Beta readers can help you find the problems in your book and fix them before you publish.
They bridge the gap between the Author and their readers.
By the time you’re done writing your book, you’ve been thinking about it for months, if not longer. But your readers are only seeing it for the first time.
Your book has to explain a lot of new ideas and hold your readers’ interest all the way through.
Beta readers make sure your book does that.
They’ll help you understand what isn’t working so you have the chance to fix it first.
What are beta readers?
Beta readers are people who read your book before you publish it but are not professional editors.
Why do they have to be in your target audience?
Because those are the people you want your book to help. Those are the people you’re trying to be a hero to. You want to solve a specific problem for them or provide a specific benefit.
And they’re the only people who can tell you if you’ve done that.
Beta readers are like product testers or focus groups. If you designed a building set for 8-year-old kids, you wouldn’t test it using adults. You’d find a bunch of 8-year-old kids.
Finding beta readers uses that same idea.
You have to test your book on the exact people you’re writing the book for if you want to know whether it works.
Beta readers, editors, and proofreaders
Does that mean that you should run out and find some beta readers the second you finish your first draft?
Definitely not. It’s not anywhere near ready for that.
Your first draft is rough.
If you compare writing a book to working with clay, your first draft isn’t about shaping that mug or bowl. It’s more like slapping the clay down on the table.
You have to put the clay on the table before you can start molding it into something better.
And, just like shaping a bowl out of clay, you’ll go through a lot of stages.
When you’re writing a book, those stages are called editing. If you want to know more about what happens in each stage, you can read my post on the different kinds of editing or my post on finding professional editors.
For now, just know that the first few rounds of editing are about giving more shape to your ideas. They make sure your book isn’t leaving anything out, and that it doesn’t have anything in it that it doesn’t need.
Then you start getting into the writing style, making sure everything is clear and concise. And then you do a few more rounds of edits yourself.
I know it sounds like a lot of editing. That’s because it is a lot of editing.
Great books become great for a reason. A ton of work goes into them.
But you have to do all that editing before you invite beta readers to read your book. Otherwise, you won’t have any idea if your final version will actually work.
It would be like asking people to look at that big lump of clay and tell you whether they think your bowl will be any good. They just don’t know at that point, and asking them is a huge waste of your time and theirs.
Don’t make that mistake.
Only gather beta readers once you’re done with your own editing.
How to gather the right beta reading team
How many beta readers do I need?
It’s best to have 2–3 beta readers. At most, you should have 5.
Too many beta readers will complicate the process without being any more helpful.
But you need at least 2 so you can check their feedback against each other.
Can I use my friends and family as beta readers?
Maybe, but probably not.
There are several problems with using close friends and family members as beta readers:
- They won’t want to hurt your feelings.
- They won’t have the same problem as your target audience.
- They won’t know if your book solves that problem.
That’s why your beta readers need to belong to your target audience ONLY.
They have to suffer from the problem you’re trying to solve, or they have to need the benefit your book offers. Those are the only people whose opinion matters.
Why? Because they’re the only ones who:
- will need your book
- will find it meaningful
- will know if it solved their problem
Now, let’s say your cousin happens to be in your target audience. Is that okay?
Sure, use them as a beta reader, but only if you know they’ll be completely honest with you.
You don’t need the kind of feedback that beats around the bush. You need feedback that’s clear and direct so you’ll know what you need to fix.
Where can I find beta readers for my team?
If you’ve been researching beta readers online, you’ve probably seen posts that suggest finding beta readers in writers’ groups or critique groups.
Some posts even suggest looking for “critique partners” on Goodreads or on other social media platforms (like Facebook groups that are dedicated to beta reading).
That is terrible advice, do not do that.
You’re writing your book to serve a specific audience, so you better know some people in that target audience.
If you don’t, you picked the wrong one.
You have to know your audience inside and out in order to write a book that will hold their interest and solve their problem. You can’t do that if you don’t know anyone like that.
That’s the main reason that you should know people in your audience. But there’s another good reason too:
Most successful nonfiction Authors don’t write a book to sell copies.
