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Free Sample Chapters: Pros and Cons

Author and editor Lyn Perry recently talked about whether offering free sample chapters is a good marketing strategy for authors. Apparently, they don’t work for Lyn.

I don’t like to read portions of books or samples of stories. Those extra pages at the back of a novel to entice you to buy the second book in the trilogy? Waste of paper.

So I don’t think offering free sample downloads is a particularly effective marketing strategy …on people like me.

But it must be fairly effective for a large group of readers otherwise the practice wouldn’t exist.

I’m one of those readers whom sample chapters exist for. My Kindle is full of them. Of course, not all of those sample chapters have resulted in purchases. But that’s the point. Some have. And they did because I liked what I saw. In my opinion, it’s one of the funnest things about digital readers. Like an endless loop through Costco on a Sunday afternoon — samples on every aisle!

But as Lyn points out, readers seem to approach sample chapters differently.

For instance, blurbs and back cover copy never influence my purchase. I don’t care who endorsed a book or how good the cover looks. If it’s an author I’m unfamiliar with or have not been specifically referred to, I look for one of four things, usually in this order:

  • Good form
  • Compelling premise
  • Interesting characters
  • Action

Admittedly, Action is the last on my least.  In fact, I’ll rarely purchase a book just because it’s “fast-paced.” Nor will I stay with a book just because there’s Action. Which is funny because so many books seem to stand on being “fast-paced.” As a reader, it’s usually not necessary for me to read more than a few pages to determine if I want to stay with a writer. If the craft is solid, I will usually stay with a book, even through a slower plot or a non-hooky intro. But stellar prose is not a necessity for me. In the long-run, an intriguing storyline will keep me reading despite average writing. As long as I feel a story is going somewhere I want to go, I can put up with serviceable prose. Either way, no amount of gunshots, train wrecks, tantalizing prologs, or quirky characters will keep me reading a book that is not well-written and does not have a compelling premise.

But that’s just me.

The tricky thing about sample chapters is this: The proliferation of free chapter samples has led to “top-heavy” stories, i.e., stories with well-polished first chapters that are not sustained throughout the novel. I suppose we can blame much of this on “conventional writing wisdom.” It’s why writing teachers often talk about The First Five Pages, or some equivalent.  Because most agents and editors decide within the first few pages (of a query or manuscript) whether or not a story works for them, writers tend to over-polish their first chapter.

To me, that may be the biggest con — as in Pros and Cons — of free sample chapters. They present a story which the author can’t deliver upon.

So what about you — Do you like sample chapters? And if so, what are you looking for when you read them?

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{ 28 comments… add one }
  • Liliy July 3, 2012, 6:49 AM

    I think samples are important. I’d never buy a book in a store without reading the first few pages, and the same goes for digital purchases.

    The blurb/summary lets me know if it’s something I’d be interested in, and the sample lets me know if I could stand to read the author for another 200 or so pages. I’m not really looking for craft, or specifics–but it does let me know what POV the book is in & if it’s intelligible.

    In other words, if I can get through 10 pages, I can read the rest. Plot & Character don’t really factor in until I’ve read a much larger chunk. XD

  • Tim Ward July 3, 2012, 7:31 AM

    It sounds like Lyn is referring to a habit of reading paper versions of books. I’m more of an ebook reader, and I find lots of benefits to samples both at the end and getting my sample sent to my kindle prior to purchasing. I think it’s a great idea to have both. T.C. McCarthy has the intro to his novel Germline at the end of his short story ebooks, and after enjoying the short, the intro to his book no doubt helped put his book on my to read list. Justin Macumber’s Haywire and Jonathan Maberry’s Patient Zero both sold me on the intro delivering on what I wanted per their book’s premise and genre.

    Sometimes I’ll buy a book purely on premise and reputation, but for new authors I will always download the sample first. If there isn’t a sample available, I wait until it is.

    I also like how having that sample at the end of books prevents me from knowing when the book will end. At this point, I wonder what the real drawback is from having a sample at the end. If people don’t care, it’s not like it’s a nuisance, right? I suppose one drawback could be the gap between the sample and a page that links to your other books. Other than that, I say why not?

