While some people are better at editing than others, people who can get a flawless edit without any help are about as common as unicorns. It’s been said many times, but when you read something you’ve written, especially shortly after writing it, you’re more likely to read what you meant to write than what’s actually on the page. Add to that the fact that you, by definition, know the entire story and you’re in danger of leaving out important facts and clues that could leave your readers confused. Thus, even if you think you story is structurally perfect, you could use a few spare sets of eyeballs.
Paper. I haven’t tried this one, but it was recently suggested to me that having a printing place like Kinkos (do they still exist?) print up a dozen or so spiral-bound copies of your first draft. For the security conscious, this makes piracy a little more difficult—but if you’re worried about piracy from one of your beta readers, you should probably pick your beta readers more carefully. It also allows the less tech savvy to read and take notes on your stuff. The person who suggested this idea to me, Mark Coker of Smashwords, even suggested putting little questionnaires after key chapters to see what people think. Interesting.
In the most basic form, you can just print or email the original manuscript. This is simple, but limits the ways people can interact with hit. Thus, the time has come for me to mention one of the workhorses of my self-publishing toolchain, Calibre. Officially, Calibre is for organizing and cataloguing your ebooks. Think of it as sort of an offline version of the backend that keeps your Kindle fed from Amazon. However, to ensure that it can take the books you own and make them work with any of your devices, it includes one of the most robust ebook conversion tools I’ve ever seen. It is free, it takes many formats for conversion, and it spits things out in just about any format you can imagine.
The first thing you’ll need for a beta reading round is beta readers. There are loads of ways to find them, and I’d recommend you do your best to find at least one person of each sort to get the best range of perspectives on your book. I’m of the opinion the more readers the better, as good advice is indispensable. More importantly, schedules can fill up in a hurry, and having a lot of names to call on increases the chances that someone will be able to help you out.
So where do you find folks? Family is one good one, though not the best. Family is quite likely to be more mindful of your feelings than the quality of the story. It may hurt to have someone point out a plot element that doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense, or that your prose could use some polishing up, but these are things you need to know. So, don’t avoid family for beta readers, but don’t rely upon them exclusively. Presumably you know where to find your family though, so tracking them down is easy.
Friends have all the same strengths and weakness as family, though possibly they’re less likely to sugar coat things. Friends of friends and family of friends are a few steps closer to being strangers, and thus are still more likely to be punishingly honest.
If you’re already an author, fellow authors are very good to have as beta readers. They’re much more likely to have an opinion about the finer elements of storytelling. They might be more unforgiving, but they are also likely to have opinions that are flavored by their own voice. Something that wouldn’t make sense in one of their books would make perfect sense for you and for your audience. Authors congregate in places like KBoards, and there are plenty of writing groups in places like reddit or Facebook, so look around and find a good match.
Fans. If you’re really lucky, you might already have fans. They’re handy to have as beta readers because they are intimately familiar with your voice and your writing, and moreover they have very good insight into the desires and expectations of your specific audience, since they are your specific audience. I would suggest picking fans who have been vocal, who have shared their thoughts in depth, and maybe who have caught typos for you in the past. They might have the same problem as your family, though, in that they might not want to give you bad news.
Once you have your beta readers, you’ll need a way to organize them. For the longest time, I simply talked to them via individual emails, using a custom contact list to keep track. More recently, my fellow author Lindsay Buroker suggested a secret Facebook group, which has proved quite effective at allowing not only the distribution of files, but the fostering of conversation.
When you’ve got all the people you need, and you’ve got a way to keep in touch with them, you’ve got to get the files to them. I’ll go into the fancier details in later steps, but here’s where Calibre comes in. I like to save my story as a docx (it is an option as export from Scrivener, and a standard export format for most word processors). I drag and drop it into Calibre, then select it and hit “Convert Books.” ePub and Mobi will cover 99.9999% of all ebook readers, and will be readable on most phones via the appropriate apps. Some prefer PDFs for reading on the PC, so you can choose that as an export, but in my experience that format is better off exported directly from the original word processor. You can add them all to the secret group, email them, or upload them to a service like Bookfunnel, which not only provides a single link, but provides instructions for readers who might not know how to load up the ebooks themselves.
Now your readers can get your books. All you need to do is let them know when you need the feedback by (if you have a deadline) and give them any sort of guidance regarding concerns or things they should focus on. At this stage, if you’re planning a professional edit later (and you really should) then you should let people know that typos aren’t a concern at this point as they’ll get swept up in the edit.
And there you have it, you’ve started your beta round. My last bit of advice on this is to treat your beta readers right. These people are the last line of defense between you and yourself. Without them, you might put out a book that only makes sense to you. Don’t argue with them unless you’re friendly enough and familiar enough with each other to do so without hurt feelings. And don’t forget to show your gratitude. I offer sneak peeks, free swag, etc. Wine and chocolate are standard bribes as well, and for authors, offering to beta read in return is customary.