How to Run a Beta Read

BetaBooks exists to help authors interact with both their beta readers and all the feedback their readers give them during the beta. But what is a beta read? When should you do it? How should you run it? And what is the point of doing one? Since that's what we're all about, I thought I'd take a moment to talk about it. 

What is a Beta Read?

At its heart, a Beta Read is a test of the book to see if it resonates with its ideal readers, or target audience. Running a beta provides the best market research an author can find. With that knowledge, an author can confidently approach editors, agents, and publishers with an informed and targeted query.

Also, once an author has done the work of finding and validating a book's ideal readers, they are equipped with actual information about their target audience and can plan their promotional campaign accordingly (this is true for both indie and trad authors).

Running a beta can also give an author insight into what readers find special, moving, or gripping about their work. We creatives have such personal attachment to our art that it is often difficult to objectively assess what makes our work special to other people. We know what makes it special to us, and while there will probably be overlap between what we love and what our audience loves, there will never be a one-to-one correlation.

Listening to reader reactions to a book can be wonderfully affirming (and sometimes a little discouraging, if we're being honest here), but it can also open new avenues of reader outreach and audience connection.

When should you run your beta?

This varies a bit. In general, you want to get your book in front of beta readers after it is complete and you've done at least one clean-up pass, but before you send it off for a line or copy edit (you may decide to change some things in response to your beta readers' feedback, and you wouldn't want to waste the work the editor put in).

Many authors will run their beta with a second or third draft. However, I've also spoken with authors who use a beta more as a pre-publishing confirmation and with yet other authors who prefer to beta chapter-by-chapter. The important thing here is that you're using your beta to validate that your book works and that it resonates with the audience you hope it will, so while earlier is often better, the timing is really up to each author. 

How many readers should you work with?

Enough. You should work with enough readers to give you a true sense of your book's viability and marketability. If you were testing a product before trying to sell it, a bigger test group would yield more reliable results than a smaller group.

I'm not talking about trying to find a hundred beta readers or anything though. In general, authors who work with a team of eight to fifteen readers receive a good amount of helpful feedback without getting overwhelmed by it all.

How do you do it?

We advocate a 4-step process. There is some overlap and back-and-forth between steps, but following this flow makes sense for most authors.

  1. Invite Readers
  2. Frame Expectations
  3. Engage Readers
  4. Implement Feedback

1. Invite Readers

This first step, inviting readers, is both obvious and somewhat daunting. Putting yourself out there and asking people to read your work makes a lot of us shy. It can also be difficult to know where to look and how to find readers who will enjoy your book.

If you'd like some advice on finding beta readers, I recommend taking a few minutes to read our post, Determining your Book/Reader Fit. If you want to bookmark that for later though, here are the cliff's notes:

In order to find your ideal readers, you need to think as objectively about book, then think creatively about what kind of reader will enjoy your book and where those people might hang out so you can meet go them. Once you've met them and have established some rapport, it's as simple as saying, "I wrote this book that I think you'll like. I'd love your opinion on it, if you're interested." They can say yes or no, and either way, you've learned something about your target audience. Also, while hearing "No thank you, I'm not interested" is hard, it's something we should all be prepared for.

2. Frame Expectations

It's always good to set a timeframe. Most people work a little better with deadline pressure, so if you give your readers 6-8 weeks, that is plenty of time without dragging it out too much. Many authors use a shorter amount of time, and I've known lots of beta readers who blaze through a book in a week or less, while still giving insightful feedback.

Regarding feedback: If you want to get good (useful and honest) comments, ask specific questions that help you gauge whether your story works and resonates with the audience you hope it will.  Open-ended questions such as "Did you like it?" or "Do you think it's good?" or "What did you think?" won't yield very actionable feedback.

Asking questions that focus on the believability of dialogue, characterization, plot, relationships, etc., or on the emotional highs/lows, or the pacing or clarity of a scene or act, will result in reader input you can use.

There is a lot of room in here for authors to structure their feedback guidance how they like, but before you ask your readers a question, you should ask yourself, "How will the answers to this question/prompt help me assess my book?" or "What questions will help me make my book better?" I also recommend asking readers the simple question, "How likely are you to recommend this book to a friend?" to help you gain insight into whether your book will do well.

3. Engage Readers

Authors who treat their beta read as a series of transactions miss out on a spectacular opportunity to develop reader relationships and build their audience. Relational investment at this stage is key. Resist the urge to be hands-off or uninvolved in your readers' process. It's true that not all readers you find will be a great fit, and that's ok. That still provides a great opportunity for you to learn about your audience.

In general, beta readers LOVE being part of an author's process. Readers who are excited about your work will be thrilled to interact with you about it. Think about how you'd feel if you were part of your favorite author's process. You can foster that feeling in your readers.

Take the time for conversations (email, text, social media, comments in your book, etc.) with each reader. Let them know you value their time and opinion. Offer them a free signed copy of the book or free e-book, and include them in your acknowledgments. You will win their hearts and they'll be energized to spread the word about the fantastic book by they helped bring to print. 

4. Implement Feedback

You can start this step as readers finish the book, or wait until they've all made it through. If you've asked for smaller-scale feedback or have had some readers point out typos, you can address those right away. But you'll have an easier time identifying both trends and outliers in the feedback you've received if you wait until all the readers have finished.

What you should be looking for is consensus. If a majority of your readers are confused about the action in a scene or misunderstand a character in a way you did not intend, you should address those issues. If one reader out of fifteen has trouble, that's less likely a problem on your end, but it is probably worth a second look anyway. 

How you respond to the feedback you get is truly up to you. But if you're looking at your beta as a market test, you need to be open to changing things a bit to make sure your book is hitting the mark. This is not pandering or selling out; you don't need to change your characters or story – your work is yours.

You should build a team of readers you trust to help your voice (or should I say MC's voice?) be clearly heard. There also might be cases where you realize the readers you've found aren't actually the audience for your book, and you can go out and find new readers –yes, you CAN!

What do you do after the beta is done?

Again, this is author preference. If you made more than minor changes, it's worth doing a second beta. If the changes were smaller, the next step should be sending the book to your editor. If you were doing a chapter-by-chapter beta, you should still do a full-book beta when you've finished it. Some authors work with a completely different team of readers the second time around to get completely fresh takes on the book.

However, if you made changes in response to questions or misunderstandings, it's good to get your initial readers' feedback on the changes to make sure you've addressed the issues. You could also work with the first team and a second team for that second beta. Your choice.

Final Thoughts

Work with beta readers. Your audience is out there. People who will love your book and jump at the chance to be involved in your publishing process are out there. Reaching out to find them can be uncomfortable and a little time-consuming, but the costs are vastly outweighed by the benefits to your book and your career. 


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