    • Lyn Perry July 3, 2012, 12:57 PM

      Tim, I’m thinking both paper and ebook versions. Portions of the whole just never appealed to me. I usually make my decision to read a book based on whether it’s an author I know of or have read before; a recommendation (personal or via Goodread reviews, etc. mentioned below) or simply because it’s visually appealing (cover, blurb, and if the font – in those old pulp paperbacks – is too small, lol). I like jumping into a book without any expectations and figuring out what’s going on. 🙂

      As for all the back matter in ebooks now (again mentioned below), yes, it does deceive readers who like to watch their progress in order to pace themselves into the climax and denouement. However, for paper copies, just do what I do – use two bookmarks, one for where I’m at and one for the real end of the book (before the sample chapters and study guides and other interesting crap). And you can set a bookmark in your kindle as well. I do look at that percentage bar, but if I know the real end is 10% to the left of the finish line, my mind takes that into account. 😉

  • Jenni Noordhoek July 3, 2012, 7:33 AM

    I’ll read a sample chapter if it’s (1) a book I’m wildly anticipating – it’s like a trailer or a clip of a movie – or (2) if I’m not familiar with the author. Backcover copy lies. =P

    However I don’t like sample chapters being stuck in the end of books. It makes me think the novel is much longer than it actually is, and that’s just not fair. XD

  • Katherine Coble July 3, 2012, 7:43 AM

    I’m in the ‘”boo” on sample chapters at the end of the novel’ camp. Big time. Nothing is more frustrating than thinking you have X book left and realising you really have (X-16pages). And, even worse, if you are a “flip to the end to see who did it/if the dog dies/if they end up together” person like me…a person who needs the security of an outcome to enjoy the process…sample chapters are just a wreck. You spend a lot of time wondering how they got from Mexico to Mozambique in the space of one book only to realize…hah! Sample chapter!

    I used to be a big one for sample chapter downloads on the Kindle. But, as you astutely mention, there are a lot of top-heavy books out there now, largely because of this practice. I bought three books in the last 24 months based solely on the strength of sample chapters, only to find the bulk of the text wildly different in style, tone, and interest level. (_The Lonely Polygamist_, I’m looking at you.) So now I’ve just given up on Sample chapters altogether and stick with my usual “filter through Goodreads & Amazon reviews for a basic overall picture” method.

    When I was still buying paper books a librarian taught me the best way to pick a book was to read the first paragraph and then to open the novel to a random page halfway through and read three more paragraphs. That random sampling, combined with jacket copy and author blurbs, has always been the most tried-and-true way for me to choose books. Alas, the Sample Chapter has destroyed that for e-readers.

    • Jenni Noordhoek July 3, 2012, 7:50 AM

      Your last paragraph – exactly. When I browse through the library that is precisely what I do. 🙂

    • Ramona July 3, 2012, 8:19 AM

      That’s the way a lot of editors decide if a manuscript is a yes, no, or a maybe. One reason “No’s” happen a lot faster than “Yes’s.”

  • Kessie July 3, 2012, 7:47 AM

    When I read the title of this post, I thought you were going to address one of my personal concerns, but you didn’t. So here it is:

    What about offering free chapters on your blog or website to generate book interest? Is that a valid practice for authors? I see it pretty commonly used.

  • Steve Rzasa July 3, 2012, 8:50 AM

    I like sample chapters, but don’t always use them. I use them as a last resort if I can’t make up my mind whether or not to try reading a book. But I think that samples should be more like movie trailers — short bits from different parts of the story, rather than just the first X-number of pages or so. Several Star Wars novels I purchased back in the 1990s used this to good effect.

  • Kevin Lucia July 3, 2012, 9:32 AM

    As a reviewer going on five or six years, I have big issues with blurbs. BUT, after a certain number of years, I’ve found you can actually sniff out which authors blurb honestly, and which just do it to do it.

    Because I’ve found that some authors – names withheld – will blurb just about anything coming down the pike. I’ve found never to trust their blurbs, and, ironically, it always turns out those folks who blurb everything? Not so high on the craft level themselves. Although, I have found several of my favorite authors who apparently have very different tastes than myself.

