New authors diving into the business of self-publishing have words such as alpha and beta readers, developmental editors, content editors, line editors, and proofreaders thrown at them, without an explanation for each one. Do you need them all? No. Is it better to use them all? Of course. The more people helping you fine tune your book before it gets to the reviewers, the better chance for getting great reviews, and more importantly, great recommendations on social media. There are many readers out there who never look at reviews, but if they see people recommending a book and it pops up a lot in their social media feeds, they might say, “Hey, maybe I should go check it out!” On the flip side, reviewers often point out excessive typos and errors in their reviews and this could be a turn-off for potential readers. So, what do all those alphas, betas, line editors, content editors, and proofreaders do? Let’s see if I can clear things up for you.
Alpha and Beta Readers:
Alpha and beta readers are some of the most resourceful “tools” an author can use. If you can’t afford an editor or proofreader, get yourself at least six or more alpha/beta readers. They are not a substitute for professional editing, but they will help you find errors so you can fix them. Alpha readers usually follow an author’s WIP (work in progress). They can receive each chapter or scene after it’s written and before the rest of the book is complete or when the first draft of the book is done—it’s up to the author. They’re not looking for typos or things of that nature. What they are looking for are plot holes, if the story progresses smoothly, and glaring issues—i.e. in Chapter 1 the heroine is a twenty-three-year-old brunette and in Chapter 4, three days later, she’s a twenty-five-year-old blonde. One or two alpha readers are all you need, and many authors don’t use them—I didn’t for the first thirteen or fourteen books I wrote. It’s your decision whether or not to use one. If you do, though, make sure it’s a trusted reader who is ready to be brutally honest with you and who you are willing to accept constructive criticism from.
Beta readers are used further along in the process, but as to when, again it’s up to the author. Some authors will send the draft after self-editing (this is when I send mine out), others use their betas after their editors have finished the first read-through and the author has made the suggested changes. Still other authors will wait until it’s completely edited and almost ready to be published. Do what works for you. Beta reading is how an author gets feedback on the whole story. Did the betas enjoy the book? What were things that didn’t work for them? Did they get that “OMG, I couldn’t put it down!” reaction to the story? Did they connect with the characters? Let them know exactly what you’re looking for in their feedback—each author is different. If they found any typos that got by everyone else, have them let you know so you can fix them. The number of betas you use are up to you. In the beginning, I had four or five betas. I now have a dozen. Some have been with me since the beginning, others are readers who contacted me about a few errors they found in my published books, then agreed to join my team because they loved my books. I recommend you have at least six betas—the more the merrier. Each of my betas finds stuff that the others missed, so combined, they find a vast majority of the errors.
Alpha and beta readers are very rarely paid. In fact, I’m not sure I know of any who are. They’re just voracious readers who love to help authors put out the best version of their books. Where can you find beta readers? Some of mine were found through beta reader groups on Goodreads and Facebook. Just do a search for “beta readers” on both those sites and you’ll find them. Make sure your alphas and betas read your genre on a consistent basis. You don’t want someone who rarely reads your genre because their reaction to the book may not be the same as those who read it all the time. If you have good alphas and betas, you likely don’t need a developmental editor, usually the most expensive of editing costs.
Line Editing and Copy Editing:
There is a big difference between line editors and copy editors. Some editors do both (in separate read throughs), while some do not. It’s up to you whether you want one or two people splitting the editing. Some line editors have a copy editor they work with on a regular basis.
There is another type of editing, which is developmental editing. This is when someone analyzes the overall structure of the book, including plot, theme, tension, character development, pacing, point of view, dialogue, etc. If you’re not sure which direction your story should be going in, then you might want to discuss it with a developmental editor. I personally don’t use one, and I don’t think many indie authors do. If you have a good line editor, you probably don’t need a developmental editor, unless you’re having difficulty with major parts of your story.
