Everyone throws the term beta reader around. Goodreads, blogs, forums, you name it…people are always looking for someone to read their book and pass judgment. Except, there is a key to picking the perfect beta and it doesn’t include expectations of edits and it certainly doesn’t mean they will or should blow glowing smoke up your perky backside. What a beta reader does is simple…they read and give critique, but they aren’t editors.
BUT they are NOT substitutes for pro editors. This is KEY people!
You don’t have to enlist professional writers, I don’t recommend friends (although friends can read your book, they will most likely give you biased feedback) and you should never count on just one reader to get a good feel for your work. Further, and I know I am beating the expired equine with this one folks, but you must never forego a professional edit in exchange for a bunch of unskilled, unpaid betas.
Now that I have listed all the “nots”, let’s move on to what you should look for in your testers. One, pull from a broad pool. You don’t want a mediocre book that only translates to people who like one specific genre. No, you want an exceptional book that appeals to the masses (or maybe not; it’s your bank account). So, in order for you to really understand what parts of your story translate and what parts are stale, you should find readers that love your genre and those that don’t. If the story reads well to both, you probably have the start of a good book on your hands.
Two, don’t just get writers to read your book, because often times they are competitive and extra critical just for the sake of pumping up their own skills. You should focus on book lovers who have a solid grasp on the basics of structure and syntax. They must understand what works and what doesn’t, but more than that, make sure they can explain what it is they find wrong. Just a simple, “yeah it was cool.” or “Wow! That super sucked.” isn’t what you are looking for. You need someone who can explain in detail why it was cool, or super sucked.
There are a couple of ways to go about this, but they require a little work from you (ugh, I know). First, you should set up a standard form that you give to every one of your testers. It must ask the questions you want them to answer. Guide them and their reading. Have them think about the book while they are in it, but also reflect upon it afterwards. Style it with checklists, ratings (1 to 5, etc.) and written answers. Then at the end ask them some broad and pointed questions, leaving the second side open for their own thoughts. Spend time on this part because it will be very important. You want to guide them toward an honest and fairly structured opinion. Tell them to make notes of any and all spelling/syntax errors they spot: repeated words; difficult names; dialogue that sounds forced; unclear sub-plots; distractions, etc.
Also, get someone else to contact and accept the beta’s information. Make it anonymous because this allows the reader to be candid without the worry or misconception that they will be judged. It also prevents those who might soften the blow from doing that. It’s about an honest evaluation, right? People are more inclined to honesty if they retain anonymity. All the big shows do it, large corporations do it in focus groups and you should too. It isn’t difficult to put into practice, just create a public Dropbox folder and have them upload their review without a name on it. Simple.
And last, but never least… protect yourself. People out there will steal work and publish it as their own. So, have them sign a waiver that they are not going to publish a book in the same genre/subgenre with within a specified amount of time and that any infringement on your intellectual property rights will be litigated. Sometimes just threatening will scare them from theft. But make sure you let them know beforehand that you are looking for non-competitor betas. You can’t stop people from stealing your work, but you can protect yourself beforehand.
Good luck and please let me know if you have any questions.
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