Personally I don’t believe you need to win the reader over with your first line or your first page. I don’t buy a book sight unseen, start reading without knowing what it’s about, and if I’m unimpressed by the first 250 words, chuck it in the bin.
The only people who read like that are agents.
Not that I’m not fussy about what I read. I may skim through boring bits, or give up on a well written book if it annoys me with its subject matter or unconvincing characters. But I’m not so demanding that I expect immediate brilliance from word one.
However, with the rise of ebooks a new phenomenon has occurred: the free sample. Now, instead of buying a book on a friend’s recommendation, or media hype, or the blurb on the back, you can read a couple of chapters first.
This may seem like a pretty reasonable way for people to get a taste of what a book is like (and it is), I can see it being open to abuse.
Pretty soon, rather than you going to Amazon or wherever and choosing a book you want to have a look at, they’ll find a way to send you sample chapters to your reading device. It will be under the guise of a book club or special offer or ‘If you like so and so, then you’ll love new author such and such’. And all you’ll know about this new author will be the pages they’ve sent you.
What will be presented as a helpful service for book lovers, geared to your tastes, based on your likes and dislikes, will actually just be direct marketing. But in order to get people to read a few pages for free and then click on the button to buy the whole book, the pressure on making your first few pages really start with a bang will become enormous.
What’s wrong with that? Surely having a fantastic opening to your book is something you should be striving for any way, right? Of course you should. But the difference is when the suits get involved in deciding what works and what doesn’t based on financial returns, what you end up with is highly profitable crap.
A good example of this is the movie industry and trailers. At some point they realised that the more of the best bits of a film you put in the trailer the more people will come and see it. But, because they’ve seen all the best special effects, funny lines, big twists, the audience won’t actually enjoy the film as much as they would have.
Make more money or give the audience a better experience? I think you know which they chose.
So, the problem isn’t the idea, it’s the execution. When one way of doing it is seen as the best way, you end up with a lot of clones of the same sort of thing. All the focus is on the beginning, and the book as a complete experience gets less and less important.
In most cases the rest of the book won’t live up to the opening, but it won’t matter. They’ll have your money, what do they care? It’s a business and they want to make as much money as possible. Front loading a story works, in marketing terms. Even if the rest of the book is terrible, you can sell units if you make the first pages action packed.
But a story only works when viewed in its entirety. The emphasis should be on the whole, not just one part, not if you want to be a good storyteller. Yes, you should have a strong, interesting, engaging start to the book. But that doesn’t mean melodramatic cliff hangers and overwrought life and death decisions on page one.
Of course I could be totally wrong. The publishing industry could go in the direction of good taste, original thinking and creativity. Right?
Do you think the free sample chapters will change the way you buy books? Perhaps it already has. I'd be interested to know.
If you found this post interesting, please give it a retweet. Cheers.
I try to follow back those who follow me, as long as you leave a link to your blog in the comments or in your profile.