BETA READER: It sounds like a science-fiction being from another world…

But it’s really a great strategy for independent or self-published authors to use, in order to get feedback, proofing help, and editorial comments on their book before it actually publishes. It’s also great for promotion… keep reading.

I found out about independent authors leaning on “beta readers,” from being a beta reader for another author, myself. It was a fun process. I read the guy’s book, gave him my comments about it (editorial and proofing), and he was very grateful. I was one of many people who helped him.

His particular book wasn’t the kind of thing I typically read, but it was something I wanted to do so that I could know more about the process and how it works. It was a great learning experience and helped me prep myself for my own beta reader process.

In this post I want to tell you about my experience of recruiting, utilizing, and interacting with beta readers, as well as my lessons learned and mistakes made.

How I found my beta readers

I’ve read other authors, and those in the publishing industry who insist that you have to screen your beta-readers. The main reason they insist on it, is to keep you from wasting your time and interactions. You want people who are serious about reading and serious about helping you tweak your book for the best results. I totally understand that.

They also insist that you need to select people who can help you promote the book effectively, once they are done with the beta reader process. The rationale is that those people who have read your book and have gotten excited about it, are going to be your first “fans.” To take the greatest advantage of those fans (in a good way), you want them to be people of great(er) influence. Wide social media networks and prominent websites would be great avenues for promotion, so you want to find people who have those, and are willing to serve as your beta readers.

But I didn’t do that.

I wasn’t being rebellious or pride-filled (I don’t think), I just didn’t have the time to do that. So here’s what I did… pretty simple, really.

  • I began announcing (on my various blogs and on Facebook and Google+) that I was looking for beta readers. I described the role clearly and asked for volunteers. I wound up with over 20 people. Most of them were very helpful. Some never commented on the book at all. There’s a mistake I made that contributed to that to some degree, though (I think). I’ll cover that a bit later.
  •  I contacted specific people that I wanted to be a beta reader. These included people I respect, people whose opinions about literature I valued, and people who I thought might be able to help me promote the book effectively. From those efforts, I think I only had 2 people (out of 10, or so) who told me they couldn’t or wouldn’t like to do it. Generally, people want to be of help and are just waiting to be asked.

My first mistake

The first issue that came up, was a result of me doing something, well, unwise. I set up my beta reader program to work like this:

  • I enlisted my beta readers while I was still writing the book.
  • I planned, and arranged with them, to send the book out chapter at a time, one per week.

That decision was not a good one. People were too busy, and my life snowballed at one point and I wasn’t very consistent in sending out the chapters, as a result. People lost enthusiasm for the project because they experienced repeated “let downs” when something exciting happened in the story, but then they had to wait a week (sometimes much more) for the next chapter. I think I discouraged and frustrated that first group of volunteers. Not a good thing.

Some of my good decisions

A new beta reader program

I learned from my mistakes, apologized to my first round of beta readers, and invited them to be a part of an “all at once” reading period of two weeks, once the book was completed. Less than half of my original crew agreed to read again. That was a bummer, but it allowed me to do the recruitment again. I got some great readers the second round who were eager to read the book rapidly and give comments. It was a wonderful but intense few weeks. I got so much great information and suggestions about plot, characters, typos, punctuation, etc. It was helpful, and very encouraging.

line numbersLine numbers

I decided to use MS Word’s built-in functionality to create a pdf document of the book to send out to my beta readers. Doing it that way I was able to set up line numbers that ran throughout the book. In my instructions to my readers, I asked them to refer to the specific line number(s) where they saw a problem or typo, as well as a quotation of the sentence where the problem existed. This helped me to hone in on the issues more easily. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to try to process pages of editing suggestions, without line numbers. It would have been miserable. One “glitch” with the line numbers is this: After you begin making edits, the line numbers are going to change. Most of the time you can find the issue within 5 to 10 lines of the referenced line, but other times, you can’t. That leads to my next lesson learned.

Find/replace function

findMS Word also has a wonderful function called “find/replace.” It enables you to search for a particular word, and check for its frequency throughout the entire document. There were times, especially after I’d begun adjusting things, due to editing suggestions I’d already received, when I couldn’t find the exact line number a reader mentioned. Find/replace saved my bacon. It was especially helpful in situations where I had been inconsistent in the spelling of a name or place. I could find and correct those situations with a click of a button.

Don’t let the edits sit

I determined at the outset, when my readers sent me comments, I was going to get to them right away. That way I could avoid the comments and suggestions piling up on me, and could have the opportunity to respond to my readers gratefully when they first send their comments to me. That proved to be a great thing. I was able to have some good conversations (over email) about the book, generate more excitement about it, and solicit testimonials from those readers to put on my website.

Asking beta readers to help publicize

I mentioned this earlier, but it’s important to focus on for a bit. Many of my beta readers have existing or growing web presences and reputations. That is great, because if they like the book and are excited about it, they will be eager to help me promote it when the time comes. Many of my readers have asked me if they can help promote. It’s going to be great when I get there (almost a month away).

Making it easy for readers to share

I’ve created a page on my webpage where my readers can use built-in tools to share about the book. When the time for promotion comes, I’ll point them there and instruct them exactly what I’d like them to do. Remember, they agreed to help promote at the outset, so I’m not pressuring them to do anything they are not expecting. I’ll also send them tools, embedded into an email, to make it easier for them to share about the book directly from their email.

Reviews on Amazon, etc.

I will also be sending my beta readers a request to review the book publicly on Amazon. When I do, I’ll send them a direct link to the review page. Reviews are huge on Amazon, serving to boost the book’s influence and popularity in the search function of the site. Naturally, your beta readers who are excited about your book are going to leave you some great reviews. I know that will be the case for my book because I already have some great “testimonials” that my beta readers have sent me.

Asking your beta readers to refer you

The last thing I’m thinking is this: I’m going to ask my readers to refer me or my book to bloggers, podcasters, other authors, etc., people they think might be interested in doing a book review, interview, Q&A, or whatever. I don’t know the people that my readers know. They may have a connection that will send my book through the stratosphere, simply by reviewing it or interviewing me. I want to take advantage of that possibility (in a good way). I’ll personally ask every one of my beta readers to give that issue some thought, and help me out if they are willing and able.

That’s it… so far. I’m not done with the process. The book will release on Amazon March 15, 2014, so I’ll be updating the progress as time goes on.

Thanks for your support, interest, and partnership. It’s been a wild ride so far.