Had a thought, and as we all know, when I have a random thought I like to post it here to infuriate you all.
How do you select beta readers? How many do you look for? When is it a good time to start thinking about looking for beta readers? When is it too soon? Too late? What's the inside of a Hyatt Regency really like?
I choose beta readers from among my friends and colleagues. I've heard that some writers only use other writers as beta writers, and others that will use anyone except another writer. There's no right or wrong way. My advice is to seek out people who read extensively, especially within your genre, and who you can trust.
I selected my readers after I got my first contract (but before the final draft was due).
Too late would be after the book is out in stores. *snark*
I try to get a couple, one is too few, and anything over four might be too much, unless you're in a crit group. That only works because you're more or less on the same page. I learn from everyone who cares to read and comment, even if I don't agree. Maybe especially if I don't agree, because then I have to really look at my stuff.
What's a Hyatt Regency?
I'm circulating my WIP (at 35k words it's about half finished) with a number of internet-based friends, mostly members of a book lovers forum. I'm also a member of three writers groups in the real world, and I'm going through it with one of those (the smallest, six members including myself) in live readings on a chapter-by-chapter basis. That makes for approximately twelve readers, in all cases people I can A) trust, and B) trust not to just say "yeah, it's great", even if it is. I've deliberately not included "normal" friends or members of my family for type-B reasons.
My readers are all Readers, in Jon Sprunk's sense, and in some cases writers too, but their personal tastes are broader than just the YA accessible audience I have in mind. My local group includes a (published) childrens author, an (unpub'd) YA author, a journalist, a teacher and a former child psychologist (not in the "child star" sense); my remote readers have a mixture of prefered genres, authors, etc., but also include a number of unpublished writers, one with a YA focus, one crime/detective.
As a result of the face-to-face readings, I've been getting first impression feedback on a weekly basis which has already resulted in a wealth of useful observations (plus some not so, of course), that have led me to revise later chapters before we've even gone over them; this means that, technically, the 35k sampler which the remote readers have is now out-of-date, although I'm looking forward to the feedback I'll get from them just as much as if I hadn't made changes already.
I know that this isn't really a Beta reading, because I've not yet finished the text, but what I'm learning is proving really useful. I've decided to make significant changes to the second half of the book as planned (I intend to split off my original continuation into a subsequent book, and I'm currently plotting entirely new material to complete the current one, so in the immediate short term it's saved me a lot of time).
I've gone big in the past (5-6 readers - all unpublished writers), but now I'm going small (just my writing coach). I think you have to try to find what works for you. I really liked all the feedback I got from my first group of readers, but I didn't listen to them. I thought, they don't know what they are talking about. Or, even if I agreed with them, they couldn't tell me how to fix something. With my writing coach, she points out the flaws that everyone else saw, but she explains it in a way I can do something about it. At the moment, though it is getting expensive, I think my writing is actually improving. And though my novel will flounder like most first novels, I think folks will recognize it as a novel! :)
I have a pool of people that I normally hand deliver a printed version of my manuscript to. One has taken classes to be an editor (her dream job) that she wants to start when she retires from the 'real' job. I have two other friends that are good grammar police and pick nits when it comes to comma usage, strange wording, and run on sentences that I fail to notice.
Beyond that, I recently put a novel out there looking for pretty much anyone that wanted to read and give feedback (any level). This is an experiment by my co-author on the project just to see what happens. It'll be interesting to see where it goes.