June 27, 2013

Beta Readers—The Secret To A Good Book

Giacomo and his dog slick

Giacomo & Slick

The Secret to a Good Book

Here’s the scenario—you finished your manuscript; your favorite friends read it; you ran it through two, maybe three, rounds of self editing; and now it’s ready. Whoa! Ready for what?

Before you do anything with that manuscript, you better run it through a few more steps. You can’t give it to your customers yet, not until you fix it. You have several options at this point. Most authors use content editors, but my favorite process is to use beta readers.

How to Get Beta Readers

Beta readers are not easy to find. They don’t hang out on street corners with signs asking for books to read. And I haven’t yet found a directory of readily available beta readers. But there are things you can do. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Readers who write you—ask if they’re interested.
  • Critique groups—find a good one and trade beta reads.
  • Readers who have left critical reviews—write to them, tell them how much you appreciate their comments, and ask if they’d consider being a beta reader.

Most experts advise you to get readers from your genre. I agree that you need some of those, but I also like readers from other genres. They bring a completely different perspective and lots of good suggestions. I had several fantasy readers and a few romance readers go through my first novel, Murder Takes Time. These people gave excellent advice that no one from the mystery or thriller groups mentioned.

What to Ask Beta Readers

This depends on what you feel you need help with. If you have technical issues you need to verify, make sure you have qualified readers to provide input. If you’re writing in the mystery genre, you might need someone familiar with law enforcement or the legal profession. A SciFi writer might need a physicist.

You might also need location-specific help. If you do, obviously your beta readers should be familiar with the area. Whatever the case, the basics of writing should always be part of what you ask readers to look for:

  • Plot inconsistencies
  • Character development
  • Storytelling
  • Dialogue
  • Ending
  • Slow parts
  • Typos/grammar
  • Confusing parts

All of these are important but, to me, the more important questions are:

  • How did the book make you feel?
  • Were you happy with the ending?
  • Would you recommend it to a friend?

Ask the questions in the back of the book/manuscript, after they’re done reading. Prod them with thought provoking questions.

  • Did you feel that character “X”…
  • Did you agree with the decision to do…
  • If not, what would you have done differently?
  • Was the plot right?
  • Did you get lost/confused?
  • Know what was happening too soon?
  • Was it believable?

There are a thousand questions you could ask. The important thing is to know what you want, and prepare the questions beforehand.

What to Expect From Beta Readers?

Beta readers are all different. Here are a few you traits might recognize:

  • Ones who you have to drag a suggestion out of.
  • Ones who meekly make a suggestion.
  • Ones who voice an opinion, but if challenged will back off.
  • Ones who voice strong opinions and back it up.
  • Ones who fight you tooth and nail, telling you how wrong you are.

The “generally accepted” wisdom is to never use your family or friends for feedback because they won’t tell you the truth. Ha! Maybe these people didn’t grow up in an Italian family.

My daughter is the latter—the “tooth and nail” type. If anyone were to hear us going at each other’s throats, they would think we hated each other. Five minutes later, we’ll be drinking wine or sharing espresso and laughing at how stupid the other one was. It’s always her fault.

The great thing about this relationship is that sometimes— even after bitterly disagreeing with her—I’ll realize she had a point. When that happens, I go back to my work and look at it with a new set of eyes, searching for the points she presented in her rant debate.

I’m lucky to have her for that. But it works both ways. She writes for several Italian-American newspapers, so when I edit her work I get revenge I mean, I get to help her.

Beta Readers Versus Content Editors

Let the fights begin.

There are some great content editors out there. I know that because I’ve read some of the books they edited. If you can find a good one, and you’ve got the money, it might be an excellent option for you. Unfortunately, my own experience wasn’t so pleasant.

The editor I hired tried to make my book what she wanted it to be—a police procedural. The problem with that is I don’t write police procedurals. I didn’t give up though, and I tried another editor, but I only did a sample, so I could see what she was like. This one didn’t work for me either. After those experiences I decided to stick with beta readers and my own gut instincts.

Bottom Line

Beta readers are, or can be, your bread and butter. They can be gold. In my opinion, the right group of beta readers is far more valuable than a content editor.

Some authors have had great experiences with content editors, and I’m happy for them. But I’m through looking for content editors. I like my beta readers. They’re sharp, insightful, avid readers, who give me honest opinions on what works and what doesn’t. I can’t ask for more than that.

As a side note: If anyone has interest in being a beta reader, I am always looking for more. 

Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of MURDER TAKES TIME, MURDER HAS CONSEQUENCES, and A BULLET FOR CARLOS. He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.”

4 Responses to “Beta Readers—The Secret To A Good Book”

  1. Excellent post.

    HOWEVER, there was an inaccurate word choice in one of those statements. I quote:

    “The great thing about this relationship is that sometimes— even after bitterly disagreeing with her—I’ll realize she had a point.”

    The word “sometimes” needs to be replaced with “always”. 😉


    Beta Reader from hell
    President of the Testadura Club
    Managing Director of the Tooth & Nail Beta Reader Society

  2. And royal pain in the ass! haha.

  3. Well, now that is a piece of Father and Daughter work!!
    I wish I was capable of being a Beta Reader! I’m still in the beginning, middle and close to the end of the last 4 books I bought. And two more that are still in the box! I think my computer and iPhone have destroyed my concentration ability. I’m impatient and when reading a magazine I start from the back to the front! I’m not sure what that is. Guess, I’m just a “bottom line” kinda gal that needs to get to the end and I will imagine and fill in the middle. Same with instructions, I’ll always have parts left over. Not good beta reading, right Jim?

  4. JJoyia: I have to agree with you. You wouldn’t be my first choice for a beta reader based on what you told me. HaHa.

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