The Difference Between Alpha, Beta, and ARC Readers

arc-beta-alpha-reader-book-1836380_960_720We’ve had articles about each of these three kinds of readers, the purpose of each, and where they fit in the overall book creation process. But we’ve seen some confusion among our readers and some thought a discussion comparing and contrasting all three in one place might be useful.

An alpha reader is sometimes called a first reader. He or she would read your work-in-progress well before it is done. This could be as early as immediately after you finish the first draft. It might be a bit later. Maybe you read the first draft, identify and make any significant changes you identify as needed, then show this second draft to your alpha reader. If you use an alpha reader, you’ll definitely want him or her to take a crack at your book before passing it on to a content editor, if you’ve hired one.

The purpose of the alpha reader is to see if the overall structure of your book works. Are there glaring issues or plot holes large enough to float an ocean liner through? The idea is to have a trusted reader who might spot issues you miss or have a blind spot about. This isn’t the time to get lots of eyes on your work. A single person, maybe two, will do the trick. Many authors don’t even use alpha readers. If you decide to, the sooner in the process the better. You want to limit wasted effort you’ll expend polishing sections that might get reworked or even tossed out based on feedback from the alpha reader.

Beta readers are readers who read a product that is close to your finished product. The absolute earliest you’d have beta readers check out your work would be when you’ve completed self-editing and the book is as good as you can get it without help from others. Some authors put off bringing in beta readers until they think the book is production ready, having gone through all the editing phases (content, copy editing, proofreading) that the author uses. What makes sense? Like many things in life the answer is “it depends.” First we’ll discuss what a beta reader does and then come back to this.

What does a beta reader do? It depends. (Did you see that coming?) A beta reader reads your book and gives you feedback. Whether that should be at a high level or get down into the minutia is going to vary depending on your needs as well as your beta readers and what they bring to the table in skills and willingness. Making sure you know what to expect and setting those expectations with your beta readers might be a good idea. I’ve beta read for a lot of authors. All are looking for feedback on any part of the story that doesn’t work for the reader and, if so, why. Some have specific big picture questions they want your opinion on. But some would love to hear about any typos or convoluted sentences or anything else they can get fixed for free (beta readers are typically unpaid volunteers). Those authors tend to bring beta readers in earlier in the process with the hope that shaking out the obvious stuff will help keep their editing and proofreading costs down. Other authors bring beta readers in when they think the book is completely production ready. The obvious downside here is that if multiple beta readers come back with “this scene isn’t working” and the author decides they’re right and reworks it, then they run the risk of introducing new errors or incurring more expense having to send the reworked section back through their editing process.

Last are ARC readers. The expectations and timing here are fairly clear cut. While I’m sure if an ARC (Advanced Review Copy) reader spots a typo the author would be happy to hear about it, that isn’t an ARC readers main purpose. The expectation of an ARC reader is only to read the book and write a review to post (probably at least to Amazon, possibly Goodreads or other sites) shortly after publication. At this point the author isn’t anticipating changes and the book should be the final production version unless some unexpected tweaks come up and the author is able to get them fixed before the release date.

Got it? Any questions?

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage.
During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

7 thoughts on “The Difference Between Alpha, Beta, and ARC Readers”

  1. It seems to me that the Alpha and Beta readers were created by indies to (sort of) take the place of developmental and line editors. They hope that by doing this, there won’t be any really serious structural errors, so a “one-size-fits-all” editor can come in at the end and pick up where the Beta readers left off, doing a copy edit, a line edit, and a proof read at the same time.
    Any idea whether any of these readers exist in traditional publishing?

    1. Excellent question, Gordon. I’ve asked one author I know who has a long history in traditional publishing and I know now uses beta readers as an indie to see whether the addition of beta readers happened when she turned indie or before. I’ll report back what I learn from that discussion.

      In the meantime I have a few thoughts and guesses.

      I think what you’re guessing is very true in a lot of cases, that this is a way to get free volunteers to help knock the worst rough spots off so that whatever paid editors are involved for the final polish, the amount they need do change and the money spent will hopefully be minimized. However, this is going to vary widely from author to author. I’m aware of some authors who do exactly what you’re suggesting whereas I know others who have content and copy editing plus at least one round of proofreading done before the beta readers do their thing.

      I think a lot of authors don’t use alpha readers, but whether they do or not these almost feel the same kind of role as people in a critique group might, just that the critique happens when the first draft is done where in a critique group it might still be in process. The authors whose process I’m most familiar with don’t usually use alpha readers. One author did so on one book because it was a co-write which was new for her and also a different genre so she wanted to get some feedback earlier on.

      I think the use of these readers might have become more common among indies, but I’ve beta read books for at least 2 or 3 authors publishing books through an Amazon imprint. That’s closer to traditional publishing, but those authors didn’t change their process in this regard when their publishing method was different.

    2. I discussed a bit with the trad pubbed author, Gordon, and she said that the editing she received from the publisher she was with for many years (20-ish, I think) was extensive. Something like 5 passes by different kinds of editors. So in her case beta readers are replacing editors to some degree. But different publishers provide varying amounts of editing support. I remember Melissa Bowersock talking about a publisher she had at one point that did basically no editing, so I’m thinking it comes back to “it depends” even for trad published.

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