Alpha, Beta, Gamma

… Delta, Epsilon…

…Where was I going with this? Oh, yes. Secondary readers. Because you, the author, are the primary reader of your work. But sometimes you need help. The story isn’t progressing like you think it should, or you know you’ve broken it somewhere, but you can’t identify the exact point it went off the rails. Or the manuscript is complete but you want to make sure people will like it enough to pay you money for it.

You need secondary readers.

As I understand it, an alpha reader goes through the story while it’s in-progress, allowing you an outside perspective (and the opportunity to tear out your hair in frustration) before you spend massive quantities of time and effort finishing a story, only to discover that purple aliens with triumvirate eye-stalks and pocket-sized nukes were much more interesting in your head than on paper.

On the other hand, beta readers look at the complete first draft (or second, third, et cetera), allowing you an opportunity to tear out your hair in frustration during the editing process. So kind, these Greek readers.

Despite all the wails of frustration and dismay that come out of their efforts, alpha and beta readers can be incredibly useful. Especially if you’re writing in an unfamiliar genre. They tell you where you’ve gone wrong (and right!) and help you gauge the book’s eventual reception by paying readers.

(Full disclosure: One of my most successful books, Christmas at Blackheath, was written with minuscule attention from secondary readers. I think I may have asked our very own Uncle Lar to typo-hunt. It’s also the same book that I wrote straight through, with barely an outline. Draw your own conclusions.)

Most alpha and beta readers work for free; if they got paid, they would be editors. As such, the quality of their feedback varies. If you find a good one, hang onto that person. Give them an acknowledgment in your book. Send them cookies for their birthday. Sacrifice an enemy under the full moon, and dedicate it to your awesome secondary readers.

Okay, not that last one. Murder is illegal. Don’t do it. Jail looks like a nice, quiet place, from which you can finish your book, but it’s really not. And you’ll have a heck of a time finding decent alpha and beta readers behind bars.

You don’t usually need a formal contract with your secondary readers, but if you make your expectations clear, it’ll save everyone a lot of headaches.

-Do you want them to offer feedback as a reader, fellow author, or editor? Each role requires a different frame of mind, and some people slip into one more readily than the other. Your author friends might be good alpha readers because they’ve studied story structure and can identify problems in progress, but non-authors usually make better beta readers, because they tend to come at it from a readers’ perspective, which helps you recognize the book’s appeal to the casual reader/customer.

-Do they expect compensation? Figure this out up front; usually they don’t, but you want to know beforehand.

-What’s your timeframe for feedback? Most people have jobs and other demands on their time; they can’t always read through and comment on your 100k word epic fantasy in a week. And alpha reading can be just as time consuming; even if there’s less content, it requires mental effort to fill in the gaps, so it’s slower going.

-How many readers do you have? The more, the better. Anywhere from three to six is reasonable; you won’t be left in the lurch if one has a life emergency and can’t get back to you. And if multiple readers agree that you should change X, it carries more weight than if only one person thinks that.

-Does this person play another role in your life, and is that likely to affect their feedback? Most people are agreeable and want to praise the efforts of their child, parent, sibling, best friend, or co-worker. Feel free to give your manuscript to Grandma, but unless she knows how to set aside her feelings and be objective, don’t expect constructive criticism from her.

And so on. Be business-like, treat the subject seriously, and it’ll pay off.

I’m currently at the ‘share snippets with friends’ stage, but I’m trying to get to the point that secondary readers will be useful to me (and not cause them to drink heavily, which is what they’d start doing if I handed them the current WIP as it stands).

Authors of the audience- how do you handle alpha and beta readers? Alpha and beta readers of the audience- how do you handle authors?

And, go!

13 comments

  1. i need an alpha reader, and a beta reader, and probably a gamma reader..

    you can’t promote a gamma to a beta tho, they think betas work so hard…

    1. I tried to get a friend to alpha read… his previous experience was with fanfic, so he wanted to edit when i was looking for feedback on flow and whether or not the story had a hook…

  2. As I recall Christmas at Blackheath had perhaps three minor typos.
    And though not my genre of choice, you are a damn fine story teller missy, so twas not at all an onerous task.
    Learned all sorts of trivia about young ladies of that period of a certain class, for ex as I recall although the main character had a closet full of clothes at her aunt’s cottage, she could wear almost none of them as they required the assistance of a lady’s maid to don properly and she was there by herself.

