What to Expect From Beta Readers And Where to Find Them
G.D. Leon is a novelist with roots in the German language. He grew up in Zurich and now lives in the greater New York area, with his beautiful wife. Stations on his journey included Berlin and Buenos Aires, leaving impressions that remain until today. In 2016, he published "The Frigorifico", but not before undergoing a thorough testing process with alpha and beta readers. In this article he shares how other authors can get the most out of working with test readers, and where to find them.
I am a fiction writer with roots in German. This means three things:
- I need to take additional care of my writing in English — use of words, structure, and grammar.
- I will never use the word “wanderlust”. In your ears, it might sound like a romantic notion of getting away; a feeling of the need to experience and indulge in exotic places. In German, wanderlust means achieving physical strength by hiking.
- It also means my first drafts are crappy.
Alpha and beta readers
This August, I published my first novel The Frigorifico, and it’s been a long way getting there. With neither the experience nor the funds to engage a full-blown set of professional service providers, I had to make conscious make-or-buy-decisions. I decided I would hire a line editor and a proofreader to improve the quality of the product — and to lighten the lead on these professionals, I would work with alpha and beta readers beforehand.
First, I sent my manuscript to two alpha readers, one of whom was a writer. An alpha reader is the first person to read your story, usually when it’s still in its first draft. I was looking for early reviews to see if the story held up overall and to identify any plot holes. The alpha readers identified some of the aforementioned, but the most important feedback I got was that the characters were lacking profile and that the ending was too flat.
After I fixed these issues, I wanted broader feedback from end-users, so I sent it to a group of beta readers. The only traits they needed to have was time and a love of books. The difference between beta and alpha readers is that, while alpha readers read a novel in its first draft, beta readers are meant to read your revised manuscript; they represent the experience of your potential readers. Their feedback helped me tremendously in detecting and eliminating my "Germanisms" that had tended to sneak in frequently.
Lastly, after I had done what I could to fine-tune the story, I asked a fellow writer to give me a final beta-read. She did an amazing job, pointing out small items that didn’t fit, overarching problems, and unfulfilled promises.
Things to consider when working with beta readers
Overall, I had a great experience engaging with beta-readers. However, you should know what you are getting into. These four points can be helpful to consider before sending your manuscript to beta readers:
Decide exactly what it is you want beta readers for: structural edits, feedback on character, finding out about marketability, etc. Each will require different skills and mindsets.
Don’t send out the manuscript without having talked to your beta readers first. Explain the circumstances and ask specific questions you want to have addressed, especially with people who have little prior experience with beta reading. Lastly, be clear about your deadline. At first it might feel awkward because you are asking them for a favor, but it is far better to create clarity than to have to constantly remind them of a deadline.
Take input with a grain of salt and put distance between a) the beta reader, b) your story, and c) your ego. Yes, it is your story and you decide how to fix issues. On the other hand, if two or more beta readers point out the same issues, you have a problem in your story that must be fixed. Don’t ignore it. You might also get feedback that appears harsh or unfriendly — be professional and take it. My best friend gave me the harshest feedback between “it’s a great story” and “looking forward seeing you on Christmas”.
Remember, there is no such thing as a free lunch. These readers are usually your friends or people from your private network, so the least you can do is acknowledge their participation in the book — offer them a free copy, and buy them a cup of coffee next time you see them. If the beta reader is another writer, it is a matter of courtesy to offer help from your side. Who knows, maybe next time they will need input from you.
Where to find beta readers
Now, the only question that remains is where to get beta readers. In this case, be creative...
Existing author connections:
You might have connections with fellow authors, either via social media or from attending conferences/meet-ups. Don’t be shy; ask them nicely to help with beta reading. The worse that can happen is you get a “no, thanks” or a “maybe next time”. An extra tip here: Don’t be pushy. A no is a no.
New author connections:
Do a shout-out. Plenty of Facebook groups connect authors — put up a post asking for a beta read (with genre, page numbers, and timeframe), and you will be surprised by how many people offer their help. Same thing with Twitter or LinkedIn.
Friends and friends of friends:
I asked people from my network who I knew were book-lovers. They were thrilled to help, and their feedback was valuable.
Fiverr or similar:
There are offers on Fiverr for beta reads, and they are not very expensive. I paid about 50 USD for 40k words, and it was worth the money. Obviously you can’t expect a full-blown edit, but the beta reader pointed out some issues I could address for my next round of edits.
I will definitely work with beta readers again, probably in a month or so when my trilogy will be ready. You write a book to be read, so having people read it as part of the writing process (and not just as the end-goal) is a worthwhile and very effective effort that I would recommend authors undertake.
Have you worked with alpha or beta readers? Do you have any pieces of advice for how to get the most out of the test-reading process? Share any thoughts, questions or comments for GD in the comments below!