On Reviewing Books

September 18, 2011 § 10 Comments

A few of you, Beloved Readers, may remember that I started posting book reviews on this blog a while back. I talked of reviewing indie books in particular, as there are a lot of blogs that refuse to touch self-pubbed books. Then I didn’t really do a lot of reviewing.

That’s because I felt that it didn’t fit very well with everything else I was doing here. So I’ve resolved that dilemma this week by creating a separate blog for book reviews. I’m reviewing both trad-pub and self-pub books, mostly in the genres of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, historical fiction and contemporary fic. I particularly like rating and reviewing for indie authors (and always cross-post reviews to Amazon, GoodReads etc), so if any of you have friends who are looking for a bit of review help in the above genres, please send them to:


That brings me to the topic of book reviews and ratings in general. All-important, especially in the early stages, but so hard to get. Only a small percentage of readers take the time to write reviews (it’s often hard enough to find time to read, let alone to review as well). And there aren’t many incentives for people to take that time. So how do people do it?

Sitting back and waiting for a lot of time to pass is one option. A mildly frustrating one, but in theory books build up an audience over time. If you’re looking to speed the process along, well, there still aren’t many options. The relatively few blogs that will accept indie books tend to have months-long reading backlogs, so one is usually obliged to wait several months for reviews anyway.

It’s a problem. Anyone have any tips to share with the cosy little indie community we have around here?

Also, let’s look at it from the other perspective. As a reader, do you ever leave reviews? If you don’t, what might encourage you to do so more often? And if you do, how do you approach it? It can be tricky sometimes, deciding what rating to give and why. Personally I read to be entertained, so I try not to be too academic about reviewing; I’m mostly influenced by how much I enjoyed a book. If I was pretty well entertained, I’ll overlook flaws with the writing, plot or characters and give a book a decent rating anyway. If I wasn’t, then I don’t care too much how “perfect” it might be in the technical sense; I probably won’t rate it high.

And I hate giving bad ratings and reviews, especially since I’m now in a position to know how much difference a good or bad rating can make to an author’s day. But that leads to the question of honesty in reviews. Many people believe that indies cheat a lot: they get family, friends or fellow authors to leave 5-star reviews, even if they haven’t read the book, or didn’t really like it. From what I’ve seen, this happens, but on the whole indie communities are more honourable about it than many seem to believe. We want good reviews, but honest good reviews.

That said, pick up a traditionally published novel sometime and note the numbers of glowing endorsements offered by fellow authors. The wording on those things is so often virtually identical, I do wonder sometimes how often the author in question has actually given the book a close reading. Even if they have, some people will cheerfully throw rocks at indie authors for reviewing other indie authors’ books, because they don’t think those people can or will ever be honourable about it. But the same people often don’t see a problem with traditionally published folk giving each other a leg-up. It’s one of a number of double standards that still linger at the moment. Let’s hope these clear away in time.

Anyway, I’ve picked up some interesting indie books to review in the last week. While I get through those, I’ll be populating the new review blog with some other, relatively recent reviews that I never got around to posting here. Hope to see a few of you around in ReviewLand from time to time, and meanwhile, remember to share the new blog with indie friends if applicable.


On the Pleasures of (Not) E-Reading in Europe

July 30, 2011 § 15 Comments

It’s almost the end of July, which means my first month in the Netherlands has come to an end. So far I have seen a lot of windmills, a lot of water (both the flowing variety and the falling variety) and quite a lot of cat hair all over my new (pale-coloured) furniture. I’ve eaten a lot of good Dutch cheese, learned to love stroopwafels and heard far more Dutch than I can possibly process in a year, let alone four weeks. It’s been interesting.

What I haven’t seen – or heard so much as a peep about – is an e-reader. That’s not an idle observation. Seeing as we have a new house to stock, we’ve been doing an awful lot of shopping. It’s reached the sorts of painful levels that I don’t even want to think about. But while there are gadgets and gizmos galore in every conceivable shop, I haven’t even seen a  Sony reader anywhere.

