Writing a book: Why I love beta readers

Sep 12, 2017 | Writing A Book

Let’s say that you know your subject cold. Let’s say it’s a subject you’ve been teaching for years. Let’s say you’ve even blogged about it a couple of hundred times.

When you write your book, you’re going to be pretty sure you have it right. Well, you may have it right, but you probably don’t have it as good as it can get. Sending your work out to beta readers can turn your good book into a great book.

The idea of beta readers comes from beta testers in the tech world. The first stage of software development is called alpha, after the first letter in the Greek alphabet. The development team works as hard as they can to make sure that the software is stable and does what it’s supposed to do. They test as many things as they can think of. But software engineers know that they can never think of everything.

That’s why, for years, software developers have taken their products from an alpha stage and moved to a beta stage where they send the program out to real users to see what happens. Sometimes beta testing is called User Acceptance Testing. The idea of beta readers works the same way.

You do the first couple of drafts of your manuscript. You get the big pieces in and you put things in order. You go through and refine the references. You make the book as good as you can get it. Then, you send it out to beta readers. You ask the beta readers for their input. If you pay attention to what they tell you, good things will happen.

Beta Readers Help You Beat the Curse of Knowledge

The curse of knowledge refers to the fact that once we know something, it’s almost impossible for us to imagine what it was like not to know it. If you’re writing a book, that can kill you. You’ll write the book being as clear as you can, but many readers will look puzzled when they read your explanations. Beta readers will do that, too. And they’ll tell you about it so that you’ll be able to fix things before you publish.

Beta Readers Catch Errors

No matter how careful you are, it’s likely that you’ll make errors. It’s what human beings do. It’s easy to attribute a quote to the wrong person or misspell a name or get the year wrong when a certain event occurred. Beta readers will catch that stuff for you.

Beta Readers Bring Their Own Experience to Bear

If you have some knowledgeable experts review your book, you’re liable to get several great suggestions. We’re getting feedback on one of my client’s projects right now, where other industry experts have alerted the author to research he was not aware of and examples that will make his points clearer.

Beta Readers Can Make Substantive Additions

Sometimes a beta reader will suggest the addition of a paragraph or two of explanation, or even the addition of a complete chapter. In some cases, the beta readers won’t necessarily know what’s the right correction, but know exactly what the problem is.

That happened with me when I was writing my e-book, Become A Better Boss One Tip at A Time. When I sent the manuscript out to the first group of beta readers, they noted some problems but really didn’t have a solution. It took two more rounds of revisions and beta reader feedback before I got the book as good as it could be.

Four Kinds of Beta Readers

I’ve identified four different kinds of people who should be beta readers for business books.

There should be beta readers who are like your ideal reader. They can give you feedback on the quality of your explanations by telling you when they’re puzzled. They’re also likely to give you good feedback on what they would like to see in the manuscript that you haven’t added yet. And they’ll tell you what they really liked. You can use that information in promotion.

Some beta readers should be experts. They should know a lot about your topic and your audience. They’ll be able to add interesting insights and research and catch errors that many readers will miss.

If you mention individual people in your book, they should read the sections that pertain to them to find any inaccuracies or suggest things that should be added.

Some people will want to read your book and give you feedback. They usually include friends and loved ones. They may not have specific expertise that will help you, but they can often offer insights no one else can. This is also a way for people who care about you to support you and your book.

Bottom Line

Beta readers can give you the kind of feedback that will turn a good book into a great one. Your book will represent you in the marketplace for a decade or more, so don’t skip the important beta reader step to save a month or two getting to publication.