Every industry has its own language and publishing is no exception. Do you know what these terms really mean? Let’s find out…
I see a lot of writers talking about their experiences with beta readers: releasing works chapter by chapter, abusing betas as “free editing”, or generally complaining that beta response rates are low. These writers talk about beta readers as the catch-all people to avoid hiring an editor: who needs to pay an expert when all these people will read the work for free, right? Betas are touted as the ultimate test reader and sure, that’s kind of close to right but it’s not really the full picture of a beta reader’s purpose. This term made the list because too many writers refer to beta readers as the first audience.
Not to get all word-nerdy here but “beta” does not mean first, it means second. So who’s on first?
Alpha readers are extraordinary gems of the literary community because they look at the big picture: does the plot make sense? They read what you’re struggling with, the thing you’re pretty sure you’ve revised (not “edited”, we’ll get to that) so many times that language itself ceases to exist. Alpha readers are heroes who find the holes in your plot and if you’re lucky, they’ll work with you to fix them. Many developmental editors also offer alpha reading services (self plug, hi!) as an “edit lite”—that is to say, their service is preliminary: a test to help you figure out what to do next. This is the first audience.
Truly gifted, exceptional beta readers do exist; their true purpose is one of the final stages of the production process. After your work has been edited, revised, and polished, then it’s time to reach out to beta readers. A good beta is intimately familiar with their genre; when they read your completed project, they give you the reader’s opinion as the test audience for your finished work. Betas are a great resource when you’re struggling to identify comparison works, can help spread the word about your publication, and usually write profound reviews.
Learn more about beta readers in this great post by Lindsey!
Indie, Boutique, Vanity, Self
Buckle up, this one’s a doozy.
We’ll start big and work our way down. Many writers refer to traditional publishing as the path where you query a gajillion agents and fill yourself with doubt until you find the perfect match, they find the right enormous conglomerate publisher (a.k.a. “The Big Five”) for your work and help you negotiate a deal to make you super rich! …ish… except that’s not entirely how it works.
Some writers think representation (a literary agent) is what makes someone “traditionally published” but that’s not quite right either. In fact, some publishers, both big and small, will read works from writers without representation. It’s unusual but not unheard of, though I certainly wouldn’t want to face a publishing contract on my own.
Indie publishing is when your book is published by a small-ish press. That’s right, even though it’s not one of the “Big Five” publishers that instantly spring to mind, a smaller publisher is still traditional publishing! We call them “indie” because most are independently owned and writers often meet or work directly with the founder on their path to publication. Small presses are creating HUGE waves in the industry by making themselves more accessible to a wider range of authors, creating a faster path to print than the Big Five, and keeping up with reader demand in this ever-changing literary landscape.
Boutique publishing is similar to indie but with one huge distinction: they’re specialists. Where many small presses cover a range of genres, styles, and readerships, boutique publishers are niche. They typically focus most of their efforts on one or two specific genres and styles to hit one readership base. Cover art is often similar across a boutique’s catalogue and yes, this is still traditional publishing!
Vanity publishing is when a writer pays a service up front to have their work published. This kind of press usually advertises an “all-in-one” service complete with a loose grammar check and cover creation. This is a form of self publishing where writers do most of the work themselves with an added bonus of paying handsomely to see their work in print. Few see a return on this hefty investment, though it is possible.
Self publishing is just as it sounds: the writer publishes the work themselves. If you’ve ever written your own blog, you are self-published. Choosing this path means you could hire out the formatting, cover, marketing, etc, or you could do it all yourself. A self-published author retains full control of every step, with all the ups and downs that includes. It’s often harder for a self-published author to earn sales but many do a great job!
Perspective vs Point of View
Perspective is widely misconstrued: I see writers confusing perspective with point of view on a daily basis. Yes, daily.
It’s easy to understand why: we’ve all heard people talk about “first/third person perspective”, it just rolls off the tongue but arguably, this is the root of the problem. Just because it’s easier to say doesn’t mean it’s factually accurate.
