*This is the second in a series of chronological posts about how a first-time self-publishing author is taking his book from idea to Amazon. You can read the first 8,000-word article (chock full of actionable tactics) here.
Question: what do you get if your cross an ultra-marathoner, CIPR Fellow, senior third sector bod, top journalist, engineer, board-level facilities management consultant, accountant, influencer marketing expert, author, and social psychology student?
Answer: stunning, comprehensive, and invaluable feedback on a first-time author’s 87,000-word book.
In this post, I’ll share with you the exact process I used to get ten highly intelligent people – all with different skills – to read and comment on my first draft.
Let’s start with a definition. Alpha readers are the first people you let read your draft book.
They need to:
A: Be trustworthy.
B: Be honest.
C: Know you well enough to tell you if part of what you’ve written is a bit rubbish.
D: Have a niche skill.
E: Have the time and inclination to read your non-polished work.
F: Provide detailed feedback to a brief.
G: Work to a deadline.
Alpha readers are not to be confused with beta readers: people who agree to read your second draft, the one that is nearly there, almost perfect.
I can only speak for myself here (tautology klaxon...that’s why I require alpha readers).
When you spend the best part of six months working on a book, without showing a word of it to anyone, you tend to lose a bit of perspective.
In short, you need help.
Depending on how many you ask – I was lucky to have ten on my team – alpha readers provide priceless, rounded feedback.
This includes: correcting grammar and literals, advice on structure, tone of voice, and drops in poise, any annoying and overused phrases, and any sections that need cutting or reordering. Did the book flow? What was its main message?
Some changes are obvious: I have removed two throw-away references to “kicking the cat”, winning back 18 per cent of my potential readership in one fell swoop.
But what you’re really looking for is emergent themes.
For instance, if seven of your ten alpha readers agree that your introduction is far too long, you tend to listen.
Similarly if one or two of them highlight an itch you were dying to scratch during the first-draft-writing phase, you know you were right in the first place.
In a nutshell, if you’re a first-time author self-publishing a book – or any sort of author – feedback from alpha readers is a must.
My book’s going to be a whole lot better for their input. Here’s how I went about getting it.
This boils down to two factors: can you trust them and what do they bring to the party.
It’s a big ask: you need to know them well.
Be clear on your expectation. Don’t ask for a wee favour. If you’re looking for feedback on an 87,000-word first draft, say so.
I started asking my alpha readers in late January, three weeks in advance of finishing the first edit of my first draft. For three reasons:
i:) I was looking for a pretty tight turn-around (10 days) and wanted alpha readers who would commit to this timescale. The earlier I asked them the more likely they’d say yes.
ii:) I wanted at least six first (another term for alpha) readers. If anyone declined, I’d still have time to ask another.
iii:) I started writing my book on 9 January. By month end, I was confident of hitting my daily word count target and could guesstimate when I would finish. In addition, having named the deadline (Friday 23 February), and tee'd up my alphas, I was determined not to miss it. This provided the external pressure I needed.
Don’t ask friends you know to be working 60-hour weeks. And if you do (two of my alpha readers fit into this category), be prepared to relax the deadline.
I wrote my first draft in Google Docs. I asked for feedback on my manuscript in a Google Doc.
In retrospect, this was too prescriptive.
Luckily my alpha readers were grown-ups and decided to revert using the technology they felt comfortable with: sometimes email, sometimes Word, sometimes Google Docs.
A couple of alpha readers, due to working in remote places, struggled with the cloud-based nature of Google Docs and weren’t able to turn on the offline function. This slowed them down and proved a source of minor frustration.
This is not a brainstorm. This is a conversation between you and your alpha reader. One on one.
You want their true and honest feedback, untainted by the views of others.
I could have asked for comments in a single Google Doc: more fun for the alpha readers, and a lot easier for me to act upon.
However, like most brainstorms, I would have lost some of the most valuable insights as, try as they might, people had their opinions coloured by others.
My self-help book’s about resetting your life halfway through.
RESET offers an unconventional early retirement plan to middle-class midlifers who want to be happy.
It covers a diverse range of topics but centres on finding your purpose, facing your digital fears to future-proof your career, decluttering your life, and embracing financial independence.
Every one of my alpha readers is bright, curious, thoughtful and middle-class. Ages range from 40 to 60. A few live or work abroad. Most either occupy or once occupied senior positions in corporate life. Most have kids. All write: books, blogs, essays, strategy documents, newspapers, board reports.
There are a few grammar experts, including one who made his name as a journalist sub-editor.
An accountant for the numbers.
An ultra-marathoner for grit, determination and talking to me like a mate with whom I’ve shared many long runs.
A few read the sort of self-help/business books I like.
There’s a fiction author who’s completed one book and is on to another.
A couple of fellow public relations pro’s, including one who’s been on the same transformational digital journey I’ve been on for the past five years.
And a friend who I talk about psychology and philosophy with every month at the pub.
With my ten alpha readers, I have every base covered, and then some.
Now I’m not arguing that ten is the magic number. Most authors pick a couple, four or five at most. I’ve been very lucky.
But with ten people feeding back on your draft, it’s easier to make decisions, as commonalities emerge.
I’ve been blown away by the level of detail, thought and honesty of my alpha readers.
