How to run a perfect beta read

I recently finished the best beta reading experience of my career. It ran smoothly, my beta readers were thorough, turn around was quick, and on the whole results were as good as I could ever hope.

So today I’m paying it forward by sharing my approach to running a beta read so that you can have as positive an experience as I did.

What is a beta read?

For the uninitiated, a beta read is the process where a writer shares their manuscript with a reader or a group of readers who then provide feedback. This process comes before professional editing, or if you’re a self-publisher and on a budget, sometimes substitutes for professional editing entirely.

How many beta readers do I need?

Before you begin, you’ll need to gather a group of beta readers. You’re target should be around 7 to 15 beta readers.

Since beta readers are rarely professional editors, they’ll often pick a theme such as grammar, character, or simply their enjoyment level and comment on that throughout. So it’s best to have a group of beta readers, and the more you have, the broader and more valuable your feedback will be.

Add to this that several beta readers who sign up to read for you likely won’t even start reading. They may have overbooked themselves or life otherwise got in the way, so you’ll want a cushion for those who inevitably don’t make it through.

Having a large group of beta readers ensures that enough will finish to offer comprehensive feedback. 7 to 15 seems to be the sweet spot, but I wouldn’t gather more than that because it can quickly become a logistical nightmare.

How do I find beta readers?

There are several tactics to gather a killer group of beta readers. It starts with an easy to use sign up form, incentives, and a pitch delivered to the right groups.

Create a beta reader reward

Start by figuring out what you can offer your beta readers in return for their help. They’re basically working for free, so it always helps to sweeten the deal. I’ve given away free books, stickers, bookmarks, and hand-made postcards.

Whatever you choose give away, make sure it’s something you’d like to receive and doesn’t break the bank. We’re not trying to get one time beta readers, we’re trying to build a dedicated group of long term fans.

Here’s my thank you gifts for my last beta read. I made them by hand and they cost me a total of about $50 and included a thank you card, a sticker I designed, and some bookmarks. 

Build a form using Google Docs

Now that you have your reward figured out, you’ll need an easy way for beta readers to sign up, and for you to keep track of them. Google Docs is perfect for this because it’s free, and sign-ups export to a spreadsheet.

Create a form using google docs and ask for all the info you’ll need. You’ll want to ask for names, emails, and addresses (so you can send them their rewards).

I always throw in a few questions to filter out beta readers I don’t want. For example, if my book is horror, I ask how much they enjoy horror and for them to list their favorite horro novels. If they don’t enjoy it, then their feedback likely wont be very good, so I don’t invite them along.

Here’s my last sign up form as an example. As you can see, it doesn’t need to be fancy to work well.

Write a pitch

You’ll want to attract people who will be your target audience, so take some time to write a short blurb. This hook should attract readers to your story. You’ll also want to explain the process and time frames of your beta read.

You’ll use this pitch everywhere you reach to people, including on your signup form, so make sure it’s as clean as you can make it.

Invite readers to sign up

The internet is surprisingly full of people who want to help writers publish. You just need to know where to find them. When you reach out, use your pitch which should contain several links to your sign up form.

Here’s how I look for beta readers, in the order I search. I will work my way down this list until I’ve gathered enough readers to do a proper job.

  • Previous Beta Readers – If you’ve ever held a beta read before, then start by reaching out to those who already helped you. If you treated them right, they’ll often jump on the opportunity to beta read again.
  • Newsletter & Blog – If you have a newsletter, mailing list, or blog, send out a message asking for beta readers. Fans will often enthusiastically support you by beta reading.
  • Social media – Be sure to reach out to your social media following. If you’re on twitter, let the #writerscommunity know about it. There’s also a beta reading community on Reddit. If your piece is short, you can try /r/DestructiveReaders, which is great for short stories or single chapters but will also have a thread where you can ask about beta readers. I’ve also reached out to /r/scifiwriting and other subreddits. There are hundreds of other places to look, don’t be afraid to dig around.
  • Friends, family, and co-workers – If all those other options fail you, there’s always the old standby of people you know irl. Don’t be afraid to ask them, but also don’t be hurt if they’re the flakiest.

As you can see, there is a world of people out there waiting to become your beta readers. All you need to do is come up with a good pitch, and send them to your signup form.

How do I run a beta read?

Once you’ve gathered your team of beta readers, you’ll want to start the process right away. The longer you wait, the more likely people will drop off early.

The three things I find most important when it comes to running a beta read are communication, incentives, and tracking readers progress. The only tools you need to cover all of this is email and Google Docs.

Why Google Docs?

One of the most difficult challenges is in running a beta read is delivering and receiving your manuscript. Some readers use Word, others Scrivener, others Open Office, but all can use Google Docs for free. So there’s a very low barrier.

