Alpha Readers Explained: An Author’s Complete Guide

Alexa Green
June 11, 2024 | 8 mins

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Alpha readers are a great writer’s secret weapon. Finding a trustworthy alpha reader can take your work from good to great. 

Your book is your baby, especially as a first-time author. Sharing your work is always nerve-wracking, especially when you’re sharing it and asking for feedback. Talking to an editor about the misplaced commas and passive tense verbs is bad enough, but at least there are rules to grammar.


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How are you supposed to know who to ask for the real criticism? 

Who can you trust to tell you that a character isn’t jumping off the page the way you wanted it to? Or point out a subplot that reads like filler? Who should you ask to tell you whether it’s a book that will have readers hooked from page one?

Enter the alpha reader – your partner in taking your book to the next level.

What is an alpha reader?

An alpha reader is, in the simplest terms, one of the first people to read your story. Family and friends who have already read some or all of your manuscript are technically alpha readers!

And what is a manuscript, you ask? There are many different ways to define a manuscript, but the basic definition is a written work that hasn’t been published. 

So what is an alpha reader? Bottom line, it’s someone who’s reading your unpublished writing.

That being said, there’s a difference between having your mom as an alpha reader and having an experienced alpha reader who can help you improve your work. 

You might think of your alpha reader as a kind of “taste tester”. While anyone could taste a chef’s latest creation, not everyone will be able to help the chef determine if the flavor balance is just right. This person should fit your description of your ideal reader and be aligned with your book positioning and genre. Trusted family or friends could “taste” your book, but a dedicated alpha reader will be able to help you figure out what “flavors” your story needs more (or less) of.

Who needs alpha readers?

Does every author need alpha readers? Usually, yes.

If you’re working towards a successful book launch, alpha (and, later, beta readers) are a must. The differences between alpha readers vs beta readers aren’t huge. For now, the main thing to know about beta readers is that they’ll be reading your work after you’ve addressed the initial comments and concerns from your alpha readers. 

Unlike the professional book editor(s) you hire, alpha readers aren’t concerned with grammar, sentence structure, or those sneaky spelling mistakes that always manage to find their way on the page.

I’m sure you’re still asking: if you’re planning to self-publish, do you really, really need an alpha reader?

In our opinion, any writing that you plan to make public should have alpha readers. Some of the greatest writing names in history were alpha readers for each others’ work. For instance, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as part of a writing challenge with 3 other writers: Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori.

Afterward, they all shared their stories and gave feedback, all of which was instrumental in the final story.

Where do you find alpha readers?

There are countless places to find alpha readers. You can find alpha readers in writers’ groups, author mastermind groups, Facebook groups, and even hire professionals through sites like Fiverr. Here at selfpublishing.com, your book coach and mastermind community will become an invaluable resource for finding a great beta reader and getting additional editing support. And yes, you could reach out to family and friends, especially if they already have a good understanding of writing and publishing. 

When it comes to having someone you’re close with be an alpha reader, though, proceed with caution. Family and friends might be too gentle in their criticism to avoid hurting your feelings or damaging your relationship. What you don’t want is someone who reads your manuscript and simply says “that was great!”

You want an actionable critique.

And you need to trust your alpha reader’s judgment.

Being too unfamiliar with your alpha reader can make dismissing even valid critiques all too easy. You’re looking for a happy medium – someone who you can trust, but who won’t be shy when it comes to pointing out the places where your story just doesn’t hold water.

What makes a good alpha reader?

If not just anyone can be helpful as an alpha reader, what should you be looking for?

That’s tougher to answer than just, “what is an alpha reader?” There are a few things to keep an eye out for, but writing is deeply personal. Chances are, you’ll work with a few different readers before you find one you click with. 

The first thing to watch out for when looking for an alpha reader is what kind of reading they tend to do. This could extend to genres, subgenres, tropes, topics, and more.

Maybe your cousin does work at a publishing company… but they only work with mystery novels. They might not be the best alpha reader for your high fantasy series

Look for alpha readers who are familiar with the ins and outs of the genre you’re writing in. They’ll be able to identify tired tropes or out-of-place elements the best. Plus, it prevents the possibility that your alpha reader will be leaving critiques that turn your book into something it’s not.

But working within the genre isn’t the only green flag your alpha writers can have. 

Here are some things that will make your relationship with any alpha reader more productive:

They have the same work style and schedule as you

There are several different stages within your book where you can introduce an alpha reader. You could start by sharing your rough draft, release the story to your reader chapter by chapter, or wait until you’ve had a chance to revise on your own before sharing your book. This is one of the key differences between an alpha reader vs a beta reader. Beta readers won’t be coming to your story until after it’s finished and through a round of revisions with your alpha readers.

There truely isn’t a right or wrong time to introduce an alpha reader, but it’s important that you can both work on the same schedule and have an open line of communication with timely responses. You don’t want to wait to finish your book or novel because your alpha reader disappeared for 4 weeks!

Before working with someone, ask what kind of time they can commit to reading and critiquing your book, what time of day they’ll be available, and what method of communication they prefer (ie: email, text, phone calls). 

If you decide to release chapter by chapter, will they be able and willing to see the picture one puzzle piece at a time? Can they put in small amounts of consistent work over several weeks or months? And if you give them a full manuscript, when will you expect to hear back from them? Will you want to get comments as they’re working their way through the book or not until they’ve finished? 

They aren’t afraid to give (the right kind of) criticism

What is an alpha reader’s criticism supposed to be like? Are they just a specialized kind of editor?

There are many different types of editing, and though this is a part of the book or novel editing process, alpha readers don’t handle editing, per se. They aren’t here to critique your sentence structure, they’re here to look at your overall story structure. 

A good alpha reader will give criticism on whether the story flows, which characters resonate, and if there are any plot holes leftover from drafting. They zoom out and look at the big picture from the standpoint of a reader but with a writer’s or author’s critical eye. 

This is something alpha readers vs beta readers do have in common. Both should be interesting primarily in how the story flows, not on minor details. If you’re working with an alpha reader or beta reader who only points out grammar mistakes or how they feel about a specific part of the story, without tying it into the whole of the book, it might be worth looking for additional readers.

They keep the focus on the story

Even when your book reaches the proofreading process, the primary focus should stay on the story you’re trying to tell.

What is proofreading? Proofreading is the final check before your book is published. Proofreaders make sure not a single mistake is overlooked, but your alpha readers aren’t proofreaders. 

Rather than combing through every punctuation mark and page break, your alpha readers should be focused on how well you’re bringing your story to life. Even non-fiction book writing is telling a story, and that story should flow clearly from one point to the next. 

Even more important than being nitpicky about visuals, your alpha readers should never criticize your ability to write or your story itself. The focus should stay on the story you’re trying to tell, and the final say on it rests with you.

And finally, remember you have the final say. This is one of the huge benefits of self-publishing – you keep all creative control! So whether the criticism is coming from an alpha reader vs a beta reader vs an editor (or even your spouse!), take time to think it over. Then make your final judgment call. It’s your story, and only you can tell it.

Alpha readers vs beta readers vs editors: when to bring others into your process

What is an alpha reader worth?

When it comes to sharing your process with another person, having someone you can trust is truly priceless. Finding good alpha readers is worth every minute and – if you decide to hire a professional – every penny. As with many aspects and costs around publishing your book, you get what you pay for. But there’s also opportunity cost in delaying this step.

The sooner you can bounce your ideas off someone else, the quicker you can make the needed revisions and move on to the next round of editing.

Sorting through alpha readers, beta readers, and proofreaders can be a time-consuming process, but so is writing a book. And you’ve already got that part down!

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