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Episode 5:  Working with Beta Readers

Learn how to write a better book with the assistance of beta readers. This episode teaches you everything you need to know to plan and execute a successful beta reader round.  Beta readers are readers who read your book in advance of publication. 

Supplemental links:

Sample of signup form for the ROBOT'S REVENGE beta reader round - bit.ly/RRbetasignup

Free Bit.ly URL shortening service - http://www.bit.ly

 Google Forms, a free online form creation tool to capture beta reader sign-ups, and optionally to capture survey information as well.

Transcript

Welcome to the Smart Author Podcast where you'll learn to publish ebooks with greater pride, professionalism and success. I'm your host, Mark Coker. Let's get started.

In episodes two and three, we learned how good books aren't good enough anymore. In this episode, I'll teach you how beta readers can help you write a better book.

Beta readers are test readers. They volunteer to read your book and provide feedback before you publish it. You use their feedback to inspire your final revision. If you publish without the input of beta readers, you're more likely to overlook easily fixable flaws that would undermine reader satisfaction. The best time to work with beta readers is before you publish and after you've already completed your self-editing. You want your book to be as near final as possible.

When you work with multiple beta readers at once, and you should, we refer to that as a beta reader round. In this episode, you'll learn how to orchestrate and execute a beta reader round. Budget at least six to eight weeks for the entire process from start to finish. When you orchestrate a beta reader round, you'll send beta readers your manuscript and then you'll gather their feedback. But there's much more to it than that. I'll summarize the high-level elements of the beta round, and then later in this episode, I'll dig deeper into the specifics of how you pull off each element for maximum benefit.

At a high-level, the key elements of your round will be beta reader recruitment, so getting readers to sign up to be beta readers; the delivery of your manuscript; and the collection and integration of the readers' feedback. We'll talk about these in-depth one by one.

First, beta reader recruitment. Aim to recruit between 12 and 20 beta readers although you're welcome to work with fewer or more, depending on your preference. Most of these readers should match your target readership, but it's not necessary that they all match your target readership, because you'll find that readers who don't normally read your genre or category can still provide useful feedback about your book. You want beta readers who read a lot of books, because avid readers bring more experience and more insight to the table. You want beta readers who are willing to be brutally honest. You're looking for the truth. You're not looking for sugar coating.

Why do beta readers volunteer? There are various reasons. They might already be a fan of your work. They might enjoy reading your type of book. Maybe they enjoy being the first to read books before they come out. Many beta readers enjoy contributing to the book's final form because they realize that the feedback they provide you is going to help you make your book better. Other beta readers will be reading out of a sense of obligation. These are typically your family members and friends.

Now you might wonder where do you find beta readers. The answer is you find them everywhere. You can find them from your social media followers, from your existing readers, from fellow authors and their readers. You can find them on online forums, and you'll find them from friends and family.

Let's talk about this for a second. Your friends and family think you stand on a pedestal. They are blown away and amazed that their friend, their family member has written a book. And so when you're working with friends and family members, you need to be especially clear with them. You're looking for critical feedback.

As you start looking for beta readers, of course it would be easy to just post a call for beta readers on Facebook or on your blog, and ask for people to email you if they're interested. But don't do it that way. There's a better way.

Create an online enrollment form using Google Forms. Google Forms is a free online form creation tool. There are a lot of benefits to using Google Forms. Google Forms makes it easy to create online sign up forms that capture all the information you need about the beta reader, and capture all that information into a spreadsheet, so you can capture their mailing address, their email address, their name, and all kinds of other information. By capturing all this information in a sign up form at Google Forms, you're going to save a ton of time. It will make it possible for you to accommodate more beta readers and gather more feedback than you would if you did it manually over email; and you're going to do it with less effort. An online form can also help you pre-qualify and recruit the right readers. And you'll do that in your enrollment instructions, which I'll talk about in a second.

Another benefit of doing your sign up form with Google Forms is that your form will have a unique hyperlink, which you can share with beta readers. This facilitates recruitment. Over at the show notes for this episode, at smashwords.com/podcast, you'll find a hyperlink to a sample form that I created for an imaginary book to help illustrate what your sign up form might look like. So the imaginary book that I created is titled Robots' Revenge. Also check out the new Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, because I've added a completely new section there about how to work with Google Forms and how to manage a beta reader round.