Let’s go back a step or two. I talked recently about book-hunting in the wilds of Amsterdam, which was moderately successful. To qualify that, I ought to explain that my definition of ‘moderately successful’ still means ‘quite a lot more expensive than buying books back in the UK’. Having subsequently tracked down that huge expat-owned second-hand bookshop I mentioned, that definition still stands. I’m lucky if I can find even a second-hand book that I’m interested in for much less than five euros so far, and that’s a matter of pot luck. This is quite painful.

Digital reading ought to be the ultimate answer to this problem. Digital books do not have to be physically shipped from country to country. They have no import costs. A customer can download an e-book from the US or from France and the essential costs of that download ought to be the same. I ought to be able to get most of my English-language reading for e-reader without difficulty, right? The first problem, though, would be getting an e-reader upon which to read e-books.

Let’s start with the current biggest manufacturer and distributor of e-readers and e-books, the mighty Amazon. They may be a huge corporation but I’ve been a fan for a long time, for many reasons which I won’t go into here. The disappointing thing about Amazon is the lack of Kindle coverage in most of Europe. You can purchase a Kindle from the US if you absolutely must, but Amazon’s attitude to Kindle users outside of their dedicated Kindle countries (the US, the UK and Germany so far, did I miss any?) is oddly grudging. You can only get your Kindle from the US, even if the UK is considerably closer and more convenient for you, and that means you can only purchase books from amazon.com, not .uk or .de. Furthermore, I hear worrying reports of $2 surcharges on each purchase made by a user outside of the US. Nobody knows why this happens, but it essentially means buying English language digital books as an expat isn’t much better than buying print. You’re still being penalised for being outside an English-speaking country, but for no discernible reason. Lamentable stuff.

Setting aside the surcharge issue, even, why are the amazon kindle bookstores so rigidly compartmentalised? I’m no expert on these matters so I may be missing something. But I can’t see why one’s geographical location ought to matter so much. If a person wants to use some of their money buying English language digital books, why shouldn’t they spend that money in whichever Kindle bookshop can supply the need? If one cannot do that without complications and rip-offs, one goes looking for an alternative.

So what are the alternatives? I’m told that the Sony reader is available in the Netherlands, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it. Where do I go to purchase such an exotic beast? No idea. Next. Nook? No luck there either. For some reason Barnes and Noble would rather not have non-US customers, leaving everyone else to spend their money elsewhere. Then I suppose I will have to rely on….

Kobo? Hrm. Kobo is the most promising of the bunch, in that I hear – through the Glorious Grapevine – that there is a Dutch-language Kobo store planned for the Netherlands ‘sometime soon’, whatever that means. Great. In theory, then, the Kobo reader will be available for purchase in this country. What of their ebookstore? Not that I’m inclined to be critical of Dutch-language options – bravo and the more language options available in digital books, the better – but this won’t resolve my particular problem. Will there be English books available in this store as well? If not then English-speaking expatriate kind is back to square one.

How many English-speaking expats are there around the world? And how many people are there who prefer to read fiction in English – because waiting for books to be translated takes far too long? I don’t have any numbers, but a lot, right? A lot. And all of us have difficulty getting printed books in English for anything less than a small fortune because of import costs. And while this post is inevitably focused on English, the fact is that digital reading should make it possible for anybody to obtain books in any available language for a fair price. (Yes, different people will have different definitions of ‘fair prices’; my definition here is that those prices should not fluctuate up or down based on geographical location).

It’s true that we are in relatively early days for digital reading, but only relatively. Dedicated e-readers have been available for a few years now, but still much of the world is left out in the cold with few or no options available. I applaud sites like Smashwords; as far as I know there are no territory restrictions on either uploading or downloading books from that site, nor any price fluctuations. That’s fair. There are also sites like the Book View Cafe, where authors group together to sell their work digitally over a dedicated site. As far as I know (disclaimer: I might be wrong), those are also free of illogical restrictions. So supposing you can get a device on which to read e-books, there are options. But there aren’t enough.

