Finding Beta Readers (Making yourself vulnerable)

My youngest daughter is addicted to unboxing videos – short movies about people taking toys out of boxes and seeing them for the first time, especially ‘blind bag’ toys, where you don’t know which toy you’re going to get. In the scheme of random internet weirdness, it’s at the harmless end, but after recently filming my very own book unboxing – I’m beginning to understand her obsession.

Let’s take a step back.

This year I wrote Letting Go*, a contemporary novel that explores some of the themes of life (and death) in the era of COVID-19. It’s not actually about coronavirus, but it’s set during this unique period, which is how – as a historical fiction writer – I justified it to myself.

I have been working with a brilliant mentor, Brooke Dunnell as well as a range of experts who have guided me in my writing about certain professions. 

It was the author and paramedic Tammie Bullard who gave me the best advice about finding Beta Readers. Firstly, I needed some, and secondly how I should present my book to them.

What is a Beta Reader?

A Beta Reader is someone who reads the second draft of your book – it should be relatively polished and already had at least one edit, but it’s not yet ready to be sent to a professional. Their job is to provide constructive feedback as an informed casual reader – they’re looking at big picture issues such as story, characters, timing and basic structure: does the story work?

I’ve never used Beta Readers before. I’ve taken advantage of my sister’s good nature and asked her to read early drafts of manuscripts, and I’ve swapped manuscripts with other writers for a detailed critique, but until this year, I’d never finished a book to the point where I felt confident sending it out into the world to readers.

What do you give them?

Tammie’s second piece of good advice was to present my manuscript as an actual book by getting it printed by IngramSpark. There is a world of difference between being presented with a ream of paper held together by a bulldog clip (which is how I presented The Teacher to my sister to read) and a spiral-bound copy printed at Officeworks (which is how I gave her Behind Closed Doors) and an actual, beautiful book with a colour cover, perfectly sized to read while lying down in bed. Automatically it’s going to change your attitude towards the story, not to mention the logistics of how you can read it.

As a side note, it also ended up being considerably cheaper getting the book printed through IngramSpark (approx $14 a copy including postage) than spiral-bound at Officeworks (approx $20).

Admittedly it wasn’t the most straightforward process in the world and there was some cursing and appeals for help, but once I got through my tantrum, barely 30 hours after I hit ‘print’ I received a box of books at my front door, and I think you can agree they look much more palatable than the alternative.

book versus spiral bound

This is when I grabbed my phone and wishing my daughter was at home to witness, I filmed my very own book unboxing [see below].

And yes – I did smell the book (it smelled like awesomeness).

Alternatively, you can send your manuscript to readers electronically as a PDF file. Almost every phone, laptop and tablet has eBook software already loaded, so it’s easy for readers to upload your book to their virtual bookshelf and take it with them wherever they go. Some may prefer a Word file so they can make comments in track changes. Give them what they need, and I’m rather certain that what they don’t need is a stack of papers held together with a bulldog clip (sorry Kellie).

How many Beta readers do you need?

The general consensus is between three to five readers, but it also depends if you already know people who are willing to read for you or are you looking for strangers**?

You might be part of a writing group who are happy to read your book, but keep in mind that if they have already poured over your story in a piecemeal fashion, critiquing your work as you write it, they might not be the fresh pair of eyes you need. And that’s what you need from Beta Readers – someone new to look at your story from start to finish and think ‘does this work?’

I printed ten copies of my book, because it seemed like a nice round number, and have given nine copies away. But of those nine, I’m only expecting five or six people to offer feedback.

What should you expect from them?

With each copy of my book, I gave them a brief list of questions. I do not expect a full manuscript appraisal, I just want to know whether the story is working and if there are any major plot holes and character issues I need to sort out.

Tammie phrased the major question in a way that really resonated with me: simply asking Beta Readers what made them stop reading?

It’s a clever way of identifying when something isn’t working, because when you are in the story, and everything is working perfectly, you disappear into the world of the story, like Alice down her rabbit hole. But when something causes you to stop reading, and you’re dragged back into the real world, the illusion is shattered. Beta readers can help you find those places in your story that made them stop reading.

These are the questions I asked my Beta readers – they will be different for everyone.

