It’s better to start by explaining what beta readers are not. They are not your husband, sister, mom or mother-in-law. There is an exception to this, if one of your relatives is a professional editor consider yourself very lucky.
What are beta readers? Wikipedia’s definition.
“n alpha reader or beta reader (also spelled alphareader / betareader, or shortened to alpha / beta), also pre-reader or critiquer, is a non-professional reader who reads a written work, generally fiction, with the intent of looking over the material to find and improve elements such as grammar and spelling, as well as suggestions to improve the story, its characters, or its setting. Beta reading is typically done before the story is released for public consumption. Beta readers are not explicitly proofreaders or editors, but can serve in that context.”
This is a pretty fair description with a few adjectives missing such as impartial and brutally honest. Beta readers are not your friends. They may turn out to be great friends, but initially they are giving you a “no-holds- barred” read of your manuscript. As a betareader, at all cost, keep the thought that you are hurting an author’s feelings under your heel until it stops wiggling. Honesty is imperative at this point in time.
Why do you need them? Sometimes it can be as extreme as saving your literary career, especially in the early days. If you’ve written “War and Peace Revisited”, they may suggest you change the arc a little and dump 200,000 words. If you’re not strong in grammar and sentence structure, find a beta reader who is. Beta readers are not meant to rewrite your story for you, but to make suggestions. They could find loopholes or elements you forgot to answer.
Often an author has a clear picture in their mind of the personality trait of a main character, but it doesn’t translate to paper. It could be as simple as an extra scene highlighting the heroism of your protagonist to make the readers swoon. Simple changes can go a long way to giving your manuscript a chance at going viral.
If another author asks you to beta read for them and they’re already an acquaintance, make sure you both are on the same page before beginning. For example: If you’re already a published author, you’re probably very busy so tell them exactly what you can beta read. It may only be plot with a few notes on sentence structure. You can read for dialogue or characterization. One more point to consider. This being whether or not you will eat the elephant whole or in chunks. In other words, the entire manuscript or beta read chapter by chapter.
Where can you find one? Here’s a good place to start http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=30
Google your sub-genre and use the word “beta reader” to narrow down the search. Most beta readers are also authors. Consider yourself lucky to find an experienced author. Their help is immeasurable.
The Indie and self-publishing world is wickedly competitive. Not in the sense that authors compete against each other, but what sets your original story apart from all the others. Your goal as an author is to have a distinctive voice and spin an imaginative tale gathering fans who will join you on your literary journey. Beta readers will help you hurdle this challenge.
Love, hope & faith