10 January 2011

Kindle your readers

Originally, I wasn’t much of a fan of the Kindle. I favour books with actual paper; books that can be put in a bookshelf; books I can touch and smell and feel. And yet, upon packing yet another box of bookshelfable, touchy smelly feely paper books for storage, I had to realize that a digital library indeed would save me a lot of space and (since packing was involved) time. Now that I am about to move to another continent, a digital reader would also save me valuable kilos in my already limited suitcase allowance. The device would allow me to be a voracious reader also in Japan, without having to carry a single book (though perhaps one or two in Norwegian, since we don’t do digital books here yet). The Kindle seemed like the perfect Christmas present.

And so it was (thank you, sisters!). Now, many a blog post has been written about the Kindle, so I needn’t comment on its design or functionality – you can find better posts about that elsewhere. What I did want to comment on, though, was what the Kindle does to me as a reader, or perhaps, as a (potential) book buyer.

In a normal bookshop, I’m a slut. I’m easily convinced to buy, and I generally do so based on a few defined criteria. Unless I am looking for a specific title or author, my browsing is often based on looks. Yes, I can be superficial that way. If I don’t like the cover of a book, I most likely won’t pick it up to even find out if I might consider buying it. Once I have picked one up, however, I still haven’t decided if I want to buy it (I’m not that superficial). I read the jacket. I might open it and read the first few pages. Sometimes I open it at a random page just to see if I get the feeling that this is a book I *must* have.

Apparently, I often find that I *must*. At least the number of books I buy per year should indicate so. Thus I thought that getting a Kindle would save me some money, since the Kindle editions of books generally are cheaper than the paper editions.

True, it has saved me money. More than I expected. You see, as a Kindle customer, I am much pickier than I am with paper books.

The lack of a proper cover is probably saving me hundreds of dollars alone. Sure, you’ve got the cover photo (mostly), but it’s not the same. It’s certainly never sufficient to make me want to buy a book.

More importantly, however, is the “download a sample” function. If you’re not a Kindle owner yourself, allow me to quickly explain: Each book (or perhaps most of them? Every one I’ve so far encountered, anyway) allows a potential buyer to download a sample for free. The length of the sample varies slightly from book to book, but it is generally the first chapter or so. It is always the beginning of the book, and depending on how the edition is made, it sometimes starts directly at the first page of the story, though occasionally the front page and printing information is included in the preview.

The problem – and/or benefit – of this system is that the reader is not free to choose what part of the book she gets to read. The first pages of a book aren’t necessarily (or even commonly) the best or most exciting, even if they are important. A thumb rule for any writer is that the start of a book needs a hook to tie the reader in. With Kindle’s free samples, this becomes more important than ever.

The free sample function ensures that the preview becomes very decisive for which books a reader eventually buys (I have yet to buy a book without downloading the sample). With the option of starting to read a book before downloading and paying for it, it takes a lot more before I actually end up buying it. For regular books, I might find the first ten pages boring, but still read on, because after all I’ve already purchased the book, and it would be a waste to put it down. Often I find that the book captures me after all, and that the missing “hook” on the first few pages isn’t all that important. In a Kindle edition, however, this is fatal. If the sample doesn’t convince me, I will most certainly not bother buying the book, just to see if I eventually will like it.

What this means is that for writers it becomes even more important to focus on a strong start to sell books. I envision that Kindle-friendly versions, where a cliff-hanger will come directly at the end of the free preview, will soon be common. Otherwise, how can a writer catch a reader who has an entire library at her disposal, just a few clicks away?


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Cruella, I totally agree. I've also downloaded some samples for some books and if the beginning didn't grab me, I didn't download the book. I think beginnings are going to be even more important than ever--good point.

Jan Morrison said...

Wow! I never thought of this. I'm more worried about whether I'll have an intuitive way with the ebook or not. I choose lots of books based on the cover too but mainly at the library where it doesn't cost me anything. The books I choose to buy are usually recommended by someone or something (Globe & Mail - our national newspaper, CBC - our national radio station). I'm also thinking I'd be keen to just be able to get those books that I can't easily find - the latest Kate Atkinson or all her earlier ones for instance. Hmmmmm....

LTM said...

I guess that means if we can get agents to dig the first few pages, we should be set for the Kindle... :D

I have to confess. I've bought books before just for the cover. :o| It has helped me be more judicious in my Kindle purchases. ;p

CA Heaven said...

Paper-books is a hazzle when you're on the move, for sure. I usually donate the books to the Salvation Army 2nd hand stores when I've read them. Not sure if they take Kindle-books yet >:)

Cold As Heaven

James C. Wallace II said...

I guess I'm showing my age here. I will always prefer the feel of paper over electrons any day of the week. The Kindle may save space, but the emotion of the reading experience is far more enhanced by actually holding the book in one's hands. In addition, the imagery within, be it illustrations or what, will never be the same on a touch screen as it is with paper.
I wonder how L. Frank Baum would react to seeing his writings of Oz appearing on a Kindle screen?

Hart Johnson said...

This is huge from a writing perspective, Mari--I am with you, that I have tended to power through, but when it is money versus no money--that makes a difference. ACK! As if there wasn't ENOUGH pressure for a stellar beginning!

And I am totally with you--I prefer paper (always will) but if I was going on long travels, I would totally hop on the eBook wagon--don't forget you can get tons of classics for free!

Rek Sesh said...

Yes, the magic of words on paper is a different experience...but ebooks have their own pros.
Established writers will have no problem but independent, upcoming authors will have to preview the best parts to be seen and bought...maybe Kindle can come with previews of an important/exciting chapter?

Leira Carola said...

Downloading the sample also works on its apps. I have the apps on my iPad, computers and Android phone.

I, for one, always download the sample before buying the book. If it's interesting enough I'll buy it as soon as I'm done. Otherwise, I won't look at it again.

E-book vs. Print Book

Although I'm a lover of the feel of holding actual books I don't regret "switching" to e-books. As long as e-book prices don't go over the print edition, I'll stick to e-books unless I want the book autographed or I receive them as ARCs.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I love my Kindle. But I had never thought of the implications of the free sample first chapter for me as a writer. Thanks.

However, I do know that the first sentence and then the first paragraph has to be a great hook to snare the attention of a harried agent or a cash-poor reader. Have a great Wednesday and a great visit to Japan, Roland