Using Alpha and Beta Readers
Publishing Well of Bones has been a learning experience for me and now that I'm well on my way into Part 2, I know what to do differently. Today I'll share my tips for streamlining and utilizing the alpha/beta reader process.
Keep in mind, no matter the feedback you receive, you are the author. You are not leading a committee. The book should ultimately be the way you want it to be. There will never be a time when you can please everybody and you shouldn’t try. That goes for advice, too. Everyone operates differently. Do what works best for you. I'll try to recommend what I have discovered for myself, but I'm not you and you're not me.
First of all, what are alpha and beta readers?
Both are non-professionals who read your book before publication to give a reader’s perspective. Authors can be so close to their work that they may not notice some glaring issues with their story, characters, plot, etc. Alpha and beta readers allow the author to take a step back and evaluate their book through someone else's eyes.
Generally, the author sends chapters to Alpha readers before it has been edited. Since they're getting access to your manuscript early on, these people are pretty much critique partners. In my personal experience, the author/alpha reader relationship is casual. These may be family members, friends, or anyone you trust to give you constructive criticism on a rough draft. I like to keep my alpha reader group quite small (2-5 people). It’s important to be clear with your alpha readers what they are getting into and what is expected of them. Basically it’s their job to catch major issues before you pay for a professional edit.
Beta readers get their hands on the manuscript after it’s been edited. Like the alphas, they should focus on how the story makes them feel as a reader. The author/beta reader relationship should be a little more formal than the alphas. This doesn’t mean they can’t be family or friends. This just means that the process should be taken seriously. Not that it wasn’t serious before. This is several steps closer to publication and you do not want to put out a flawed product if you can help it. This group can be larger if you choose. The more diverse and vast your beta reader group is the more opinions from different backgrounds you can collect. Just make sure they are readers in your genre. Keep in mind, however, if you have a massive group of betas, you have to keep track of their reading progress and interview each one about their thoughts concerning what they read. As with the alphas, it’s important to be clear about what to expect from you and what is expected of them.
In the past, I have been more loosy-goosy with alpha readers. I asked friends and family to read a couple of chapters and let me know what they think. This is ok because it’s basically what you are looking for anyway but it can be much better. The results can be sporadic this way. For Well of Bones part 2, I’ll be employing a more uniform process that will render more uniform results, hopefully.
After I have spoken with my potential alphas, the plan is to send each reader an email to let them know that they will get 2 to 5 chapters at a time and after 1-3 weeks (depending on the number of chapters) I’ll be asking them for their thoughts. This establishes a timeline and an idea of what I want from them while maintaining a casual interaction. It’s all about balance. At the end of each chunk of the manuscript, I’ll ask questions to help them give feedback I can work with. What was your favorite part? Who is your favorite character and why? Do you know what might be coming up next? Why do you think so-and-so did such-and-such? Don’t just ask, “well, what did you think?” This invites a vague response like, “it was good.” You asked them to read your book for their opinion, so ask opinion-based questions. When they have finished the last chunk of the manuscript, I’ll ask them some questions regarding the entire novel as a whole. Did you like how it ended? Where you satisfied with how things wrapped up? Did you need clarification on any part of the plot? Would you buy part 2 if you picked this up on Amazon/at the bookstore? Would you recommend this book? Etc. Basically, think about what you liked and disliked in novels you have read, and come up with questions that would have addressed those issues.
The process for beta readers should be even more uniform because you will be dealing with a broader reader base and you may not know each one of them personally. First, you gotta recruit some. You could put out on your social media that you are recruiting. I like to use platforms where readers generally hangout, like Goodreads or reading groups on Facebook. You could set up a signup sheet on google docs to collect some basic information from those who are interested in becoming one of your beta readers. Name, age, and email address is the bare minimum of what you need on your sign up sheet. It also helps to ask what they enjoy reading or watching, genre-wise. You want to choose those who enjoy the kinds of media that most closely fit your genre. You should be upfront with your genre and target audience in your social media post because you would not want to recruit outside either of those. A middle-aged man who only reads Tom Clancy novels may not like your young adult, fantasy with a hard magic system.
Once you have some candidates in mind, send out an introduction email. Let them know that you selected them and that you would like to extend the opportunity to be your beta reader. Let them know exactly how your process will proceed, the timeframe, and what you expect of them so they can decide if beta reading is their thing. Let them know that should they decide to proceed, they have agreed to never share your content with anyone. Get a copywrite before this stage to ensure they don’t. Also let them know that they can quit whenever they want, but ask that they let you know. It’s just easier to keep track of everybody that way and you can replace them if you need to. If they decide to stick around, great.
Now comes the part where you send out the chapters. I recommend 2 to 5 chapters just like with your alphas. Try to divide the manuscript into sections that make sense for pacing. You wouldn’t want to split up chapters that were meant to go together. After the allotted time, you could send out a questionnaire as many authors do or you could conduct a personal interview with each reader. Both ways have pros and cons. If you have a larger reader base and limited time, the questionnaire is the way to go. Beta readers tend to give shorter answers on questionnaires though and if you need to ask a followup question, chances are, they have already forgotten details from what they've read. The interview takes more time and is more suitable for a smaller reader base but it free’s you to ask whatever you need to ask and get real-time answers in detail.
Once they have finished reading the book, ask the same questions you asked your alphas when they finished. This allows you to compare results further along in the process. When going through your feedback, remember, you are the author. The final product should be the way you want it to be.
Thanks for reading. I put up a new post every Friday. Sometimes about self-publishing, sometimes writing tips, and sometimes I do a writing prompt just for fun. If you are interested in my epic, dark fantasy novel, Well of Bones, use the link below to learn more. Thanks again for reading.
Until next time,