So what is a beta reader, and, perhaps more importantly, how can you be an alpha beta reader?
A beta reader is a reader who reads an early draft of an unpublished book, representing the feedback of an average reader. A beta reader will read the manuscript and then express their views both generally and on specific questions or issues which particularly concern the author. There are a few misapprehensions about what a beta reader is though....
A beta reader is not an editor nor a proofreader. The author may request other individuals s/he has chosen for those tasks, but it is not part of the job of a beta reader. I have lost count of the number of people who have volunteered to be a beta reader telling me that they are very good at editing or spotting rogue commas... A beta reader is not there to get a sneak preview of a new book for free; the finished book is often considerably different from the version they first read. A beta reader is not there as a wholehearted cheerleader of the story, expressing constant platitudes about it being *nice* or *good* but without addressing the specific issues which the author wants you to address, nor as someone who fancies themselves as an acerbic literary critic - nasty comments aren't useful or helpful!
So that's what a beta reader is not. What qualities do you need to have to be a great beta reader?
Your author will need you to be able to commit to finishing reading the manuscript within a given, reasonable time frame. You will also need to be happy to commit to answering specific questions about the manuscript; it's not enough to read the manuscript and then say vaguely that you liked it! Your author would prefer you to be someone with experience of reading and enjoying the genre they write in. If you normally admire slow, cerebral spy novels then a paranormal vampire romance may not be your thing and your reactions as a "normal reader" will not ring true ( although you may discover a new genre you love!) As a beta reader, you need to carry a good sense of story line and character in your mind so you can pick up anomalies in the story - perhaps a character has been described in different ways, or has mentioned two things which are in opposition to each other. A beta reader can answer the author's questions both precisely and concisely. As a beta reader, you are in a unique and privileged position; you have the opportunity to influence and to enhance the author's story. Equally, your author may choose not to address your concerns or issues and you need to understand that this is the author's story, not yours!
Authors will vary in how many beta readers they choose to recruit; some only have two or three, others. like myself, will have a dozen or so. My beta readers were readers of all ages, genders, varied cultural heritages and varied exposure to the genre in which I write. Some I had known for many years, some for only a short while. I am immensely grateful for them and for the service they freely gave me and I am especially grateful for those who became alpha beta readers; those who stuck with me even after their role was finished, supporting me and asking me questions about how it was going, telling me they were eager to read the finished book and then being among the first to commit to getting a copy of the finished novel when it was published and for sale and who continue to support me to this day. My alpha beta readers answered all the questions I had for them, they spotted anomalies in the script and they had probing and pertinent questions for me as the author, and they sent me hundreds of questions and points of note to collate and work through.
I hope that if you see a call for beta readers somewhere, you will know better after reading this article whether it is the right job for you, and to be honest with the author if you don't feel you can fulfill their requirements. And to those who do volunteer for this job, heartfelt thanks from we authors; you make our job both easier and more difficult and for that we are grateful!