Beta Readers are one of a writer's most valuable external resources. They will help you improve your manuscript in a way that you never could on your own and they will keep your editorial costs down.
Great! So ... what are beta readers, who are they, where can I find them and why are they so valuable?
Beta readers are people who evaluate manuscripts, usually for free and often on a reciprocal basis. These helpful people will give you feedback on what works and what doesn't in your story. Not only that, they will do it because they love it ... and maybe in exchange for an evaluation from you on their own manuscript further down the line.
They are worth their weight in royalties so treat them well. Make sure that:
Your manuscript is the best version that you can produce without outside help.
It is in the format which suits your beta reader best or comes with clear instructions on how to get it into that format.
You are clear about what you want from them. Let them know if you are aware of specific problem areas that you want them to pay particular attention to.
The turnaround time you are asking for is reasonable.
Marvellous! I like the sound of these beta readers. They seem like splendid people. Who are they?
When looking for your ideal manuscript evaluator there are several characteristics that will identify them to you. First of all, let's talk about who they are NOT. Beta readers are not:
Your best friend or your buddy since primary school.
Your mum, dad, brother, sister, cousin, auntie, uncle, granny ...
Your husband, wife, romantic partner of any description.
The person who has been reading your manuscript as you went along.
These people are all either too close to you or too close to your manuscript. They will want to help but they are not objective enough to give you the honest, constructive criticism that you need. Yes, the process will leave you open to criticism, it is going to hurt. The pain is necessary. You know that. Okay ... deep down, you know that. But don't expect the people who love you or who have shared in the agonising, creative process to be the ones to cause you that pain.
This is what good beta readers are:
Reliable and trustworthy. They need to follow through on their promise to help and do it within your (reasonable) timescales.
Avid readers and/or writers. Either of these groups will bring useful insight to the process through their understanding of what makes a good book from both sides of the page.
The target audience of your book. If it is a book aimed at young adults, you want your beta readers to be within that age range. If your book is a romance, you want people who regularly read or write that genre.
Opinionated but capable of communicating their opinions in a way that will not crush your confidence. It helps if they like to communicate their positive opinions in equal measure to their fault finding.
Aware enough of the publishing world to understand the importance of a writer's 'voice' and not drown it out with 'correct' rules.
Understanding of what is required at the beta reading stage. They know that it is not about judging the book on typos and spelling; it is about the big picture.
Knowledgeable about or experienced in any specialist subject matter contained in your book e.g. foreign locations, astrophysics, law enforcement, mountain climbing.
A single beta reader does not have to embody all of these characteristics. Provided that you have enough beta readers to cover all the necessary aspects for what your manuscript needs then you are well on your way to some excellent feedback.
Oh, yes! I'd trust my manuscript to people like that. But where can I find them?
Beta readers take time to cultivate. The best time to begin your search is, at least, a year before you think you will need them.
If time is short, and your budget allows it, you can pay for a manuscript critique. The results will be much the same, you will get it done within your restricted timescales but you will have to spend money that could be better spent further along in the editing process.
Hopefully, you are in the position to take time building relationships. Not only will you have the space to search for beta readers of the right fit for your book, you will also make lasting professional friendships and benefit from the support that goes with that. The connections you make by frequenting the places where beta readers can be found will sustain you throughout your writing life.
Some key pointers for making and maintaining connections with your potential beta readers:
Be genuine. Don't fake an interest in someone's life or writing just to snag yourself a beta reader. You will get found out and it won't feel good.
Be generous with your time and your feedback, and others will reciprocate because they want to.
Be gentle with yourself, don't rush. It takes time and patience to cultivate the kind of connections that both parties can trust and rely on. You want to be sure that your manuscript will be in safe hands.
Yes, yes, but WHERE can I start making these connections?
In a variety of places:
Writers' seminars and workshops. Initial contact will be face-to-face and then you can keep in touch via whatever method is most agreeable to both parties, usually social media.
Local writers' groups and critique groups. Try your library or meetup.com to find out what is available in your area.
Social media. Interact with other writers on Twitter, join Facebook groups for writers, Goodreads has a Beta Reader Group, LinkedIn has various discussion groups for writers covering a variety of genres.
Writers' forums. Sign up to writers' forums that have areas dedicated to critiques. You will probably have to do some critiquing yourself before you can offer up your own work but it is all part of the relationship building process. Sign up to writers' forums that don't have areas dedicated to critiques just so that you can get to know like-minded authors who might be interested in beta reading the kind of books you write. Websites like Scribophile allow you to receive critique in exchange for karma points which you earn by critiquing for others.
Genre discussion forums. Many websites that are dedicated to specific genres will have forums where people discuss the books they love from that genre. Often, they will also have a section dedicated to writing where critiques will be exchanged. Chronicles is a good example of this kind of forum. Check it out if your chosen genre happens to be science fiction or fantasy.
Writing blogs. Find blogs related to writing. Read them to see which ones are well written and provide content you feel engaged with. Interact with the author by commenting on posts and sharing what they have to say. They may begin to reciprocate. Over time, you will know whether the opportunity exists for suggesting a mutually beneficial beta reading partnership.
Remember the fundamental rules of relationship building: Be genuine, be generous, be gentle.
Excellent! I know who I'm looking for and where to find them. But why should I go to all this effort?
It takes hard work and dedication to build up a portfolio of beta readers who you can call on when needed. What makes it worth your while?
Working with beta readers will:
Improve your writing skills. You will become far more aware of your weaknesses and blind spots, and develop a style more conducive to succeeding in the publishing world.
Improve your manuscript. Problem areas that you struggled with and couldn't see a way out of will be smoothed away, plot holes that you were oblivious to will be exposed and solutions suggested, weak characters will find new life ... The list could go on and on.
Provide you with a support network that solitary writers often have to do without. These are people who are dedicated to the same craft that drives you to work into the small hours. They get you. They understand the trials and they recognise the wins. Even if only a few of the connections you make become your beta readers, you will have built up an invaluable network that will prove its value time and again.
Save you money. A large enough pool of beta readers will allow you to employ their help at crucial junctures of your manuscript's development. Done properly, you can often skip the developmental and substantive editing stage and cut right back on the costs of line/copy-editing. The 'cleaner' your manuscript, the lower your editing rate will be. You may well have a more technically inclined beta reader waiting in the wings to give your manuscript its final proofread.
Any one of these benefits will make it worth your while to put in the time and effort to connect with beta readers.