Before a book is put up for sale, several people should have already read it. Obviously the writer and editor are on this list, but so are people not directly involved in the publication process. Some will have been given a final version of the book for review purposes, but others will have actually helped the book take its final form. You’ve probably heard of beta readers before, those lovely folks who look at a complete but unpublished draft to give invaluable feedback that will hopefully help the author make the book stronger. I always have a few rounds of beta readers. But sometimes I also have alpha readers and gamma readers.
You can probably guess what an alpha reader is. It’s someone who reads the story as it’s being written. These people can help a writer figure out the rough draft. I don’t always use them, but I used to have several and they were greatly helpful in helping me learn how to finish a rough draft. Having someone urging you to get the next chapter out because they just have to know what’s going to happen is, simply put, inspiring. These readers clearly come before the more well known beta readers.
“Gamma reader” is how I label the people who get the book after the plot is set but before the final edits have gone through, so after the beta readers. The point of this? To ping scene and sentence level problems that beta readers may have ignored for being too detailed to be mentioned at the beta stage. I don’t ask them to correct my spelling or punctuation, that being what I pay an editor for, but to identify issues with characterizations, descriptions, and flow. Did the love interest have a change in eye color? Does it make sense that the four-year-old is quoting Slayer? Did that paragraph just meander to the point no one is going to finish reading it? (Note: some editors do this. In fact, mine does. But it’s good to have multiple opinions.)
If my serial ever gets revised and put in print, then anyone who followed it as a serial would fall under the heading of alpha reader, but neither of the next two books I expect to publish used them. That said, if I had never had alpha readers, I would never have finished the roughs for my first several books, so I highly recommend them to new writers. Just make sure they are people who are actually going to read the story and who will give you positive encouragement. If you pick people who don’t care if you write more, or who are overly negative, they’ll hurt you.
My novel Love and Sorcery is currently in its first beta stage. I showed it to four people, three of whom fall into the the category of my closest friends. Of the four, three seem to have read it. (I’m not upset with the fourth; she has four kids and just went back to college, so she really didn’t have time to help even though she offered to.)
The first one to get back to me was the only non-writer type in the group. She said little, but thought the book flowed acceptably and was a fun read that her daughter would like. Things like this are always nice to hear, but I knew not to rush forward based on the feedback.
The second reader gave me a short list of issues that struck her as needing improvement and I made notes accordingly.
The third reader won the Most Valuable Beta award with a six page critique filled with things that I needed to hear. (Most of them I knew, but needed to be called out on.) Some of what Reader Three said copied Reader Two’s feedback, but both made unique points that were spot-on.
At the moment, I’m making notes on how to incorporate the feedback I’ve received and trying to write a prophecy. Why? Because despite the fact that the entire non-romantic plot stems around a prophecy, I don’t actually know what it says. Believe it or not, Reader Three was the only one to point that out, and believe it or not, I needed her to. (This is one of the things I knew deep down was wrong but needed pushing on.)
Werestory II is messier. I could show it to someone, but there’s a long list of things I already know to work on and I’m going to fix those things before bothering other people. The difference between this and earlier works where I used alpha readers is that I had confidence I could stick through and get it to beta on my own. This doesn’t mean I’ll never use them again, though, because it’s quite possible I could have finished sooner with more people pushing me and letting me bounce problems off of them.
There’s no one right way to write a book, but publishing without the input of advanced readers is, in my opinion, insane. What you want to call them doesn’t matter. What matters is not being daft enough to try to go it alone.