I’ve been posting on promotion lately, but I want to switch gears for a moment to a post I’ve had rough drafted for a year concerning beta readers.
What’s a beta reader? Basically, it’s your guinea pig. A beta reader is someone who “beta’s” – tests – your book. They read through an early copy and tell you what things you should change, what things they like, and what things confused them. Depending on your arrangement they may also edit.
Ruth and Janet did a very good post/video on what to look for in a Beta Reader, but as an author who also does beta reading, there are things betas are looking for in authors.
1. “Do you have time to…”
If you’re lucky, you have those regular reliable betas who are always happy to read for you. But that doesn’t mean you should just drop it in their lap, or expect them to “know” that the beta is coming up because you mentioned it in a facebook status. Before you send a file, or even have a file ready to send, it’s a good idea to ask if they “will have time”. I try to ask my beta readers a month or two in advance, and then again two weeks before I plan to send the file. This might annoy them (see #10) but it’s what I prefer from authors, so…
When you give a beta reader a deadline make sure this is REALLY your deadline. Don’t say, for instance, “I need this back by the end of the month” and then, two weeks until the end, start to panic because they haven’t got it finished early. When someone gives me a deadline I use the date to juggle my other projects around it – meaning I DO NOT do it early. Other betas may be the kind to finish in advance, but, to be safe, If you need it two weeks earlier, give your beta reader that deadline.
3. “How far are you? Do you like it?”
As an author I know the nail biting fear while waiting on your book to come back from the betas, but as a beta I have to say “Enough with the questions. Just stop.” When I send you back my notes, comments, and corrections I will answer all of those questions, and I’d bet so will your beta readers. Please, please, please don’t harass them. You’re likely to annoy them and that can leave you beta-less.
4. Be specific with what you want.
Do you want your beta to edit or just make comments? As a beta I have discovered that nothing makes an author madder than unsolicited editing advice, which left me on the fence about whether to do any editing – or even suggest “maybe this needs edited” – for a long time. Your beta reader might be in the same place, so if you want/don’t want honest editing let them know. Something as simple as “All I really need is to know whether this flows/makes sense/is gripping. I have someone else editing”, then the beta knows not to do it. Conversely you can say “Do what you want: comments, editing, whatever makes you happy” for a no pressure “ok” on editorial suggestions.
5. Make sure your betas are a good fit for your book.
Just because your beta readers loved your last book, doesn’t mean they’ll like this one, especially if you switch genres or styles. Make sure you communicate to your betas what they’re going to be reading, even if you think you’re simpatico and they already *know*. Otherwise you’re likely to end up with tear stained emails from betas who hate, hate, hate your new book and everything about it. And no matter what we like to pretend, that’s a blow to the ego.
6. “How did you feel about ___?”
If there’s a part of the book you think needs attention, or that you’re not sure about, ask the beta readers in advance. Sometimes they didn’t pay especial attention to the scene you’re worried about (you could think of that as “it didn’t stick out to them, so nothing to worry about.”), and they may have to re-read it in order to answer your questions. As an author I have been guilty of this after the books come back from other betas, I run to the others and say “Did you think X was boring/too long/unbelievable/etc.” There’s nothing wrong with discussing things, but make sure your beta is open to it. Some do beta reading for a lot of authors and – especially if they’re doing yours free – may not have time for long discussions. In other words, consider whether they have the time to deal with your author quibbles before you dump them all out in an email.
7. “Wait – Here’s a new version!”
As an author I understand editing the book – even rewriting it – while it’s out to your beta readers. As it comes back from reader after reader, we tweak this, redo that, change this, and sometimes it’s barely the same manuscript we first handed out. The desire is to send this new, better – so, so much better – version to your betas who aren’t done yet and say “Hey, this is better. I’ve changed it. If you don’t read this one, all the comments you’re going to make may not pertain anymore.” But what you’re also saying is, “All the comments you already made don’t pertain anymore. Surprise!” That’s not to say you might not have betas who don’t mind this – or who *want* the newest version – but I’d suggest being cautious and at the very least offering, not demanding or just cold sending the newest version. And speaking of new versions…
8. “Don’t bother finishing it. I’ve changed my mind.”
As an author I understand this. Maybe it needs a new ending. Maybe it needs totally re-written. Maybe a beta pointed out a huge, huge timeline error that ruins the whole thing (heh-heh, Yeah, that’s happened to me) but when an author says “don’t bother to finish” some betas may feel like “Why did I bother to start?” I know you had good intentions at heart, no point in your beta wasting their time finishing up a story with notes you don’t need, or want, but at the same time it can come off as dismissive – “thanks for starting but I don’t really care anymore”. Your beta readers may be different.
9. “I’ve re-written it thanks to all your suggestions. Here’s the whole book back. Please read it again.”
As I’ve mentioned, many beta readers do beta for multiple authors, or are authors themselves. Though they may love your book, there’s a good chance they don’t have time to read the whole thing again. If you really think they do, you can always ask them, but don’t just cold mail them the newest file with a list of instructions and a new deadline, unless you already have an understanding. (Even with an understanding it’s still nice to ask, which brings me to my most important point.)
10. Do unto others.
Do any of these things irritate your beta readers? If they did, would they tell you? I’m pretty sure most of my beta readers are too polite to say I’m driving them nuts, and I know I am, so in the end the best thing you can do is treat your beta readers the way you’d want to be treated. Don’t set impossible deadlines. Ask them to pay special attention ahead of time. Make sure they know how much you value them, their time, and their contributions and make sure to thank them in either the acknowledgements or dedication of your book. Oh, and a free copy doesn’t hurt either. Which leads to my very last point.
A Bonus Tip:
Don’t demand reviews.
Even if you offer your betas a free copy, don’t expect – or ask for – reviews. Remember the version they read was in progress, and they may not have time to read your corrected version. Or they may not like to write reviews. Or they may not feel comfortable doing it. (I had a beta who refused to review anything she beta read because she felt it was wrong since she had “had a hand” in the book). If your betas do review, thank them, but don’t expect it.
Do you use beta readers? if so, what tips do you have to keep the relationship running smoothly?