I first came across the term ‘Beta’ in reference to video games. When I worked at First Age Studios, we made use of teams of Beta Testers to try out games and applications that were still in development to get an idea of whether the game was ready to go to market, or if it still needed a little tweaking. And guess what? It pretty much ALWAYS needed some improvements.
Books are the same.
When it comes to manuscripts, these test readers are called Beta readers. They’re the people you get to read your manuscript before it’s ready to be submitted to an agent or editor and again before it is ready to go to print.
Beta readers can help catch things that the people who are working closely on the manuscript, namely the writer, the editor, and the publisher, might miss. They can also serve as a test audience to see how the book will be received in general by the people who read it.
For this reason, it’s important to have a variety of Beta readers read through the manuscript and give feedback. No two readers are alike and more people test reading means a larger pool of opinions to draw from. Too many beta readers though could pose a logistical problem, so I recommend sticking to three to five if possible. This leaves room in the unfortunate case that one of your readers isn’t as reliable or helpful as the others, and doesn’t overwhelm you with notes afterwards in case everyone is really thorough.
So who makes a good Beta reader? Well, technically anyone who reads your work in this pre-published stage and gives you feedback is a Beta reader, but the more feedback they give, the better. The Beta readers to avoid are the ones that give one word answers or who just tell you ‘I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it.” The point of having your manuscript read at this stage is to get feedback, positive, negative, or otherwise.
This feedback can give you an idea of whether your book might be engaging to your audience, whether it fits the genre you are writing in, or whether you missed or overlooked something in the plot, characters, or setting. It can also help you predict and be prepared for the kinds of things people might mention when reviewing your book later when it is available for sale.
Now typically, Beta readers are not professional readers. They are simply people whom you have approached or who have maybe offered to read your manuscript. You’re going to need to tell them what to look for. I suggest sending them a quick and broad questionnaire along with your manuscript so they know what kinds of things you want them to look for while reading. I would recommend including some general questions like, ‘What did you like?’ ‘What didn’t you like?’ ‘What do you think could be improved upon?’ as well as some more specific questions that highlight the things that you maybe know you want to work on, like ‘How do you feel about the prison break scene in chapter 5?’
As a publishing house, when we employ Beta readers we’re looking for a variety of things,, namely, how engaging a story is, what works and what doesn’t, if the author’s intentions come across clearly, and if there are any plot holes or things that the readers don’t like or don’t understand.
Ultimately the goal of having a manuscript BETA read is to help look for weaknesses in the story that can be fixed or strengthened and to test the manuscript with readers to see how they respond to it.
So you may be asking yourself, ‘What do I do with the feedback once I get it?’
Here’s a few things to keep in mind as you read over the opinions and the suggestions that you get back from Beta Readers.
- Take all criticism with a grain of salt
- Only use the suggestions you agree with
- Compare all the feedback and pay closer attention to the points where the opinions align
- Only make those changes you feel can reasonably make without changing your vision or compromising your story
- DO NOT rewrite your book to suit the opinions of others; instead use the opinions to make improvements as you feel necessary
- Remember that it’s your book and you have the final say in how the story is told.
For an in-depth discussion on Beta readers and their usefulness, check out the latest episode of Mirror World News here: https://youtu.be/7y6z-vWIF_k