Thursday 5 April 2012

Ebook Evolution

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.

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Rusty Carl said...

I don't tend to read sample chapters. I think that's mostly due to technical reasons though - I end up with two version of the book I want to read, the sample book and the real book. I wasn't paying attention once and accidentally deleted the full version and then had to go back and redownload it.

Anyhow, I still like browsing, and that I have to click, download sample, read, then decided... that isn't like browsing, that's something else. I just want to look at a dang book without it cluttering up my digital library

Charmaine Clancy said...

I suspect the time of influence has passed. When free chapters first came out I downloaded loads of them. Now I can't be bothered, my time is limited and I don't want to fill my pages of my Kindle with samples. I may open the 'look inside', but usually I'll buy a book based on the premise and cover design (I'm a cover snob). If I still need convincing I'll read a couple of reviews. After that I'd check the first line, paragraph but that's it. By now I'll either buy it or I've lost interest.
Wagging Tales

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I don't read the sample chapters either. The cover catches my eye first and then I read the synopsis. I'll glance at the reviews just to be sure they aren't all one and two star. Then if I like the sound of it, I buy.

Bish Denham said...

You are a breath of fresh air. So many wonderful books start out a slow and slowly build. I can't for the life of me figure out why that's a bad thing. Not everything has to be action from page one, let alone the first sentence.

mooderino said...

@Rusty-I also feel people don't make up their minds by reading the first few pages. it would take ages to find good books that way. But times are changing...

@Charmaine-that's interesting. I expect the way they market books to ereaders to cahnge as they becme more popular. They have a way of sending stuff stright to you, i can't believe they won't try to exploit it.

@Alex-I wonder if there's a way to find out how many people download the sample chapters. Would be interesting to know. If no one bases their purchase on those opening pages, why the big fuss about that opening chapter? that's what I want to know.

@Bisha-not that I don't think there's anything wrong with action scenes, just that a little variety never hurt.

McKenzie McCann said...

I often get the sample chapters to remind me that I want to buy a particular book, then I'll read the sample and buy the book when I have money.

Anonymous said...

I don't read sample chapters. I generally go by reader reviews. This usually determines of I buy a book.

Suze said...

I skimmed the comments and think that what I'm going to say may just be a variation on the theme.

I still don't own an e-reader, though my husband bought one for our daughter, so the reading I do is still the lick the fingertip and turn the page kind. Now, when I'm in a store or at the library, I scan the first few sentences then flip to the end/middle to see if the words on the page still feel sharp. Why? Because I've been burned time and again by a highly-polished start that peters out.

I think the pressure of 'the first five pages' has been around for a long time. It may be as you suspect, that this pressure has grown, but I'd really like to think that though a number of variables are contributing to a swell of 'highly profitable crap,' readers are getting smarter, too.

Think of it this way, even if a bunch of front-loaded books make some huge early sales, people will come to recognize that just because the first few pages are gripping, this is no indication of sustained engagement or, more importantly, pay-off.

Actually, if you look at it that way, it could work to the advantage of authors. What's the old saying, nothing like good advertising to kill a bad product? Nothing like grabby initial pages with no follow-through in bulk to put potential readers on alert.

Hope all that made sense.

Patricia JL said...

I don't check out the sample chapters. As long as the blurb sounds interesting enough, I'll give the book a shot. I'm pretty easy to entertain when it comes to books, so I'm rarely disappointed.

Amalie Berlin said...

I'm of two minds on this, but I'll preface that with the disclaimer: I read much more popular fiction than the literary variety.

I share your worry about the first chapters not propping up the rest of the book(and have even worried about that in my own writing as I do like to start with a bang). But at the same time, I like to be dropped into the action. If it doesn't tickle me or pique my curiosity pretty darned quick, I put it down.

I don't actually download sample chapters though. And if I did and the book failed to live up to the rest, I doubt very much I'd buy anything else by that author.

Unknown said...