    So you can also imagine the learning curve I went through when getting blurbs for my novella. I sorta went blurb-crazy, based on several authors’ purported “reputation”. Then, when I saw the other stuff they blurbed….well. Ahem. Needless to say in the future, I’ll be much more conservative in whom I seek blurbs from.

    Now, I can say this: no Peter Straub blurb has ever led me wrong. Nor Stephen King. And, recently, I can say that F. Paul Wilson’s blurbs have always been spot on, too. I can honestly say I WILL buy anything those guys blurb. Usually turns out okay.

    And regarding fast-paced novels: there’s novels with EXCELLENT pacing, and novels that are just insubstantial fluff. I’d rate the F. Paul Wilson “Repairman Jack” novels in the former category. Fast-paced doesn’t mean insubstantial, by any means. Mike, as an exercise in FABULOUS pacing, I’d recommend: Raven, by Charles Grant. No chapters, because it occurs all in one night – just paragraph breaks – and I literally read it in one night. But definitely not fluff, by no means.

  • Kat Heckenbach July 3, 2012, 9:42 AM

    I’m with you on the back cover copy thing. I read blogs and book reviews, and listen when friends tell me about books–but when I am browsing on my own, I look at cover art and title to see what grabs me, and then I open the book. There have been times I’ve been half-way through a book before finally looking to see what the back cover says it’s supposed to be about.

    “Supposed to.” That is key. I find back cover blurbs to be rather unreliable. I have refused to purchase books because there was no sample, simply because I cannot tell what is inside by what is outside.

    I had not, however, thought about the “top heavy” thing. Very good point. Actually, maybe I have thought about it, but not really *thought* about it. I tend to do what Katherine does if I have the physical book in front of me–I read the opening page or so, then skip to partway through and read a section. It’s been an automatic response, though.

    The whole top-heavy thing actually brings up one of my gripes, which is the idea that so many authors think a hook must be ohmigoddangerdanger. I don’t care if there is a knife at the character’s throat if I don’t know who the character is. Too many books slam you into action. I miss the days when books started off with normal situations-not boring, but not chaotic either–and you could trust that something cool *will* happen. Get to know the character a little, then follow them into the action.

    • Iola July 3, 2012, 2:22 PM

      “There have been times I’ve been half-way through a book before finally looking to see what the back cover says it’s supposed to be about.”

      That’s one of my pet hates. The blurb should cover, at most, the first 20% of the book. I own one book where the cover blurb talked about a plane crash that happened three pages from the end (which is why I am another person who doesn’t really read the blurb).

  • Mike Duran July 3, 2012, 9:44 AM

    Katherine, I like your librarian friend’s suggestion about reading random paragraphs to determine stylistic / thematic cohesion.

    Kessie, I’ve never been much for sample chapters on blogs, mainly because I don’t read blogs FOR fiction. I read for community, info, humor, news. But if an author’s drawing readers to their site, why not offer some downloadable samples?

    Steve, that’s an interesting idea, but not one I’ve seen used much. I wonder why? Using excerpts rather than first chapters could offer authors a lot more potential angles.

  • Jill July 3, 2012, 10:05 AM

    I read sample chapters anywhere, and I might buy the book, but to be honest, reading is an obsessive kind of addiction for me, and the work doesn’t have to be completed in order for it to satisfy my urges. I just read whatever, whenever. I can’t stop myself. When I’m at a friend’s house, I find myself reading anything the friend has sitting around–notes and magazines and books. I’ve tried to stop, I really have, because I realize it’s impolite. I even love sample chapters/short fiction on blogs. Mostly, I get sick to death of reading about the publishing industry and politics, though. That’s where my sick addiction has come to an end, except in rare cases.

    • Lyn Perry July 3, 2012, 12:44 PM

      Jill, you’re just the person I’m looking for! lol Read this when you run out of other things and have some time (and comment, if you’re inclined to 🙂 It’s a “sample” of sorts and, addressing a question from above about posting chapters on a blog, I think it can be an effective strategy to drum up interest in a project – for those who like that sort of thing. I don’t read snippets of fiction on blogs myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t offer it to others.


  • R. L. Copple July 3, 2012, 10:29 AM

    I don’t have Lyn’s full context here, but just from the short excerpt you gave, it sounds like he’s referring to sample chapters for the next book on the end of the existing book you are reading. He may have a different opinion on sample chapters from an ebook you are considering downloading, especially if you don’t know the author.

