Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sampling Theory

I love (LOVE) free samples. No, not those titchy little plastic spoons at the supermarket. I'm talking about the free samples of books that you get to download at Amazon.

You get ten percent of the book. If, at the end of the sample, you want to read the rest, you buy the book. If not, delete the sample.

Here's what I love about this. It shifts the line between readable and unreadable. It gets rid of the DNF entirely. Samples allow me to skip downloading the merely readable. I limit myself to downloading the un-put-downable, the story whose sample is so cool, so hot, so intriguing, so irresistible that, well, I don't resist it.

And this is the answer, I think, to that old canard about self- or indie-publishing. Afraid you'll get someone's slush pile reject? Download the sample and decide for yourself. After all, who says editors publish only the very best, leaving the sad & dejected behind? I think they publish only "marketable" books, leaving behind a fascinating stew of quirky, personal, and even excellent books behind.

Plus, a lot more authors are doing the math and realizing that there's money to be made with their series of historical romances, or unusual contemporary romances. Even if such manuscripts could be sold to a publisher, it might be years before a book hits a shelf. Publish them now and people can download a sample and decide for themselves.

I also think this promotes better books. Ten percent is a sizable chunk of a romance novel. No longer are we locked into the hooky first sentence or grabby first page. With ten percent of a romance, you'll meet the hero and heroine, and most likely read about them meeting each other. You'll get dialogue, chemistry, and maybe even (in the case of erotica) some sex. After ten percent, the only unknowns are: will the middle sag, or will the ending disappoint? The way I figure it, a writer who can set up a good opening can produce a decent middle and end.

I now "sample" even auto-buy authors. Why not? I've got a finite amount of reading time, why waste it slogging through a novel that's not nearly as good as what that author's written in the past?

This is another of the ways that the Internet is changing how we select books to buy. I love (LOVE) the Internet.

4 comments:

  1. And now for the bad news: When I am reading a free sample, I am not reading with the commitment of someone who has invested money and self-space in your book. In fact, I am reading a lot more like an agent going through a slush pile; I am skimming to see if I would like to see more and any little thing could put me off, because I have nothing to lose by rejecting the book.

    Except that's not true; I do lose something, the time it took to read the sample. And considering that, if one is browsing, one is reading not one sample, but many, one after the other, the time does add up; before you know it, you have spent hours browsing on amazon and have very little to show for it, not even the knowledge that you persevered in finishing a "difficult" book.

    And, unfortunately, there are a lot of bad books out there. How many dreadful samples do you suppose one will be willing to read, before going back to the familiar old names one knows and more or less trusts? I know self-publishers think the ease with which anyone may publish a book nowdays will mean every book will get its chance, but it may well swing the other way: too many disappointments might make the reading public even more conservative in its choices.

    Alternatively, has it occured to anyone that, if readers can no longer count on the fact that published books have a minimum of quality, they will seek new ways to have the books vetted, without their having to do all the work? A return in another form of the gatekeepers that self-publishing bypasses.

    The only way this will work in favor of self-published authors is if the majority of books is of acceptable quality. And that is a problem, because they cannot control this: they can (and often do) put an excellent book for sale, but they cannot stop others, who lack their talent or who are lazy, putting a lot of awefull books for sale alongside their excellent one.

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    Replies
    1. I disagree on a couple points.

      First, I don't believe there was ever a halcyon era when I could walk into a bookstore (or Wal*Mart or the supermarket), read the back cover copy of some books and come home with a winner...especially if I didn't know the author. (And never based on the cover art!) As a result, if I was desperate for something to read, I frequently bought a book that, when I got it home and started reading it, was just blah. Not hideous, but not worth the $4.99 I spent on it.

      As a result, I don't believe the fact that some editors had selected those books was a very reliable gatekeeper. At best, there were sometimes better odds. In its heyday, Avon's historicals were good about 25% of the time; Signet Regencies even less often than that, and Harlequin Temptations maybe 1-in-10. In my experience, it was always a crap shoot to buy a new-to-me author. That may have been the "tried-and-true" method, but it didn't result in my thinking, "Oh, wow! I love this author!" any more frequently than reading samples does. And it cost a LOT more!

      I disagree with you on a second point: "The only way this will work in favor of self-published authors is if the majority of books is of acceptable quality."

      I don't think that's right. Yes, the sampling error may still be there, but Amazon has (as do, I assume, B&N and Apple) algorithms to help readers winnow through books to find the ones that are more worthwhile to read. First, you're usually shown new-to-you books in the same genre, sub-genre, and even category as other books you've bought. Second, you have reviews and/or ratings (at Amazon, or Goodreads) to help you pick which ones to sample.

      In effect, then, you're not picking samples from a vast and undifferentiated wasteland. You're picking samples from a much smaller group of authors and titles, and you have ratings, reviews and rankings to help you see which ones other readers have liked.

      I think this will prove to be a more efficient system than traditional methods in two ways. First, a computer has analyzed your reading habits and is working to help you find more books like the ones you like. Second, other readers have shared their impressions of those books.

      Combine all that with the ability to read a sample before you spend the $4.99 (or whatever the ebook price is), and it's a better system than walking into a bookstore, flipping books over until one has some back cover copy you like, and then buying.

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  2. I love sampling too, but I've been burned by more than a few self-published books that fell apart after the sample. My guess is these are books that have been through the contest circuit and had their openings burnished to perfection. After that the book sucks and that's why they didn't find a publisher. Amazon reviews are hopeless, unless one is prepared to assess every good review to see if it was written by the writer's BFF or critique partners (not hard to find out, but it takes time.) The only way to get a reasonable guarantee of a good read from an unknown author is to get a recommendation from a trusted source. Even then I sample, but to find out whether it's a story that appeals to me, regardless of quality.

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