At the moment I’m still shopping from the UK Kindle store, but I don’t know if that will last. It certainly won’t last past the point where I want (or need) to upgrade my e-reader. So, I’m going to be sitting tight waiting for Kobo to get a  move on with the Netherlands shop. When it arrives, I’ll be crossing my fingers that purchasing a Kobo reader will come with access to Kobo stores other than the Dutch one (either that or a truly extensive range of English-language books in the Dutch store, which doesn’t seem likely). In the meantime, I need more options. Can anybody recommend any other sites for digital book purchases that won’t hinder me, block me or rip me off?

If you liked book tokens…

May 24, 2011 § 5 Comments

I was reading the blog of Mr Dean Wesley Smith this morning, specifically a post about a proposed way of selling electronic books as a physical product which can be stocked in a high street book shop. The idea is to print gift cards with a scratch-off panel on the back, underneath which will be a code. A code that can be entered at the checkout at, say, Smashwords to get a free download of a digital book. Or, in more detail direct from the original blog:

“Step #1: Publish your book to electronic publishing, including Smashwords. Set up the book for free on a Smashwords code page. (There are other ways to do this, but this is basic and simple for the moment.)

Step #2: Have a plastic credit-card-sized gift card printed with your book cover on one side.

Step #3: On the back of the card print the free Smashwords code under a black scratch-off bar plus directions and other information.

Step #4: Either give the card away as a promotion at signings and such or put the card into a cardboard hanger with a price and sell to bookstores.”

This is a stunning idea. It caught my attention immediately because it instantly made me think of the days of book tokens.

I was a terrifically nerdy kid, naturally, and the best thing about my birthday was when my grandparents’ book token arrived (£10) and I could go spend an hour picking out books at WHSmith’s. It was still possible to get two brand new books for £10 in those balmy days and that was the height of excitement for me. Now, if I try to re-imagine that childhood pleasure in light of some of these new developments… imagine selecting one’s two books with painstaking care and then being given a gift card for a free book download at the checkout. My little heart would possibly have exploded with joy. Since I was so seriously nerdy I would probably have loved the thrill of downloading it myself onto my kiddie e-reader (charmingly decorated with My Little Pony, I have no doubt). It’s the sort of thing that makes a ten-year-old feel quite grown-up.

You could stuff them in libraries too (the gift-cards, not the nerdy children or the pink e-readers) and that would have the added advantage of allowing the recipient to download the book immediately. It’s a great way of melding e-reading with physical books, bookshops and libraries and giving people reasons to visit both online and high street stores. All of that could happen within the next year or two. Looking further ahead, of course…

“The new future of books is almost here. Books on gift cards.

But they won’t be called “gift cards.”  They will be called “books.”

Electronic books in a physical product, for the same price, can now get into brick-and-mortar bookstores and make bookstores a great mark-up.

Customers can easily buy they, give them as gifts, even wrap them up as stocking-stuffers.

It is easy for any publisher of any size to do.

Gift Card Books take up less of the very expensive bookstore shelf room. You can get a hundred of these in the space of ten paperback books.”

An appealing idea. But what attracts me most to the notion at the moment is the ease of offering free e-books even to people who don’t habitually browse blogs, twitter or facebook or sign up for newsletters in order to hear about the downloads. There are people with e-readers who still love visiting libraries and bookshops (me, for one) and plenty who manage with e-readers but aren’t sufficiently internet-comfy to search up all the freebies. Perfect solution. And any dedicated reader brightens up at the words free book. 

Here is the link to the original post at ‘Think Like a Publisher’.


Why e-readers aren’t just for the rich

April 24, 2011 § 13 Comments

Lately I have repeatedly come across the notion that e-readers are primarily the province of the ‘well-heeled’ middle class  – those who have plenty of spare income to lavish on books and never have to worry about the prices.

This is complete nonsense. The only way this conclusion makes sense is if the matter is viewed as:

– The high price of buying the reader to begin with

– Plus the exorbitant price of stocking it with books if the buyer pays the same price for each book as they would pay for a brand new paperback or hardback. 

If that’s the approach taken to stocking your e-reader then yes, only people with a lot of spare cash would be able to afford to make much use of it. But then, these are the same people who casually walk into Waterstones every weekend and come out with four or five sparkling-new paper books each visit. If that was the only way to get reading material, most of us would be seriously out of luck – with or without e-readers.