As you create the sign up form, you'll finalize some of the logistics of your beta reader round. For example, what is the due date for sign ups? What is the target date by which you will deliver the manuscript to readers? And what is your method of delivery? Are you going to send them a paper manuscript or a digital manuscript? And also, what will be the method by which you will collect reader feedback? We'll touch on each of these in the items that follow here in a couple of seconds.

First, decide how you want to provide your manuscript to beta readers. Do you want to provide them a paper printout or do you want to provide them the manuscript digitally, either as an ebook or as a word processing file? There are pros and cons to each method. My personal preference, even though I love ebooks, is to send them a paper printout. If you send them a paper printout, it makes it easier for them to read. They don't need to have their E-reader with them that makes it easier for them to add notes and annotations. It makes it easier for you to collect more feedback. If you do choose to send your beta readers a printed copy of your manuscript, be sure to include a self-addressed stamped envelope so they can send the manuscript back to you along with the questionnaire. But if you want to do the digital route, that's great. You can do it either way.

The manuscript that you send to the readers will have a structured questionnaire. You have a couple more options here in how you do your questionnaire. You could put a single questionnaire at the end of the book or better yet, you can create multiple questionnaires that are interspersed within the manuscript. We'll talk more about that in a minute.

Now back to creating the online form. Go to google.com/forms, so that's plural f-o-r-m-s. Google.com/forms. The first page that pops up, you'll see an option to either choose from some predefined templates, or you can click on the one on the left, that's just a plus sign, and that's just create a new form from scratch. I usually just click the plus sign to create a new form from scratch.

Now that you've got your new form up, the first step is to create a description. The description is really important. This is where you're going to explain to prospective beta readers what's happening with the beta reader round. Some of your readers may never have participated in a beta reader round before, so they don't know what their expectations are.

You'll provide a summary of your book project. You'll summarize your expectations for beta readers, and the benefits of participating. You'll summarize the logistics like the delivery date in when will you deliver the manuscript to them, how will you deliver the manuscript to them, the formats that you're willing to deliver to them, details such as that.

I'll read you a sample introduction that I created for my imaginary novel, Robots' Revenge. And then after that introduction, I'll explain the different elements why I chose the words and the details that I did. So here it goes. Here is my imaginary introduction to my beta reader round for Robots' Revenge:

Thank you for your interest in serving as a beta reader for my debut novel, Robots' Revenge. Robots' Revenge is speculative fiction set in the year 2040. It explores the consequences of humanity's ever increasing dependence upon robots. What happens to humanity when robots are networked together and develop a collective consciousness? I'm looking for honest, critical feedback, which I will use to guide my final revision prior to publication. All readers who complete the questionnaire by the deadline will be credited by name in the acknowledgment section of the final published book, if they wish. Thank you for your interest and support.

Okay, so that's the end of my introduction for my beta reader recruitment form. Now, let's talk about why I said what I said in that introduction.

You'll note that I mentioned the book's category. In my case here, if a beta reader hates speculative fiction, then this context that I just provided them will help weed them out of the beta pool, because I don't want beta readers who hate my category. It's okay if they don't read in my category, my I don't want them to dislike it. I gave them enough information in the description about the story to pique their interest, but I didn't tell them the full story. I set their expectations that I'm looking for critical feedback. You want to remind readers of this over and over again with every interaction you have with them.

In the description, I told them what formats are available to them. You can decide this for yourself. As I mentioned earlier, I think paper is a good format because it makes it easier for readers to add notes directly on paper. I told them my deadline. If they choose to participate, I want them to know that they're obligated to deliver their feedback to me by the deadline that I stated. I gave readers an incentive to participate. I'm offering to credit them by name in the acknowledgment section of my book. I also tell them that such credit is optional. You'll have some readers who don't want to be credited by name, but they still want to help support you in this beta reader round. In the last sentence, I thanked them for their participation, and I mentioned the word support because I want them to know that their participation is critical to the success of my novel.

After the introduction in your sign up form, you'll add the other questions. Obviously, you'll want to have questions for the first and last name of the reader; their email address so you can communicate with them. If you're going to send them a paper manuscript, you want their postal mailing address. You want to ask them in the sign up form if they want to receive credit in your acknowledgment section. It's really important that you receive a reader's permission in advance before you list their name in your publication. Another good question to ask is can you read the book and complete the accompanying survey within the deadline. I would recommend giving readers a deadline that's three to four weeks out. So give them three to four weeks to read the book and complete the questionnaire.