Line editing is done first, and the editor is looking for:
- Inconsistencies in the story line
- Excessive use of the same word
- Paragraph and sentence structure and flow
- Word choice
- Overused clichés
- Metaphors that aren’t clear
- Redundant narrative or dialogue
- Run-on sentences
- Unclear actions or impossible actions (i.e. a man or woman ends up with three hands during a sex scene lol, or someone turning on a light when the electricity is cut off to the building)
- Anything else that is disrupting the flow of the story or it is unclear what the author is trying to convey
- Most of what a line editor points out are suggested edits. If they point out something they think should be changed, and you don’t agree, discuss it with them. You may end up changing it or keeping it. You have the final say.
Copy editors are looking for:
- Grammar, including but not limited to, those pesky homophones! Than/then, you’re/your, there/their/they’re, etc.
- Repetitive words
- Numbers being written out instead of using roman numerals and vice versa
- Inconsistencies like I mentioned for the alpha readers—a brunette becomes a blonde without dying her hair.
- Errors in facts, i.e. a Marine being referred to as a soldier or use of a word or phrase that is uncommon where the action is taking place or the character is originally from—i.e. In the US we use the word “sneakers,” while in the UK they’re called “trainers.”
- Most of what a copy editor points out are not “suggestions.” They’re usually things that the author definitely needs to correct.
Proofreading is the final step in the process and is similar to copy editing. They’re looking for all those pesky typos that got past everyone else or that occurred while the author was making the above edits. Proofreaders are looking for errors in grammar, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, etc. Many line and copy editors have a proofreader that they work with.
Final Thoughts on Editing:
After all that, you hope there isn’t a single error in the entire book, right? Yeah, well, that’s not going to happen. Sorry! Even bestsellers from traditional publishing houses, with many editors and proofreaders pouring over the book, are released with errors in them. It happens. No one is perfect. If a reader contacts you about an error they found, thank them profusely, fix it, and upload the new file so that the next person who buys the book will have a better reading experience. Don’t get mad at your editor or proofreader if they missed a few isolated things. They’re human like the rest of us.
If you do have a small budget for expenses, don’t spend it on blog tours, expensive covers, exclusive images, book trailers, etc. Save up and get an editor first. There are plenty of inexpensive pre-made covers and inexpensive or free ways to advertise out there. All those items will mean nothing if your book isn’t the best it can be. You won’t get the great reviews and recommendations because of a $500 cover with an exclusive photo of a popular model. You’ll get them because your words moved the reader, and if the errors in your book are too distracting, you won’t be able to do that.
When looking for an editor or proofreader, ask for recommendations from other authors. Find out what books they’ve edited/proofed, then go download the samples from Amazon or other book sites. Read through them to see how well they’ve been edited. Ask what standard the editor uses, i.e., Chicago Manual of Style, or some other reference or credential. Ask for a sample edit (usually Chapter 1) to see if you both mesh. This is a partnership, like a marriage. You want an editor who is familiar with your genre and one that will retain your voice, not change the text to theirs. Before you sign on with an editor, find out all the details up front—cost (price is not always the best indicator of quality), how many times they’ll read through the book, exactly what they’ll be looking for during each read through, schedule and whether they can meet your deadline, etc. There should be absolutely no extra, surprise costs at the end of the job. Be very cautious of people claiming to be editors, especially on sites like Fiverr. Just because they can spot some typos in a book, does not make them a professional editor, and you may end up getting a shoddy job.
Consider asking your alpha and beta readers, editor, and proofer to sign a non-disclosure agreement to protect your work. There are dozens of sample agreements online that you can find and adjust to fit your needs. These can be signed on a book-by-book basis or at the beginning of the year, stating that it covers all works you send them for the entire year.
To help with the process of self-editing, especially if you can’t afford an editor, look into programs such as Grammarly and ProWritingAid. Even the grammar/spell check function on Word or Scrivener will help. They will NOT find everything, far less than an editor would, but it’s better than nothing. Another trick is to use a text-to-speech feature (Word and Scrivener have them or send the book to your e-reader). If you don’t like the monotone of the text-to-speech, then read the book aloud yourself or have someone read it to you.
I hope this has cleared up a few things. Again, you don’t need all of these different people. Some may be combined into one person. I have betas who also alpha (they read the whole thing after having read it chapter-by-chapter as I was writing it), and my editor does both my line and copy editing. Do what works best for you!