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Alpha, Beta, Gamma Readers 101
You may have heard the term ‘beta reader’ either because you were asked to be one for a writer or because as a writer you found yourself at the point where you needed some. But few writers have heard the terms ‘alpha’ and ‘gamma’ or if they have, don’t really know what their purpose is, how or when to use them. I think some writers don’t even use them at all and if you’re new, trying to break into the business, whether as a self-published or traditional author, I think utilizing all of these types of readers can be an invaluable tool to have in your toolbox.
So, before we get into who you should look for, where to find them and how many you’ll need of each, let’s look at what each is, why you need them, and when is the perfect time to use them. Phew! That’s a lot to unpack and answer, I know. But don’t get overwhelmed. Just take a deep breath and know that by the end, you’ll feel confident enough to know what you need in order to build one of the most helpful teams you’ll have, next to your professionally hired editing team.
IMPORTANT NOTE: None of these types of readers are paid. Before you go looking for someone on a site like Fiverr or hire some team from a vanity press who may offer these types of readers for their services, know that 99.9% of the time, these readers are volunteers. They do it because they love reading, helping, and being a part of the process towards a more complete manuscript. Paying for one of these readers should be a LAST resort!
An alpha reader is a person who reads the crap you put on the page. They read the stuff you wouldn’t show anyone. This is the vomit draft that you haven’t even bothered to edit yet. Now, why on earth would you show your unedited draft to anyone? Well, in order to get some eyes on your story on the ground floor to hopefully help you make it better before you go in there with your scalpel to clean it up. Think of it as a developmental edit and proofreading edit at the same time.
When I self-edit, I will do two passes of my manuscript. The first is to fix grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, tenses, and stuff like that. Just some surface surgery. But then my second pass is when I will fix pacing and story structure. Beef up some weak scenes and delete the unnecessary ones. This pass will either add or take away an enormous amount of words.
We can all be our own worst critics, but we can also miss a lot of our own mistakes. We are just too close to it. It’s our baby, after all. So, why not hand it over in its infancy to someone else before we take on the role of a butcher?
I will caveat this by stating, you may want to hold off on looking for alpha readers until you’ve written a few novels and gone through the beta reader process a few times. I say this because while an alpha reader coming in at the beginning is super amazing and important, the last thing you want to do is have them pulling their hair out or missing the forest for the trees. What do I mean by that? Well, hopefully, with every novel you write you begin to know where your weaknesses are and you work to improve them so that the mistakes you once made on your first novel that may have been a sea of red is now, several books later, less red on your vomit draft. I’m not saying your first draft is perfection, but you learn from your mistakes. And the more you learn from your mistakes, the better the feedback and assistance you’ll receive from any reader you bring on to your team in the pre-publishing stages.
Now, who do you want as an alpha reader? Someone who really understands what they are getting and hopefully has been an alpha reader before. Seriously, you may not want to take a chance on a “first-time” alpha reader because they may not be truly prepared for the fact that they are getting an unedited manuscript and will likely be overwhelmed and not very helpful. An alpha reader is hard to find, but when you do, treasure them and their dedication because they are seeing you at your worst and sticking around to help you look your best.
You don’t want too many hands in the cookie jar this early on. So, stick with one, maybe two, alpha readers. You don’t want to overwhelm them and you, yourself, don’t want to be overwhelmed with feedback right after you finish your manuscript. Just knowing I’m going to get feedback on something that I did nothing to can be devastating. I don’t want to be bombarded with five or six different people telling me what I already know.But I do want to have feedback from one or two other people who will see it differently. Bring a different perspective. Fresh pair of eyes.
Don’t expect them to be an editor. They may choose to point out typos but you should stress to them that they are not an alpha reader to do that. You already know there will be typos and grammatical errors. If they’ve done this before, they’ll know and anticipate that already. What you want to know from them is, if the story seems to be flowing well, despite the errors? Are the characters unique and different? Stuff like that.
Most commonly known and most commonly used by almost all writers. One thing I’ve noticed is that beta readers for some writers might be friends that are asked. While there is nothing wrong with doing this, you may want to consider the inherent bias that will be there even with the most well-intentioned friend who swears they will not pull punches. Trust me, they will pull punches. So, before I say what a beta reader is, don’t fall into the trap of feeling like in order to get any beta readers, the best place to find them is to ask friends and family first. It’s not. Don’t do it.
