What are Beta Readers and Sensitivity Readers?
In the software industry, programmers release “beta” versions of new programs that they get a select group of users to test. This way, any kinks can be worked out before it becomes available to the public.
When it comes to publishing, the concept is the same, except the product being tested is a book, and the hopeful outcome is that potentially negative reader reactions can be sorted before publication. If authors are not sure which aspects of their book are working (if any!), this is a chance to find out.
In this guide, we’ll give you pointers for finding beta readers and working with them in a way that’s constructive. But first, let’s clearly define what they are and what they do.
What are beta readers?
Beta readers review finished, but unpublished, manuscripts before they’re fully edited, providing the author with feedback from the reader’s point of view. This might be friend or family member, but the point is that they will think of the book as a casual reader, pointing out things they liked and disliked, and highlighting those last elements writer’s become blind to during countless revisions.
A beta reader is the opposite of an alpha reader: the first person who reads and provides feedback on your manuscript, usually while it’s still a first draft.
Beta readers also differ from critique partners, as the former reviews the book from the reader perspective, while the latter looks at a manuscript with a writer’s eye — paying closer attention to any craft issues.
Authors might also work with fact checkers at the final revisions stage — especially when the author is writing about a culture or time period that is not their own, or if they are dealing with real life or sensitive topics. Which brings us to…
What are sensitivity readers?
Sensitivity readers review unpublished manuscripts with the express purpose of spotting cultural inaccuracies, representation issues, bias’, stereotypes, or problematic language.
While sensitivity readers are not new to the publishing landscape, working with them has become a more prominent practice with organizations like We Need Diverse Books pushing for more equal — and fair — representation of people of color in literature.
Sensitivity readers became something of a hot topic in 2016 when the pre-release of the young adult novel The Continent was quickly met with online reviews pointing out problematic portrayals of people of color. The book’s release date was pushed back and galley copies were sent off to sensitivity readers, which resulted in numerous changes.
Beta readers do not replace editors
While they are all forms of quality control that authors can implement before publishing their book, you should not rely on beta or sensitivity readers to do the job of an editor. A professional editor will go through your book with a fine-tooth comb looking for — depending on the type of editor you hire — plot holes, pacing or character development issues, grammatical errors or typos, and more.
Typically, an author will:
- Take their manuscript through many rounds of self-editing. Then...
- When they are happy with it, they will submit it to a few beta readers. After…
- They will have sensitivity readers look it over. Finally…
- With as much of the revision work completed as possible, they will give it to an editor.
This way, if you are self-funding a professional editor, they don’t need to waste their time — and your money — looking over issues you could have spotted yourself, and can focus on really fine-tuning your manuscript for publication.
Where to find beta readers
Yes, you can turn to friends and family for beta reading. They’re probably the easiest people to access, and a good option for that reason alone. But, unless you happen to have brutally honest relatives, you’re best off also looking outside your inner circle to ensure the most honest and candid feedback. Here are a few places to start.
- Writing communities. These are ideal places to shop for beta readers — because they’ll get it. Other writers who are also in the process of finishing up their manuscript will likely also be looking for beta readers, and you can simply swap manuscripts and get the job done. Check out 15 of the best online writing communities for aspiring authors here.
- Your author website. Have you set up a mailing list? Give people the option to sign up as a possible beta reader. In exchange, you can offer them a free copy of the final published title or an acknowledgment in your book.
- Goodreads. This bibliophile’s mecca is not just for readers, it’s also home to plenty of groups that support writers. Like this one, which is, luckily enough, aimed at connecting writers with beta readers.
- Local writing groups. Finding these can be as easy as typing “writer’s group [name of your location]” into Google. As a bonus, people are more likely to meet your deadlines when they have to see you face-to-face.
Tips for working with beta readers
Now that you’ve assembled a dream team of beta readers, it’s time to get them, well, reading. Here are a few tips for ensuring that all parties get the most out of the experience.
1. Look for someone with genre or subject matter knowledge
While honesty is a key quality of a good beta reader, they should also already read and enjoy books similar to yours. Their familiarity with the genre can help the reader point out played-out tropes they feel have been overused, or key elements they feel are missing. Looking for readers who know your subject matter can also help ensure you handle delicate topics sensitivity, and that there aren’t any glaring discrepancies or inaccuracies.
2. But also look for people who don’t already read books like yours
Ultimately, you should always write to market — in other words, if your book is young adult fantasy, you want to write a book that young adults who are into fantasy will enjoy. That being said, your feedback is likely to be most comprehensive if you show your manuscript to more than just existing Harry Potter fans.
3. Establish deadlines
If your beta reader is only helping you out of the kindness of their heart, you might hesitate giving them a deadline. But as long as you are flexible and reasonable when setting your expectations, your readers will appreciate knowing when you’d like their feedback. And this will ensure you don’t get stuck in a drawn-out phase of endless revisions.
4. Be open to feedback — but don’t implement it all right away
There’s nothing that quite tests a person’s patience like writing a book, asking others to read that book, and then anxiously waiting for their feedback. By the time you get word from your beta readers that they’ve finished leaving notes, you’ll be raring to start putting their feedback to use. But it’s important to really examine how implementing their advice or suggested changes will ripple through your manuscript.
Consider their feedback carefully, and look for any remarks that were made by more than one reader — this is a good signal something is obviously amiss.
5. Decide how the arrangement will work ahead of time
There beta readers out there for hire, however, most of the time this is an unpaid arrangement. If you are looking for free readers, decide ahead of time what you might offer them for their help: a free copy of the published book is fairly standard. Sometimes, especially if a beta reader goes above and beyond, authors will mention them in the acknowledgments of their book.
The last tip is to be prepared to give beta readers guidance by prompting them with questions about your book. But this tip is so important, we’re going to give it it’s own section.
Questions to ask beta readers
The opportunity to find out what readers think of your book before you send it out into the world is extremely valuable. If there are specific areas of your manuscript that you're not sure about, take note and put them in a list. If the readers don't mention them in their own feedback, you can ask them. Here are a few question ideas to get you going.
Are there any parts of the story that drag?
Do the scenes flow naturally into the next?
Did you feel there were any areas that skipped over information?
Does the pacing feel balanced — any areas that are too slow or too intense?
Are there any exposition dumps (places I over-inform the reader) you struggled to get through?
Can you see the world clearly while reading?
Can you see the action clearly while reading?
Can you see the characters clearly while reading?
Can you describe what the main characters look like?
Was it clear who is talking?
Does the dialogue sound natural and realistic?
Does the character development feel natural?
Are there out of character moments?
Do any of the characters feel cliche or stereotypical?
Who is your favorite character and why?
Who is your least favorite character and why?
What’s your favorite part and why?
Did you have a least favorite part? What is it and why?
The more you tailor these questions to your book, the better. So instead of asking “Is there natural flow between the scenes,” look for specific scene cuts you’re not sure about and mention them specifically.
Are you ready to start sending your manuscript to your pre-publication readers? Before you go, here are a few more additional resources to help you in these final stages of revisions.
- Author GD Leon Shares His Experience Working with Beta Readers [blog post]
- Novel Revision: Understanding the Craft [free course]
- Scene-by-Scene Editing for Authors [free course]
Have you worked with beta readers? What kind of feedback did you receive? Leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below!