Sunday, April 7, 2013

Beta Testing: On Using and Being a Beta Reader

A few months back, I suggested that independent publishers could improve the quality of their books by using a quality control process that was similar to systems used by the major publishing houses. Now that my company is preparing to release its first full length book, I decided to take my own advice and recruit a team to help me. This is the story of my first use of beta readers and what I learned from them.

Beta readers have always been common in publishing for both new and established authors. Stephen King uses them, Anais Nin used them. Shakespeare probably had a few beta readers testing his stuff out. I see it as part taste test, part marketing focus group and part reality check. While every publisher does it differently, I decided my beta test would combine different types of people. I thought that would give me the most honest assessment of the manuscript. 

The Test Group for Smooth Operator
  • The group consisted of seven adults; four women and three men.
  • Half the group I knew personally, the other half I only knew from linked in and good reads.
  • A few were older than me, the rest were younger.
  • Some expressed an avid interest in crime thrillers, some didn't read very much in the genre.
  • About half the group consisted of writers or editors themselves, the other half were purely readers.

I gave everyone about a month to read the book (about 75,000 words) and asked five focused questions about their opinions. I gave them the option to write more, but I felt the questions would be a good guide for feedback. None of the beta readers were paid.

1) On a scale of 1-5, I would rate this book a: ___
2) Would you be satisfied with this book if you paid $3.99 for it? ____
3) Would you read the sequel to this book? ____
4) Would you recommend this book to a friend or enemy? ___
5) If there is any author that this book reminds you of, please name that author (none is a completely acceptable answer) ____

The Results
  • Half the group (4 people) read the book and completed the survey. The rest didn't have a chance to read or finish it.
  • The response was positive across the board in terms of the overall quality of the prose with one minor exception, namely
  • There was a split of opinion concerning the introduction. This is worth mentioning for two reasons. First, I tried to do something different by breaking the fourth wall to generate more interest. One reader liked it, the other disliked it and the last two didn’t bring it up at all. The second reason why that is worth mentioning is based on my reaction to the split. Stephen King's opinion in his book On Writing when it comes to differing views between beta readers is that "the tie goes to the writer." so I decided to leave the intro the way it is and see what happens when the book is released.

Finally, one beta reader went so far as to take me out for drinks so we could discuss his thoughts and feelings on Smooth Operator in depth. This is the best kind of beta reader. A writer loves nothing more than to spend hours discussing his work over whiskey.

The Takeaway

I learned three things from my beta test.
  1. More readers are better because you can't count on 100% participation.
  2. A beta test can be a confidence booster and a chance to expose your work to the light of day without a huge amount of risk.
  3. The actual makeup of the group is no indication of who will actually respond.

Turning the Tables 

I mentioned earlier that some of my beta readers are also writers. One of them is also working on a novel now and asked me for a reciprocal beta read of her book. I never beta read before, but it felt inappropriate to turn her down after she just agreed to do me the same favor.

I decided the best way to help my fellow author was to deconstruct her novel and analyze the elements in the same way a critic reviews a book or movie. I analyzed the structural elements of the plot, the characterization of the main characters and the relationship between character and plot. I even looked at the composition of chapters and the relationships among the characters and how that impacted the plot. For each comment I made, I gave her an example or a reference book that might help improve the narrative. I wasn't able to get through the whole novel with this method, but she seemed very happy with the three pages of notes I delivered on the book, so I think I did OK.

I have come to the conclusion that beta testing is an important element of the publishing process. Not only can it improve your book, it can improve your connection with your writing community and can even lead to a good night of drinking. Quality control doesn't get much better than that.

Have fun.


  1. G,

    Very interesting observations regarding Beta readers. I did my first beta read a few weeks ago. It was a chore to do. I wanted to give good feedback. I think it especially important to note when the reader gets that "lost in the woods" feeling. Also called, "looks like this is going nowhere." The worst is when the reader goes down in flames - a "flamer." It's important that the beta reader is partial to the "kind" of book you write. Seems like a dumb observation, but I've seen many reviews where it's obvious that the reviewer wanted a totally different book by someone other than the author. Like, I hate YA and would never read or comment on those books.

    I think having a short list of questions is a good idea, too.

    I am looking forward to your book and would be happy to give you my two cents worth of beta if you like.


  2. Hi,
    I agree that beta readers are an essential part of the writing process. It allows the writer the insight of a reader before the product is finished.

    I've used the services of my writers group for my novel and have found the help extremely useful (I've given four or five chapters at a time asking for their feedback).