When you send files such as Word, etc, you’ll find yourself waiting for periods of time for the comments to come back. Then when they do arrive, you’ll either need to compile all the documents together, or go through each one by one. All of this is a headache and can sometimes be demotivating.

I’ve since stopped providing Word and Open Office docs to each reader and instead only provide a single Google Doc which all readers share. This way, all feedback is in the same document, beta readers can see and respond to each other’s feedback, and you know exactly how far through the document each reader is at a glace.

Communication

After you have your Google Doc ready for beta readers to comment on, you’ll want to be a communication guru. Write regular updates informing your beta readers of what’s going on in the process.

This regular communication is necessary to help motivate readers to come back to your story after a few days away. Remember that they have lives, and sometimes your writing isn’t the most important thing they’re dealing with, so gentle reminders go a long way.

But even more effective that this are small incentives, in our case, badges.

Badges

The best way to motivate people is to gamify the beta reading process by offering achievement badges. This is just like when you win a badge in a video game. Here’s an example of my bages in action.


You’ll be amazed how well these badges work. All you need to do is come up with a list of achievements beta readers can unlock that you can easily track. Let them know about the badges and give them a timeframe.

When I announced my badges, beta readers immediately started reading and commenting on my story. Afterward, several let me know how it made the process more fun for them.

Tracking

One of the problems with sending out a giant word doc is you’re in the dark for the whole process. It sucks to sit and wait blindly without knowing if people are even reading.

With the Google Docs, this isn’t an issue at all. And with the Google Form, you can add more ways of manually tracking how far through the process each beta reader is. This helps with sending rewards, keeping track of who’s lagging behind, etc. Good tracking keeps things running smoothly.

Follow up

When the beta reading process is over, don’t leave your beta readers in the dark. Be sure to follow up with thank you gifts, and reach out to them periodically to let them know the status of your story now that they are done with it.

Chances are, your beta readers are pretty invested in your work at this point, and they’ll appreciate knowing everything that’s happening.

So that’s my process reduced to a single blog post. If you want more detailed info, I have great news! I’m writing a book on beta reading called Running a Perfect Beta Read: The Indie Author’s Guide to Harnessing Incentives, Technology, and Communication for an Out of This World Beta Reading Experience. Sign up for my Perfect Beta Read newsletter to be notified when it’s released.

Now in early access, The Peculiar Case of the Luminous Eye only on Patreon.com/SCBarrus

Announcing Early Access feat. The Peculiar Case of the Luminous Eye

Early Access is here, and it’s on Patreon now! For the past year, I’ve been working on a way to deliver Early Access stories to you so you can read and support my work before it’s published. Today is the day where it all comes together.

Starting with my brand new novella The Peculiar Case of the Luminous Eye, you can read my upcoming works before anyone else. In fact, the entirety of Peculiar Case is available in early access right now. Read it today!

The Peculiar Case of the Luminous Eye

A distraught client comes knocking in the dead of night seeking Willem, a detective specializing in supernatural anomalies. Her employer, a wealthy recluse with macabre sensibilities, suffers from an otherworldly disease—ghostly blue parasites live in his eye.

Willem set’s to work at what may become the most dangerous case of his career. With the help of Dr. Florence, a gifted surgeon and Willem’s infatuation, they seek to save their client’s life. But things are worse than they feared, and soon it is they who will need to be saved.

If you want to start reading The Peculiar Case of the Luminous Eye, jump on in. Or read on to learn more about my Early Access progra.

What is Early Access?

Early Access is a new feature I’ve put together on Patreon—it’s how you can read my upcoming works before they’re published. They’ve gone through several rounds of editing, including a developmental edit, beta read, and a round of high-tech machine-learning-fueled proofreading.

While Early Access works will have several free to read parts, to gain access to the entire story you’ll need to be a Patron, which you can become for only $1. Great news, that $1 will also earn you my complete library of ebooks! That’s 2 published novels, 3 short stories, and 1 Early Access novella. And if you stick around, there are 2 more novels planned for Early Access in 2019.

Become a patron today.

That’s all from me today, but I have more cool things to announcing in the coming months, so be sure to stop by my blog often to make sure you’re always in the loop.

My Publishing Goals for 2019 — How I plan to get 6,000 dedicated fans

Lately, I’ve been contemplating my goals and the steps I need to take to accomplish them. I’ve been reading lots of books on psychology, success, and becoming a thriving artist. One thing I’ve learned is, if you don’t define your goals, put them out there, and define the steps that will lead you to success, then it likely won’t in the way you imagine happen.

