Monday, 9 December 2013

Indie Author Advice Series #5- All About Beta Readers

As any writer knows, you can only improve your work by obtaining constructive and unbiased feedback on your writing. The only problem is that finding the right people to read for you is easier said than done! I talk about my AWESOME beta team (shout out to you ten incredible people, you know who you are!) a lot, and so I regularly get asked by Indie authors how I find my beta readers. Hopefully this post will answer that question and a lot more. Remember, there are a million different ways to constructive a quality beta team, but this is the approach that’s led to my team. I’ll break it down by answering three common questions: 1) How many beta readers should I have? 2) How do I find beta readers? 3) What do I ask my beta readers to do?

1) How many readers should you have?

This is a very personal decision and really depends on the readers. If you can get three or four really amazing, experienced, detail-oriented beta readers, then that might be enough for you. However, for me, I prefer a larger team, eight to ten, for a couple of reasons.

First, people get busy, and they may not always have time to read for you, so it’s good to have backups. Plus, eventually people might just get tired of doing it. Beta reading is exhausting work, especially for my readers, who usually get a new manuscript every two months. Finding replacements is NOT easy, so I like to have plenty of readers available.

Second, I’ve found that even with a team of ten beta readers, everyone brings something different to the table. I’ve got a beta reader who’s extremely logical and is fantastic at poking holes in my plots and the worlds I create. No one else asks the same hard questions as him. Another of my readers sees the big picture really well, and is great at honing in on why a character isn’t as likeable as they should be. A few others push me to the boundaries of my imagination, to develop backstories that reach further back than I ever considered. Everyone has something to offer. I always find it so cool when I get that last piece of beta feedback, the tenth reader, and find a nugget in there that is so mind-blowing that my novel isn’t the same without it. So yeah, more readers works better for me.

That being said, there has to be a limit. At some point the feedback becomes unmanageable and comments start to contradict each other and you end up being more confused than you were before. My limit is ten readers, and I rarely see conflicting comments. Trends always emerge and I know where to focus. It’s my magic number. Yours might be different. Experiment with it. If you try eight readers and it’s too overwhelming, decrease the number of readers the next time. If you use three readers and you don’t feel you get enough constructive feedback or substance to properly revise your manuscript, add a few readers. Your team should be a fluid, changing, always improving creature.

2) How do I find beta readers?

Ah, the question I get the most. Well, it’s not exactly a science, although there are some criteria you absolutely need in your beta readers:

-They need to be honest and unbiased. Does that mean you can’t know them? Not necessarily, as long as they’re willing to give you the hard, honest feedback you need. I’d generally (I say “generally” because my wife, Adele, is one of my best beta readers—she’s brutally honest and saves me from myself all the time!) steer clear of close friends and family members though, there’s something inherently biased about those kinds of relationships.

-They need to have an opinion! Having someone who always says your writing is awesome is a great boost for the self-esteem, but it’s not very helpful and not usually true. All writers need improvement, no matter how good you are (or think you are). I’ve had beta readers who’d tell me every book I gave them was awesome and better than the previous one. Ummm….thanks? If I’d released my first drafts, the general public wouldn’t have been so complimentary, that’s for sure. So look for critical readers.

I know, I know, these types of honest, opinionated, unbiased people sound AWESOME, but where do you find them?

I can only speak for how I found my readers, which is on Goodreads. What I do not recommend is creating a thread that says “Help! Beta Readers Needed for a YA Paranormal Romance Novel!” Why not? You literally have no control over who might answer your call. Yes, they will likely be unbiased, potentially honest, and have very strong opinions, but who knows how reliable they’ll be. Personally, I’ve requested help from people I’ve met on Goodreads in the following three categories:

A) Friends. These are people I’ve chatted with about books and formed a friendly relationship with. There are hundreds of people I’ve met who fall into this category, but what I’m looking for are people who I’ve seen have strong opinions, who read books in my genre, and who seem to read a lot of books. People like that have worked out really well for me. About five out of my ten readers fit into this category.