This is SO astute. Absolutely, this is the danger for writers, 'front loaded' first chapters etc. It'll be especially tough on sci-fi writers because often sci-fi needs a slow-ish build up before the first big bang. (I'm not saying no underlying tension, I'm talkin' subtlety here)

I plan to see Mirror, Mirror (the new Snow White in 3D) and wow, have they front loaded the trailer to the extent where it almost deserves a spoiler alert. I still want to see the film, but it was a borderline decision.

KC Kendricks said...

Good post. A lot of publishers use the first chapter as the sample chapter. They look for certain things - a hook of some sort.

A discerning reader isn't a fish and shouldn't be treated like one.

Stopping by as part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge :)

mooderino said...

@McKenzie-I imagine that will become more common as people get used to it.

@Stephen-I think a lot of us are set in our ways (tradtitionalists I like to think of us), but the nesxt gen may not approach book buying the same way.

@suze-the same is true of movie trailer, we're all hip to the hype, but it still works on enough peopel for them to keep doing it.

@Patricia-please buy my book.

@amalie-I think not being into that author because they let you down is something publisher's don't care about. They just want your money. Am I being too cycnical?

@Fiona-sometimes I watch the trailer instead of the movie. Saves a lot of time.

Jessica L. Celaya said...

I've often thought about how movie trailers often have the entire movie or all the good parts. Buying a book based on the first couple of chapters is difficult because some books I hate the first chapter but by the second or third one I'm so involved I can't put it down. Other books, I've loved from the first time I've heard the title.

Rosalind Adam said...

I have mixed feeling about this. I'm easily put off by the first chapter of a book and have little enthusiasm to push on with it even if I suspect it will get better. I've downloaded numerous free first chapters on my Kindle and never bought any of the books from what I've read. I hate those film trailers. It really spoils the film for me so I hope that free bits of books aren't going that way.

Also, as you pointed out, our manuscripts need to get past the agent/editor who often only have time to look at the first few pages. But then if someone has to write up a boring first chapter to set up the story then it doesn't reflect too well on their writing skills. In theory we should make sure that every sentence is the best we can make it... shouldn't we?

Ted Cross said...

I think you make a great point. I tend to not like to start my books right in the middle of action, since the reader hasn't had a chance to get to know the characters or setting yet. It becomes too impersonal for me. I want to get to know the main character first before jumping into the action.

mooderino said...

@jessica-i think that's the point I'm trying to make, that not all books are the same so treating them in the same way, while efficient, isn't particularly rewarding.

@Rosalind-I absolutely think you should make your writing the best it can be, but that doesn't necessarily mean the way that will most easily impress an agent. Agents are not normal people.

@Ted-I think people are less patient these days, but that doesn't mean they won't give things a chance. There are more ways to start a book in an interesting fashion than immediately goign for the jugular. But it's a much easier way to give advice if you make a blanket statement and walk off the stage.

Sharon Hamilton said...

I don't mind the free read, but I might buy something anyway for other reasons: to support an author I want to like (regardless of the free chapter), or to analyze the book for why it is a best seller, even if I don't particularly like it.

But this is because I am a writer now. I seldom have time to read for enjoyment...unless I read something completely different from my genre: romance.

A lot of romance writers are giving away free "shorts" that tie into their full-length books, and I think this is smart marketing. As an Indie published author, I will be doing this with my next one. And yes, my goal is to hook the reader, make them want to find out more about one of the main characters in the book. Having had my share of rejection from NYC, it's actually refreshing to go straight for the reader if I believe in my books, which I do, rather than have to go through the gatekeeper. Hmmmm....maybe this can be my G word.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Access to a the first few chapters, like Amazon's Look Inside The Book, were designed to give online shoppers the same ability to look at the book as if they were in the store. Ironically, most people who thumb through a physical book tend to read the ending. I still wouldn't want the ending of my books posted online though.

One of those things where you have to allow it since so many expect it now.

mooderino said...

@sharon-I think the free shorts idea is a great one. I'm not against finding ways to entice the reader, I just don't think there's only one way to do it.

@Diane-but I think you can see just from the comments here, people don't buy books based on the opening chapters, either online or in stores. They don't have time. Blurb, cover, word of mouth, reviews are all much more important, I would say.

