BetaBooks: A New Tool for Organizing Beta Reading

Written by A Guest Author | October 4, 2017

By Kelli Fitzpatrick

Beta readers are essential to the writing process. They voluntarily read your completed work to give feedback before you submit a manuscript for publication. While these people are awesome, the process of collecting feedback from multiple beta readers and keeping it organized and accessible has long been a hassle for authors, especially when dealing with novel-length projects.

Enter BetaBooks, a new web application specifically designed to help authors collect and manage their beta reader feedback. I found out about this new resource through publishing expert Jane Friedman’s newsletter, Electric Speed (which you should definitely subscribe to–it’s free). I had just gone through a round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge, during which I needed to collect beta feedback fast to meet the 48 hour competition deadline. While I have an amazing set of beta readers who give me great comments, flipping back and forth between the people responding over messenger, email, Google Docs, etc always makes it  hard to keep track of  and to find it when I need (Who was it that said something about the first paragraph and where is that comment?) Needless to say, I was rather interested in this app and immediately signed up for BetaBooks, testing out a short piece of fiction I needed some insight on.

I dare say I will never go back to the old method. It’s that good.

The interface is clean, intuitive, and simple to learn. You invite your pool of readers to the app and then assign them to your “Books” (writing projects), which you upload by chapter. The app allows you to leave notes/instructions for your readers, label comments as they come in (i.e. “consider,” “ignore,” etc.), and you can also view their comments at the end of each chapter or in the Feedback tab capable of filtering by reviewer, comment status, even keyword. Everything stays organized, without getting lost in a message thread or email inbox, and you can mark comments done as you address them.

The people behind the program are just as efficient and helpful as the resource they have created, and I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Burleson, one of the developers, about the specifics of this resource:

[Kelli]: What is BetaBooks and how did it come about?

[Andrew]: BetaBooks is a web application to help authors work with their Beta Readers. Think something like Google Docs meets Survey Monkey, specifically designed for authors.

The app came about because about a year ago I was beta-ing my second book, and the headache of managing everything via email was driving me nuts. I knew there was a better way, and since I’m a software engineer I decided to build it myself. But I’m not great at sticking with things solo, so I roped in my good friend Paul to keep me sane and help with everything!

Once the first version of the software was done I ran my own beta on it, then started inviting other authors to use the app and give me feedback. Thankfully, lots of authors jumped in and with all their feedback we’ve been able to build a pretty good app!

Tell me a little about your own background in writing/publishing/software development.

I’ve been a software engineer for almost ten years now (though it wasn’t my first career). I was always interested in writing, and I remain an enthusiastic hobbyist. I’ve written a few novellas and two novels, and for a while I was working hard in pursuit of publication, but life with BetaBooks has gotten so busy I decided last fall to leave my own writing as a hobby for now and see how much I can help other people with my software.

What features set BetaBooks apart from traditional methods of receiving feedback (i.e. email, Word, etc.)?

There are two huge advantages of BetaBooks:

  1. It gets the chaos out of email. It may seem easy to send someone a file, but once you have a few people reading a few different versions of your manuscript, and you’re trying to track it all in your head or on paper, it gets out of control.

With BetaBooks you always know exactly who you’ve invited to your book, how far they’ve read, all the comments they’ve left, etc.

All the feedback can be marked, filtered, and searched. BetaBooks is essentially a database of your readers and feedback, and that means you can finally see the patterns that you could only imagine before. Want to see every comment that mentions your protagonist? Type in the character’s name–done.

The marking system is also really helpful, you can decide which feedback you want to act on and mark it as to do, giving yourself a little checklist. As you edit, mark the feedback as done. You’ll never lose track of those valuable reader insights again.

What have your users told you they appreciate most about the program?

In addition to users appreciating the big features I described above, we’ve heard two themes that I found really wonderful and a little surprising.

  1. That BetaBooks helps them build a community with their core fans. To me, this was a really unexpected side effect–now that all the basic communication wrangling is made so easy, it becomes easy for authors to reply to comments and really engage with readers. Several have told us this led to much deeper discussions and has really strengthened the relationship the authors feel with their readers.
  2. That authors get a lot more participation from their readers after adopting BetaBooks. One author told me (paraphrasing), “I always invite people from my email list, but the accaptance rate and number who read was much higher when I invited them to BetaBooks compared to sending a file. I think it’s because it felt more professional and more official to them.” A lot of authors have echoed that theme, that their readers really enjoy reading via BetaBooks.

I designed the app to be a great experience for readers, but I didn’t realize all the positive side effects that would have.

What challenges did you face in bringing BetaBooks from concept to launch, and how did you overcome them?

One challenge has been making time to work on this. We’re bootstrapped–which means we’re building BetaBooks the old fashioned way, working nights and weekends with our own money. My wife has had to put up with me putting almost all my free time and a lot of our savings into this thing for a year, and she’s been really supportive, but it’s still been hard.

Another big thing has been getting the word out. Paul and I aren’t really marketers, our plan is mainly to take ridiculously good care of the people on the app and count on them to tell their friends. And to be clear that has worked, but we get a lot more traffic when we can find ways to share with a broader audience (like this interview, I hope!) Over time we’ve learned and gotten a little better at spreading the word ourselves, and word of mouth has started to snowball, so I hope we’re kind of turning the corner there.

The last thing is just explaining what BetaBooks is. We aren’t a reader service. When we have a conversation with someone this is so easy to explain, and authors who have done a couple betas understand the value of having an app to manage it right away–they often get crazy excited, too! At the same time, people don’t really read on the internet, and there are a lot of aspiring writers just starting out, they’re on their first draft and are hungry for feedback, and from their point of view the problem is finding readers, not managing them.

The problem is, building an inner core of people you trust for feedback, and a fan base / audience beyond that, is deeply personal and requires time and effort. It’s a one-time problem, and we don’t believe that an app can replace the human factor there. We’ve tried a lot of things and found the best help we can offer is to encourage aspiring writers and point them to good resources, and of course we hope they’ll be back at BetaBooks when they’re ready.

Is there a minimum subscription length, and is there a way that authors can try it out free?

We have a free trial which is one book and your first three readers, no time limits. After that, authors can upgrade to either our standard or pro plan on a monthly or annual subscription. There aren’t any contracts, so authors can cancel if they don’t wish to continue–though it will make me and Paul cry a little bit inside!

What are your goals or vision for the project’s future?

Our first mission is to provide the best set of tools for gathering reader feedback, and beyond that I hope we can lean into the community building aspect of things and really help authors there. We get really excited when we see the authors who have used BetaBooks to grow and strengthen their audience, and to build relationships with their fans.

Anything else you’d like to share?

You should check out our new podcast, How Authors Work.

BetaBooks officially launched on September 4, 2017. Visit their website for information on signing up, plan options, and (very reasonable) pricing. (Note: BetaBooks is free for readers; only authors need purchase a plan, and there is a free trial option, as Andrew noted above).

BetaBooks fills a long-standing need in the writing community, and I anticipate it becoming a ubiquitous and indispensable tool in the world of authorship in the years to come.