In the acknowledgements at the back of my Alpine Grove novels, I always include a thank you to beta readers. Not too long ago, someone asked me what a beta reader is. The definition of “beta reader” depends upon the author and the author’s process to some degree. Here’s how beta readers fit into my writing and production process.
- I write a first draft, set it aside for a week or so, then read it again, revise it, and give it to my husband. I refer to him as an alpha reader.
- After I get his comments, I revise the book again. Then I send it to my beta readers. In the past, I have had anywhere between two and four beta readers.
- After the betas read the book and give me their feedback, I revise the novel again and send it off to a copyeditor.
- Once I the manuscript comes back from copyediting, I revise it again.
- The final text is flowed into InDesign for layout. The book is printed out and proofread on paper. (Yep, the old fashioned way because one great publishing truth is that text looks different on paper and you find different typos than you do on screen.)
- After the book is finalized, the text is exported from InDesign and converted to ebook formats like Kindle and EPUB
By the time I release the book, it has gone through four or five drafts, and five or six people (other than me) have read the story. Understanding the entire process helps explain where beta readers fall in the great scheme of things. Knowing what beta readers don’t do helps you get a better feeling for what they do.
The beta reader’s job is to read the book like a regular reader would and offer suggestions and feedback on the story. Much like beta software testers try out software before it’s released to the public and report bugs, beta readers try out a book and report problems.
Here are the things I do NOT expect my beta readers to do:
- Look for typos. (If they find a mistake or missing word, sometimes beta readers mark it, which is great, but technically finding typos and acting as the comma police is the copyeditor’s job.)
- Rewrite text. (Noticing accidently repeated words is good, crossing out text and rewriting it because you don’t like an author’s style is not.)
- Worry about formatting issues. (That’s part of layout.)
If you were providing beta feedback on paper, you might think of it as margin notes. For example, if you’ve ever been happily reading a book and suddenly found a problem that made you want to scrawl something like “Yo Ms. Author, that didn’t make any sense!” in the margin, you’d probably be a good beta reader.
Here are some of the things I ask beta readers to look for and a few sample comments:
- Anything that’s confusing. (“I have no idea what that sentence meant.” / “Who is talking here?”)
- Anything that’s inconsistent within the novel. (“Weren’t her eyes hazel earlier?”)
- Anything that’s inconsistent with the character. (“Kat would never say that!”)
- Anything that’s inconsistent with the rest of the series. (“Jan has reddish blonde hair in Fuzzy Logic, why is it brown here?”)
- Factual mistakes (“Yes, it does snow in Seattle occasionally.”)
- Pacing issues. (“I took a nap here…zzzz.”)
- Things that are missing or don’t make sense. (“How does he know that?” / “What does her house look like?”)
- Things that do/don’t work and ideally why. (“The ex-boyfriend is such a jerk, but don’t change it because it makes sense in the context of the story.”)
- Overall impressions of the book (“Cute story” / “I like the dog personalities”)
- Impressions of the characters. (“Graham is totally annoying.” / “I want to date Drew.”)
- Likes/dislikes/questions (“I want a dog like Linus.” / “Why is Kat so suspicious?”)
To be a good beta reader, you don’t have to have an MFA in comparative literature or even be a writer. However, it does help if you read a lot. What I hope to receive from beta readers is feedback on the “big picture” of the story. What works and doesn’t work? Is the book interesting?
It is also helpful if you read quickly because I usually give beta readers about two weeks to provide feedback, since almost every review calls my novels “quick reads.”
Some beta readers have worried about “hurting my feelings” but to me, what beta readers are doing is helping me create better books. To be an author, or at least one who is published, you must have an extremely thick skin.
I would far rather receive beta feedback, consider it, and make changes before a book is released than incur the pain and agony of nasty one-star reviews on Amazon. (Ask any author about his or her most vicious review, and that writer will probably be able to quote it verbatim.)
I’m grateful to all my beta readers and always list them in the acknowledgements. I also try to send copies of the final books in print to the betas who want them. Not surprisingly, a few of my beta readers have some book-storage issues, so sometimes I give them the final version in eformats instead.