How to pick beta readers

Sure, you can close your eyes, cross your fingers, release your book into the marketplace, and hope it works. You can wait for positive reviews and media hits.

But there’s an easier way.

Securing beta readers is an essential part of any publishing strategy. Beta readers are those who read an early version of the manuscript, and offer feedback on everything from plot to tone and relevance of examples.

Who are beta readers?

“Beta” implies the book is still in progress, but it will have gone through a few rounds of self-editing, and ideally through at least one round of developmental editing with a professional editor.

Beta readers are different from reviewers, who record their feedback in public after publication, whether in a formal review (i.e., industry magazine) or in an Amazon listing.

Beta readers are different from blurbers, who read the almost finished book before publication. Blurbers offer the short lines of praise you see on the front or back cover of a book. They generally don’t offer constructive feedback. Their role is related to sales and marketing—they provide social proof: “I liked this book. Here’s why you should buy it and read it.”

Beta readers are not editors. Editors are paid, professional readers who can help you bring your manuscript to the next level, through a manuscript consultation or a full edit. And they are not sensitivity readers, who provide another crucial level of feedback for a fee.

How to work with beta readers

Select readers who are representative of your target audience. So, if you’re writing a book about marketing, make sure you select readers who actively work in marketing. Their feedback will help your book land more effectively with your broader audience.

How many is enough? I recommend selecting three to five readers. The more reviewers you pick, the more feedback you need to sort through.

Guide the feedback with instructions, such as specific questions about the content and structure, and elements to look out for. If your book includes exercises, including journal prompts, make sure your reviewers try them.

Tell your reviewers what you’re not looking for, such as pointing out typos. Your manuscript will eventually be copyedited and proofread, so focusing on grammar and punctuation at this stage will not be the best use of the reviewers’ time.

What to do after the review

The sweet spot will be when your reviewers’ feedback overlaps. If everyone says the equivalent of “The pace drops in chapter 3” (“Chapter 3 didn’t do it for me” or “I was lost at that point” would be your cue), then you’ll know to dig deeper into what’s not working in that section.

Ask your reviewers if you can do a brief follow-up interview about this overlapping feedback, or any strong feedback they delivered; i.e., if they loved or hated something, ask them why.

And while it’s not necessary, I think it’s kind to offer an honorarium, gift, or card to thank them. They took hours to read and think through your book, so give them a token of your gratitude.

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