Rather, they write a book to promote themselves. They write it to find new clients, or expand their business, or connect with people who can help them professionally.
So if you don’t know anyone in your target audience, then you’re not reaching an audience that can help you.
That would be a huge mistake.
Hopefully, you wrote for the right audience. If you did, you know plenty of people who fit the bill and who have the problem your book is supposed to solve.
Ask a few of those people to be your beta readers.
What will my beta readers expect from me?
First of all, your beta readers should NOT be expecting money. You should never hire professional beta reading services, for all the reasons I just laid out.
And, if you’ve chosen your beta readers from your target audience, then you’re already handing them a free solution to their problem.
Because that’s what you wrote your book to do—to help people exactly like them.
Still, unlike the readers you’ll reach after you publish, you’re asking your beta readers for feedback.
That’s a valuable service.
You can recognize that value by offering them a finished copy of the book and, if you want, including them in the acknowledgments.
How to work with your beta readers
1. Set expectations
Once you’ve chosen your potential beta readers, make sure they know exactly what you need.
Tell them when you’ll need their feedback, but give them a reasonable amount of time to read the book.
Make sure you let them know that date BEFORE you finalize your group of beta readers. That way, if someone’s too busy, you’ll know ahead of time, and you can pick someone else.
You also need to tell your beta readers what to look for as they read.
If you’ve seen other posts suggesting a long list of questions, ignore those.
You only want to ask your beta readers two things:
- What did not work for you, and why not?
- What did work for you, and why?
That’s all you want to ask.
You might be tempted to ask for suggestions about how to fix the things that didn’t work, but that’s a waste of time.
Beta readers know what isn’t working, but they don’t know how to fix it.
“When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
2. Gather feedback
As your beta reader feedback starts coming in, it’s only natural to want to jump in and start changing things.
DON’T do that.
Believe me; I get it. By this point, you’re more than ready for your book to be done.
But you have to hear from everyone before you’ll know what to change or how to change it.
That’s why I tell Authors this:
Don’t even LOOK at your beta reader feedback until you have ALL the manuscripts back.
Gather everything first. Then start reading.
But don’t assume you have to address every issue. You don’t.
You’re only looking for patterns.
If one person doesn’t like something that the other 2 loved, that’s not a pattern. Chances are, that’s a matter of personal preference. Leave it alone.
But if different people are saying the same thing, listen to that.
When several people mention the same problem, it’s a problem.
3. Make the changes that matter
It isn’t easy to hear negative feedback about your book. It really isn’t.
It’s going to get your defenses up, and most first-time Authors have a really hard time with it.
But I can tell you from personal experience:
Constructive criticism is part of the writing process.
A good beta reader will always give you at least SOME negative feedback on your manuscript. If they don’t, they’re not doing their job.
So pay attention to their point of view and try to understand what they had a problem with.
Don’t listen to HOW they want you to change the book. Just listen to WHAT they want you to change.
Look at these examples:
- “Chapter 2 should be the first chapter of the book.”
DON’T change the order of your chapters just because a beta reader told you to.
DO try to understand what the underlying problem was.
- “I was a little bored in the first chapter. I didn’t get excited until chapter 2.”
That’s great feedback. DO make the first chapter more interesting.
Notice that they didn’t tell you how to make it more interesting. You’ll have to figure that part out.
But at least you know what you need to fix!
You might be tempted to ask a beta reader to explain their comments. Be VERY careful with this.
It’s okay to ask for more information if you accept that there’s a problem, and you genuinely want to understand it. It’s NEVER okay to defend the book against a beta reader’s opinion.
4. Thank them all
Remember to thank your beta readers.
If you’re going to send them a free copy once the book is out, make sure they know that.
If you’ve included them in the acknowledgments, make sure they know that, too. People love seeing their names in print, and it will mean a lot to them to be recognized for their efforts.
5. Invite them to review the book
One of the most important is asking for book reviews.
Your beta readers are already invested in the project. Be sure to include them when you’re asking for those reviews, and be sure to send them an advance copy of the book!