Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

Matt asks about beta readers

Another question from a reader who thinks I know what the hell I’m talking about. Please, everyone, don’t spoil the fun. I dig these posts. It’s like writing fiction, but with less research!

Dear Hugh,

How do I find beta readers on the internet who I can trust to not upload my mobi/epub to a pirate site? Any suggestions for finding IRL beta readers, besides the obvious ploy of roping in family, friends and coworkers?

-Matt

Great question, Matt! Beta readers are like a writer’s best friend. They’re like a writer’s best friend when you need a sofa moved. Or a loan. Or when you’re a leper and you really just want a shoulder to cry on. They’re like those best friends.

Before I tell you how impossible it is to find them, allow me to allay your concerns regarding your work being stolen and posted for free somewhere. Here’s what you need to do to protect yourself: Go ahead and post your work on a website of your own. For free. And pray someone reads it.

I didn’t show up on piracy sites until WOOL was a bestseller. I threw digital copies of my Molly Fyde series everywhere. I sent them to potential reviewers, friends, family, complete strangers, just hoping someone would read the entire thing and want the next one. Getting started in this industry requires giving your work away for a good period of time. As indies, we should be pricing our stories where people would feel guilty for stealing them if they enjoy them. We should be thankful for anyone who invests time in reading what we’ve written. That’s my attitude, anyway. I felt giddy when I saw that my works were being pirated. It meant I had arrived.

With that out of the way (and with 90% of you having browsed away from my blog in disgust), on to the challenge of finding betas. In the beginning, you might have to exchange services. Writing groups are great for this. You take turns having your work critiqued, even though you never have time to go through an entire novel. Members, however, will often read in exchange for being read. Being someone else’s beta will make you a better writer, guaranteed. So look for opportunities to swap rough drafts with other writers. Start threads in writing forums like KB. You’ll get takers.

Try bribery. Offer signed copies of physical editions in exchange for a beta read. Let them know they’ll be thanked in the acknowledgments. Another thing to try is to post the first dozen chapters or so on a blog and point everyone to the free sample. If you don’t have people begging for the rest, you need to reexamine what you’ve written. If you do have people wanting more, see if they’ll help you clean up your draft. Again, don’t be scared to give your work away. Neil Gaiman, even after becoming a household hame, experimented with giving his book AMERICAN GODS away online. The entire book! Guess what happened? Sales for both the digital and print books exploded. We, as authors, want to be read. Make it as easy as possible for this to happen.

It bears mentioning that once you have some sort of established readership, getting betas for subsequent works is much easier. Contact people who have reviewed your work or emailed you as a fan. See if they’d be interested in a sneak peek at the next book in exchange for any typos or plot holes they can catch. Save this list for future works. And take what your betas say to heart. Believe the negative comments and discount the positive ones. You’ll be seeing the same feedback in your eventual reviews, I promise. Only louder. With all-caps sometimes. And bad grammar.

22 replies to “Matt asks about beta readers”

It’s very interesting to read your responses to those in need for advice. I also think it’s very kind of you to do so.

You have received an overabundance of praise from you readers. I believe it is quite impressive that other writers share the same feelings and come to you for assistance. We both apparently have much respect you Mr. Howey and that is something to be very proud of.

It’s very interesting to read your responses to those in need for advice. I also think it’s very kind of you to do so.

You have received an overabundance of praise from your readers. I believe it is quite impressive that other writers share the same feelings and come to you for assistance. We both apparently have much respect you Mr. Howey and that is something to be very proud of.

If I am not able to really exchange or critique somebody else’s work as they do mine, is it okay to just have your beta readers be friends and family or post the book to figment or something? Anyway, this is not what I am planning to do with just having a few beta readers, but I just want to know if it is safe to do the other way…

I agree. You have to make friends and family understand that they’re not crushing your dreams by giving constructive criticism on what works and what doesn’t – they’re actually helping you out.

Unfortunately, since your friends and family want you to be happy, too many will tell you your work is awesome, even if it’s crap. They have to get past that if they’re to be effective beta readers.

So many times I’ve read or heard that family make the worst beta readers because they’re too biased. I actually love using family for beta readers for the reason you point out. You can coach them toward exactly what you need in a read. For example my husband, who is an excellent writer, knows that I don’t need him to copy edit. I need to know where the holes in my story are and where I need to add more description. He’s great at that.

