The term comes from the computing industry, where alpha programmers devise new software and other equally qualified and experienced IT people test it out in controlled conditions. So an experienced writer gets other experienced writers to read their work.
Why not ask target readers to try it out? What is wrong with just using a critique group?
Target readers actually are an excellent idea and I would define them as beta+. Unlike the experienced writers they are not analysing the skill of the writer but are responding as a reader. Does this text work? The experienced writer will look for faults and will critique towards making the text more polished. They will also have some idea of how to flirt with the publishing industry. A mixture of both types of reader is probably desirable.
Naturally, members of your local critique group will also do that. The problem may be that they don’t see the whole text and may only be judging at a line-editing level. They may, for instance, say that your characters aren’t clear. Well, probably not if the first time they’ve met them is in Chapter Six and you’ve introduced them effectively in Chapter One. And even if your critique group has seen the whole text, as you’ve altered it as you’ve gone along, they can probably no longer be really objective.
So, it’s good to get a group of fresh-eyed “beta readers” to look over your carefully edited and polished text.
I’m two thirds of the way through my final edit of Potatoes in Spring and I’m trying to find my five beta readers. I’m asking a colleague who has a special interest in the topic and I want him to see how ethical my text is. I’m asking another colleague, another creative writing teacher who frequently works with young people, to take a look. With the latter there is a slightly ulterior motive: she is a playwright and we both think the novel may effectively be turned into a play. A Holocaust survivor who also came over on the Kindertransport has also volunteered to read it. Then I want to find two other readers. One should be another young adult, then two experienced writers. That gives me two betas and three beta+s. Is that the right number? I’ll revisit that later.
Obviously if I’m asking five people to read my work and comment on it, for nothing more than an acknowledgement in the book and a free copy when it is published I need to give something back. I did think about setting something up that worked like a baby-sitting circle. But this could be complex to organise and it might mean you work with the same people all of the time which could lead to a “house style” that may or may not be right. An element of randomness is probably welcome.
So, at some point I must also be a beta reader. Will it work fairly if we leave it to everyone’s conscience? Or should we pay our beta readers? Could people afford to pay? Or could it be a I.O.U that would be settled out of the advance?