So I’ve once again updated and redefined my goals, and now I’m putting them out into the universe to see what happens. My goals are lofty, but I know they’re achievable if I work deliberately.

In the coming year, I have one major goal and several sub-goals that will help me achieve it. Let’s start with the big one.


What I’m listening to while I write this post:


6,000 dedicated fans

When I say dedicated fans, I mean the people who eagerly await my next release and jump on the opportunity to buy my next book. That’s a high number and will be difficult to accomplish. But it’s also a deliberate number.

I’ve read that an artist with a following of 6,000 fans should generate enough income to survive off their art. While I likely wouldn’t quit my job at this point, it would set me up financially to invest in polishing my writing, marketing, and packaging far more than I can now.

Originally, I was thinking of setting my goal lower. 6,000 dedicated fans is a lot, after all. But I’m taking some of the advice from 10X Rule by James Clear which argues that you should set goals 10 time higher than your initial estimates.

I think that’s a smart plan, so I’m setting my primary goal for 2019 high and taking deliberate actions to accomplish it.

What follows are my sub-goals that will support my primary goal of 6,000 dedicated fans in order of priority.

Regular release schedule

The past two years I’ve been working hard on preparing for regular releases. I have several projects in the works that are starting to see the light of day in one form or another.

To keep this sustainable, I plan on alternating release from full-length novels to short stories or novellas then back again. The end game is to maintain a cadence of releasing something every six months or so.

This will take a lot of work, but I think with the alternating formats, it will be possible. In fact, I’m currently set up to release 3 books in 2019: The Peculiar Case of the Luminous Eye, Grim Curio, and The Gin Thief: Episode 2.

Build a robust creative team

Of course, publishing content is my top priority. You’re not a novelist unless you publish novels. But building a “creative team” is just as important. Art isn’t created in a vacuum, and I don’t intend to be a solitary author who rarely emerges from the shadows.

I want to create a thriving community of like-minded people. People who actively participate in the creation, production, and distribution of art. And before I sound too snobby, I’m really talking about everyday readers like you. 

There are several ways you can participate. To be a part of my creative team, you first need to sign up and make it official. There’s really no commitment, just a desire to read, review, share, or finance my art and in return receive special access and cool rewards.

Fix back catalog issues

I have a few wrinkles I need to iron out in my back catalog. The two big one have to do with Discovering Aberration and The Gin Thief.

Discovering Aberration is held back by an awkward intro and editing issues. I attempted to fix them a few months ago but went overboard on my edits. So starting in about two weeks, I’m going to tackle this problem once and for all! It’s driving me nuts.

Next, I have The Gin Thief: Ep 1 that’s been waiting for a second episode for years. I’m not happy that this has taken so long, but I’ve talked about reasons in the past. Now I’m talking about solutions. It’s time to get a move on, and in the early months of 2019 Episode 2 will be written.

Early Access

Part of my new release strategy is to release Early Access content regularly on Patreon. Patrons help me finance things like editing and cover design. In return, they get ebooks, Early Access content, and more.

The Peculiar Case of the Luminous Eye is the first work to hit Early Access. It’ll have a proper announcement in the next week or two. As long as I keep the quality of my Early Access works high, I think I’ll be able to attract fresh blood.

Offline experiences

Most authors focus their marketing efforts online, and as a result, it’s easy to drown in the noise. Of course I’ll use the web as best I can to get the word out about my work, but I believe offline experiences are more important now than ever.

In 2019 I plan on offering offline experiences whereever I can. These may come in the form of mailers, printed and signed Early Release chapters, etc. I want to create cool things that you can touch and interact with.

1,000 Patrons

My first instinct was to write 100 patrons. Attracting patrons is hard as hell. But I need to aim higher than that and work smarter at it. If 1,000 of you offer your patronage at any level in return for free books, Early Access content, and even surprise gifts, I’ll be able to afford extra polish on my releases.

Next year, I really want to schedule a Sci-Fi / Fantasy convention tour so I can meet you in person. Conventions are where I’ve always been the most successful at selling books and attracting fans, so this would be massive. I don’t know if I can finance this on my own, but with enough patron support, I will definitely be able to.

What’s the end goal?

6,000 dedicated fans is a tall order, but it’s just a step on the road to my lifetime goal. By the time I die, I want to be considered one of the best writers of my generation. I want to be known for pushing genre conventions, embracing literary elements, and having created more than one masterpieces. I want my fiction to affect the world.

That’s lofty, I know. But other people have done it before me. Why not I? It’s always been a dream of mine to labeled among the best storytellers. So every year, I need to take steps toward making that happen.

2018 was all about improving my writing. 2019 will be about spreading the word. And 2020? Who knows. All I know is the struggle will continue, and every year I’m getting one step closer.