Beta readers are those wonderful people (often volunteers) who read and critique the manuscripts of our books. Chosen carefully, briefed effectively and “heard” with discernment, I regard them as the superheroes of self-publishing. They can provide forms of editing – especially in the developmental stages of a book – that many self-publishers miss out on.
Traditionally-published writers need beta readers, too. You’ll find that most successful authors have at least one and often a team of them, whether they are other writers, editors, or trusted advisors who read their work before it reaches the publisher.
Last time in our beta reader series, we talked about a wise general approach to briefing a beta reader. “Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” may or may not be my default policy with gardening, but I don’t advise it as the best way to approach beta readers! 😉 “Treat them like precious jewels and have a parade in their honour” is closer to the mark.
Let’s look at some tips for the logistical side of your briefing.
Logistics specifics (trying saying that five times fast)
I find it’s wise to be as specific as you can about practical details. (I’ve learned this the hard way, of course. 😉 ) You’ll be surprised how much we all pussyfoot around, afraid to be pushy or too directive, trying not to offend anyone… and then the exact opposite happens, and everyone ends up confused or frustrated or resentful, because of assumptions and lack of information! Aagh!
No one likes a bossy author, but the trick is to communicate. Ask them what they want, but let them know what you want as well, as it may turn out to suit them just fine, if only you’d asked.
If you are both new at this and neither of you really know what you want, that’s fine too. I usually find that just being honest and transparent with people gets much better results! There’s no shame whatsoever in newbies muddling through together — great friendships are often built that way. Even “old hands” can enjoy muddling through together.
Here are some specific practical details that you might discuss.
- When do you actually need their report? Think about it in the context of your overall schedule, don’t just pluck a date from the air. Then talk to them about how they are placed. Is a quick turnaround possible, or do they need more time? If you really do need it in a hurry, and they’re busy, perhaps they have time to do a quick read and “instinctive” response, without going into too much depth? Modify your request to suit their availability.
- Do you have a publishing deadline or a competition to enter? If so, how much time will you need to rework your manuscript in light of the beta reader’s comments and suggestions? Work back from the deadline date to figure out how much time you can allow the beta reader. I usually aim to allow six weeks for my changes AFTER the report, and six weeks for the beta reader to read and make their comments, which means giving it to them 12 weeks before deadline… but it’s not always possible. (If that sounds like a long time, maybe you and your betas are turbocharged and very fleet of foot, but bear in mind that I find MANY people underestimate how long it will take, and end up with a rushed rewrite that doesn’t do justice to the potential of their book. Just sayin’.)
- It’s often a good idea to set a timeframe, even if you don’t have an external deadline to meet. People who are given forever to get a job done will usually take, oh, round about that long. 😉 But don’t be bonkers about it. If you say, “I need it by next Wednesday,” and then you don’t publish it till 2042, and they’ve stayed home from work and neglected their children to get it done for you, it’s probably not going to create a sweet working relationship for the future!
Format to GIVE to them
Everyone has preferences for how they’d rather read. As we talked about in the general approach, do your best to provide a format they prefer. Communicate.
- Word doc? If you don’t have Word, you can usually create a readable file from Open Office, and you can even export to Word from Scrivener.
- A format for their e-reader? It’s surprisingly easy to create an ebook in a hurry using either Word + Calibre, or Scrivener.
- A printout? Some people still prefer this, so if that’s what they want, provide it if you can… but don’t be afraid to negotiate if printing and postage is too expensive for you.
- Something else I haven’t thought of? Talk to them about it.
Format to RECEIVE from them
When it comes to receiving their feedback…
- The first thing to consider is: How would THEY like to give their comments?? If you possibly can, let them do it the way they find easiest. But again, negotiate if there are problems for you.
- Would you prefer a separate text file, which they write up in Word or some other word processor?
- In the body of an email?
- Would you like them to use the “Track Changes” feature of Word within your actual manuscript?
- As notations on an ebook file if you’ve produced a .mobi or .epub for them?
- As written notes on a printout of your manuscript? (Don’t forget to provide the hard copy, or at least reimburse their printing costs, and pay for return postage.) If you’ve got beta readers in other countries, the hard copy might be a bit, well, hard to do. Paper is heavy, and manuscripts can be excruciatingly expensive to post.
- Again, it’s always good to let them go for the response format the prefer, if you possibly can. But having the discussion now will potentially avert problems later, and may just make your job easier if they’re happy to provide your preferred format.
Next time we’ll look at ways to ask for specific content in your beta report. (Subscribe to the blog using the form below, if you’d like to know when that article lands.)
What’s your experience with beta reader briefings? If you’ve been someone’s beta reader, what did you find useful? What makes it harder?
Featured image via Bigstock/Goodluz