Why Use Beta Readers?
My wife and I started our writing journey back in around 1997. Back then it wasn’t directly with the purpose of co-authoring a series of novels, but rather more humble: it was writing up tabletop gaming campaigns. Back then we were using 2nd edition AD&D rules (we still do; no school like the old school), and we wrote up everything in advance, taking turns being the DM. It was before we had kids, and so to make things interesting each of us played three or four characters. Ultimately, those characters inspired us to create a world of our own, and their stories became the backdrop for what ultimately became the story we decided to write some years later.
Over the next couple of decades we did some writing, a bunch more gaming, had some kids, eventually involved them in gaming, had more kids, did some more writing, and finally somewhere around 2006 or so decided we probably had enough to put together into a book. Then in about 2009 or so, we really got into gaming with the kids, and developed what was to be the next generation of the world we’d been building. Overall, the journey took us until 2020 to actually make real, for a handful of reasons (good and bad). Bottom line, during that timeframe our world, ultimately named Cyrradon, was growing. Little by little, the more we wrote about it, the more we adventured within it, the more we “discovered,” the more it became ours. We lived it and breathed it.
But this is about beta readers isn’t it?
(Yes, it is. Hang on, I’m making a rather long-winded point.)
By the time we pulled the trigger and launched the first of our series, Storm’s Rising: The Call, out into the reader-verse to be judged by anyone who would look at it, we had gone over it about two hundred times, with numerous rewrites, chapter reorgs, the whole bit. We wanted it to be a hit, and we knew the theory of human attention spans would filter us out quicker than quick if we didn’t do it right. Don’t like the cover? Meh. Like the cover, but don’t like the blurb? Meh. Blurb sounds good, but the first line doesn’t grab you? Meh. Likewise the deteriorating cascade of clicks to a potential sale.
We’d run ourselves through our own mill so many times we didn’t know what was what. We had about twenty legacy versions of our book, a library of deleted scenes, scores of back cover blurb options and hundreds of battle-scarred, tear-stained remnants of query letters…but we still hadn’t published a single book. Not a short story, not a blog post. Nothing. We knew our story was amazing, but we had no confidence it would grab a reader long enough to find out.
Then, as I’ve mentioned in previous writings, we were given some incredible encouragement, and we did it. We did a final read-through of The Call, a final massage of the blurb, and clicked ‘submit.’
Here’s my point. (Finally, right?) By the time we got to 2020, we were so immersed in our work, our world, our dreams of sharing it, and all the possible iterations of it, that we had completely lost the ability to step back and look at it objectively. We’d spent too much time in it! For crying out loud, our world-building file alone could be its own book! After 23 years, we were too close to be our own critics!
Enter the world of beta readers.
One thing I failed to mention above is that we DID in fact use beta readers for our last run through The Call before we published. And it was worth it. From cover design, to font selection, to back cover blurb, to first chapter opening, and all the way to the end, it was worth it. Simply because they pointed out things we were author-blind to. But I’ll tell you more about that below. Now that we’re working on Book 5, and we’ve used beta readers for all four published so far, we’ve learned a few things about beta readers, and sharing those things with you is what this blog is all about.
1. They give you unpredictable feedback. There’s no way I can possibly overstate this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the readers we’ve used it is that no matter what you ask of them, no matter how much encouragement or persuasion you lay on them about how “brutally honest” you want them to be, or how “immune to negative criticism” you are, you will get only the feedback your reader is comfortable giving you. Period. Some will just give you good vibes. That’s good. Some will tell you when they catch a sentence or phrase that doesn’t make sense, or they had to read it three times to figure it out. That’s another kind of good. Some will give you some grammar, spelling, punctuation help. Also good, but beta readers are no substitute for an editor, so let’s not get crossed up there. Bottom line, you’ll be surprised by what you get back from each individual reader. But that’s what you want. After all, if they were predictable, you could do the job yourself.
2. They will give you gut reactions. This is really where beta readers pay off. If they tell you a chapter was boring, there’s a chance it was. Figure out why and fix it. If they tell you a scene felt rushed, or a character feels paper thin, or ask you why so-and-so doesn’t do more in the story? That’s a gold mine. Follow up on each one of those things. When we first published The Call, I had in mind who I thought the readers would fall in love with as main characters (MCs). I was wrong. Did they like the witty, clever, unpredictable half-elf, Derek? Sure, but he wasn’t the favorite. Did they identify more with the elven huntress seeking after her sister, and learning not to hate and distrust humans? Nope. It was the human kid, born in Gutterside, with a snarky, self-serving attitude. They loved him! Why? Doesn’t matter. I knew Lendil was striking a chord with the readers, and that information was invaluable. Pay attention to what your betas are telling you, because if they find it worthwhile to mention it, it’s important.