Laura Pauling said...

Something to think about. I do buy most books based on the first couple sample chapters regardless. But for me the hook is in the writing not the set up. If it's great writing in the first couple chapters the rest of the book usually is too. Recently I read a blog post about how writing that wins contests b/c they follow all the writing rules are very different from books that get published. I'm reading one now (traditional) and the first chapter is an info dump under the guise of voice, the character describes herself in the mirror and it's the first day of school. That would never win a contest. But I like the concept so I'll keep reading. I'm hoping it will get better.

And actually it does matter if people buy a lot of books based on the samples because if the rest of the book doesn't live up they won't recommend and they' won't buy the next one. I don't know of any writer who does this on purpose!

Jenn said...

I've read a few sample chapters-- mostly to make sure I picked out the right e-book. I will almost always buy and read. But will delete if I'm not hooked within the first 1/2 hour to hour of reading. Interesting post for sure :)

Cheers, Jenn

Jason Runnels said...

Intriguing post! I hate movie trailers for the very reasons you say. If they aren't showing only the good parts of the movie, they tend to spill the beans. I like to go into a movie as blindly as I can. I don't see many movies though :-(

Regarding book samples, hopefully it doesn't become gimmicky. But I'm just not sure how this could lead to writing books so all of the "good" parts are in the front of the novel.

I agree with your point on poor execution of the whole but think readers tend to be able to spot good (or bad) writing in the first bit of a book. If the author (or publisher) is trying to use gimmicks to front load a novel, then isn't that Romance sample at risk of reading like an Action Adventure? That may be enough for that reader to toss the sample. Who knows?

But you're probably right, people will find a way to be deceptive if there's money involved. The movie Jerry Maguire had two trailers: a romantic one for the ladies, and a sports-focused ones for the guys.

mooderino said...

@Laura-I think you're right about not getting good word of mouth if you don't live up to your opening, but my point is I think the pressure to have a high energy opening (because that's what sells) can be detrimental (for the reasons yuo state) if it isn't that kind of a book.

@Jenn-how readers choose what to read is very resonable, I think. How agents and publishers think a book should open to win over readers doesn't seem very realistic, is what I'm suggesting.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

I still tend to read print books and I look at a variety of things before I buy - author, summary/blurb, reviews from trusted sources and I'll read the first page or two. It's not so much about a killer first line as it is about being drawn into the story. Also, do I like the author's writing style, the voice, etc.? Sometimes, a story will sound good but the execution of it falls short for me.

Ghadeer said...

That's a great post. I find those free samples reduce the "specialness" of a book. It's like judging whether a girl is right for you or not by a one hour lunch date. A girl is so much more than that. So's a book!

mooderino said...

@Jason-what I'm predicting (with no evidene whatsoever) is that the first chapter will have an expectation of a certain energy level. Not from readers, but from publishers and agents. No build up, straight to the high octane stuff (what that means will vary depending on genre). But without context that can feel cheesy. But that stuff sells well. But you might have wanted to go a diffrent way.

mooderino said...

@madeline-I think that's what most people do.

@jnana-depends what she does in that hour.

Ben said...

I don't take free samples. I'm a big eBook user, but I know what I'm looking for when I shop on the Kindle store and I don't need to test. But eBooks are changing the game big time. Giveaways I think have more power than the sample system. Signing for the KDP 90 days exclusivity program allows you to make your book free and then move many copies for a short time. Any given writer can move more than a thousand copies of his stuff in the wild when doing this.

mooderino said...

@KCKendricks (sorry I missed your comment, blogger put it in spam for soem reason) - I agree, readers aren't treated like intelligent people a lot of the time.

@Ben - I think it also pays to have multiple books using that system, so people who like your free book then immediately go and buy one of your other ones.

Beverly Diehl said...

I like sample chapters. A little while back, there was all the buzz about Barbara Freehy, and lo and behold, a sample chapter available of said book. Downloaded, read it, and really liked her writers' voice and the characters. So I bought (though I haven't yet read) the book. I've read a couple other sample chapters that have intrigued me enough to buy the book.

