Someone asked me the other day how many beta readers I usually have for a book. I thought I’d share my answer since it’s a question I get fairly often and it’s a bit complicated.
Fundamentally, it’s a fight between wanting as many people as is humanly possible to give feedback and the opportunity cost associated with doing that.
When I say ‘opportunity cost’ I basically mean that someone can only ever read your work for the first time once.* There are occasional (brilliant, wonderful) people who don’t mind reading repeated drafts of something, but this is not true of most people. And even the most well-intentioned begin to have trouble distinguishing what was in this draft from what was in the previous version. So if you have a bunch of people willing to beta read for you** (yay!) it’s generally advisable not to use them all on the first draft.***
For preference I’d say two people per draft, three is better.**** More than one is important because then you can see where their opinions overlap and where they differ. It helps you get a better feel for their personal perspective and makes it easier to not get defensive. If one person says something you disagree with about your work it’s very easy to dismiss. If three people say it you know there’s something you need to look into. The reverse is also true — if one of three says, THOU MUST CHANGE ALL THE THINGS and the other two say, It’s fine, you know you can ignore the screaming one without being too concerned.
If you go through the process more than once you will quickly learn who is good for overall plot and character stuff (use on early drafts) and who is good at the nitty gritty details (use on late drafts).
Often you don’t have a choice in the matter, but if you do, especially for early drafts it’s helpful if the people you choose are… er, experienced in the right way? In an ideal world what you want is someone with genuine editorial skills. Second best are people who are writers themselves, people who read a lot, people who’ve done beta work before, teachers… Basically your ideal first draft reader is someone who knows the difference between an early draft and a polished draft and who can give you feedback accordingly. (If you have a tame volunteer this is something you can teach them over time but it’s not something that comes naturally to most people.)
If, as tends to be more common, the person offering to beta for you doesn’t know anything about editing, ask them for a reader response rather than for editorial feedback. Tell them to try to make ‘I’ statements. Like, I was confused by this, I felt unsatisfied by the ending. This is much more useful than them trying to tell you how to fix it.
So in short, my advice is: find two or three people and try to restrict the number of drafts you give them so they don’t drown. And if you can, try to save up a couple of people to be fresh eyes for your final draft.
* And you’re always going to want that first read to be of the finished and perfect product, especially if you’re giving it to people whose opinion you really care about. But if those people are good editors this is wasteful so you must be stern with yourself.
** If you’re looking for people to beta for you I’d suggest asking everyone you know and then ranking volunteers by enthusiasm and probable usefulness (not often appearing in the same person). The first time round it’s mostly muddling through, but after that you’ll know who to turn the puppy dog eyes on.
*** Unless you only ever need two drafts, in which case I sort of want to tread on your foot because of reasons.
**** Although obviously even that bare minimum is not always possible, so you have to just use who you have as well as you can and try not to burn anyone out. Beta readers are almost never paid except in effusive thanks and possibly cookies so you have to try to make sure they’re having at least a modicum of fun rather than reading and rereading until they hate you and all of your works.