Betty, your office coworker, and in her words an avid reader, has just found out your manuscript is done. She begs you to let her read it. She loves (insert your genre here) and has just finished reading (insert big name author's book title in your genre - if fantasy insert Game of Thrones). Bells go off in your head. You've been hoping to find a beta reader. This happenstance is pure luck! Or is it?
A quick aside... we're talking about a beta reader, not an ARC (Advance Release Copy). Beta readers read the manuscript before you send it to your editor. ARC readers read the finished book. There's a big difference!
Now, I'm assuming you're completely ready to have a beta reader read your story. You have completed it. You have done HOURS of self-editing. You have used a program like Natural Readers (https://www.naturalreaders.com/index.html) to read the entire story to yourself aloud. You consider this draft is the best you can personally make it. Are you still nodding your head yes? Good. Then let's talk about what makes a good beta reader.
First, your prospective beta reader needs to read, and by read, I mean a lot.
Let's throw out the number 36 for how many books a year they've read. That's only 3 books a month. My thought process in giving you this number is that you want your beta reader to finish your book in a timely manner. If your beta reader only reads 3 books a year, what are the odds he/she is going to finish your story within your timeline? Second, you need to provide a due date for reading the story and returning comments. Your beta reader must be willing to read your story and return comments within a specific amount of time. I personally ask my beta readers to read my manuscript within one week for my children's books and within 4 weeks for my adult fiction. I have goals on the number of books I want to publish in a year. So while one manuscript is being beta read, I'm writing the next one. Yet, I can't let one project hang out there too long or my timetable for publishing and marketing gets wonky.
You might have only this one story written, so you might feel you can be more generous with your timetable. But I'd remind you, you might have a lot of rewriting based on your beta's feedback. So, you want to get the manuscript back with comments returned within a reasonable amount of time. Third, you want to instruct your beta reader on the what you're looking for and the type of comments you need. Every author wants the reader to love the story. But I ask my beta reader to look for continuity issues, plausibility issues (i.e. does the story ask you to ignore known scientific facts, does the reader have to accept conditions without explanation, etc.). Remember your beta reader is NOT meant to catch spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes. YEA, if they do, but that's what your editor is for!
A beta reader who reads the whole manuscript and then tells you they loved it, but can't give any solid comments on why is CRAP! That's as if your mother read it and returned it with a gold star pasted on the upper right-hand corner just because she loves you. You need honest feedback.
Example: "I loved Ben. He was so easy to love. But I can't believe he put up with Sue for so long. It just didn't seem right. And when they were having dinner in the restaurant, I felt it got laborious with all the food descriptions."
What do you get from this? Maybe you need a bit more backstory on Ben so the reader understands why he puts up with Sue. And cut back on the food descriptions to move the story faster in the restaurant scene. See how these comments help you pinpoint places in the manuscript you need to reread and maybe rework?
Now, just because one beta reader offers comments like the above doesn't mean you necessarily need a rewrite. But, if you get the same comments from multiple beta readers, it's a safe bet you have some reworking to do. And this brings us to point number four. Have multiple beta readers. I think the last sentence says it all. A bad comment from one beta reader is understandable. The same bad comment from multiple beta readers means you have an issue with your story. Without reworking your story, you're setting yourself up for one star reviews. Five, your beta reader must read in your genre and should be part of your target audience. Can you imagine asking someone to read your horror story who doesn't read that genre? "My word dearie, there's so much blood!" These types of comments won't help you polish up your manuscript. They'll just be distracting and maybe dredge up some self-doubt you buried when you started writing this story.
Recently, I put a call out for beta readers for my newest children's book, Where Bear? An author friend of mine offered to read the manuscript with his six-year-old—the perfect target audience for this book. My adult beta readers gave me a few suggestions. But, my friend's son found the big glaring mistake. I wrote "tiger" in my story, but the illustration was of a lion. I can only imagine how many discussions that mistake would have caused at bedtime. But, yea for me. I included children as part of my beta reader group and avoided what would have been an Amazon rating and comment nightmare.
So, find avid readers that reads your genre... are your target audience... are willing to read and return comments within your timetable... hand them your manuscript and tell what feedback you're looking for... and wait.
And finally, I'm going to remind you that good beta readers are worth their weight in gold. They are going out of their way to help you in your success. So reward them... and a signed copy of your book is NOT enough. A Starbucks gift card, a gift card to your independent book store, flowers, or a drink would be nice. Just do something for each one of them!
For me, I like to take my beta readers out as a group for drinks and appetizers. Yes, it's going to cost me a little money, but I have found when I get my group together they feed off each other's energy and I wind up with great feedback and suggestions. Plus, I really like these people and I want them to volunteer to read every book I write. I have no fear you'll figure out your own way to thank your beta readers.
Keep writing. And I wish you all the best success!
P.S. Do you need help with what questions to ask your beta readers? Try starting with this list.
Did your mind ever wander?
Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning?
Were there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?
Was there anything that confused, frustrated, or annoyed you?
Is there anything you are still wondering about?
Could you visualize when and where the story was taking place? Did this interest you?
Were there holes in the story?
Were there any inconsistencies you noticed?
Were there too many characters to keep track of or where any names too similar?
Was there any dialogue, interactions, or situations that made you cringe or you felt were too cliché?
Was the story believable?
Were there any side characters you are curious to know more about?