Yesterday on twitter, I mentioned that I had just sent a manuscript off to my agent and beta readers. This prompted a flurry of interest in beta reading, with the most common question being some variation on "how do I get to read for you?" with some "what is a beta reader?" mixed in. Since the answers to both are a little more involved that 140 characters, I am answering them here.
The normal disclaimers apply: this is my process, the way it looks right now. This is not the only way to do things. This is not even the only way I've done things.
First, if you asked about reading for me, thank you. I really appreciate it. It was incredibly kind of you. But unless I know you, really really well, I'm going to say no thank you.
Beta readers are the people who see your work when it first wakes up in the morning. It hasn't had its coffee. It has morning breath, and bed head, and may well not be wearing pants. Your betas are the people who you trust as a writer to pick apart all the things about your prose that aren't working, that didn't quite make it all the way on to the page, that maybe are just plain bad, so that you can fix all of those things before sending the work out in the world to find a home.
In other words, your beta readers are people you trust.
What I need in a beta reader is someone that I can trust to tell me when my story is broken, and to give me useful suggestions for fixing it - someone who will put the needs of the story ahead of my writerly ego, and ahead of their readerly desires.
Nearly everything I've published has been beta read. "A Life in Fictions" wasn't because the offer for the story came in before it went to my betas, and "The Speaking Bone" wasn't because I knew it was ready to go out when I had finished my edits of it (and yes, I do at least one round of edits before anyone else sees things.)
I tend to ask writers to beta read for me, because they are people who have spent a great deal of time thinking about the mechanics of story, and that is the place where I'm looking for help. In fact, when it comes to short fiction, unless I have a specific need for an expert in something, the only people I send it to any more are writers. I do send novel-length works to nonwriter friends (civilians? normal people?) because I want responses on the readability of the story, and because most people who would read published novel-length fiction are (I hope) nonwriters.
I tend to send my work to people who are interested in doing the same things in fiction as I am, largely because those people tend to give critiques that are the most useful. I have many talented writer friends that I never ask to read my work because our fictional preoccupations and priorities are so different that having them read my raw work would be unhelpful. I ask people to read for me if I know they will push me to fix things. Like I said before, this part isn't about my ego. I don't want readers who will say, "Oh, that's so amazing. Best thing ever. Will win all the Hugos for sure." I want readers who will say "you started in the wrong place" or "you forgot the b-plot" or "you ended halfway through the story" or "stop hiding and write the things that matter." All of which, incidentally, are things I've been told, and I am grateful for.
I don't have magic number of readers. I tend to give short fiction to fewer people, and want more readers for novel-length fiction. I do have a group that I tend to go back to all the time, though if I know someone is particularly busy, I will refrain from asking them. I do not always take all of their advice, but I always listen and consider all the feedback I've been given. I always say thank you.
If you still have questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments.