What to look for in a beta reader

A beta reader??
A beta reader??

The first time I encountered the term beta reader, I was reading fanfiction online. The author of that particular story had a beta reader, and they were thanking them for their work. One of my closest friends at the time was in to fish, so you can guess where my crazy brain went.

But no. That’s not what a beta reader is, although it does have to do with reading.

Since that time, the use of beta readers around the net and in the publishing industry has become extremely prevalent. I know lots of people who act as betas on lots of different projects, ranging from research papers to novels to short stories.

Betas have become even more important to the publishing process as more and more people are choosing to self publish.

What is a beta reader?

A beta reader is a pre-reader or a critiquer. It’s someone who reads your book before it’s released to the general public, offering advice on grammar and punctuation and spelling. Or just general feedback.

Beta readers, or betas, aren’t always editors or proofreaders, but they can do that kind of work.

Not every writer uses a beta, but they’re more common now than they used to be. Some writers have actually opted to skip having editors, and they just work with betas. I’m doing something in between. I have an editor, my brilliant and talented best friend, but I also identified a handful of betas who I wanted feedback from before we released my book.

Choosing the right betas

This is a beta fish .... not a beta reader.
This is a beta fish …. not a beta reader.

After you decide to use betas for the reviewing phase of your novel, the hard part is picking them. This is really the first time I’ve done this professionally, so we’ll see if my method works. But I thought I’d share my thought process as to why I picked the people I did.

I chose six people. Maybe that’s a lot, but this book is going to have a wide appeal. As you’re making your decision on who to choose as a beta, first you have to determine what you want from them. If you identify the sort of feedback you’re looking for, it will help you make a decision on who to choose.

1. I wanted a varied demographic, so I picked people who are all in different life positions. Some of them are married. Some are single. Three are men, and three are women, but they range in age from 20s to 50s.

2. I wanted brutal honesty, so I picked people I know will tell me what works and what doesn’t. But I wanted them to know me as a person as well. For some people, asking friends to be your betas might be detrimental, but I try to make a habit of having friends who are genuine and real and honest all the time. They love me enough to be honest with me.

3. I wanted people who enjoyed my style of writing already. Most of these people have already read my work, and they all like the way I tell stories. If you have a unique style or an unusual voice, it’s a good idea to use people who’ve already been fans of your work. Otherwise, if you surprise a whole bunch of new people with your strange perspective, they may not like it, and you may end up discouraged.

4. I wanted people who enjoy speculative fiction. It’s a good idea to make sure your betas actually enjoy the genre you write in before you give them a book to review. There are some aspects of story and plot that can overcome genre, and I always try to aim for that. But if they can’t wrap their heads around an android or a spaceship built out of a yacht or hyperspace travel, those elements may overshadow the story in their minds.

Now, that being said, one or two of the people I picked don’t generally go for science fiction, and I chose them specifically because they love good stories. I firmly believe that a good story supersedes genre. If you trust them and if you know they will judge your story based on quality not on genre-based elements, then you’re golden. And if you can get a non-geek to read your science fiction epic, I think you should be nominated for an award.

5. I wanted a mix of people who had already experienced the book. Understand, this novel, Nameless, has been in production for nearly 11 years. It’s gone through multiple incarnations, and I’ve chopped it up and started over a couple of times. It started at 67,000 words. Then it jumped to nearly 400,000 words. Now it’s back down to a more reasonable 95,000. As a book, it has changed many times, and many of my betas have read it already, at least one along its lifespan.

Of my six betas, only one hasn’t read it. I think it’s important to choose someone who hasn’t read it yet so they don’t have any preconceived notions about what they’re walking into. Another one of my betas read it recently, like within the last six months. The other four read it years ago.

6. I wanted people who I knew would read it and get back to me. I know these people, and I know when they tell me they’re going to do something, they’ll do it. Feedback is essential in this part of a book’s production. I can’t move forward until I get their input.

That’s how I chose my betas

This is what a beta reader does
This is what a beta reader does

I have a second novel that will be finished in June (hopefully), and after my editor murders it, I’ll be choosing another round of betas. Will they be the same ones? Probably not. The second novel, which is brand new, is a completely different genre. Romantic Comedy.

Yeah. Go ahead and laugh. Me writing romance is funny.

So I will be choosing a new host of betas, though one or two may cross over. We’ll see when the time comes.

Again, I’m new at this. So my ideas may be way off. I guess we’ll find out when Nameless hits the web in January 2015!

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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