Anyone who has written a book knows it’s sometimes difficult to step away from your writing and look at the work as a whole. You know what you’re trying to say and what you think you’ve communicated. But would a reader have the same experience? Family and friends can't and won’t always tell you the truth. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could find a few people who were willing to read your book before it’s published, give you their thoughts, and let you know how that experience went?
Enter the beta reader.
Beta readers are an invaluable asset for authors—essentially a test audience. They can read your book, give you notes, and let you know exactly what they like—and what they definitely don’t like—well before your book is published. This gives you time to make adjustments, edits, plot changes, and even more likeable characters. In short, a good beta reader is able to tell you whether the book you think you’ve written is the same as the book you’ve actually written.
But if you’ve never encountered a beta reader before, where do you look and how do you get one? Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about beta readers.
Are all beta readers the same?
No. There are beta readers for books of all genres and sizes. Whether you want someone who specializes in commercial fiction or nonfiction, the esoteric, literature, poetry, or even cookbooks, there is probably a beta reader for you. Make sure you work with someone who is as close to your ideal reader as possible, someone well versed in your genre. Hiring a beta reader who isn’t entirely familiar with your genre will work against you.
Sensitivity readers are similar to beta readers and can help identify any problematic tropes, language, stereotypes, facts, and errors with regard to race, gender, sexuality, mental illness, neurodiversity, and more. These individuals have often lived a particular experience and may have professional or scholarly credentials. For more information on sensitivity readers and how to hire one, check out our article “Why We Need Sensitivity Readers.”
When should I seek out a beta reader?
An alpha reader is usually the first person to read your first draft, while beta readers come in later in the process. Once you’ve completed your book and finished the full round of your own revisions and edits, then it’s time to seek out beta readers. Ideally, they’ll give you the feedback you need to further revise or edit your manuscript accordingly. When you’ve made those changes, you can either seek out new beta readers or simply continue with the final edit of your book.
Can I have more than one beta reader?
Absolutely! You can and should have more than one. One beta reader might raise a concern that another beta reader doesn’t seem bothered about. But if several beta readers give you the same feedback, it’s usually a sure bet that their advice is not only sound but should be heeded.
Are beta readers free?
Sometimes. A number of beta readers are willing to work for free. Others will charge a fee. Many beta readers will work as an exchange or using some kind of barter system. Others may respond better to being acknowledged in your book. And some places ask that you become a beta reader yourself in order to get access to their roster.
What do I do once I have a beta reader?
Some beta readers—especially those with experience—will be pretty upfront about their process and requirements. The most important factors that need to be worked out beforehand are the matter of compensation (if any) and a deadline. Most beta readers have a standard window of time they’ll need to read and critique your book. At this point, you should also let them know about any area you may want them to focus on, such as characters, world building, plot, pacing, style, or even your story’s point of view. Some authors like to include a (reasonable-length) questionnaire to help direct feedback. Or you may wish them to comment on your manuscript as they read or write a short summary.
Should I keep my beta reader for future books?
If you’ve gotten some fantastic critical feedback from a beta reader, you may want to think about engaging their services for your next book. The beta reader’s familiarity with your work can help them pinpoint any problem areas, repeated issues, and let you know if something feels off. That said, you should always endeavor to get at least a few fresh eyes on your work, so that you can gain insight on how a reader will experience your book for the first time.
Do I have to take all of a beta reader’s advice?
No. But you should consider the merits of it, especially if different readers have the same or similar feedback. If you’re extra sensitive to criticism, put the feedback aside for a few days after reading it and then come back to it. Sometimes a little perspective and space can help you see that criticism objectively. I can’t tell you how many times I have received feedback on my writing and completely rebelled against it in a flash of defensiveness (in private, of course), only to return a day or two later to discover that I didn’t necessarily read the critique fairly or accurately and also that (oh no) the feedback was both fair and completely accurate.
When would I not want a beta reader?
Are you super defensive and have a hard time not lashing out when someone says something you don’t like? If you are completely unwilling to accept criticism (or at least consider it seriously), you’re probably wasting both the beta reader’s time and yours. Many beta readers read books for little to nothing in return for their time and effort. As such, they should be treated like a good pal who just did you a favor.
You should also probably skip the valuable beta read process if you’re short on time. Beta readers need time (many of them have other jobs as well as families), and they cannot be rushed if you’re behind schedule.
What should I avoid when selecting a beta reader?
Don’t enlist someone who can’t be honest with you (such as a spouse or parent who would prefer to protect you from criticism), someone you don’t trust, or…well, another writer. No, seriously. Writers can be a great source of critique from an editing or structural issues perspective, but they will always look at your book like a writer. And what you need is feedback from a reader.
After the beta reader is finished, what do I do?
- Thank them for their time and effort. A kind word and a whole lot of gratitude can go a long way.
- Send them a completed copy of your book when it’s ready.
- Send them a gift as a thank-you, even if it’s a small amount of cash, a gift card, or something small.
- Thank them publicly, whether that’s a mention in the book or on social media.
OK, so where do I find beta readers?
Beta readers, once you know where to look, are everywhere.
- Friends and family: As explained, friends and family can be tricky, simply because those we love sometimes can shy away from giving good, honest feedback, but you may have loved ones who can offer an objective perspective and are interested in your genre.
- Friends and family of friends and family: This sounds more complicated than it is, but sometimes your friends or family may know someone who would love to read your work. This way, you’re more likely to get honest feedback...unless your family is the sort to whisper, “Just point out the good stuff, OK?”
- Referrals from other writers and authors: This is a great way to get connected to reputable beta readers in your community who are known, trusted, and reliable.
- Beta reading communities, forums, and services: While first-time authors may encounter difficulty finding beta readers at first, there are large communities of them once you start looking. But the biggest caveat here is that most of these groups and communities want you to be an actual part of the community. That means offering critiques and getting involved, rather than only showing up when you want something. A few good places to start (and this is by no means a comprehensive list) are:
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.