And in my experience, other writers that I don’t know as well want to point out every misplaced or missing comma and bad sentence structure before I’m ready for that type of edit.

And unfortunately, I think the hardest part of beta readers is reciprocating, when you simply don’t have time to do so. If you have time, it will make you better, but gotta find that balance, I think.

Thanks, Hugh. I’ve really enjoyed looking through your posts.

Or you could hit up other writers and see if they have any spare beta readers hanging around. I’d nose around the forums here.

A good beta reader is worth his or her weight in gold. You’ve got to find someone who knows what you’re trying to say and how to provide feedback that will make your work better. Some don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, so they’ll go soft. Some are petty, so they’ll just say, “That sucked,” without telling you why.

Of course, finding a good beta reader entails being a good one yourself. ;-)

I was just wondering… Do you have to pay for a beta reader or could it be as easy as just exchanging stories or even promise a signed copy when the book hits publication? And how long does it usually take for a beta reader to receive, read, and edit the book?

I’ve never heard of paying a beta reader. It’s usually an exchange or just because they enjoy reading and finding room for improvement. The speed with which they do it depends partly on them and partly on how awesome your story is! ;)

Having filled the roles of editor, beta reader, and adviser to betas, I’d say that authors should at the very least mention each beta reader by name in the acknowledgments (with additional commentary on any particular beta’s contributions if that person really blows you away).

If you establish an ongoing relationship with strong and reliable betas, signed copies of each of your books on which they’ve worked would totally be appropriate (and welcome).

Timeline varies by beta reader (consider differing work/family/social responsibilities and speed at which the beta reads)–feel free to ask up front. Another option is to indicate that you’d like feedback by X date and that you’d appreciate ANY feedback they can provide by then.

Goodreads is the ultimate place to find beta readers, without question. I found several very nice bloggers and reviewers on there as well. It’s important for any author to be actively involved on that site.

There’s also Wattpad. It’s like a beta reader shark tank. Throw your story in there and it’s like throwing chum in the water. While the readership of the site is a majority of younger people, there are many that are ruthless in their reviews. If you do participate in the review for review path, be prepared for some strange *poop*. There’s enough One Direction fan-fic over there to make a completely new web site.

I also would like to know how to become a beta reader? I will never have the creativity or skill to write a novel worth reading but the idea of helping in the process would be thrilling. To know that you got to read a book and love it first! There must be a strange sense of pride that comes with it, if the book becomes popular. Oh yeah I read that before it was published, and got to give the author my honest opinion. SIGN ME UP!! I would think that there would be lots of willing beta readers.

There actually are many willing beta readers, but as with anything else, it helps to have some context in which to connect authors and betas. We actually have set up a subforum in Hugh’s forum with the sole intention of connecting willing betas to authors–I guess the unique thing is that a forum admin serves as mediator between the author and betas so that the betas don’t know whose work they’re receiving.

As of right now, we have more betas than authors! Regardless, please feel free to come over and join up!

Hugh and those who’ve commented have hit on some great points. The main one, though, is don’t be afraid to give your book away. Seriously. The more who read it, the more who’ll become aware of it. The more who become aware of it, the more who might talk about it. And the more who talk about it, the more attention your book gets which could lead to more readers which could lead, eventually, to sales.

When it comes to beta readers, I stumbled across a still viable site — authonomy.com — and found myself, at first, in beta reader heaven.

Once I learned to ignore the whole Make the Top 10 List and Get Reviewed by HarperCollins! angle — a colossal waste of time, by the way –, I got so much support, so much encouragement, and bitch slapped so many, many, many times. And rightly so. My book “Martuk … The Holy” would not be half of what it is today had it not been for the sometimes blistering feedback I got and, as Hugh mentioned, had I not read other’s work in return.

You see, in reading the work of other writers who are on the same path as you, you recognize what works and what doesn’t … and then slowly realize you’re more than likely doing the same thing.

Hello, most necessary rewrite.

So, if I were to echo everyone else, don’t be afraid to give your book away to as many people as you can and do become active in forums where work is critiqued and you get a chance to critique.

Oh, and Hugh could not be more right when he suggests ignoring the good and listening very carefully to the bad. The bad may not always be “right”, but it’ll show you where work still needs to be done.

Jonathan

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