Last month I started my first legit beta-reader process. In this exciting (and mildly stressful) new time, I learned a lot! Of course, I want to share this newfound knowledge with anyone else wondering what to expect from this experience.
First, what is a beta-reader process?
It’s the act of recruiting some volunteers (beta readers, or betas—don’t call them fish though, they don’t tend to like that), getting those volunteers to read your book, and then having them answer some questions.
In the past I’ve definitely had people read my books prior to publishing, but it was a little different of a process. Usually I’d pull my manuscript together and give it a thorough edit to make sure there were no major plot holes. Then I’d print several physical proofs and hand them out to people I trusted to give me honest advice.
They would read the book and write any notes in it as they went along. At the very end, I’d ask them to also comment overall on the book.
Recently, I switched to a beta-reader process that’s much more structured. I loosely followed Jenna Morecci’s recommendation, which you can see on her YouTube channel. (She also talks about screening prospective betas, which I won’t do here--I’m just focusing on the process once you have the right betas).
Basically once you have the right people, she recommends sending out only a few chapters at a time and asking the betas to pause at the end of every chapter so that the author can interview them. The author will then ask them an array of questions before letting the readers continue to the next chapter. This ensures maximum feedback from the betas, which is the whole point of the process.
As you can imagine, this entire process took a lot longer to complete, for both the readers and me, than did the one I had used in the past. It was definitely worth the time though, so I highly recommend getting such structured and comprehensive feedback!
So now that you know the gist of the process, are you wondering what you can expect and what you should avoid doing? Good question!
First, expect a little overwhelm.
Ideally you can put your book through two rounds of beta reading, working with about ten different people each time. That’s twenty people to get to know (if some are strangers). Twenty people to communicate with. Twenty people from which to receive feedback. That’s a lot! The trick here is to stay as organized as possible, which I'll touch on a little bit down in the "to avoid" section.
Also expect a few complaints if you’re working with people who are right for you and your book (they’re your ideal reader) but aren’t an experienced beta.
They might not totally love having to pause at the end of every chapter. They might not appreciate your bountiful questions about each character and scene.
Some will and some won’t! For the ones who aren't totally jazzed about having to pause to answer questions, kindly and tactfully ask them to stick to the process. If they're working with time constraints, consider the possibility of altering your process. If you need the most feedback at some points more than others (like the apex of your plot), allow them to read straight through a chunk of chapters, then resume answering questions where you critically need their feedback. I was able to do this for a couple of my betas, and it was a win-win. I still got some priceless feedback from other betas who weren't on such a time crunch, while those with constraints still got to both finish the book in time and help me out with the most important parts.
Now that you know a couple things to expect, what should you avoid doing?
Avoid saving all your notes until the end.
Add them as soon as you can to whatever database you’re using to compile them. I learned this the hard way. At first I was adding feedback as soon as I received it, which was gravy. Then I started receiving it at times that weren’t convenient to compile it, so I figured I could just do it at the end when I had all feedback.
Well let me tell you, this was a mistake—especially in the cases where I was messaging (text or Facebook) rather than emailing. It was harder to keep track of which chapters the feedback was about. When you’re receiving it in the moment, you know what chapter you’re asking the person about. But when you have scroll go back through numerous days and weeks of conversations, it gets pretty difficult pretty fast to figure this out.
Thus, have the discipline to do this in real-time as the feedback is coming in. You’ll thank yourself for it later!
Avoid offering to be available all hours of the day.
Don't tell everyone that you can be reached at anytime. That’s a lie and you know it.
If a beta reader messages you at 4am on a Saturday, you’re probably not answering. Don’t give your lovelies any false hope. Tell them the hours you’re available (include your time zone, especially if you're working with betas in another country) and that if they reach out during then you’ll get back to them as soon as possible.
I told my betas they could reach out to me at any time, which was accidentally misleading. I just meant they could send me questions at any time and didn’t need to worry about interrupting me or my sleep. On the other end though, it was interpreted as meaning I’d answer them. Obviously this type of misunderstanding can breed bad feelings between beta and author, and that’s NEVER a good thing.
So, don’t offer to be available all hours of all days if you’re not going to be, and when you tell them the times you ARE available, make sure you say so clearly.
And there you have it! While all beta processes are different and can vary greatly, I learned a few things during my first one and hopefully you can learn from them.
It’s a lot more involved process than I expected it to be, and some people will realize they’d rather eagerly devour your work than stop to answer questions. When you do get their answers, make sure you compile the data as it comes in so that you don’t waste your own time later. Make sure you accurately represent your availability—and are reachable during that time.
How have your own beta experiences been, as either the author or BR? Tells us in the comments below!