After you complete the creation of your sign up form, Google will give you a unique web address for that form, a hyperlink. But the hyperlink that they give you is a monster. It's really long and it doesn't make any sense when you look at it. I would suggest that you use a free web address shortening service like bit.ly. And that's B-I-T.L-Y, where you can enter in any web address and it will create a shortened link for you. It will even let you customize the link, so you can have an address such as bit.ly./janesnovel. Once you've got the Bitly hyperlink for your sign up page, you can promote that across social media, to your friends and family, and encourage your friends and your family and your social media followers to share this invitation with other friends who they think might be interested at participating in your beta reader round.

You'll find that the less a beta reader knows you, the more honest their feedback. As you collect the names of interested readers, start working on the questionnaire that will accompany the manuscript when you're ready to send it out. So we'll do a deep dive now into the questionnaire because the questionnaire is separate from your sign up form, and it's one of the most crucial elements of success for your beta reader round.

The ultimate goal of working with beta readers is to write a better book. You want inspiration to guide your final revision. To get the right feedback, you need a well-written questionnaire. You want to be strategic about what you ask in the questionnaire so that you can illicit the feedback you need. While it feels great to receive gushing praise from beta readers, such praise is useless unless it's backed by the why and the how. So your questionnaire will help capture the whys and the how. You're looking to identify points of pleasure and points of disappointment. You're looking for big picture feedback. The same kind of feedback that you would get from a developmental editor. As you recall back in Episode 2, we talked about developmental editing, copy editing and proofing. We talked about how developmental editing is the most critical and it's also the most expensive form of editing. This is one reason that a lot others work with beta readers because you can get a lot of the benefit that you would get from a developmental editor by working directly with beta readers.

As you write your questionnaire, you'll ask questions that help you glean feedback on such developmental issues as your plot, the pacing, story arc, character development, your dialogue, your writing style, the reader's satisfaction, or reaction to key turning points in the book, and the reader's reaction to the ending.

You have two options for how you present your questionnaire to the readers. You can create a single questionnaire and place it at the end of the book, so the readers will completed that questionnaire after they finished reading the book, or you can create a series of shorter questionnaires that you intersperse throughout the manuscript. This is actually what I would recommend. This is what my wife and I did when we wrote our novel and when we worked with beta readers. You probably have some specific ideas of what you want to learn from your readers. But here's some general ideas to get your creative juices flowing as you write your questionnaires.

Let's say you write fiction, here's some possible questions that might go in to a fiction questionnaire. What types of other books do you normally enjoy? Who are some of your favorite authors? If you're interspersing multiple questionnaires throughout the manuscript, you could put a questionnaire at the end of the first chapter, and then you could ask, "If you picked up this book in a bookstore, and only read to the end of this first chapter, would you want to buy this book?" You could ask, at this point in the novel, is the pacing too fast, too slow or just right. You could ask, is the dialogue realistic?

And then later in the book, you might ask, do you find yourself rooting for the protagonist? Don't refer to the character as the protagonist though. Refer to them by character name. Do you find yourself caring what happens next to the protagonist? You'll have other key turning points throughout the book where you might have specific questions for the reader. Maybe there's a certain emotional impact that you want the reader to have at a certain point in the book. Maybe when they meet the villain. Maybe you want them to hate the villain, so ask them questions about the villain.

Then of course at the end of the book, you're going to ask them different types of questions like what do they think about the ending? And more general questions, what do they think about the overall book? How can you improve the book? You also want to ask, on a scale of one to five, how would rate this book and why? Obviously, what you're trying to get at here is you want to know if readers are considering this a three-star book, a four-star book, or a five-star book. You want five stars.

Let's say you're writing a questionnaire for a non-fiction book. In fact, let's say that I was writing a questionnaire for beta readers for the new edition of Smashwords Book Marketing Guide. My questions might be as follows: Prior to reading this book, how would you rate your experience with book marketing? Are you a novice, an intermediate, or an expert? Have you read other books on book marketing? If so, name your favorite title if you remember. How did the Smashwords Book Marketing Guide compare to these other books? Did you learn new information you can put to use today to improve your book marketing? Did you feel like the information was presented in a logical order? How was the writing style and the tone? Do you have any comments for how I could improve the writing? On a scale of one to five, where one means you hated it and five means you loved it, how would you rate this book?