    Because in my mind, I would look at a sample chapter to determine some things, especially if it is an untried self-published author:

    1. Are there a lot of typos?
    2. Can the person write coherently enough to follow?
    3. Does he get me into the story within the first few pages?
    4. Do I feel I want to find out what happens to these character(s) enough to buy the rest of the book?

    As you say, he/she may not deliver on the whole book, but I do think sample chapters for ebooks you are thinking of buying are nearly a necessity on unknown authors unless you just want to play Russian Roulette and see what you get.

    But a sample chapter on the back of a book? You’ve just read the author’s book, so you already know if he/she can write or not, if the book had a lot of typos, whether he/she can write an engaging story that entertains you. So the only point to including a sample chapter at the end of the book is to hopefully convince you to grab the next book in the series. But seriously, that’s the job of the first book to do that, and if it doesn’t, then no sample chapter is going to convince them to get the next one. And if it did, no sample chapter will be needed. Thus, on most all accounts, as Lyn said, those are wasted space.

    Point being, I think you can believe the sample chapters on the ends of books are wasted space without being against sample chapter downloads of ebooks or excerpts on author websites. I’ve put samples on my site, and worked to make them look like book text instead of web copy (using indented paragraphs). Example: http://www.rlcopple.com/published.php?ic=RF_Sample

    I agree that random excerpts could be more helpful. Someone would have to either write script that would do that on ebook samples, or have a way the author could select segments for the samples, though they would likely polish those to death if the knew which segments were going into a sample, and you’d end up with the same effect in that case.

    • Lyn Perry July 4, 2012, 4:44 AM

      Rick, See my reply to Tim above.

      • R. L. Copple July 4, 2012, 10:11 AM

        After I wrote that, went to your link, and realized you were including ebook download samples in your “don’t read” pile. Guess I got the cart before the horse. 😉

        I read your above response, and understand what you are saying, that it is more a personal thing. From my perspective, as I lay out above, sample chapters on the end of books probably are wasted space in that they don’t do much. The main reason to me for a sample chapter on an ebook download or the “Look inside” feature on Amazon is so you can determine if an author is readable. You’d hate to plunk down 5-12 bucks on a book only to find it is typo ridden and hard to follow. And there isn’t much of a way to determine that without seeing a sample. So I see value in that, as opposed to you already know that info at the end of a book, so pointless to include one there.

        The only instance where I can see a sample chapter at the end of a book serving a purpose is if by the time you finish the book, you are on the fence about getting the next one. Maybe the story was sort of ho-hum, not great, but had its moments, and you’re not sure you want to continue the series. Then the sample chapter might make a difference in whether you buy the next book or not. But that is going to be a very small percentage of readers.

  • Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman) July 3, 2012, 12:15 PM

    I always read sample chapters and are glad for them. They have saved me a lot of money. Sample chapters have also cost me money when I have to find out what happens next.

  • Lyn Perry July 3, 2012, 12:48 PM

    Mike, Thanks for the shout out and good observation regarding the top heaviness of a lot of books – especially the self-published or micropress offerings. I know I revise/edit my openings oftener than my middles. Endings, too, get more polish time. So the lesson for writers with good hooks is to keep up the good work; don’t back off during the hard part. A reader may stick with you – for the rest of that book – despite the average prose, but may not buy volume 2 or your other novels. Just thinking out loud.

  • Bob Avey July 3, 2012, 3:33 PM

    I think sample chapters are a good idea for e-books. Perhaps I should make that sample chapter. One should be enough for the reader to get a feel for the book. It’s like going to the bookstore and being able to sample the book before you buy.

  • Tim George July 3, 2012, 3:45 PM

    One of the perks of having my NOOK Tablet is this: when at Barnes and Nobles I can read any book available in eBook format for an hour (whether the print version is on the shelf or not). Had I not been able to spend 45 minutes and a double-shot latte with River Jordan I would never have bought The Miracle of Mercy Land, of two more of her novels of magical realism later.

    The point for me is that 1st chapters seldom sell me on a book. Don’t trust them. Based on the “gotta be fast paced at the beginning” principle the first installment of Lord of the Rings (the film version) should have been a dud.