  3. My parents were splendid alpha readers, my father especially. He was a research biologist, so he caught all kinds of botanical and geographic booboos. My mother was a keen horsewoman as a girl, she she also kept a careful eye on anything to do with horses in my early books, which were all set on the western frontier, so there was a lot of scope…
    I have a couple of subject matter experts and one really keen beta reader for the Luna City books, who does have a keen eye for plot threads and developments. It helps that he is a fan of the series as well, and has had some really helpful comments to make.

  4. I have a variety of readers, all through my blog with three exceptions. All have different strengths, and while most look for typos, two are very, very good at catching structural problems and dangling plot threads. One other reader is a master at flagging phrases that have now developed pop-culture meanings that I might not intend to convey. I have hired editors in the past, and two served me very, very well. One got reported to “Predators and Editors.”

    I feed my Beta Readers reader cookies, and credit in the books. And I try to improve and learn from them. Plus I have Beta read (and alpha read) for some of my blog readers in turn.

  5. I started out tossing snippets out on my site as bait for selling to readers early on, which was a dismal failure since I advertised the site less than I did the books . . . but it sort of evolved into snippeting the work in progress and so many of the comments were so helpful I wound up doing almost daily 1K+ snippets all the way through, then they _asked_ if they could copy edit for typos and grammar and my repeated abuse of almost homonyms . . . and then they had to lead me by the hand through Google Docs so they could all gang up on the poor manuscript . . .

    I don’t know if throwing out bait would work for any one else, but . . .

  6. I put out amusing snippets. And I have a typo hunter. Eventually, I’ll need to find beta readers in my genre. Oh! I have a Beta Reader for the German translation. She’s awesome and I love her so much. I found her through my newsletter when I asked if anybody who could read German was willing to read a translation and tell me if it worked. Beta reading for translation is way different than beta reading for your first language, btw. Because I’m getting comments about “well, that’s correct, but nobody would ever say that, so use this instead.” and “How did they go from formal address to porn dialogue in two sentences?” It’s been an education, to say the least.

  7. I’ve done a little “can you read this for me?” type stuff– amen, amen and AMEN on the reader appreciating it being CLEAR what they’re supposed to be doing. Even if it’s just “read through this, if you find a horrible typo correct it, and I want to know if anything stands out as horrible or meh.” I don’t know all the right words, but I do know if a story *catches* me.

  8. An experienced beta reader may not need to have the expectations spelled out, but we all start out new, and all had to learn this stuff with somebody. The author saying what they want is good.

    You can kinda divide the ways of doing this stuff into forums, blogs, and drafts by correspondence. Forums are much more of a thing for fanfic than for commercial original.

    There are a very wide range of possible expectations.

    I’ve done a lot of reading with feedback. Some of it good feedback, some of it very bad. Some folks are just wanting positive feedback, so it doesn’t feel like shouting into a void. (See, fanfic, forums.) Some folks are asking for advice on whether something is working, and maybe even suggestions on whether something different is being done. Some folks very much do not want or need back seat driving, and want to be told if something works or does not, and be left to figure out the answers that will work for them and their story. Alma Boykin and George Phillies can vouch for times when I have been terrible at giving feedback.

    I’ve done a lot of stuff, but it has mostly been when I was feeling good, and had spoons to spare. So there have been huge gaps, where I haven’t had spoons to read something, and be aware while I was reading, or when someone has posted a new snippet to blog, which I have read, but haven’t been organized enough to even say ‘good job’. So, I basically just disappear a lot, and it is very rarely a reflection on the stories. (I had that happen maybe once, with a guy who had Hitler and Stalin as characters, and spectacularly miss-estimated what expectations an Americans audience might form as a result of that, so the story he was writing, and the one I thought I was reading were wildly different.)

    I also dislike saying ‘good job’ in these circumstances, because I do not want to accidentally create the expectation that the author is working for me in any way. Creating is a process that can be very delicate, psychologically speaking. If I like the stories someone is making, I do not want to screw that up. Constantly being pressured for updates, or a bunch of the same requests being made, appears like it can be hugely damaging at times.

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