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.