A beta reader is a reader who you’ll bring on after you’ve done your initial edit, whatever that entails. For me, like I said earlier, I do two passes for my editing process. So, after I’ve done that editing to try and get my manuscript as “clean” as I possibly can, I will send that off to beta readers.
Again, a beta reader is not an editor. They should not be expected to find typos or grammatical errors, unless it’s so glaringly obvious and they choose to do so. They are meant to make sure they “get” the story you’re trying to tell. Nothing seems off with the pacing (again) and the characters are clear in who they are and serve a purpose in the story. They can easily distinguish who the hero is and who the villain is. They know what the main character (aka hero) is meant to overcome or accomplish by the end of the book. They are satisfied with the ending (especially if this is a series and should have a cliffhanger) and can’t wait to read the next book.
The questions asked of any kind of reader, but especially the beta reader, are very important. In most cases you’ll only want to give yourself one pass at this. Especially, because you’ll want to sit down with all the feedback from all of the betas in one shot and action those things that are the same across all the readers at once. This is key. Don’t think, if you have a team of (hypothetically speaking) 5 beta readers, if you have two read it, give you feedback, action their thoughts, then after that give the next three the manuscript and action those, that it will be a better or more efficient use of your time. It won’t be. Don’t make more work for yourself than is necessary.
We are all different. With different likes and dislikes. You may find a change you made based on two betas feedback would actually have not been an issue for the other three but they never got the opportunity to express that and you made a change that now those three may not like so you’ll find yourself changing it again. Why do double work?
Make sure you have the team in place and set at the beginning. Don’t add a late-comer in the middle of waiting for feedback from your initial team (even if they claim they can get it back to you in the timeline originally quoted) because they will rush it and their feedback will likely not be helpful.
Once you have all the feedback (and I put emphasis on all because some writers will get anxious and want to dive right in the moment they have just one person’s feedback) then you should sit down and look them over. First, group all the comments that are the same, meaning they are from the same chapter and scene and make a note of just how many of the total # of betas came to the same conclusion. And then group all those notes where just one of the betas had a comment and the others didn’t. Action those items where a majority found issue with a scene and then use your judgement on the rest. If only one person found an issue or fault, then it likely will pass muster with a majority of your readers. But if most of your betas found the same issue in a scene, it likely needs some reworking. So, get to work!
Now, how many betas do you want/need? This is a tricky question depending on who you ask. My rule of thumb is based on the length and genre of the story. Also, something else to consider when putting together this team (which I believe is the most important of the three) is to know some key facts about the person reading your work: Age, gender, ethnicity, favorite genre, etc. Why? Well, you want your betas to come as close as possible to your target audience. If your mock target audience doesn’t like it, then your target audience won’t. Think of your betas as a trial run before you publish your manuscript.
Like the alpha readers, you don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen. But, a sizable pool to know if something really is or isn’t working is key. I feel strongly that you need an odd number of beta readers. So, start with at least three. I would say that five is that sweet spot but more than that and you may find yourself juggling more comments than you have time for and organizing the feedback of seven people or more can quickly turn what is supposed to be a fun time spent with your manuscript into a nightmare.
I will stipulate that I’ve seen some writers have two groups of beta readers. Group A will be the first group (of five?) who will read and give feedback. The writer will action whatever needs to be corrected. That updated manuscript will then be sent to Group B beta readers (of five?) and with fingers crossed, hope they will not have as many or any action items to deal with. Whether you choose to do this or not, take timing into account. If you don’t have the time, don’t try to make the time.
One more thing you should also consider about beta readers is if you’re writing a series of books, you’ll want that beta reader to agree to beta read the whole series. Why? Well, if you bring on a new beta reader in book 3 there are pros and cons that come along with that: PRO - If they didn’t read the previous 2 books you can ascertain how well you managed to inform the reader of the events of the previous book in this one. CON - If they didn’t read the previous books as beta readers then they won’t have working knowledge of what was wrong then to be able to make sure those same issues don’t present themselves again in this book. Take that with a grain of salt, but I’d recommend making sure if you are writing a series and asking them to beta read book one of [blank] that they know that going in and agree to stick around through it all.