What many writers have been calling “perspective” is actually point of view. Point of view is a narrative style; it’s the difference between the reader watching the story from the outside (third person) or being plopped into the setting as a character (first person). There are other options (second, third omniscient vs limited, fourth, etc) but this post is long enough already without diving into that rabbit hole.
On the other hand, perspective is the owner of the thoughts and feelings. A few years ago, I read an outstanding Writer’s Games entry about a little girl with an ice cream cone. The challenge was to write a tragedy where no one died. In this piece, told from the girl’s perspective, dropping her ice cream was a life-altering, traumatic event. It was gone forever and she didn’t want another ice cream, she wanted THAT ice cream. This piece was tragedy in the purest form but from the perspective of a rational adult, it’s just an ice cream.
Perspective doesn’t have to be tied to point of view, either. You can achieve a strong opposing character’s perspective through their dialogue, actions, and the way they interact with the narrator.
A lot of writers joke about how hiring an editor is too expensive, or confusing, or isn’t really necessary, or they don’t know which kind of editor to hire and how do they know they’re not overpaying or that their editor is competent and they work themselves into a knot and do the worst possible thing imaginable for their project: they skip this step.
Every project needs an outside look before it's polished.
Editing your own work is not a thing. Before you rage, take a deep breath and finish the paragraph. As a writer, you can revise your own writing into eternity. To truly edit your work, you need an outside person with a solid understanding of your genre to read your project, look at the big picture, and give you notes to help you improve. An editor’s job is to find and point out problems. Depending on the type of editor, they might help you discover solutions but it’s not their job to change your work. Only you, the creator, can fix problems the editor finds. You revise—alter, update, correct, and improve—your own work. Without an outside view, your brain sees what it wants to see on the page. Your brain thinks that subplot makes sense because you see it so clearly in your head and all the read-throughs in the world won’t show you otherwise. Skipping this step of seeking outside help in the form of an experienced alpha reader or developmental editor means the work is unedited despite [numerous] revisions.
Editors who write need an editor, no one is exempt. There are a few different kinds of editors but this isn’t the space. In this section, I’m only referring to developmental editing. It’s also important to note that editors’ rates vary and don’t necessarily reflect competency or genre. Shop around and find a solution that works for you.
I’ve seen the question of this term pop up in waves over the last few years so it feels appropriate to tackle it here. Voice can be two things at once.
Voice is the author’s unique use of language. In essence, it’s YOU on the page: the way you phrase your thoughts, sentence and paragraph structure, etc. Your voice as an author is the culmination of your life experiences and how your brain interprets the world, set to words. Understanding your voice and allowing it to shine are big hurdles for every writer. Voice makes your work distinguishable from other pieces even when they use a similar style—it’s how historians can tell who the author of a found manuscript is even when they didn’t sign their work. Only you can use your own voice.
The character’s voice is the same general concept, except their voice will always be somewhat masked by the writer’s. A great way to see the difference between character voice and author voice in action is to read a book by collaborating authors. If you’re familiar with one (or both) of their writing styles, it’ll be easier to see the character’s voice carry through while the author’s word choice and sentence structure shift slightly between writers.
This is another word-swap I see periodically and it drives me bonkers. Stop trying to “flush out” a story. Please do not throw your work into the toilet. Not only are plumbing problems costly and emotionally exhausting to fix, flushing your work is disrespecting yourself: you put time and effort into that!
When referring to expanding on an idea or developing deeper description, the correct phrase is “flesh out”. Think of it as adding flesh to the world you’ve created. Once your characters have flesh, they’re more believable because you fleshed them out.
If you’re still unconvinced on this one, here’s a link.
Did you get them all right? Industry terminology can be confusing, especially when so many writers repeat the mistakes they’ve seen without realizing they’re misunderstanding. Hopefully now you’re better prepared to use the right term in the right place so you can expand your knowledge further. Which other industry terms create frustration for you?
About the author: Theresa Green is the co-founder of The Writer's Workout, a crime fiction writer, and a freelance developmental editor.