I’ve never really been comfortably off, never mind wealthy, so as an obsessed bibliophile I’ve become very good at thrift-shopping for books. To me, more than £3 is expensive for a book, because I can get most of my reading material for less than that (luckily, otherwise my intellect would shrivel up and die within a year). I’ll admit I was slow buying an e-reader because the prices looked high. As soon as I finally bought my Kindle, though (which was at the end of last year), I realised I’d made a mistake in waiting so long.

As an enthusiastic reader of old, out-of-copyright classics, I was in the money immediately. We all know by now that these books are readily available for free, or for seriously cheap prices. By the time I’d had my Kindle a whole day, I’d downloaded approximately £300 worth of books onto it for a total price of about £5. I.e. it took 24 hours for my Kindle to pay for itself, and then some.

A few months later and the e-book craze has hit. By that I mean that the world in general has discovered e-reading: how easy it is, how convenient and low on hidden costs (no paying postage on books, no waiting for books to arrive, no petrol-heavy trips to the bookshops). How great sampling is. How broad the market is, all of a sudden: all those old classics readily available, even the ones not usually considered ‘great’ enough to be reliably in print; long out-of-print author backlists cropping up more and more all the time; a growing ocean of self-published books, many of which are really good reads which publishers just didn’t feel they could make enough money on.

And of course, publishers and self-published authors alike are rapidly discovering how beneficial it is to offer new books for free download, for an initial period of time.

So, how is any of this particularly reserved for the wealthy? Let’s break down those points into bite-size pieces.

– Virtually all out-of-copyright classics can be read for free

– No driving down to the bookshop or the library to collect your weekly reading material

– No paying postage to have books delivered to your door

– New books are regularly offered for free download; keeping an eye out for these saves a ton of money by itself

– Even when they aren’t free, many ebooks are very cheap. Cheaper, in fact, than even a tatty old second-hand paperback is likely to be.

– The option of downloading free samples of books helps to reduce the amount of money buyers waste on books that don’t deliver.

– E-book lending is seriously getting started now, which means more free reads that don’t have hidden costs like petrol (and time) to collect.

Since I moved to digital reading, I’ve acquired considerably more books for significantly less money than even my most dedicated thrift-shopping adventures could get me. Buying an e-reader, then, is an investment. If voracious readers think about how much money they’d probably spend on paper books over a period of a year, or two, or three, then compare it to the combined price of the reader and hundreds of digital books over that time… I reckon it will always come out cheaper to have a reader. By quite a long way.

Which doesn’t mean we’ll spend less money on books over the course of a year. Let’s be realistic, here. It’s an addiction, after all. It does mean getting a whole lot more reading material for that money, and that’s a definite win.

Ebook Picks #1: Fantasy Fiction

April 13, 2011 § 8 Comments

Here’s my first round of picks from my independent/small press published ebook reading.

Confessions of a Gourmand by Tom Bruno

My rating: four stars

My review:

A fantasy novel told via a journey through cuisine? How unusual, and as it turns out, delicious. Van d’Allamitri’s passion for food pervades every page, and his powerful enthusiasm for new recipes and different cuisines is a considerable, and perhaps surprisingly believable driving force for the character and for the story.

Van’s life is an exciting one, even from a young age. A chef of considerable skill before the age of ten, Van’s gift for food delights all who come into contact with him. But it also gets him into trouble. This is a conversational narrative told from the personal point of view of Van himself – the autobiography of a precocious young chef. His tale is rambling but absorbing as he finds himself travelling a long way from home on a slave ship, wins his freedom and finally returns home in time to vanquish his mother’s enemies – all before the age of eighteen.

Van is a character well aware of the power and the danger of his appetites, but he navigates the dangerous career of a gourmand with cheerful skill. His journey brings him into contact with seductive gorgons (the queens of chocolate), loyal Cyclopeans, the ultra-civilised and destructive Varonians (reminiscent of the Roman Empire), Shaqaran bards whose music can melt the hardest of hearts, and a highly unusual immortal with a skill for a largely extinct cuisine. The journey is colourful and delightfully varied.

