Most people have heard of beta readers, but not as many have heard of alpha readers. I myself had not heard of an alpha reader until recently and it turned out I actually had one without realising it. Therefore I think it is important to clarify what an alpha reader is.
For starters, an alpha reader is the person you trust to read your manuscript first. Hence the title, alpha reader, alpha being the first letter in the Greek alphabet and in more general terms meaning at the top (alpha male/female etc.). After writing on your own to the best of your ability, the alpha reader comes along and works with you to pick up any grammar and punctuation mistakes as well as any loose plot threads and character development issues. They point out what they loved and what didn’t really work for them as a reader.
If you are lucky they will then work with you as you revise your manuscript (sometimes several times) and polish it to the best of your ability. Once this is done the beta reader/s come in. They do much the same thing but they are coming from a casual reader perspective. They can still be someone you know and like, but you don’t trust them with your manuscript like you do the alpha. And that is where the major difference lies, trust. You trust the alpha reader with your manuscript in its infancy, the beta readers you don’t.
The alpha reader is someone you trust to be honest with you about your work but do it in a kind and constructive way. They work with you on improving your story, after all they are the first audience and it is highly likely your manuscript still needs refinement. The beta readers you trust to tell you if they would buy it and why/why not. They will also pick up grammar and punctuation mistakes and weak plot points, but are either too harsh or soft with their feedback for the first time around.
I started with my mum as my alpha reader but quickly changed it to my best friend Kat. I’ve known Kat since we were both 8 years old and trust me, she can be brutally honest, but always in a way that is helpful. Kat is currently reading the first part of my manuscript and I have never been so grateful for the fact that she likes to correct grammar! She is one of my biggest supporters but is also good at pointing out when and where I can do better (in regards to my manuscript that is, otherwise she leaves me to it)!. It helps that Kat knows me well enough to do it in a way that won’t upset me.
The reason I changed my alpha reader from my mum to Kat is because my mum was a little too soft and hesitant in criticising my work. She makes an awesome beta reader though, finding any mistakes Kat and I have missed. And after revising and re-editing a manuscript a number of times, some mistakes do get through, which is why it is important to have a beta reader/s.
So at the end of the day, an alpha reader is the person you trust to be completely honest with you about your work. They are important and a good alpha reader/writer relationship is worth its weight in gold. It improves your manuscript, making it ready for the world and that can only be a good thing.