No author is an island, or at least should not be.
Above the commonplace and never-disputed pieces of advice – in this case, because it’s so sound – is that every author needs to have at least one person who will give the book a sound external edit. That’s one, or more.
Before it gets to that point, when the manuscript is beyond a first draft and starting to look as if it actually seems to be coming together, there’s space for another good outsider to offer some help. This would be the beta reader.
Many people are more familiar with beta testing in other contexts. I’ve beta-tested some software over the years, for example. Most large corporations, planning a big product rollout, first test it to see how audiences react. Movie producers do it too.
This is different from a line edit, which is the removal of error and sometimes a reorganization. What you’re looking for here is a reader’s reaction: Does this thing work? Does it grab you? Does it entertain or inform or otherwise serve its purpose? Is the purpose worth the reader’s time?
Mark Coker, the founder the e-Book site Smashwords, wrote a fine piece on book beta readers for Publishers Weekly, published a little over a month ago. It’s worth reading in full.
Coker (focusing here mainly on fiction, though most of the points are more widely applicable) suggests a dozen or two dozen beta readers, if you can get them. Social media is the main route he proposes for finding them – simply putting out the call and making the request, often to friends of acquaintances, to help ensure a layer of brutal honesty where needed.
He advises not to simply send out copies, but encourage people to apply. (The applications, he said, might be set up on Google forms.) The application can be attached to a survey form (or, the survey can be attached to the ms) with specific questions and space for answers. I like the idea of a link to an online survey, a SurveyMonkey kind of thing.
Taking the results from that survey, an author should be able to pick up useful feedback – in most cases useful enough to tinker with the book.
If you can get the readers, get honest reaction from them, and analyze their reactions intelligently, there’s almost no way your book won’t wind up the better for it.