3. They’re free (mostly). This does require a little explanation. Most beta readers (so I’ve read) will do the job for free, because they love to read, and they get to read it before anyone else. Some bigger authors actually do pay for the task, but these are the same authors who use a battalion of beta readers, anywhere from 50 to 300 of them. We indies can’t afford to do that, and honestly we just don’t have the resources. More on that later. You will have to provide them a copy in whatever format each reader prefers. Most of ours have preferred printed chapters on paper. So if you do it this way, you’ll need to pony up for printing cost and possibly mailing. When the work does finally get published, there are a couple of no-brainer ways to pay back your loyal betas. One is a solid mention in the acknowledgements. A second is a signed and personalized copy of the book, sent to them at your own expense. They’ll appreciate both, and you’ll likely have a reader you can rely on for future books.
4. They give you instant readership. For me, this is one of the most fulfilling benefits of using beta readers. As an author, the joy of writing comes from handing my work over to someone eager to read it, and getting pretty expedient feedback. Hugely rewarding, and sometimes crushing. You just never know (see #1 above).
5. They can help promote your work. Yes, as co-conspirators to your work, betas contribute in a meaningful way, and have a vested interest in your book’s success. You can by all means count on them to help you by spreading the word, sharing your posts and ads, telling their friends, and in general being good ambassadors for your writing.
Hopefully by now we’ve identified some of the benefits of using beta readers, and if you weren’t already, you’re convinced to use them yourself. So what now? I’ll bet you have questions, like...
1. How many is enough? Get as many as you can manage. Sometimes your social circle will be the limiting factor. Other times you may be blessed with a chance to have more than you can handle. You’ll have to decide how many is too many, and how many is not enough. Some of it will depend on the work itself. Fiction or non-fiction? Self-help or historical biography? Chick-lit or grimdark? Genre will have a huge impact on who you’ll be able to count in. In general, I would say somewhere between four and eight would be a good range for the beginning indie author. It’s an investment in time for you and them, so consider that in your calculations.
2. Where do I find them? Look in your social circle. Family is fine. Friends are fine as well. Work colleagues are a possible source, as are school and church connections. Just recognize that based on each person’s relationship with you, you should temper your expectation of how much of that “brutal honesty” you can expect to get. If you’re the boss and you give your book to all your subordinates to read for you, don’t be surprised when you get all 5-star reviews back. A better source in all honesty is online writing groups. You can find these on various forums, and it’ll take you some time to hunt through the morass to find the genuine souls that will see it through. But if you can manage it, this will get you the least biased feedback, and after all isn’t that what you’re after? It’s worth mention that the hunt for beta readers will never be over, unless you make it big and your publisher does it for you. Otherwise you’ll always be looking for new ones to replace the ones who’ve fallen off the map. It happens, lives get busy, and priorities change.
3. Are there any rules? The only one I know that’s completely unbreakable, is to never make your reader feel as though their feedback is unwanted. No matter how thick or thin they lay it on, praise or criticism, you take it like a good soldier. You smile, you nod, you take good notes, and you faithfully follow up and follow through on their feedback. Not saying you are bound to take all of their advice. After all, you ARE the author, and the final say IS yours. But if all of their feedback goes into the round file, where is that investment we spoke of? Betas need to know their efforts are valued and meaningful. And once you cross the line and blast one of them for being honest, or missing a critical plot point, you’re done with that reader, my friend. Another rule, and one I learned the hard way, is to respect each reader’s pace. It’s okay to give a deadline, but after that don’t hound them. I did this, and lost a good reader. If you set a deadline and they don’t finish in time, that’s a simple equation. You move on without their input on the chapters they didn’t get to, or you extend your timeline. Your choice, and they shouldn’t hate you for it.
4. What questions should I ask my readers? Ah! Yes. The crux of the matter. Ultimately, this is up to you, but here are some good ones to begin with, bearing in mind each reader will only actually give you what sticks out to them, regardless of what you want them to look for. This is a hard given. Go back to #1 and read it again. Really. I’ll wait. Does my character feel real and personable? Does the scene flow and captivate you, or does it feel forced? Are things over- or under-described? Do you feel like I tell you more about what’s happening than show you? Does the dialogue feel realistic? Do you get a genuine sense of the setting in each scene? Does the plot follow a path you can reasonably follow, and resolve in a way that is meaningful to you? Do the characters mature and change with the progression of the story, or are they the same as they were at the start? Is there anything missing from the story that you would like to see? Is there too much of anything? Did anything make you blink or skip past a section because it just didn’t add value? All of these things are points of discussion to have with your readers, and you will certainly add to the list as time goes on. You are building a relationship here, so take the time to build it strong, and be content with whatever you get in return.
So that’s what I know about beta readers! I’m a believer in using them, and hopefully the ones we have will be with us for a very long time, because they truly are shaping the world of Cyrradon and the characters who live in it. If you have beta readers you already know this. If you don’t, go get you some, my dude! The final test is aimed back at you, author: will you take your beta readers’ feedback and use it to fuel your own growth?
If there are questions you have that weren’t answered above, please feel free to post them, either in the comments beneath the blog post itself, or in whatever forum it gets posted. If you just have feedback or stories about how awesome or nightmarish yours have been, share them, too!
As always, thank you for reading, and please share by forwarding, reposting, retweeting, liking, subscribing, and recommending us to others! We couldn’t do this without you!
Jason (and Rose) – Legends of Cyrradon
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