B) Referrals. Occasionally I get referrals from my other beta readers or from other connections. Usually they’re people who are interested in critical reading, either because they’re English majors and looking to make a career out of it, or they just enjoy it. Either way, the referrals I’ve received have always worked out really well. Two of my ten readers fit into this category.

C) Haters. These are random critical readers who hate my early books. This is also my favorite category! This one is a bit of a wild card, but the three of my ten readers who fall into this category have worked out incredibly well for me. Two of them really disliked my debut novel, Angel Evolution, and one of them didn’t care for the first book in my second series, The Moon Dwellers, which is my most popular book. The thing is, I’ve received plenty of 1 and 2 star reviews, so how did I pick these particular three readers? (Note: I’ve literally only tried this three times, and ALL three accepted my invitation and have been on my team for over a year and read at least SEVEN of my books.)

The answer is I picked them very carefully. You have to be careful whenever you contact negative reviewers for your books. I don’t recommend doing it often, and only if your reason is unrelated to arguing or disputing their review. In this case, it was the complete opposite. I wanted to commend their reviews and offer them a spot on my team. I avoid all 1-star reviewers, because in my opinion, if someone can’t find at least one thing redeeming about my book, then they’re probably not the right reader for me anyway. I want people who are open-minded, but critical. All three of my betas in this category have been two star reviewers. The next thing I looked for were intelligent, thorough, logical reviews that made me say “Good point, I wish I’d had them as a beta for this book.” If I’m saying that while reading their NEGATIVE review (rather than getting all angry and melancholy about the bad review), then the review must be pretty constructive. Finally, I look for negative reviews that give credit to the things they DID like. I want my betas to be somewhat balanced and to tell me the things that they loved about my book as well as what they didn’t like, so that I don’t end up changing their favorite parts. What you don’t change is just as important as what you do.

So that’s how I recruit my betas! Every time I lose one (for whatever reason), I go to my list of referrals, or to my negative reviews, or to my contacts, and consider who might be the best for my team. You may find your beta readers in a completely different way though, everyone’s a little different!

Recommendation: Be sure to include your beta readers in your acknowledgments and give them credit for the help they gave you! And it’s nice to give them ARCs of your books, too, most of them will usually write you some awesome reviews before your books even hit the shelves!

3) What do I ask my beta readers to do?

Again, this is up to you. I’ve taken a few different approaches, but the longer you’re with the same team, the more it tends to become less formal. For example, at first I provided a list of questions, hitting the key areas (characters, plot, setting, beginning, ending, etc.), and asked them to answer each of my questions. But over time, I’ve essentially just told them to read my book and tell me what they liked and what they didn’t. However, here’s a solid list of the type of feedback your beta readers should be giving you:

-Characters: Is each character's voice strong, distinct, and different than the other characters? Were there any characters you didn't like, annoyed you, or frustrated you. Why? (The quickest way to kill a book is with main characters people don't like, so you want to "fix" them before you go live!)

-Beginning: Did it draw you into the story, catch your attention and make you want to keep reading?

-Pacing: Did the story move too fast, too slow, just right? Any areas you got bogged down?

-Ending: Did you like it, love it, hate it. Why?

-Plot consistency and clarity: Did the plot make sense? Were there any inconsistencies or plot holes?

-Setting: Was the setting of the story clearly described? Did it make sense?

These are several of the areas I expect my beta readers to focus in on, but they are by no means a complete list. And depending on the nature of your project, you may have additional, more specific areas you want your readers to focus on.

One final recommendation is that you ask your beta readers to be as specific as possible, including a quote from the manuscript for which the comment applies. That will make it easier for you to locate the part of the book and consider any changes required.

Thank you all for reading about how I find and work with my beta readers! I hope you found it interesting and/or helpful! Happy reading and writing, and always feel free to ask me any specific questions if you have them!!
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  1. Great post David! I think is really helpfull for authors who are looking for beta readers.
    Also I know a lot of bloggers mention in their review policy whether they accept beta reads or not, so that's also a good place to check, although there are so many book blogs out there that it's still difficult to find the good beta readers I guess.

    1. Thanks Lola!!! And great advice from you, too!

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