The story deserves five stars, but I am rating this as four because of the unfortunate number of typos in the text. I did find this occasionally interrupted my reading pleasure. Despite that, I roundly enjoyed this novel and I hope to see more of Van’s adventures become available in time.

Available from:

Amazon UK Current price: 72p

Amazon US Current price: $1.16

Author blog: http://confessionsofagourmand.blogspot.com/

Big Dragons Don’t Cry (A Dragon’s Guide to Destiny) by C. M. Barrett

My rating: four stars

My review:

The title of this book is mildly misleading. I expected a very humorous book, and it does have humour; but it also has a more serious & occasionally tense storyline. The book is constructed around three interwoven narratives. One is the story of Druid, a depressed water dragon left alone in the swamps without the company of any other dragons. The second is the story of a group of cats, principally Tara, destined to save the world – even though she is only a pint-sized kitten. The third is the human angle, following a feeling young woman and her artistic lover through the difficulties of a rather deranged, emotion-suppressing society.

The agenda of the story is clear: it makes some salient points about the destructiveness of human societies and the need to change our way of thinking. Some books could become leaden with such a heavy core message, and this one does come a little close to belabouring this point. However, it is written with a light, entertaining style and leavened with sufficient humour to avoid this.

The characters are engaging and largely loveable, and I liked the resolution to the story. I’d have liked to hear more about the final fate of characters such as Phileas – is he allowed to marry and have a normal life now? – and Serazina & Berto. However, perhaps this is coming up in a sequel!

This book also stands out from the crowd in the quality of the writing, editing and proofreading. I will recommend it to others & hope a sequel emerges fairly soon.

Available from:

Amazon UK Current price: £2.14

Amazon US Current price: $3.45

Smashwords Current price: $2.99

Author’s websitehttp://www.adragonsguide.com/

The Hawk and His Boy (Tormay Trilogy) by Christopher Bunn

My rating: four stars

My review:

This book opens the ‘Tormay Trilogy’, and it’s a great start. The quality of the writing is excellent – smooth, accessible, clear – and the book is very well edited, with few discernible errors. The story follows the adventures of a range of characters situated across the duchies of Tormay. Jute is a child-thief hired to steal a mysterious box; the completion of the job changes his life forever. Levoreth is niece to a duke, though her talent for conversing with animals suggests that she’s more than she seems. Nio is a scholarly wizard, powerful, driven and ruthless. Ronan, aka ‘the Knife’, is at the top of the thieves’ guild and justly feared. We also meet a small child who survives the inexplicable and brutal murder of the rest of her village, and the soldier-captain who takes her in.

As the above might suggest, there are a lot of different plot-threads going on here. They are all interlinked, but they come very thick and fast; to begin with I struggled a little to keep up. However, the coherence of the story improves as the book goes on and the links between the characters become steadily clearer. By the end I felt caught up in the tale, and I’m looking forward to finding out how it progresses in the second book.

Available from:

Amazon UK Current price: 70p

Amazon US Current price: $1.14

Smashwords Current price: $0.99

Author site: http://www.christopherbunn.com

Twitter ID: tunescribble

Why I love borrowing books

March 30, 2011 § 11 Comments

Ah, digital. You do have the power to send even those of the strongest constitutions into a spiral of anxiety, misery and despair.

I believe it is a well-known fact that libraries have existed for quite some time. Public libraries, I mean, where everyone has a right to get a library card and take books home – for free. People have also been lending each other their books for a long time. This means people have been reading books without paying for them for a long time – at least since the Romans invaded fair Albion. Maybe even before.

There’s nothing like a change in technology to get people in a steam, however. We all saw it happen with the music industry. It’s all been done before, of course; people used to record songs off the radio onto cassette tape, and borrow CDs from their friends without it spelling Doom for All; but now that it’s all digital it’s a huge threat. Free downloads will destroy the music world!