    The problem, I think, an author can have is that they read their own manuscript um-teen times and there come a point where fresh eyes are needed. Out of the nine that I gave away I've gotten four back, all with positive suggestions and a general 'like' for the book and characters.

    It's good to know that the book is exciting, engaging and entertaining. The fact that they want to read more and then read the book once this process is finished makes me very happy and is very encouraging.

    I also beta read the first bit of an author's new book and enjoyed doing my part to help him out. He was very happy with what I'd done, the comments and suggestions I'd made and asked me to read more, which I agreed to (of course - its a great story).

    G, I do like the questions that you asked your beta readers. That was one mistake I made; I didn't really give specifics. I said, give me your general impression, comments, etc. Correct spelling and punctuation if you wish. But, I think a specific set of questions are a good idea.

    I'm glad I came upon this link in Goodreads.

  3. Dangerous road to travel. If you go to Stephen King's book On Writing, you'll see he talks about his Ideal Reader (IR), not 'beta' reader. And King's Ideal Reader is his wife Tabitha King, an experienced writer and editor who has an established and proven track record or working with her husband who knows and trusts her critqiqu. The term Beta Reader has been thrown around a lot recently and is a dangerous path to follow, just as test audiences for film can be. You may not get the right response from someone whose ulterior motives make that reader not objective, e.g. relative, jealous colleague, failed writer. Writing is a craft as much as it is an art, maybe more, so if you're looking for constructive feedback you need to know what you're getting and who's giving it to you. When half you're 'beta readers' didn't finish the book, did you stop to think that maybe because it wasn't compelling enough or revised enough to make them want to read the whole thing? Or just maybe the core story and characters were good enough to keep someone turning/swiping the pages. And what draft did you give them? Too ''writers' write one book, one draft and think they're finished. Writing is revising. And it takes a lot more than seventy five thousand words to make a writer over time.

    1. Thanks Bill. I got the message from Stephen King's book, and I'm well aware of the "ulterior motives" writer. I'll keep my eye out for him.

      Thanks again.

  4. Sorry, wrote the previous comment rom my iPhone and didn't edit correctly. Should have been 'critique' and later on meant 'were not good enough', but I hope everyone figured it out. May be a hard commentary but I've learned from my own writing career and through teaching screenwriting that honest, fair and tough is the best advice to get, and give.

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  6. OOPS... I deleted my previous post :-)

    Personally, I have played the part of a beta reader on quite a few occasions. I am certainly not a professional editor, but I think I have a pretty good eye for missing/wrong words, plot holes and character development - I don't have to be a professional to know how a book lands on me and I am always honest, but kind with my feedback. Gamal, you are a member of one of my groups (Erotic Enchants), if you haven't already, you should reach out in the "beta" section of our group and snag some betas there. They are not always reliable - I my self have fallen through on occasion when I can't get into the book - so it's good to allow for roughly 40% NOT to pull through for you ;-)

    Good luck!

    1. Thank you Nookie. I didn't submit Smooth Operator for a beta read in Erotic Enchants because I felt it didn't have enough erotic material to justify the group's time. The novel I'm working on now has a fundamental erotic component, so I do plan to look for beta readers within the EE group in the winter.

      And I specifically got a group of seven betas together because I knew that all seven of them wouldn't finish it even if it was a masterpiece (which it probably wasn't)

      Thanks again.

    2. Well, the readers in our group read books other than erotica ;-) Please, feel free to post for betas for any type of read - I think as long as you tell them what to expect, you will be fine. Only interested parties will respond!

    3. I will keep that in mind. My publishing plan includes at least 3 novels for the next two years, so I'll be keeping them very busy. ;-)

      Thanks again.

  7. Hi Gamal,

    Good article, although I'm sorry to see that you only had four out of seven beta readers respond to you.

    I currently have twelve dedicated beta-readers who 'pre-read' everything I publish. Most of them are readers, not authors, but two are (former) editors and many have specific fields (like law enforcement, crime, firearms, medical) and they fact-check these specific areas in my books.

    I also have some 'fans' who've become beta-readers. One of them is a senior lecturer in French Literature at an English university. She is visually impaired and got into my books because one of my protagonists is blind. Another is fully blind and converts my epubs into mp3 so he can listen to them.

    I find the process immensely rewarding because I get detailed feedback on what my beta-readers think works or doesn't work. I don't change things if only one of them reacts negatively, but if several comment negatively on the same thing I will scrutinize the scene or chapter to see what I can do to improve it. I think that having my final drafts read by beta-readers also accounts for the generally positive reviews I receive, both on GoodReads and the retailer sites like Amazon, iTunes, Kobo and B&N.