could charge less for helpful feedback on other creative writing or short stories.
In terms of contracts, you have been writing your book for a long time and care about the material not being stolen. I had all my beta readers and some of my friends sign a single-page NDA contract, which I’ve linked here for you to download for free. It’s not exactly watertight, but having something written, signed, and drafted is a good-enough way for your beta reader to know that your manuscript can’t be shared. Because my beta readers were minors (under 18), I also added a signature from a responsible parent or guardian to the NDA.
I paid my beta readers after they sent the critiqued version of my manuscript back to me. You don’t lose anything by signing an NDA and offering payment only after they complete the project if they never finish it.
4. Send It Off With A List Of Questions
Once you’ve found book lovers in your target audience and agreed on NDAs and payment, it’s time to send your manuscript off to your beta readers. I sent off Microsoft Word documents and limited my feedback to about 2-3 beta readers per round, but again, some of them wouldn’t read the whole thing, so I suggest signing NDAs with five people, with the wiggle room that only three of them will send your manuscript back to you. Having more than three people critiquing your book at a time will be complicated when you try to incorporate their feedback into the book.
Also, be mindful that your beta readers have their own lives. For example, my readers didn’t have much time during the school year, but their turnaround during the summer was much faster. Agree on a deadline that works with your beta reader’s schedule. You won’t have to pay them until they return the critiqued manuscript to you, so be generous and continue with your other projects.
When sending your manuscript off, share your expectation with them that you will connect on a phone call or Zoom meeting after they have finished reading it, where you will ask them more specific questions about what they read. Include a list of questions at the end of your manuscript for them to complete. When you meet with them over Zoom, ask your beta reader if they would feel comfortable with you recording the session so that you can pay attention to what they are saying in the conversation and not be distracted by taking notes.
How do you get useful and actionable feedback from beta readers? Here are some tips:
Ask them about all facets of your book: character development and believability, plot, setting and dialogue, pace, resolutions, and how satisfying the book is to read. You can hire a professional editor later to help with proofreading and copy editing, once you’ve done the self-editing.
Ask them “What…?” questions, e.g.:
What did you like most about the book?
What resonated with you most from the book?
What did you not like about the book?
What part did you find boring or unclear?
What parts of the storyline or plot did you find confusing?
What did you think was the moral of the story?
What is the book missing?
What would have made the ending more satisfying?
When interviewing your beta readers for feedback, you should aim to speak about 10% of the time, asking questions and listening as they develop their answers. This is not about you telling them about the book or correcting them. They just read your book and you are trying to understand what they thought of it.
You can learn more about how to do effective beta user or reader interviews here.
5. Incorporate Their Feedback and Start From Step 1 Again.
From the feedback, you can identify what your beta readers want to see in your book and incorporate that into your writing process. Be on the lookout for themes that multiple readers bring up. Remember that constructive criticism is painful but invaluable in helping you learn how to make your book better.
Here are some things my beta readers were able to critique about my book on the first time:
I had plot holes and a story that didn’t have a satisfying resolution. I fixed this by incorporating the methodology of Save The Cat and baking in more character goals into my story.
One reader thought the relationship between my main character and her mother was lacking. I resolved this by adding more conflict and tension and eventually having the characters make amends at the end of the book.
One reader thought the lover boy fell flat, especially in conversations with my main character. I improved this by making him more indie and dramatic, and her more self-aware of his imperfections, and adding snarky sarcasm to their interactions.
After incorporating feedback from your beta readers, start again from Step 1 of this article until you are convinced your book is good. If you do enough rounds of feedback, your best beta readers should love your book and convince you of that in their critiques.
On my 3rd round of feedback with my beta readers, one of them said that she unequivocally loved my novel and couldn’t wait for it to be published so she could share it with her friends. At that moment, I knew the story was complete, and I could move on to fine-tune editing process.
As I’ve mentioned, facing criticism for your work is hard. But if your ultimate goal is to write the best possible book, incorporating feedback from beta readers will get you much closer. It is a humbling experience, and even if your published book doesn’t make you a bestselling author, achieving that progress is worth it.
Itching to write a guest post for Fictionistas?
This is a fabulously valuable and actionable post, Tash. Thank you for sharing the process!
I've been waiting for an article like this! Thank you so much for taking the time to put this information together, Tash. Can anyone else share how they got their beta readers? Are there groups on Goodreads they go to first, or a standard avenue? I have friends and folks on Substack I can definitely ask, but what if I were green, and wanted to reach out to people I didn't know? Any good suggestions?