I’ve had extensive conversations over the phone, Skype, in person and by email.
This has been beneficial to me but, more importantly, I hope they’ve found it of interest too.
For instance, if I’d spent a day reading an 87,000-word book then diligently fed back my thoughts, I’d want to know which comments had been taken on board and what other alpha readers thought.
I’d feel part of the book, involved, and I'd be dying to see how my comments had influenced the finished product.
Treat your alpha readers like the special people they are.
Yes, you trust them implicitly and they’re good friends, but don’t take that for granted.
Make sure you involve them every step of the way.
My final bit of alpha reader feedback came in last week. Here’s what I’ve done with it so far:
i:) Responded to each alpha and sought clarification on any comments I was unsure about.
ii:) I’m halfway through tracking all the easy changes on my master Google Doc: the spelling mistakes, lapses in grammar, throwaway comments that deserve to be jettisoned.
iii:) I have four lists on the go: repeated phrases, small changes, big changes, and process. I’ll turn my hand to these once I’ve finished all the grammar changes.
iv:) I’m saving the big changes to last. This flies in the face of received wisdom but works for me.
v:) Crucially, I have a table with alphas down one axis and emergent themes along the other. This is where I track what they think: it helps me make my mind up on the big changes. For example, “Intro Too Long?” has seven ticks against it, with accompanying comments ranging from “It’s too long, Dave” to “You sold me early on, you could lose most of this”.
Although you’ll be eternally grateful to your alpha readers, remember that it’s your book.
Highly intelligent people have a habit of putting their case compellingly.
What you have to bear in mind is that you wrote it that way for a reason in the first place.
Although changing this to that or the other may make sense to your alpha reader, it may not be true to you (thanks to one of my alpha readers for reminding me).
There are millions of ways you can tell a story: it’s your job to pick the one that works for you, and the thousands of people you hope will benefit from reading your book.
I spent the entire research and initial writing phase of my book with the metaphorical door closed. I recommend you do this too.
When you tentatively creak that door ajar, you will be scared witless. I guarantee it.
At this juncture, you need advice from people who care about you, and are honest enough to say what they think about your creation (best at this stage than when you’re getting slated by random Amazon reviewers who only care what value they got out of spending their hard-earned pounds on your book).
It’s not for the faint-hearted: be prepared for your darlings to be killed in front of your eyes. However, I’ve found it both life-affirming and professionally indispensable.
Plus, hearteningly, without exception, each alpha reader is working on something in their lives as a result of reading RESET...and you can’t say fairer than that.
Thank you alphas (and Rich Roll for the headline-inspiration, which prompted me to buy his excellent-sounding book today).
If you’re looking for an alpha reader template email once you open your writing door, here’s one I made earlier. I sent it to the ultra-marathoner featured in the image at the top of this post at 20:55 on Friday 23 February 2018, leaving two weekends and a working week to respond:
Hi there Neal
First, many thanks. I am very grateful.
Second, here's the manuscript (I've set it so anyone with this link can edit, pls. don't forward to anyone else):
It's a Google Doc, only shared between you and me (no attachment, just a link). If you're not familiar with Google Docs they're just like Word docs but Cloud-based. It's the technology I've used to write the book, and it's the technology I'll be using to edit it. If you get stuck, just ask any questions and I'll be able to help. Google, of course, is a good source of knowledge too. When you open the doc, the "outline" should come up on the left-hand side, which is, in essence, the table of contents, and will allow you to toggle back and forth, and see the overall structure. The comments work just like in Word. They update real-time (cos the doc's on the Cloud) which makes the process a lot more collaborative/interactive. To sign in to a Google Doc you need a Google Account. You'll probably have one. But if you haven't, it takes a minute to get a free one using whatever email address you use usually. Here's a link: https://accounts.google.com/SignUp?hl=en
Don't worry about breaking anything in the Google Doc, comment away to your heart's content. Each alpha has a separate doc, and I have a master doc, which I'll be making the changes in from 6am Monday 5 March.
Third. here's the brief:
A: Overall impression?
B: What parts do you like and what parts don't you like? Which parts would you like to hear more/less about?
C: Did you keep the thread all the way through?
D: Is the message clear?
E: They say you remember one thing from a book. What is it?
F: Are there any factual errors?
G: Keep your feedback honest, constructive and specific, including positive reactions as well as improvements that could be made.
H: Was the book told in the right order?
I: Would you want to read another book by the same author? What impression would you form of him (if you didn't know him)?
J: Did the book deliver on its promise? Think back to after you'd just read a few pages of the intro. Did it teach you what you thought the book was going to teach you?
K: Mark sections where you feel lost and confused. Say why.
L: Did you find it easy to read, in the sense of not being distracted by poor grammar, punctuation, hard-to-follow instructions?
M: Any obvious gaps or inconsistencies?
N: What bit did you enjoy the most and what bit would you most like me to change?
Fourth, many thanks for agreeing to get back to me by end day Sunday 4 March. I have that week blocked off to go over all the alpha changes and make revisions.
Fifth, I am absolutely bricking myself. Having spent the best part of six months on this project with the "door closed", opening it is both exciting and scary.
Sixth, if you have any questions over the next nine days, do let me know.
Thanks again, and I look forward to hearing from you.