Alpha Readers, Beta Readers, Critique Partners, ARC Readers—What kinds of readers do you need?
Ideally, you are not the only person who will read your book before it gets published. In fact, you hopefully will have a whole host of readers go through your novel before you ever hit the Publish button. But what types of readers do you need, and at what point in the writing and publishing process do they come in? Do you need all of these different types of readers?
Each type of pre-publication reader has their own specific purpose in your writing journey. In this post, I’ll cover all these types of readers, how they can help, when you should use them, and reasons you may not need some of them. Hopefully this post will clear up some confusion!
Can be anybody who likes to read what you write.
Read as you are writing (often the first draft).
Usually one person, but maybe two or three.
Should be highly trusted.
Meant to be more like cheerleaders than critics.
If you’re going to have an alpha reader (or a couple), then they come in at the very beginning. You might send them each chapter as you complete it, or you may even allow them access to the Google Doc you’re working on as you work on it.
Because the first draft may change tremendously in later revisions, and because it’s easy for an author to get thrown off track by too much criticism too early on, your alpha reader should be someone who is encouraging and inspiring—save heavier critique for later drafts of the book. In the first draft, you need someone to be your cheerleader, to gush about your new world and characters and story as you’re writing it, while gently letting you know if it seems like you might be getting off track.
For these reasons, your alpha reader needs to be someone you trust to a) not plagiarize something you’re still in the process of writing, and b) not be too harsh with you about your story in its baby stages. Many alpha readers start out as beta readers or critique partners, and then, as they grow their relationship with the author, the author asks them to be alpha readers instead.
Many authors don’t even bother with alpha readers because it’s hard to find someone they trust enough, or because they want to keep their first drafts to themselves completely.
In short: You don’t need alpha readers, though you might find the right reader to be just the push of encouragement you need.
Are also writers who understand writing craft and mechanics.
Read the first or second draft, and perhaps later drafts after beta feedback.
Usually one or two people, but maybe three or four.
Are at around the same writing stage/level as you, or maybe a bit higher.
You critique each other’s manuscripts in an equal exchange.
A critique partner needs to be another writer, someone who understands the process of writing, the mechanics of storytelling, and what it takes to make a story work. These are going to be some of your most trusted readers (aside, perhaps, from your editor), so they take a while to find.
Critique partners usually come in when your book is first finished, typically reading the first or second draft (depending on your personal preference). Their job is to analyze the story from a writer’s perspective and let you know if there’s anything off with the characters, setting, pacing, plot, etc. You want to involve them before beta readers or ARC readers, but they might end up reading the manuscript after your alpha readers. (Or they may be your alpha readers!)
The term partner is key in critique partners. Part of having a critique partner is being one. This means they don’t only read your book—you read theirs, too, and offer your own detailed and astute feedback. This is why most authors only have a handful of critique partners—it’s hard to juggle critiquing a lot of books when you’re also trying to write and revise your own!
Ideally are people who would actually buy your book in a store.
Read later drafts—usually the third and beyond.
Can be anywhere from a handful to a dozen in number.
Tend to give varying feedback of varying usefulness.
May need some guidance from you.
Beta readers are literally your test readers. The term comes from beta testing, which is when a production team gives a nearly finished product to a group of real-world users to see how they react. Based on their reactions, the production team then makes some final tweaks before officially offering the product for sale.
This is the same for your book. You want to see how readers from the real world will react when they read it. That means you don’t typically want to give a first or even a second draft to beta readers.
You also have to be careful who you pick to be your beta readers—you want people from your actual target audience as much as possible. That means making sure your beta readers already read in your genre and are part of the ideal age range. If you only give your book to people who don’t even read that genre, then all you’re going to get back is a lot of comments that don’t help you revise the story at all.
Beta readers also range widely in the types of feedback they give and the usefulness of that feedback. You’ll find people who basically say “Yeah, it was good,” and that’s it, and you’ll find people who write detailed comments and reports while also spotting typos. For that reason, you may want to give your beta readers a bit of guidance, like a list of questions to keep in mind.
You may also choose to have multiple rounds of beta reading, with different beta readers for each round, so that you can double-check that you took the story in the right direction. This is totally up to you and your process, and you may need to experiment with a couple of different things until
you find a process that works well for you.
Are actual readers who might buy your book.
Read the almost-final draft before publication (often at the same time as the proofreader).
Usually around ten or so.
Write a review online in exchange for a free copy of the book.
Typically don’t influence any change in the book.
ARC stands for Advanced Reader Copy, and these copies are a marketing tool traditional publishers use to boost the first-day sales of a novel. This has become very common in the indie publishing world as well. It’s an exchange: You give readers a free copy of your book (the ARC), and they post a review of it online, whether that’s on a seller’s site like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, or on social media. Having a few good reviews of your book already posted right on publication day can really pump up your sales numbers. It gives other potential readers confidence that the book is actually good, plus it boosts the book’s stats in the eyes of the selling sites.
You generally give ARC readers a nearly finished copy of the book. It should already be formatted and have its interior design done, but it may not have a final cover or have final proofreading done yet. Still, it should be at the stage where you’re not changing anything major anymore—no adding or deleting scenes, combining characters, or redirecting the plot. The idea is that these readers give reviews that are as accurate as possible to the actual book, so don’t go changing too much once the reviews start rolling in.
ARC readers must post a review of your book in exchange for reading the free copy. This is the agreement behind giving away free books. However, they must also give their true thoughts, good or bad, which means you need to pick your ARC readers just as carefully as you chose your beta readers. Pick readers who read frequently in your genre and like the tropes your story contains. This way, you increase your chances of getting good reviews.
Do you really need all these different readers?
Many authors do use every single type of these readers! However, you are the one who has to make the ultimate decision.
If you’re just starting out, I recommend working hard to find at least one good critique partner and about half a dozen good beta readers. This is easier said than done, of course! I’ve got a post in the works about how to find and work with pre-publication readers, so I’ll definitely link that here once it’s ready. But in the meantime, you can often find critique partners and beta readers on social media. Just be prepared for there to be a bit of a hit-and-miss period in the beginning until you find your people.
Should I pay my pre-publication readers?
Don't pay ARC readers or critique partners. The ARC readers’ payment is the free book to read, and the critique partners’ payment is your thoughtful feedback on their books.
Also, since alpha readers often end up being close friends or critique partners anyway, you usually don’t have to pay them, either (though some editors do offer this as a professional service).
Some beta readers, however, do charge a fee. (In fact, my Reader Reaction service is basically a beta read, and I charge a nominal fee to cover my time reading and typing up a report.) At the same time, there are a lot of free beta readers out there, too. Whether you want to work with a free or paid beta reader is totally up to you. You may find that you get all the feedback you need from beta readers who don’t charge, or you may find that free beta readers just aren’t cutting it for you and you want to pay for some more professional beta reading. It’s a personal choice, but it’s not outlandish for someone to charge
So there you have it, a quick summary of the different types of pre-publication readers you might want to have for your book. Have you worked with pre-publication readers before? How was your experience? Are you thinking about trying different types of pre-publication readers after reading this post?
Like I mentioned, I do have my Reader Reaction service, which is a lot like beta reading. Plus, I have my Editorial Evaluation service, which is a lot like what a critique partner would do. I’m happy to help with either of these if you’d like! And if you need anything else, you can always contact me at email@example.com.