An Experimental Psychologist's Take on Beta Reading Part II: Recruiting Betas and Getting Them To Read

This is part two of the series An Experimental Psychologist’s Take on Beta Reading. Read Part I (Subject Pools) here.  Again, I'm not claiming that these methods are the best for everyone, but hopefully everyone can find some useful tidbits.

Way back in the day, there was very little oversight for experiments involving human subjects. That era gave us classic studies like the Milgram Shock Experiments and the Stanford Prison Study. These studies revealed new insights about human nature but left many participants emotionally traumatized.

In these more enlightened times, human subject research is closely regulated to ensure that participants are treated fairly and ethically. One of the most important concepts involving human research is that of informed consent. In every study, we make sure the participant understands the risks and benefits involved in the experiment, and we emphasize that the participant may stop the experiment at any time.

Informed consent is extremely important for ethical research, but on a day to day level, it creates a bit of a balancing act for experimenters. We don't want participants to feel forced into something that makes them uncomfortable. But if we word things the wrong way, we sometimes give the false impression that our experiment is just a side thing that they can to join or drop at their convenience. There’s nothing quite like waiting around at lab, 8pm on a weeknight, having booked the scanner for a nonrefundable $1000 slot, and hearing that your test subject won’t be showing up because he decided to go drinking with his buddies.

Recruiting beta readers reminded me of this tightrope walk. On one hand, people have lives and are doing you a favor by reading your novel. On the other, many manuscripts die a lonely death in the depths of a beta reader's email inbox. So how do we maintain a balance between respecting our beta readers’ time and getting feedback in a timely manner?

Below are some of my thoughts – drawn less from any deep theoretical insight and more from the practicalities of relying on strangers for the data that shapes my scientific career. Perhaps others in people-oriented industries can also chime in.

1. Expect Participant Dropout and Plan Accordingly.
No experiment has a 100% completion rate. People have lives, and things come up. Keep this in mind when you’re deciding how many betas to recruit. (One of my beta readers gave birth a week after receiving my manuscript. Amazingly, she managed to get me feedback!  She wins the most dedicated reader award.)

2. Make Sure Your Betas Know What’s Involved Before They Agree to Help You.
It’s always best to make sure everybody’s on the same page. When I recruited my beta readers, I sent out an email with the following: 1) a blurb for my story, 2) what I was asking, and 3) the proposed timeline. This allowed prospective betas to think about their schedule and decide realistically if this was something they wanted to do.

3. Make the Initial Commitment Small
Slogging through a full length manuscript can be painful if you’re not connecting with the story.  Because of this, I didn’t feel comfortable asking my beta readers to commit to reading the entire thing. Instead, I asked for a smaller commitment -- they simply had to finish the first chapter. If the combined pull of the story’s plot and the readers' sense of social obligation was not enough to make them keep reading, that would be feedback in and of itself.

4. Set a Clear Timetable
 The biggest hurdle is getting people to start. My intuition is that things move more smoothly once people actually begin. Since my first chapter was only five pages, I felt comfortable asking my betas to read it within the first week. I also let them know I’d be checking back in a month regardless of whether they had finished the manuscript. If they didn’t finish, they could simply tell me where they stopped.

5. Provide the Story in a Convenient Format.
This is huge. You want to make reading your manuscript as easy as reading an actual book. For this reason, emailed word documents may not be the best choice. I gave my betas a choice of 1) electronic word document, 2) ereader file, or 3) printed and mailed hardcopy. I used Calibre to make ereader files. For hard copies, I looked into binding options but ended up just printing double sided, single spaced, and stapling the manuscript in packets of 20 pages.

6. Send Periodic Reminders
 I ended up sending 2 reminder emails: the first at the one week mark, and the second a week before the deadline. I tried to make my emails less obnoxious by including anecdotes and stories, but I’m not actually sure if I fooled anyone.

And that’s all for this week. Next week, we’ll talk about extracting useful feedback. And now, dear readers, it’s your turn. What are your beta methods?

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  1. Livia, these are great tips. I'm just about to start recruiting betas and I'll definitely use these, especially the one about the initial commitment.

  2. I just want to say I am REALLY enjoying this series! Can't wait for the follow-up!

  3. I will definitely use these in my beta reader process (when I get there). The only thing I'm worried about is the initial commitment. I guess the first chapter should get people to read the rest, but I'm pretty sure my current beta readers will just follow the instructions as I gave them and never read the rest.
    Is this an indication that I need a new subject pool (or at least an enhanced one)?

  4. Jenna and jbchicoine -- Thank you!

    Jake -- Sounds like you might need to find readers closer to your target audience.

  5. I especially like point no.3. Good suggestions I didn't even think of. Thanks!

  6. Fantastic suggestions. I'll be following this series with interest as I'll be seeking beta readers for the first time in a few months.

    One thing I'm interested to know is what kind of timeframe is appropriate/realistic to ask beta readers to respond. Of course I'd like responses back instantaneously but understand I'll need to be a little more patient than that!

    If you could offer some insight into how long you've given people to get comments on your entire manuscript back, I'd really appreciate it. :-)

  7. This is a great article! What I have been doing for my beta program seems to be working. I have been writing the book in Google Documents. The reason why I beleive it is going so well is that there is a chat function built in to the Document. It has allowed my readers to give me feedback live and watch as I write. It also provides them a way to get to know me on a personal level and joke about some of the things they have caught in the Document. They seem to enjoy those things about it. Love the blog!

  8. This is a great article, especially as I'm getting ready to send a novel off to beta readers.

    One thing that worked for me regarding format is take it to Staples or Office Depot and have them print it two-up and double-sided (so you get four novel pages on one sheet of paper) and then bind it with a plastic spiral. I think when I did this it cost about $7 per manuscript, though, so it's an expensive option if you have a large group of betas.

    Which I'm curious about. How many beta-readers do you use?

  9. letterbowl - thanks!

    Cally - I didn't ask for detailed feedback, just big picture feedback, so I usually got responses within a day or two of people finishing. My experience is that if people waited longer to respond to my questions, they would usually never get around to responding.

    jack - you've piqued my interest. So do people just hang out while you're writing? Are these your friends? When you usually write? Is a novel, or a short story?

    Steph -- I started out shooting for 10 beta readers, but ended up was 16 for various reasons :-)

  10. In my defense, I only ditched your experiment for drinking that one time....


    (I like this series, incidentally, m'dear. I'm enjoying catching up on it now.)

  11. Thanks for the great series on test-readers, I'm going to try some of your pointers on my next round!

    I don't know if I can post a link here in the comments, but on my blog I wrote a summary of how my first test-reader experience went, from heartbreak to triumph:

  12. There is some relevancy here to my own experimental psychology thesis study, which is an online reading study. I'm having a hard time achieving the 300 participants I need to complete it, and I would even be satisfied with 100 participants in order to make a valid statistical analysis. I guess what's swimming around in my head is to create a general population subject pool. One can find these within many universities, but I don't know if there is a non-university subject pool for people who want subjects, participants, or "betas" for online surveys and studies.