Quality of the writing

  • At what point did you start to feel you were ‘in’ the story? (I wanted to determine if I started the story too early, or if the start was too slow)
  • Did you stop reading or get dragged out of the story at any point – it might be over-writing, typos, confusion, boredom, cliches, timeline glitch, too much description etc (Ask them to mark the section with a pencil or fold the corner down if they’re not sure exactly why they stopped reading)

Plot and structure

  • Was the story believable?
  • Were the 6 storylines and characters balanced and easy to follow? (Normally you wouldn’t ask this, but I have six primary characters with at least three chapters each – I needed to make sure readers could follow the jumps between chapters)
  • How did you feel about the ending?

Future changes

  • If you could change one thing about the story, what would it be? (This is a pretty open question and not everyone will be able to give you a useful answer, but if you’ve ever read a book and been left with a sour taste because of one annoying thing that you wish the author had done differently, you will understand why I included it)
  • Were there any obvious typos or mistakes?

Characters and setting

  • Did you care about the characters?
  • Which character did you like the most and why?
  • Which character did you like the least and why?
  • How did you feel about the setting being COVID-era?

Do you have any other comments, questions or thoughts about the book?

What should you do with their feedback?

While we’re all secretly hoping readers love every word and hand the book back saying ‘it was utterly perfect apart from the typo on page 67’ we also know that’s never going to happen.

Firstly, take a deep breath before you start reading their comments – remember that your Beta Readers (should) want to help you make your book the best it can possibly be. They’re not out to destroy you.

Secondly, remember that a lot of feedback will be very subjective and you can choose to ignore if you think they are completely off-track. 

I am sorting the feedback as it comes back into different categories:

  • Small changes and typos: these are the easiest to change and might be as simple as correcting spelling or adding in a sentence or word to clarify something.
  • Questions by readers: this is where they have been confused by an element of the story or they have picked up an inconsistency or plot hole. They require a bit of thought to fix and will require some rewriting.
  • Big picture issue: this is where you might find comments like ‘this character is not believable’ or ‘your timeline is messed up’ or ‘your dialogue throughout doesn’t work’ or ‘perhaps you should restructure your entire book and write it backwards.’ This feedback (should you choose to accept it) probably requires extensive rewrites. And a large glass of wine.
  • I am also taking the time to pause when I see a comment like: ‘I love this!’ or ‘Yes’, not only because it makes me feel good, but because it’s good to see what has caused readers to react like this. Is it a particularly snappy piece of dialogue, a beautifully written description or where a character does something heroic? If you can understand what makes your readers respond like this, you can try and do more of it.

Until all the feedback comes back in, I’m not dwelling too much on the individual responses. There’s little point getting hung up on the first response and planning changes if all the subsequent feedback contradicts it.

If all your readers pick up on the same issue, then clearly that is something you must address. If only one out of five say something is a problem, and the others love it, then they might be an outlier and you can choose to ignore it.

But consider all comments carefully – if you find yourself wanting to argue a point, perhaps the feedback might be misguided, but there still might be an underlying issue you need to address.

Making yourself vulnerable

While it’s tempting to assume that most feedback will be devastating, that it will hurt your feelings and crush your spirit – depending on who you choose as Beta Readers, you might find you get less criticism than you actually want.

You should assume there are problems with your book, and you need your Beta Readers to help to find out what they are. But if all they are saying is that they enjoyed your book, this may be code for:

– ‘I didn’t like it but I don’t want to hurt your feelings’

– ‘Meh’

– ‘I don’t feel qualified to make criticisms’

Or perhaps your questions are too broad to capture the nuances of their reading. This is where a chat over a cup of coffee and piece of cake might prove fruitful – they might be willing to say things in the context of a friendly chat, that they weren’t willing to put down in black and white. Make sure you have a pen and paper because this is where the gold will probably be discovered.

It’s been with mixed feelings that I have been handing my book out. I am so proud of myself for having finished it, and while I know it is far from perfect, it’s probably the best thing I have ever written (so far!). While I have been blogging and writing publicly for a decade, you put so much more of yourself into a novel – it feels more personal. Also, while there is always the option for people to comment on a blog or online article, handing a piece of your heart in the form of a book to another person and asking them ‘tell me if you like it’ exposes that raw underbelly we usually tend to protect.

I am excited to get the feedback though because no matter what it is, I know that it is well-intentioned and designed to help me make the book as good as it possibly can be. And with any luck, the next time I do an unboxing, it will be coming from a publishing house.  

*I printed Letting Go under a different title 100 Days of March so there would never be any concern that my book had already been ‘published’ but now I think I prefer the alternative title! And yes, my name is missing off the cover. That’s a long story and one of the reasons there was much swearing involved.

**There are several companies which offer beta reader services at a price as well as Facebook groups you can join to exchange manuscripts

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