Sample Sale

They were piling up. Sometimes one at a time, sometimes two or three. But one thing was certain: they had to go.

I’m talking about the dreaded sample.

I had thirty one book samples on my Kindle. I’d read a few and held on to them as a reminder to buy them later, but most were ones I hadn’t touched. So this past weekend I read all of them (including the ones I’d already read) with the intent to purchase or delete.

With few exceptions, they were all well written and fairly engaging. But out of all thirty one, I only bought seven. I kept a few others to re-read some other time (because face it, after you read that many samples, your brain is fried) and deleted the rest.

One of the first ones I read was Shooter by Dahlia West, and after I’d read it, I had to remind myself constantly I wasn’t buying anything until I’d read all the samples, otherwise I might never get to some of them. The characters were complex and engaging from the very first page, and after I’d moved on to the next sample I kept wondering what was going to happen next. The same thing happened with Lovely Vicious by Sara Wolf, and – bonus – she had a frickin’ fantastic voice.

When I read the opening chapter of Willow Aster’s True Love Story, my stomach clenched and dropped. Seriously. The opening is gut wrenching, and I figured I’d be buying the book at the end of the weekend. But the next chapter…it wasn’t a dud, not by any means, but it was nowhere near as good as the first chapter. So I held off buying it, along with six others I saved to read again later.

The rest I trashed.

What did I get out of reading all these samples?

Your opening pages have to stand out.

Our attention spans have shrunk to the size of gnats these days, with so much clamoring for our attention. Add that to a finite budget, and yeah, you have to work pretty hard to convince me to spend the money on your book (especially if it’s more than $3.99).

What made all of those books I ended up buying stand out was their characters. Some people say you need tension in your first pages to draw the reader in and keep them with you. And that’s true. But I’d argue if you’ve got flat characters, all the tension in the world won’t help your opening chapter. Two of these seven books had characters that sparked and leaped off the page and left me with an itchy one-click finger. All seven had tight prose and a great voice, along with plots that, while they might not have been the most original, they were still fresh enough to hold my interest.

Because of the aforementioned brain frying, there were a handful I saved to re-read later. There was nothing wrong with any of these. Again, tight prose, great voice, complex and intriguing characters. I was just tired enough of reading samples that I couldn’t make a solid choice. One falls in the realm of historical romance, and I am not normally a fan of historical romance. But I liked the paranormal element enough to give it a re-read.

The ones I didn’t buy? Three had backstory issues. Like, there was backstory within the first two pages. I don’t mind a little backstory in the first chapter – and, granted, one of these only had a couple of paragraphs, and it was fairly well done – but since I have backstory issues myself, I tend to be very hard on books that plop it into the first couple of pages and let it go on for more than a few sentences. A couple were New Adult titles that just weren’t shiny enough. One had an aversion to the word “her” and used the heroine’s name repeatedly. Another had a kickass premise and I may have bought it – if it hadn’t been $6.99. Some simply were entertaining while I was reading them but as soon as I stopped, I forgot about them. And that is exactly what you don’t want your opening pages to do – leave your reader with a less-than-stellar first impression.

There’s a danger, too, of the sample not living up to the rest of the book. That’s the big reason I’m hesitant to buy True Love Story. The opening chapter was amazing, and then we go back five years to the beginning of Sparrow and Ian’s relationship. I found I cared more about what was happening to them now than what happened early on, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book, considering it flips back and forth in time. So show your subsequent chapters the same love and care you show your opening chapter. I learned this the hard way – all the contests I entered Iron Jewel in were for anywhere between the first seven to the first twenty five pages (the Golden Heart being the exception) and the story did well. When I submitted it to my editor, though, he ultimately turned it down, and the reasons he outlined for doing so were the exact fears I’d had for the story as it progressed.

But at the end of the weekend, I had seven brand new books to read. If only I didn’t have review books to get to first…

Shameless promotion time: Want to see if your sample would be up to snuff? The Emerald City Opener will begin accepting entries April 1st. As this is sponsored by my local RWA chapter, it is mandatory that your first pages be romance. Categories are contemporary, historical, paranormal, romantic suspense, young adult, and new adult. Final judges information, rules, and entry fees can all be found here. If you write romance, this is a fabulous contest to enter – the final judges we got this year kick so much ass.

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