I'm starting to get beta feedback on the last draft of TUBE (just in time, before I plunge into final revisions in September), and since I shared some of it, many of you have asked about my beta reading process: how I do it, how many beta readers I have, what I send them, in what format, what I ask for in return, etc.
I dug around in my blog archives and found not one, not two, but four posts on the same topic. One from 2012, on luring beta readers with cookies. Two from 2013, on connecting with beta readers and on adapting their feedback. And one from 2015, on 10 things to know about beta readers.
I think it's time for an updated post, since it's 2017 and my process has improved. So here goes.
1. Finding beta readers.
Where do you find these wonderful people who'd be willing to spend their precious time on reading your almost-baked story? People who'd trade the fun of torturing their enemies in their basements or chasing wild bears out of their yards with pitchforks for sitting quietly on a sofa and poring over your words? Unless you already have a beta reader list built over the years of writing books (I have exactly 480 at the moment on my list—took 5 years to build), you start with the classic FFF: Friends, Family & Fools. Ask them if they'd be wiling to beta read your book, and offer them something for their time (ain't nothing done for free in this world, hamsters).
2. Giving your beta readers incentive.
All right. Let's say your elderly grandma agreed to scrutinize your story though her looking glass, and maybe your niece did too, and maybe even your neighbor who owes you for sparing his life the last time you were hunting for neighbors for dinner. What's next? Treat it like any other business transaction. What do your beta readers get out of it? Several things.
- The thrill of reading it first. If they're your loyal fans, they'll get the thrill of reading the almost-finished-book first and give you feedback that you'll incorporate into the final version. But what if you don't have loyal fans?
- Their names in their book. You can offer to put their names in the Thank You section of your book.
- The ARCs of your book. You can offer ARCs of your book (I send all beta readers who send me feedback an ARC—there is always a percentage of beta readers who never get back to you because they weren't interested in the story, or life happened, or whatever—don't get pissed, thank them for their time anyway). So they get it first, before anyone else. It's a perk.
- Your time in exchange. You can offer to beta read their work. This often works when you're in a writers group of some kind. It never worked for me, though. I'm a loner even among writers.
- Cold, hard cash. When all else is lost, you can offer to pay for beta reading. Or take out your beta readers for coffee. After all, they're giving you their time. So treat it with respect.
3. Setting the feedback deadline.
Like everything else in life, beta reading requires a timeline and a deadline, both of which you should pad for emergencies. Shit happens. Maybe a tree will fall on the roof of your house and kill all your pet sloths, or maybe a tree will fall on the roof of your beta reader's house and kill his pet dragon (a tree actually fell on the roof of one of my beta readers who was therefore late with beta feedback—no joke). Whatever the case, give the deadline that's actually two weeks earlier than your real deadline. People will keep sending you feedback last minute for a few weeks after it was due. And depending on the length of your opus, be generous with your deadline. I give my beta readers one month to read the draft of 75K words.
4. Asking for specific feedback.
I always ask for general comments on good things and bad things. What did they like? What didn't they like? Why? I tell them to ignore spelling mistakes and grammar and style in favor of focusing on big story elements. Spelling can be corrected by proofreaders later. You want to get someone to spot a major flaw that you couldn't see because you were staring at the damn thing for months and simply can't see it anymore with fresh eyes (your eyes are long dead to anything that might be wrong with it).
5. Tracking the feedback.
Along with the schedule have some kind of a system where you track to whom you sent the draft and when, and when did they send you their feedback, and what their feedback was (also, to remind them to send it to you, as many people don't send it simply because they got busy with life and forgot—they're doing a favor to you, so it's your job to remind them). I track it all in Batchbook, but before that I used to have an Excel spreadsheet. I also have a file where I copy/paste beta reader's names along with their feedback, the date it was sent, and so on, to parse later.
6. Using the feedback.
Let's say, you got loads of feedback. How do you actually use it all? What do you apply and what do you discard? I follow two simple rules:
- If more than 5 people out of 10 told me to change the same thing, it probably needs to be changed. It doesn't necessarily has to be changed the way they suggested, but it sure as hell needs improvement.
- If a particular bit of feedback makes me feel uneasy, it probably is true and needs to be revised. Again, not exactly the way it was suggested, but I often find that I revise these ones almost verbatim to what the beta reader told me.
7. Planning to-dos and budgeting for giveaways.
After you get all the feedback you can (and happily incorporate it into your final revisions), make sure you follow up on your end of the bargain. Whatever it is you offered, deliver, and on time. Better yet, over-deliver and do it earlier than you promised. If you offered ARCs, maybe instead of one copy send two (if you can afford it), one for your beta reader and one for their friend (which will also help your marketing efforts when you launch your new book). And send it earlier than you promised. Or pay a little more than you promised. Or thank them not only in your book but also on social media and on your blog. Basically, act like a human being who stands by their word. Then your beta reader list will grow. But act like an asshole, burn only one beta reader by screwing up on your promise (it can be as innocent as you simply forgetting someone because your system is not sound), and that beta reader will never come back, and tell others not to waste time on your books.
8. Asking for reviews.
Often your beta readers will send you back a paragraph or two that sound like a perfect book review. When the time comes and you set it up on Amazon and Goodreads and elsewhere, ask your beta readers to just copy/paste their paragraph into a review (make it easy for them—email the paragraph you liked along with links and instructions). It's also a perfect follow-up if you have sent them ARCs. After they get it, ask them to help you spread the word about your new book. At this stage, if you start feeling uncomfortable with all this asking, I suggest you read Amanda Palmer's The Art of Asking, feel inspired, and get back to it with renewed vigor.
9. Extracting book quotes.
This will apply to you only if you quote your readers on the back covers of your books like I do. Beta feedback is perfect for this. There are always a few quotes that strike me as true. As a writer I can't see into the heart of my book the way my beta readers can. Often they say profound things. I save them in a file, and then later put them on the back cover and on my website. I used to be disorganized about this and posted them anonymously simply because I couldn't track back the names of who said what. With TUBE I'm tracking everyone's feedback with frightening precision, so I'll be asking permission to quote my beta readers on the back of TUBE.
10. Thanking your beta readers.
Hooray! You're done. You got all the beta feedback you could get, and your book is published. You think you're done with the whole beta reading business?
It's not enough to do all of the above (thanking in your book, sending out ARCs, giving your time, paying, mentioning on social media, quoting in the back cover, and so on). After all is done and the book is published, thank every beta reader personally. It doesn't have to be elaborate, like a handwritten card. Just an email will do. But it's critical you cement your relationship and your good impression on your beta reader to ask for more beta reading in the future. Your beta readers are your customers, only instead of paying you with money they pay you with time, and their time is precious. It's worth more than money. It's worth your personal attention, no matter your work load.
This is how you'll be able to build a list of loyal beta readers who will be thrilled to beta read for you—all your future books. It takes a lot of work, but it also pays back ten-fold. Because the feedback you get is golden. Many times I had mind-bending suggestions come from my beta readers who spotted major plot holes, major character flaws, or consistent erroneous patterns in my prose. I'm indebted to my beta readers for their sharp eyes and minds. Without their feedback my books would be pecking along like chickens instead of soaring like dragons.
P.S.: If you want to beta read TUBE, there is still time. Email me, and if you send me your feedback by September 1st, you'll get a signed & kissed ARC. And if you've beta read for me before, and I was out of touch (bad girl!), email me your address, and I'll send you a special Thank You card with a story written just for you. Thank you. I love you forever.