I've never been a writer who can work and put out a book in complete isolation. I applaud those who can rely on their own innate writing talent and ruthless self-editing skill, but I'm too close to my work to see the faults in it.
So, what have I learned about beta reads?
-Choose honest and thorough people who can give you the feedback you need. Hopefully, your betas will point out every flaw before your READERS do. You know, the ones who plunk down their hard-earned money for your finished product and then skewer you over every typo or misspelled word.
-If your content might be disturbing, please warn your beta readers in advance. Don't waste your time or theirs by having someone come back to you with, "I couldn't finish this because you included THIS SCENE." Know your audience.
-Set a deadline and always be prepared for people who can't meet it. Hey, life happens and people's commitments change. It might suck if someone drops out, but it doesn't have to. Have one or two backups who'll step in to help in a pinch.
- Your beta readers should be two subsets: people who are familiar with your writing style and those who are not. Those who are will recognize your voice, as well as your pitfalls and writing crutches. Those who are unfamiliar can bring a refreshing, unique perspective to your outlook.
-Don't hesitate to ask for specific feedback. My betas must have been shocked by what I referred to as the "pop quiz" but there are brutal scenes in Sultana's Legacy. I needed to know if they worked or seemed gratuitous. Come up with 5-10 questions maximum that help your betas focus on key points of the novel. Don't use Yes or No questions.
-Good betas provide constructive criticism and can pinpoint the problems. A bad beta reader will tell you the novel is fine just as it is. That's code for one of two things: "I didn't read one word of your manuscript" OR "I read and didn't understand it but because I didn't want to hurt your feelings, I said to hell with it and will let you put out an awful book." If you're my beta and a friend, you'll tell me the full truth, including where I'm screwing up.
-Don't rely on beta readers to be the last word on your book. Whether you're editing before or after the beta read, your eyes should be the last set to review the manuscript. Even the most thorough beta may miss something as easily as you do. Also, the opinions will vary and applying all the edits may create contradictions in your story line. Read it in full AGAIN before you hit Publish.
Last, but not least:
-Learn to take criticism, not just in this process but as a writer in general. Remember, you asked these folks to volunteer their efforts on YOUR behalf. Have some respect for their valuable time AND opinions.
Have you worked with beta readers or in isolation? Any particular reason for your choice?