Independent Author’s Toolbag: Alpha and Beta Readers

One of the biggest fears that I face as an author is the dread of wondering what people will think. The reaction of family and friends is one thing… but what about people you don’t know who are going to pick up the book in a store or glance at it on kindle? For that matter, how do you go through and make certain that the plot, characters, and other issues are iron-tight?

My solution, and what many authors do, is make use of alpha and beta readers. It’s a common use in the gaming industry, though I’m certain authors have used the technique long before they borrowed (okay, stole) the term from the gamers.

Basically, your first readable copy (or maybe second or third, depends on how you feel about it) goes to your alpha readers. This is normally a small number of people. These people should be picked from people you know as filling several key catagories: Critical Thinking/Reading Skills, Honesty, and Timeliness. You may laugh at some of them… until you’re trying to get that nerdy friend of yours to explain why the opening scene feels ‘a little funky’ after they’ve had the book in their hands for over a year. Critical Thinking/Reading is essential in an Alpha, they have to understand what you wrote and they have to be able to think about what you’re doing and then tell you what they thought about it. If you’re interested in Independent Publishing, time is a serious factor here. Traditional Authors have years to get books out, independent authors need to feed the voracious appetite of their readers… else be forgotten as those readers go elsewhere. You don’t need an alpha reader who sugarcoats their opinions or, worse, is too afraid to hurt your feelings to tell you the truth. One of my favorite alpha readers has straight up told me before when he thought what I wrote was crap. I disagreed, but I’ll admit he had good points and his comments made me reevaluate what I was doing as a writer. I’m grateful that I have alphas like him who can tell me when they don’t like something.

After I get all my feedback from the alphas, that’s when I go back through and do the serious edits. Often I’ll spend hours discussing some of the changes I’ve thought about… sometimes I’ll be talked out of some of those edits, other times, I’ll do them in spite of what the feedback says. There have been times where I’ll write two or three versions of a scene and run them past certain readers trying to get it just right.

Beta readers are the next step. Once you have the final draft, you send it out to a larger audience. These, for me, are often friends or acquaintances that I trust to give me overall opinions on the work as a whole and maybe some more focused opinions on individual items or characters. If I’m featuring some science/technical aspect that I’m not certain about and one of my betas is an expert (or at least knows more than me) I’ll run it past them during the alpha stage. Beta readers are a spectrum of a general audience. They can include genre readers, but also out-of-genre readers. If I’ve written something with a target audience, those beta readers from that audience are the main voices I want to hear. The responses from all my beta readers are often used to make final tweaks. If a scene didn’t have the emotional draw that I wanted or if a character wasn’t memorable enough, then I go back and tweak a bit more.

The key thing you get from your beta readers is an overall evaluation of the quality of your work. Ideally, your work is publishable by the time it gets to them, but their reactions to it are the key to understanding how ready it really is… and how great a story it is. If you get frantic phone calls at 2 AM because a reader couldn’t put it down, that’s a good sign. If you have to prod, nudge, and heckle your beta readers to get so much as a thumbs up or down, that’s a bad sign.  I’ve had both happen (on the same novel no less).  The big thing is to get an honest appreciation of your story and to adapt it and improve it as a result.

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