A beta reader is someone who reads your manuscript at some point in the draft stage and gives you feedback. When I ask someone to beta read, I'm looking for gut-level reactions from a "regular" reader--someone who isn't an editor, author, or in publishing--to the story, characters, style, and general entertainment value of the book
I'm just barely getting started in writing and publishing, so I'm definitely no expert on any of this, but I had a beta who gave me really helpful feedback on The Pyxis, which got me thinking about what made that person a good reader capable of giving the type of feedback I was looking for. Here's what I came up with.
My betas need to be:
1. Capable of giving blunt feedback.
Not just someone who's "honest," but someone who's outright blunt. This is the person who'll look at your banana-yellow sweater and come right out and say, "You can't wear THAT. That color is awful on you!" If I can use words like "nice" and "sweet" to describe a person, odds are that person is not a good fit to beta read for me. It's just a waste of my time and theirs if a beta is afraid to be straightforward.
2. Well-read, and possibly book clubbers.
My ideal beta is someone who reads a lot, and in a variety of genres including (duh) the genre of my manuscript. (Some writers say a beta needs to be in the target audience, which to me implies a certain demographic. I don't care as much about demographic as I do about the beta being familiar with my genre. A subtle distinction, maybe, but to me they're different.) My superstar beta made me realize that long-time book clubbers are great candidates for beta reading. They're accustomed to reading analytically, rather than mindlessly for entertainment, because they know they're going to have to hold up their end of discussion at book club. Good book clubbers make notes as they read, which is exactly what I want a beta to do.
An unexpected side benefit with my superstar beta was that her club had read a lot of debut novels. She explained that she and her club had a sort of running list of common mistakes first-time authors seem to make more often than experienced authors. They included things like plots that wander too much, failure to satisfactorily tie things up in the main story and subplots, and ending the book at a point in the story that doesn't feel quite right. This was an invaluable perspective for me, and not something I would have thought to look for in a reader. (She said my manuscript didn't commit anything on her list of debut author missteps. Yay!)
3. Able to capture top-of-mind reactions.
I think this is another thing that book clubbers tend to do well. They're tuned in to their reactions, in the moment, when they're reading. I want a beta who will make a note when she laughs, feels confused, has a moment of frustration or anticipation--all those little reactions that more casual readers breeze past.
A Rule I DON'T Follow:
One of the most common pieces of advice on this topic is to NOT use friends or family as betas. My superstar beta? She's my sister. I think if the person is the type of reader you want, capable of giving you the type of feedback you need, other "rules" don't matter much.
Great blog post on beta reading by Evelyn Lafont: How Beta Readers Can Improve Your Book
Know of other good blog posts on this topic? Put links in comments, and I'll add them.