There’s lots of good stuff out there about beta readers so this is (as usual) a strictly personal account, complete with small successes, upsets and second thoughts.
Before you read on, please see my post about BetaBooks because without that brilliant software none of this would be possible.
So, who is the ideal beta reader?
First and foremost, beware friends!
If you ask a friend or relative to read your book, they will say “yes” because they’re a nice person and you’re a nice person and they want to please you. They will dutifully start reading but then realise it’s really not their cup of tea so will quietly stop. They don’t tell you they’ve stopped – because they don’t want to upset you by saying it’s not their cup of tea – and you don’t ask them why they’ve stopped because you don’t want to appear impatient or pushy (and you’re secretly terrified they hate it and now you by extension). So your book is never mentioned again and becomes the resident elephant in the room of your friendship.
Conversely, beware the friend who says they’d absolutely love to read your book. What they mean is they want to read your book in five years’ time when it’s piled high in Waterstones and they can boast they know the author – not whilst it’s 10,000 words too long and riddled with inconsistencies and loose ends.
Your ideal beta reader is a friend or relative of a friend or relative. Somebody who is close enough that you have an intermediary for asking those awkward why-have-they-stopped-reading questions but far enough that you don’t meet them in the village shop knowing they’ve just read the oral sex bit in chapter 20.
If a first-degree friend genuinely offers to read your book, smile sadly and explain at length what an onerous and tedious task this would be. If she repeats her offer (and she’s not obviously drunk) take her hand off. (And if this friend then moves halfway across England and doesn’t have a job and is happy to engage in long, late-night WhatsApp discussions about the minutia of character motivation, you’ve hit the mother lode.)
Tell readers what they are letting themselves in for!
Choose people who actually like – or are at least tolerant of – your chosen genre. I personally wouldn’t read a contemporary, angst-ridden, kitchen sink drama for love or money so I can’t expect fans of like to persevere with horse-drawn cabs and trouser buttons. There has to be a nominal element of enjoyment 😉
There is a sexual assault in my first chapter with more (mostly consensual) sex scattered throughout the book, plus some brief but explicit violence. After a false start, I now make this clear to potential readers. My eldest son’s partner (too close a connection, on reflection) stopped reading after the first chapter on account of the unpleasantness therein but didn’t like to tell me why.
How many readers does it take to beta a book?
I researched this question online and found the recommended number to be surprisingly low at just two or three. I wanted to be more scientific so I decided to apply the qualitative research principle of ‘saturation’, which means continuing to sample until no new themes or insights emerge. I approached this objective with five readers and achieved it by seven. Additional readers were a bonus.
What guidance should you give your readers?
Don’t waste your beta readers on typos and spellings; we’ve got Grammarly for that chore. Advise your readers to read as naturally as possible but if they do catch-out Grammarly (and it’s easily done) accept with gratitude. Better them than some exhausted literary agent in a few months’ time.
I gathered ideas for beta reader guidance from across the internet and distilled my findings into what I considered at the time to be five manageable questions:
- What did you like most about this chapter?
- Was there anything you found particularly unlikely, annoying or confusing?
- Are the characters believable? Did the dialogue keep your interest?
- Did the ending hook you and make you want to read the next chapter?
- What are you curious about now?
If a reader has particular expertise or you are aware of specific issues or loose threads, should you ask further leading questions – or wait and see what happens? After trying both approaches, I recommend the latter course. You may (like me) be pleasantly surprised. Never mind not seeing the wood for the trees; we writers can only see individual leaves. Readers step back and view the whole county. They may not spot each subtle element of foreshadowing or acknowledge every lovingly-crafted sentence but they do make intelligent and unexpected connections.
In reality, most readers ignored my five questions after the first few chapters and did their own thing, somewhere between brief bullet points and long thoughtful, literary critiques. (Both, I hasten to add, were equally welcome; I have eternal respect and gratitude for all my beta readers.)
Towards the end of the book, feedback from a couple of readers was reduced to excited emojis. I didn’t mind that either! The flurry of BetaBooks notifications told me that they couldn’t put the book down – so, in some ways, this was the nicest feedback of all 🙂