Then it happened with film. People have been recording TV programmes and films onto VHS cassettes for years as well, and lending each other DVDs. There might have been grumblings about this in the past, but it’s nothing to the scale of disaster now being predicted. Because, after all, if people can download a film for free, why would they ever pay for it? We are all ruined.

Neither of these catastrophes have actually happened, that I have noticed. Maybe the Fates have actually marked that for next year? Along with the total destruction of the book industry, courtesy of the rise (and RISE) of the e-reader.

I’ve recently heard a lot of angry debate about Lendle, a group which makes copies of Amazon e-books available for borrowing (under a range of strict conditions, the precise details of which I have not, I confess, inscribed upon my heart because life is just too short). Regardless of the exact nature of the programme, the objection broadly seems to be: if a person can get an e-book for free for a couple of weeks, the author loses the sale! Because why would they ever buy it once they’ve already read it?

Eh. I really don’t know what it is about digital that seems to cause the brains to collectively seep out of people’s heads. For a start, this is no different from the borrowing programmes that have been going on since humans discovered fire. Additionally, even if the worst conceivable thing happened and people were able to hack these e-books and create infinite numbers of copies of them (which, I believe, is not currently possible for most of us), this is not going to destroy the industry, anymore than free music downloads have destroyed music.

Why? In order to illustrate my primary argument against this absurd notion I am going to use the example of Victoria Clayton. For those of my readers who have not heard of her (which, unfortunately, I imagine will be pretty much everyone), Victoria Clayton is a particularly fine writer whose books are sadly unclassifiable. Are they chick lit? Her publisher seems to be inclined, lately, to market them that way; but no, I would say emphatically not. Are they romance? Her books do always include a love story, but they do not fit into the romance genre either; there’s too much other material in there. Are they historical fiction? They’re set from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s (so far), which isn’t exactly the modern world but not exactly historical either.

Who knows. Point is, they’re terrific books but poorly marketed – and I imagine that’s partly because of this difficulty of pigeon-holing them. Until last year I’d never heard of this lady. Then I took one of my random excursions down to the local library and made some totally random selections.

(I love doing that, by the way. Where else do you get the luxury of just browsing for as long as you like, and taking home exactly what catches your eye – without having to count up all the loose change in your pocket and regretfully decide you can’t afford most of them?)

Anyway, now look at this glorious pile of beauties:

Did I really go out and collect almost every single book Ms. Clayton has written to date?

Yes. Yes I did. And what’s more I’m poised over my Amazon.co.uk account just waiting for the moment I can pre-order the next one.

Let’s break that down a little. It’s true that authors are paid a little bit when their books are borrowed from libraries. A very little bit. In comparison to the amount they would make if they sold a new copy of that book, it’s a pittance. (No, I don’t know what the exact figure is, though in the UK at least what was a small amount before is now set to become outright minute).

What borrowing does, however, is give readers the chance to try out vastly more authors than most of us would ever have the chance to read if we had to find the money for our own copy every single time. What that means for authors is increased word of mouth. And word of mouth is, of course, widely agreed to be the best form of advertising. You try a book for free, you like it, you buy it. You tell your friends. You buy more by that author. You lend your copies to a friend. Your friend buys a couple. And so on. Without library borrowing, cheap second-hand book sales and free loans from friends, authors like Victoria Clayton might never have reached my attention (in fact, neither would Patrick Rothfuss, Tamora Pierce, Kage Baker, Liz Williams, Indra Sinha… the list goes on and on). That’s a loss for both readers and writers.

So why the fuss? Many authors are getting the hang of this brave new digital world just fine. Plenty of people appreciate the benefit of, for example, offering their new e-book as a free download, at least to begin with, because it makes it available for people to simply try it – regardless of their level of available income. We find the money to buy our own copies of the books we really love, so we can read them again and again; we don’t scrape to find the money to buy books we’ve never tried.

Therefore! The next person to cry Doom and Gloom over e-book lending in my hearing will be getting a dunking in a vat of rice pudding. Cold rice pudding. You have been warned.

Getting Started: On E-reading and Beginnings

March 13, 2011 § 16 Comments

I was going to write a post about e-books and self-publishing, but the entire world is talking about this already. Quite justifiably, because it is possibly the most exciting thing happening in the connected worlds of writing, reading and publishing at present.