The gamma reader is the least used or known in the writing community and that’s a shame. For starters, the gamma reader is the person who reads your final draft. The draft you think is ready for publication. The draft you worked so hard to get to. You vomited the words onto the page. You had at least one alpha reader look at it while you bite your nails on the sidelines, waiting for your opportunity to get their feedback and then do your own self-editing. You crush it with thinking you’ve caught all the typos, fixed any story structure issues and your final draft is here!
BUT, and we’ve all seen this, even with traditionally published books, there is that ONE typo that you catch and it makes you cringe to see it. And you wonder to yourself, how did a book by “so and so” who is like, well-renowned, have a typo like this? Who let this through?? Well, I’m not saying that kind of typo would be caught by a gamma reader, but what I am saying, is that you’ll have a better chance of catching it if you have them reading that final draft before you publish.
My suggestion is, if you are a self-published author, to schedule a pre-order of your final draft manuscript for at least 3 - 5 months ahead of when you think you’re done. Then, get on the horn to seek out gamma readers, giving them 4 - 6 weeks to read your manuscript and give them exactly ONE directive: Find any typos or grammatical errors and get that back to me ASAP! That’s it. That is all they will need to do. Read the story and report back if they think they may have found a typo. That could mean the misspelling of a name (that Word may not have caught because it’s a normal name), or using ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ which again can be missed. The little things.
Pushing your release to 3 - 5 months out, gives you plenty of time to find gamma readers, if you don’t have them already, and then to fix any typos they find before you upload the final manuscript.
Now, where to find these people? I know some writers who do use gamma readers will simply reach out to their beta readers and ask them if they’d like to be a gamma reader. Not sure I’d go this route as they will have already read my manuscript and, like me, would probably miss a typo. I would much prefer fresh eyes.
Also, gamma readers, unlike alpha or beta readers, can be used just one time. Meaning, if you have a new group of gamma readers for each book, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially, since their purpose is not to help you with story structure or character development. That’s all been done. They are just looking for typos. Which is why a previously used beta reader might not be a good option as they are “trained” to look for more developmental things and will likely miss typos because of that. And that’s no fault of their own. Just the way it is.
My suggestion would be, assuming you’ve been promoting the heck out of the fact that you are in the midst of writing an awesome book on social media, that you go to that social media to ask for gamma readers. Again, explain the purpose and use the incentive that it will give them an opportunity of reading the “final draft” months ahead of the general public. Is that dangling a carrot to get volunteers? Heck yes, but you can also (and should also) stipulate some things:
They cannot share the manuscript with anyone.
They must take finding typos very seriously.
If they share the manuscript or just signed up to be a gamma reader so they can say they read it first, they will not be afforded the opportunity to be a gamma reader in the future.
Now, how many gamma readers do you want? Well, depends on how many you’re willing to juggle this close to the end? How much time did you give yourself? How much time are you giving them to get back to you with results? Depending on your answers to those questions, the skies the limit. I’ve seen some writers have dozens of gamma readers! Honestly, at this point it doesn’t hurt to have that many. Again, it all depends on how much time you’ve allotted yourself to get it done.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Alpha, Beta and Gamma Readers are not professionals. They did not attend college and take courses specific to being this kind of reader. As far as I know, they don’t exist. You would pay for an editor, who is a professional, they did or at least should have attended some form of schooling to be good at what they do and therefore should get paid accordingly. A beta reader doesn’t have a certificate they can show you that states they have passed all the courses and requirements and therefore at the best beta reader your money can buy. Always remember that!
One last thing I want to leave you with before I end this post. Whether alpha, beta or gamma, these readers are human and are doing this for you from a place of kindness and genuine desire to help. Do not annoy them. Do not pester them. This is why you work out a schedule, a deadline. If they don’t meet that deadline then you make a note to yourself and the next time you simply don’t use them. But the last thing you want to do is annoy any of these kinds of readers, especially the early alpha and beta readers as they can be hard to come by. So, before you hit send on that email you think is innocently asking how things are going, make sure they don’t technically have several more weeks to go (cause that wouldn’t be cool to do). Just take a breath and find something else to do while you wait for that amazing and wonderful and above all helpful feedback to start rolling in.