Working with Beta Readers: Sharing & Protecting your Work, Reviewing Feedback and more

This post is part of First Time Author, a series of blog posts in which I share my journey going from having an idea for a book to (traditionally) published book. Learn more here.

In my last blog post, I wrote about how I found beta readers for my book. In this second post on beta readers, I will focus on the details of working with them. 

How I shared my work

Some of my beta readers live nearby and preferred hardcopies, so I provided those for them by printing and binding the book via a local print and copy shop. Others were happy with electronic versions. With those beta readers, I generally shared the MS Word file. This worked well enough, but if I had to do it again, I would probably share a Google Doc instead. With Google Docs, I would be able to see the progress they are making, and I could respond to comments right away. This would make it a much more collaborative process. Something you might want to consider if you're about to start engaging beta readers.  

But as it was, I would usually get back the Word document with tracked changes and comments. Those who had hard copies made comments and notes in them and then gave that back to me or sent me emails with their feedback if it was more top-level and general.

Briefing beta readers

I didn't give my beta readers very specific instructions on what kind of feedback I was looking for. I wanted them to experience the book in the same way any other reader would. However, I did find that it helped to give them some general guidance. For example, by pointing out sections I'm a bit unsure about, or specific questions around the order and structure. That way, I got more specific feedback and answers to questions I had in my head. But for the most part, the brief was "read this and tell me what you think."  

However, I also have to say that if I had gone down the self-publishing route (which I was considering – I'll write about that in a few weeks) and wouldn't have the luxury of a professional editor as I do now, I probably would have tried to get another 2-3 beta readers for another round of feedback before publishing. At that stage, I would have given them a much more detailed brief to really finetune the most critical parts of the book. 

But I think it is important to remember that Beta Readers are not editors – especially if they do it for free and as a favour. I don't think it fair to ask beta readers for much more than their overall feedback. If you want specific and in-depth feedback or help refining particular sections of your book, it's probably better to look and pay for a professional editor.

Taking feedback on board – or not

This was probably the hardest part of working with beta readers. Most of the time, you get fantastic feedback from them. But what if you don't agree? Or what if two beta readers give conflicting feedback?  

Most of the feedback I received fit into one of three categories:

  1. Spelling & Grammar: This is an easy one when it comes to input as there generally is a definite right way. So if in doubt, I would just look it up online.

  2. General content and structure feedback (e.g. "This is unclear" or "This doesn't quite flow"): I still found it quite easy to work with this kind of feedback because for me, even one person thinking this, means I need to change something. And since the feedback didn't include any specific suggestions, I am free to change it in a way that works for me and fits within the rest of the book

  3. Specific recommendations (e.g. "I think you should add xyz here" or someone rewriting sentences): This was the hardest feedback to work with. I really wanted to give my beta readers the respect they deserve, but I also wanted to make sure I stay true to myself and the book. I also have to admit, I can be a bit stubborn at times and generally don’t do very well with being told what to do ;) 

But being aware of this helped a lot, and I came up with a pretty simple process for myself.  I took an 'if in doubt, the beta reader is right' approach. In other words, unless I was able to give a very clear and specific reason to reject a suggestion, I would go with what the beta reader suggested. That way, I was open-minded, but I also made sure I stayed on course. For example, one of my beta readers made a couple of suggestions to add religious perspectives in a few places. While that might have been a really good idea as such, I decided not to do it because I am not a religious person, because I didn't feel like I knew enough about it to write confidently and because I didn't feel like it would fit with the overall tone of the book. But it was only when I had specific reasons like that, that I would allow myself to reject suggestions. 

How did I protect my work?

Short answer: I didn't. And I don't think you can. Yes, you could make someone sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) or another type of contract, but that's only going to go so far. If someone wants to steal your idea, they still can. I have a record of all communication with my beta readers so I can prove that I shared my work with them. As a result, in the extremely unlikely event that one of them suddenly publishes something very similar to my book, I can show that I had the idea first and that they got it from me.  

Having said that, this is one of the reasons why I didn’t just accept any offer from beta readers that I got. I wanted to have at least a little bit of a conversation with them, learn a bit about them, check out their Facebook profile, website or other information and just get a bit of a feeling for the person.  I wanted to feel like I can trust them before sharing my work.  

One of my advantages in regards to protecting my work, is that my book is inspired by my own journey and I'm pretty sure that is one of the reasons why the publisher was interested in it. Someone else might have been able to copy my book,  but they can't replicate my experience. Therefore, I think they would have struggled to sell the book in an authentic way to publishers and later to readers.

Hoever, regardless of whether you have a level of protection like that or not, at the end of the day, if you want your work to be seen and read, you have to put it out there.  I think there are two simple things all writers can do to protect their work at least to some extent:

  1. Build a bit of a relationship with beta readers before sharing your work

  2. Make sure you have a record of communications that clearly shows you are the one who shared the work with them (and hence that you had the idea before they did).

What if beta readers never get back to you after you share your work?

Honestly, I think this is something you simply need to accept. If you ask several people to read your work, chances are some of them say they will and never do. I had that happen with several of my beta readers – friends and new contacts – and while it was, of course, disappointing, I can also understand it. Most of us live very busy lives, and even though we often have the best intentions and really do want to do something, life just gets in the way. My advice would be to plan for this and secure a few extra beta readers to make sure you get enough feedback. And try not to take it overly personally. I don't think it's necessarily a reflection of your book and your relationship with that person but merely a reflection of life being too busy.

If you want guaranteed and timely feedback, you’ll have to pay a professional!  

Alright, that tells you a lot about my experience with beta readers. Overall, the feedback I received from the different beta readers combined, helped me take my book to the next level, so I'm really glad I went through this process and would highly recommend it to other budding writers.

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