Instead of rambling about this in a generic way, however, I’m going to focus on one element of it that’s particularly striking me as important. Amazon offers free samples of its e-books for immediate download, prior to buying the book. I understand that samples are usually the first 10% of the book, so the precise number of pages it amounts to will vary from book to book. But let’s say 30-60 pages as a probable range.

For readers, this is so extremely useful and fantastic I hardly know how to express it. I am, of course, addicted to books, by which I mean that no matter how broke I am I will find a way to acquire new books. If it comes to making do with old clothes instead of buying new ones so I can have a new book or two… so be it. It is no contest. However, being someone who is usually quite broke (alas), I hate it when I hazard money on a book and I don’t enjoy it.

Offering free sample chapters changes all that. I can now make sure I am getting properly involved in the story before I spend any money on it. As a reader, this is terrific.

As a writer, it’s mildly terrifying.

When shopping in paperback, it’s the front cover and the synopsis that are very important, and possibly the first few pages of the book. Most people don’t have time, inclination or opportunity to sit in a bookshop and read more than that before they buy; and shopping online for printed books offers about the same amount of information. No doubt, then, a strong cover, synopsis and opening page have always been important.

If someone buys your book on the basis of this material and then finds it a bit slow to start, that’s a shame, but having already bought it many readers will press on. And they may be won over eventually. I say this because it’s happened to me a few times in my recent reading history.

If we’re dealing with online shoppers, however, there’s an extra hurdle to be got over before making that sale in the first place. A reader still has to be impressed with your front cover and synopsis and the first page. They also have to be impressed with the next 49 pages – before they think about actually buying the book. If the first 10% doesn’t pass muster, no sale. And in a crowded market that’s likely to grow even more crowded very, very quickly now, readers may not bother to download any samples of any more of your books.

Soooo. Having a really great beginning is more important than ever, and it has to be followed up by a few more really great chapters. This doesn’t seem like news: obviously the aim is to try to make sure the entire book is really great. But without hooking readers well and quickly, there’s possibly even less chance in the future that readers will make it past the beginning. How to achieve this?

I’ve been paying attention to a lot of experts (should I say ‘experts’ in some cases? Maybe) who give out a lot of advice about writing. Many of them sound like they do, indeed, know what they are talking about; the only problem is that they often contradict one another. On the topic of beginnings, some are staunchly in favour of dropping the reader straight into the middle of the action; no preamble of any kind. Others are firmly against that, and strongly recommend spending some time introducing your characters properly and setting up their ‘world’ before the real action begins. I can see the logic of both points of view.

Undoubtedly it’s imperative to avoid the sort of slow beginning that involves characters wandering in and out at a leisurely pace, having tea with each other and talking about the weather. Beyond that, well. There are, as usual, multiple schools of thought.

Given how important this is shaping up to be, it bears further scrutiny. What are the opinions of the Writerverse? As a reader, what do you prefer – to go haring straight into the action,  or to learn a bit about the characters first? How do you approach it as a writer?

This week I have come across the website of historical fiction author K. M. Weiland. She is offering a free e-book on constructing characters, and the book includes some useful comments on crafting beginnings. Here is an excerpt:

“Beginnings must accomplish all of the following:

• Give the readers a reason to care about what happens to the characters.

• Plant an irresistible hook.

• Introduce overall tone (satiric, dramatic,etc.).

• Introduce setting (time and place), conflict, and possibly theme.”

And how do you write the perfect beginning?

“Well, you write and you rewrite. And then you repeat.”

The whole e-book is very useful for developing character, conflict and theme; I recommend it. Download your own copy here: http://kmweiland.com/free-ebook.php

In closing, because I skipped all the comments I was tempted to make about the astronomical rise of e-reading and self-publishing for e-reader, let me recommend someone who’s been discussing this far better than I could. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an incredibly prolific novelist who’s published about a million novels. She runs a very regularly updated blog on her website, including the ‘Business Rusch’ section which covers the recent changes in publishing. It’s the best read I’ve come across on this topic.


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