I do need SOMETHING on the first page to get me to read on. Could be interesting characters, intriguing plot, friend recommendation, or perhaps it's a classic that EVERYONE else has read. If the writing is crappy on the first page, however, I AM going to "read like an agent" and not buy the book, no matter how pretty the cover is.

DL Hammons said...

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.

I agree wholeheartedly! I'm glad to hear someone else say that out loud! :)

DL Hammons @ Cruising Altitude 2.0
Co-Host of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Fairview said...

I don't tend to read the first chapters. What catches my eye is the cover (shallow - I know) and the reviews. I look at how many reviews there are and also how many are 4-5 stars.

I have noticed where authors with multiple books often offer their whole first book or novella for free. These I look at and read and have discovered some really good authors that way.

But as a writer trying to get noticed, I'm told continually that you need a killer first line, first paragraph, first page.

Hektor Karl said...

I've noticed a few books lately -- particularly YA, though it's often true of literary fiction as well -- that start off with strong pacing/stakes/etc, and then seem to really slow down about 15% of the way in... not sure if this is connected or not, but it's disappointing when it happens, so I hope it's not a growing trend.

(In literary fiction it used to often be because a really good story had been expanded into a really mediocre novel, so it's not totally new.)

mooderino said...

@Beverly-I think the first chapter should have something of interest for a reader, just not necessarily the same something in every book. Not that that will automatically happen, but there is a tendency for the business side to go for cloning what they think works (as in movies, as in music).

@DL-feels like instead of encouraging people to do waht they want only do it better, the message tends to be do it this one way.

M said...

I never would have finished The Book Thief if I had stopped after the first page.

Nancy Thompson said...

I've only used this tactic once, and that was for the late Michael Crichton's last book. I wanted to read those first chapters to see if it was really him writing and was better than his pirate book. It was all good, but I still haven't bought it. Maybe soon. Maybe not. Who knows.

mooderino said...

@fairview-I would rather read a killer story with an average first line, than a killer first line that leads into an average story. I think most people would.

@Hektor-I think that's quite common. It's much harder to write a good book than a good opening.

mooderino said...


@Nancy-Nobody. Nobody knows.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

There is a lot of pressure on the author...but it is definitely less so with the small pubs (like the one I have). They don't have the sales goals and the stockholders and the huge profit guillotine hanging over their heads. They're just some dude or a couple of people, who are making a middle-class living publishing books. They have no lofty goals of driving a Rolls Royce around New York.

So yes, I agree with everything you've said regarding those first sample chapters with regard to a certain kind of publishing. But it is definitely less so when it comes to the small guy who doesn't demand an agent to submit to them.

Nate Wilson said...

I'll never give up on a book after a few pages. Yet, I have found that if I'm iffy about a book, a sample chapter or two can turn the tide. A neat premise might do the trick, but more often than not what catches my eye is strong writing.

So, sure, you can fine-tune your opening if you want to, but if you craft your work well from start to finish, that's what'll get me hooked.

mooderino said...

@Michael-that's good to know. There's hope!

@Nate-I agree!

Heather Murphy said...

I don't read sample chapters because I am afraid I will get hooked then I will HAVE to buy the book. Usually, the title, cover and blurb is what gets my attention.

Susan Oloier said...

I need more than a first line, too. I think that is an agent myth, as well. A chapter or two is usually enough to make me know if I want to keep reading or not. But I have been known to chuck an occasional book half way through.

mooderino said...

@Heather-seems you aren't the only one.

@Susan-halfway seems reasonable.

Sarah Tokeley said...

Sample chapters will never overtake personal recommendations for me. I have so little to spend on books that I hate to make a mistake.

mooderino said...

@Sarah-but they're sneaky, they'll try to trick you somehow. Publishers, you can't trust 'em.

Paula Martin said...

It's the back-cover blurb or the synopsis which pulls me in. Sometimes I'll read a couple of pages, just to give me some idea of the author's style (and, if it's self-published, to reassure myself about his/her grammar, punctuation and spelling too).

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