I wonder if the Big Writers still use betareaders? You know, I bet they do, even if it's their husband, or aunt Tilly, or another writer buddy. But, one thing for sure, when you are an indie and/or impoverished writer, betareaders are not only your best friend - they are essential to your livelihood in publishing.
So, what is a betareader? Even if you have never heard of a betareader, or possibly a "test reader" or "test audience," dollars to donuts you've benefited from one if you have ever read a book.
A betareader is one of the first people a writer gets to read their draft, after they are semi-okay with it themselves. These test readers have a tough job, because it's not just reading - it's critiquing, giving feedback, answering/asking questions about the work, finding plot holes, exposing bad writing, pointing out flaws, and occasionally giving emergency mental health counseling to authors at the point of jumping out windows trying to weed these issues out. It's a big job, and one that is very rarely compensated enough.
Some betareaders are just voracious readers. Some are writers, within and without the same genre as the book. Some are editors or proofers for their day job (though that is a different stage than betareading). Some are pros, and most are volunteers.
The important thing is that they represent the readers who will eventually (one hopes) plunk down hard earned cash for the book that the writer ultimately produces.
Thus, betareaders do three major tasks: (1) They help the writer produce a much, much, much better draft for submission (which, obviously, makes for a better book altogether). (2) Their feedback helps the writer become a better writer over time, by helping them identify weak spots when writing the next one and hone editing/revision skills. (3) They help protect future readers from frustrations - inadvertently paying for a book with errors, confusing motivations, plot inconsistencies, inaccuracies, obnoxious writing habits, etc.
If you let your betareaders be free and frank with you, and you listen to them well, they tell you if what you have produced is worth the confidence a reader places in you when they exchange their money for your book. Or, they will help you find a way to get the book into that exalted state.
In essence, with the much-toted decline of "traditional publishers" and the rise of "indie authors" (which is not a subject I will touch here with a ten foot pole), betareaders are an increasingly crucial part of the restructured "gate keepers" of literature. Certainly, those of us (still?) publishing with actual companies will have editors and line readers, and any indie author dedicated to producing quality work will hire an independent editor/proofer, but these people do not replace the betareader.
The betareaders, the acquisition editors, the substance editor(s), the line readers and the proofers all do separate, though essential, work, just as none of them can replace the writer's own editing phases and vice versa. Besides, without honest and alert betareaders, chances are the book won't ever make it past the acquisitions editors to the contract/editing/proofing phases, anyway.
On top of this, betareaders are usually a different thing from critters, as well - "critters" (AKA "critique circles") being your fellow writers who only read/hear bits and pieces as you write for critique purposes, in exchange for critiques of their own work. This is also a valuable asset, but no replacement for a total betareading experience, though your betareading pool can include some critters. Is this making any sense?
So, to break this down - the writer produces a draft (or drafts of chapters, though I usually wait until the whole thing at once), and edits, sometimes with the help of critters along the way. When he or she simply can't look at it any more, it goes off to the betareaders. They (I try to go for three) read it. Their focus will depend on their interests and personalities - some will look at the writing mechanics more than the plot, while others like to think about the characters or the bigger picture. It's great to have a mixture of all these. When they are finished reading it, they will send you their Notes, and, if you are lucky, will let you pelt them with questions about the book. The writer will then crawl back to their revisions cave and try to fix the flaws picked out like magic by the intrepid betareaders. Then, depending on how severe the problems were, the book might be sent back to betareading again - either with the same readers or fresh ones. Then the writer does those revisions, and then usually will do another editing phase him/herself, and maybe set it aside for a bit, and do another one. Then the book goes through acquisition editing, which (with luck) results in a contract offer. Then it goes through substantive editing, line editing, and proofing, resulting in many more revision rounds. Then, if the writer is anal, they might get one more betareading in on the galley before they sign off, just to catch anything floating around in the book, and do one more read through themselves.
And, voila! Then you have a book ready for the market - and the resulting customer and professional reviewers. But, by the time you get their feedback it is often too late. The problems they find can certainly help for your next book, but you had better make sure you had solid betareaders and editors to make it as good as possible before it reaches the live audience.
Who are my betareaders? I have some very lovely volunteers. For the new book, I have Beth, a writer and reader; Amanda, an artist and essayist; and Trishy, a reader and grammar hound. They do wonderful work, and I appreciate them so very much. It's best to have a pool of betareaders so as to not exhaust the good will of your favourites (I am always taking "applications," by the way), but when you find a solid betareader, they are worth their weight in gold.
This is my ode to the betareaders. If you are an author, you likely already knew how valuable they are. If you are a reader, or not yet published, I hope you take a moment while enjoying a good book to offer a little silent thanks to these folks. They are a foundational part of making every novel its best, and a line of defense against bad writing.
Hats off to the betareaders!