As writers, we all know how vital that opening paragraph or chapter is to a novel. It’s what the reader first sees as they page through your work in a bookstore. Here’s what I do when evaluating a book. I’m drawn by the cover. (Guilty about that one. I used to be a graphic designer.) Then I scan the blurb. Finally I dive into the first page or two. I buy based on that.
Here’s one problem. Some author’s lie. I recall one book (I’ve blotted the name out of my memory) that began terrifically. Amazing voice and first-person narration. I bought it. Took the book home. As I continued to read, I found that the astounding voice and writing trailed off. But the third chapter it was dull. I sold it to a used bookstore.
The other key problem lies in how I buy books now (and I suspect many others will soon). I download a free sample to my Nook and start reading. This is a whole different kind of read than I gave the physical book in the store. That was a quick, get to know you. This is a full on dive and swim through the pages. That mystery book from so long ago wouldn’t have survived such an inspection. I probably would have seen the weak chapters that followed (or would I?).
It seems that the free sample publishers give you varies wildly. A look at three samples I downloaded showed 20 pages, 32 pages, and 36 pages. Also, take into account that ebooks start numbering with the cover. That means that somewhere between five and ten pages are chewed up with cover art, copyright, and table of contents. Thus, you now have to win your readers in fifteen to thirty solidly written pages. If not, that person won’t follow through and buy your book.
Case in point. I downloaded the sample for Divergent by Veronica Roth. I tried to get into it, but I just couldn’t. I read twenty some pages of the thing. The writing was well done, it just didn’t resonate with me. So I ditched it. No money lost.
Ultimately we have to deliver great writing from page one to the epilogue, but we often frontload with the very best we can offer. No longer will the awesome first chapter do. I notice that agents tend to ask for thirty-fifty pages. Ereaders let you download almost that much. If you want to sell a reader on your book, you better make sure those opening pages sing like a siren, and keep singing through page thirty or fifty.