    • Tim George July 3, 2012, 4:43 PM

      Thought I would add to this comment by a common visitor to both our sites, Alan O. He says this better than I ever could:

      Everyday we swim through an ocean of evidence that proves how (directly or indirectly) damaging this Rushing Disease is to us. If it only resulted in undeserved 1-star reviews, I could live with it. But it plays a role in broken relationships, loss of ethics, tragic misdiagnoses, suicides, declining quality of products and services, an undereducated generation, and many other woes.

      I once had a publishing professional tell me (while promoting his philosophy of “fast-paced” novels) that “we live in an ADHD world. As a psychologist, I would point out that the D stands for “Disorder.”

      • Kat Heckenbach July 4, 2012, 5:52 AM

        Tim, I thought of this comment as I set down a book I *tried* to read yesterday. Fortunately, it was a library book–the only time I don’t insist on reading first pages is when checking books out from the library. Had I read a sample, though, I probably would have passed on checking it out. The feel was totally ADHD. Chaotic and confusing. I hate when books start that way! There was actually an attempt at setting the scene and giving me some character background before the action started, but even that was written in such a jumpy way I felt the way I do when trying to watch my son play video games.

        Anyway, your comment really struck me! I see publishers catering to the rush-rush-rush, and I don’t like it. I’m so tired of reading book reviews that claim “slowness” when what the book is really doing is deepening the characters and the world. I read a book last week that was called “slow” in several reviews, but I LOVED it, and loved the fact that it wasn’t danger-danger-panic on every page!

        • Tim George July 4, 2012, 7:21 AM

          DISCLAIMER: I love action packed stories that pump your blood from the very beginning.

          But …. My novel being shopped was so very close to getting me signed when the acquisitions editor forwarded notes from the contracted reader (a well known CBA author). I spent 2 weeks scrapping the first two chapters and then adding a new beginning per his suggestions. Here is what he asked for:

          Start with a cold open, like the TV shows. Give us someone dying or being hurt or betrayed by the antagonist. Then give us the protagonist in the first chapter off solving a seemingly unrelated crime or investigating a seemingly unrelated lead when he gets the call about what happened in the cold open. Then make sure that unrelated case comes back to having significance. That’s how it should open.

          Since the story is NOT crime fiction (definitely not a procedural , you might say the suggestion was somewhat confusing. Then of course the publisher’s bean counters decided to go a different direction in future genre choice. But such is the life of a writer.

      • R. L. Copple July 4, 2012, 10:24 AM

        The LOTR first book does start out very, very slow. It is pages before you get to any real sense of danger, and during those pages, years and years pass for Frodo, something like 45 years or so if I recall correctly, from where the book starts with Frodo and when he decides to move to his new digs, which is when the danger really takes off. And then, the next adventure is a diversion, having nothing to do with the main plot, that is like a sub-trip. But people love that side-trip anyway.

        The movie also starts off slower (especially the extended version), but moves to the action much quicker than the book time-wise. But it is one of my favorite parts of the movie. I like the way it sets the characters and ambiance of Hobbiton. And I like the extended version over the movie version specifically because it does spend more time there.

        Which only goes to show that action isn’t the only hook for readers. Engaging characters and good description can also be good hooks. But I’ve also been criticized for not having strong action beginnings, or being too slow to get to the action (as if getting to it by the end of the first chapter is too slow). I had a trip to Grandpa and Grandma’s house for Christmas at the beginning of Mind Game which got cut, because everyone was telling me it took too much time before we got to the virtual world. I’ve often wondered if that was the right decision, still.

  • Todd Michael Greene July 18, 2012, 11:40 AM

    Playing catch up on my blog reading, Mike. Too busy lately.

    Anyway. I like same chapters, however, there is a lot of truth in what you say about polished beginning that dwindle into nothingness. Sometimes the second half of a story is very anticlimactic for me and I think, “I sat through 400 pages for this ending?”

    So, what about this idea: Use a sample chapter or two to sell your next book, but make it from somewhere in the middle of the story? Something that leaves questions in the mind of the reader that they just have to know the answer to and the only way to do that is buy the book. Such a practice could lead to better writing as the story progresses. Just my half a cent worth. 🙂

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