Sunday, March 18, 2012

How to make a great ebook sample

This post probably sounds really strange. It probably sounds like I'm giving tips about something that doesn't really exist--a sample. Let's back up.

What is a sample?
Since I'm a registered Amazonophile, I'm speaking in terms of Amazon.com. A sample is the first 10% of your book. It's the small excerpt that online customers can download to their e-readers for free before they decided whether or not they want to purchase the book. This excerpt is also available on the product page. It's basically an author's pitch (along with covers and blurbs). We'll talk about blurbs another day.

Gone are the days when someone would decide whether or not to read a book after reading the last page--this is the age of the sample.

So I've recently taken up the hobby of reading the sample of any YA teen indie author who asks me to (I've limited the genre because if it were more flexible, I'd have enough samples to last me a lifetime. Literally). I've had about 4 dozen requests (and the offer still stands). And I've read through most of them. Here's the rundown:

I'm picky. Most samples are okay. Very few are great. A few are awful.

After reading all of these samples, I've come to some conclusions about what needs to be present in a sample. These are the reasons why I have not downloaded books after reading the samples:

1. Grammar/spelling
Call me hypercritical, but I really don't think there's any excuse for typos and grammar errors anywhere in a book. That being said, as someone who has published on KDP, I know how hard it is to find all the errors. Still, it's no excuse. I don't cut indie authors any more slack than I would cut a professional author, and I don't expect the same treatment. When I find a grammar error in my own work, I immediately change it. Having a grammar error or typo in your sample is simply unacceptable. Ideally, you ought to have no errors anywhere in the book, but if you want to sell your book, the first 10 percent must be FLAWLESS.

Here are some common errors that a lot of writers have made:
1.      "You're so funny dad."
2.      "What are you talking about"?
3.      "We should go to the park." He said.
4.      "This is my favorite time of year," he said..
5.      "But then again," he said. "We should leave before noon."
6.      He placed a hand on my shoulder.        
         "We should talk," he said.

These are just the start...there are quite a few to be found. If you cannot pinpoint why these are errors, you should brush up on some mechanics.

2. Formatting
I know, I know, it's hard. But it really hurts my American eyes when paragraphs don't have indents, and when there are ghost indents before paragraphs it's even worse. Please be consistent and format well.

3. The opening line
A creative writing teacher once told me that the opening line is the most important in a novel. I believe that. There are iconic opening lines in literature that many of us can quote ("Call me Ishmael." "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." "It was a pleasure to burn." "They murdered him.") It goes on and on. It's a key moment in a novel and I think a lot of writers take it for granted. I've seen opening lines like:

"Mom, have you seen my keys?"
It was pouring rain.
RING! I awoke to the sound of my alarm.

Try to make something more memorable, that will set the tone for the rest of the book.

4. Trimming the fat
I hate opening a sample and seeing all this excess--a page devoted entirely to one short quote, acknowledgments,  preface. Sigh. Here's the rundown:

-Quote: put it at the top of the chapter, put it somewhere else, but don't put it on its own page. Even if it somehow relates entirely to your story, it's just filler.
-Acknowledgements: I do think you need to thank those who helped your produce your work. However, you don't need to put it up front. Stick it in the back.
-Preface: I hate to say it, but nobody cares about the process for writing this book. Unless you're Tolkien or this is the third edition of War and Peace or you just died, nobody needs to know about how this book came into being. To me, it's a show of indulgence.

5. Ease into it
I hate going to the front page of an e-book and seeing horrible swears and shock value. I'm down to swear, don't get me wrong, but I think it's immaturity on the part of the writer to try to make the reader take a step back and go, "Wow, this dude has no filter!" I think you need to ease into the world you've created. Let the reader love the characters before you really delve into their roughness. And I think you need to let the reader dip their toes in. If you've got a futuristic, sci-fi novel, don't open with something like:

The age of the Kandondorfs was supposed to be the age when the Mogreffs and the Binfaels would finally make peace. But unsurprisingly, the Kandondorfs and their fleet of Averinthians had other plans in mind. The War of the Yestfell lasted for only two years, but the devastation to the race of Ginfees was immeasurable. It was the first extinction since the fall of the Mivglos in 3486.

I know, I know, you've worked hard. But foreign jargon from the get-go is off-putting. Obviously, we all managed to get through A Clockwork Orange, but if you're an indie writer, it's just not gonna fly.

6. Don't sell the farm
Leave a little intrigue. 10% is easy to predict--you've got a 250 page word doc, then the sample will be the first 25 pages. You've got 120,000 words, the sample will be the first 12,000. Take into consideration the mysteries you can create in that very specific amount of space. The point of a sample is that it needs to make the reader want to KEEP reading. I've read some decent samples with good writing and fine storylines, but if that's ALL, it's not enough to keep me. I just read a great sample that starts out with a girl writing letters to her friend about how curious it is that people keep getting sicker. It made me want to keep reading past the sample to find out how this blows into a full-on pandemic.

Obviously, the most important thing to do is write a great book. But marketing is key if you want anyone to ever find it.

-CZ

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