All right. So those are some sample questions.  You're going to have much better questions because you know exactly what you want to learn from your readers and where.

Next step, let's talk about how you deliver the manuscript to the readers. You can deliver your manuscript in paper, or you can deliver it to them digitally.  If you choose to deliver a paper printout to your beta readers, format the printed copy so that you have the page number at the top or bottom of every page. If you work with Microsoft Word, the way that you do that is you click Insert, then you click Header, and then you click Page number, and that will automatically place the page number on each printed page. That's important in case the pages get out of order when the reader returns them to you.

Add the questionnaires directly into the manuscript at the key locations. That is if you choose to do multiple questionnaires. Print up your manuscript at your local copy shop and bound it only with a heavy metal clip. You should mail your printed manuscript in a special type of envelope, and you can buy this at any office supplies store. You want a polystyrene envelope. These envelopes are super lightweight. They have a plastic-y feel to them, and they're great because they won't rip and they're waterproof. Because otherwise, if you're mailing a big bulky manuscript, there's a good chance it'll get chewed up in the mail, and then your book will never arrive to the reader, or it'll never come back to you. So get a polystyrene envelope. They only cost a few cents more. If you're managing an entire round, you can buy a whole box of them for fairly cheap.

At the front of your bound manuscript which is bound with a metal clip, add a couple of paragraphs of short instructions. You're going to want to remind your readers again, what your expectations are. You want honest critical feedback. Remind them of the deadlines. And then take this opportunity again to thank them for participating in this beta reader round. Show them your appreciation.

If you're planning to deliver your manuscript to readers digitally, then right within that digital book, you can include links to questionnaires you can create over at Google Forms. You'll create new questionnaire form at Google Forms for each questionnaire, so separate from your sign up page. And if you're doing multiple questionnaires, as I recommend, interspersed throughout the manuscript, you can provide a hyperlink. At the end of the first chapter, you can provide a hyperlink to your first questionnaire, and then later in the book, a hyperlink to your second questionnaire. So create a separate questionnaire for each. And you can do that at Google Forms.  Give each questionnaire a logical name, like "First Chapter," or "Midpoint," or whatever corresponds to the sections where you place the questionnaire.

Assuming that you're giving readers three or four weeks - you decide - I would recommend that one week before the due date, you send out an email to all of your beta readers and give them a polite reminder of the impending due date.  And then thank them again for their valued assistance in this process. Remind them that you look forward to receiving and reviewing their feedback so that you can make your final manuscript the absolute best it can be.

The most time-consuming part of your beta reader round is when you're waiting for readers to finish reading your book and completing the questionnaire, and then sending it back to you. So what should you do in these intervening three or four weeks? My recommendation is you take a vacation. You earned it. You are about to publish your next book, and now would be a great time to take some time off as the readers are reading your book to clear your head and get some distance from your book. Recharge your batteries so that when you get back, you're ready to review and synthesize the feedback when all those questionnaires come in.

Once the feedback comes in, what do you do with it? First, remember you are not obligated to agree with every comment and suggestion. You're the author and it's your book. You're looking to identify areas of strength and weakness. What's working, what's not? You're looking for feedback that can guide your final revision. For the suggestions you love, run with them. For the suggestions you disagree with, ignore them.

Once you finish reviewing the feedback from your beta readers, you'll have a good sense of what requires revision and how long that revision will take. If you haven't done so already, now would be a good time to get your book up on pre-order. Check out Episode Four again to learn how to create a successful pre-order. Allow time in your pre-order runway so you can edit and proof prior to release.

And finally, now that your beta reader round is complete, be sure to thank each beta reader with a personal email. If they gave you particular feedback that inspired you, tell them.

And that concludes this episode. You're now ready to plan and execute a successful beta reader round. Be sure to check out the show notes at smashwords.com/podcast for supplemental information and links that will help you organize your beta reader round.

In the next episode, Episode Six, you'll learn how to market your ebook over 30,000 public libraries around the world. Thanks again for allowing me to join you on your indie author journey. I trust by now your mind is brimming with new ideas for how to reach more readers with your words.

If you're enjoying this Smart Author Podcast, please share it with a friend. Until next time, keep writing. I'm Mark Coker.