How EBook Readers Shop And The Importance Of Sampling

An author at a conference recently asked me for tips on publishing on the Kindle and then said that he didn’t actually read books on digital devices.

ebookreaderssamplingI was kind of gob-smacked because how else are you going to know if there are problems until you start getting 1 star reviews?

When you publish a print book, don’t you buy it immediately to test the process and the quality? So why not do the same for ebooks?

If you’re going to digitally publish, I believe you should own an e-reader, even if just to test how your book looks. They aren’t expensive anymore so there is no excuse.

It’s also important to understand how ebook readers shop, because they are the high-volume readers, the ones who will make up the bulk of your digital sales.

How do ebook readers shop for books?

I read around 95% digitally, on a Kindle Paperwhite and through the Kindle app on my iPhone. I don’t own every device but I certainly test the .mobi format on Kindle and the ePub format on my desktop reader and my iPad and iPhone. I am also a voracious reader, getting through 3-5 books per week, more on holidays. Not having a TV helps!

This is how I shop:

a) I hear about a book on twitter, or I see one at a physical bookstore, or see a review somewhere, or find something I like in the Amazon store Top rankings for categories I like. I surf for fun in the Last 30 Days area.

b) If the book is available as an ebook, I download the sample right away and put it into a collection marked Samples. If the book isn’t available as an ebook, 99% of the time I won’t buy it unless it is an author I am committed to. I have other Collections on my Kindle marked ‘To Read’ which are books I have bought but haven’t started yet, “Reading” for ones I am reading now and “Make Notes On / Review” for those I want to revisit to write notes on or review on Amazon & Goodreads.

c) In between books I am currently reading, I go through my samples. If I make it to the end of the sample, I will usually buy the book because I am hooked. If I don’t, I delete the sample. No sale. I usually give a book 3 clicks of my Kindle before I delete it. Harsh, maybe, but life is too short to read books that don’t call to you.

So your marketing efforts, your book cover, your book description and reviews have helped your book get this far, but it is the sample that leads me to buy. I probably delete 60-75% of my samples so I have a harsh approach, but I don’t think I am an untypical example of a high volume ebook reader (although if you are one also, I’d love to know what you think in the comments!)

Make sure your sample makes the reader want to buy

Your book has to start with something that hooks the reader.

This isn’t new advice – if you want an agent, the first page has to hook them, and readers of print in bookstores may browse the first page, but because there are so many ebooks available, readers are increasingly unforgiving if a book doesn’t fit what they are looking for.

Here’s some tips:

  • Get into the meat as soon as possible. Put all the acknowledgements and extra stuff at the back, not within the sample. I was severely annoyed recently to download an Angela Carter anthology of short stories to find that the entire sample was an essay about her work and the stories didn’t come until later. I looked for a better version.
  • During the editing process, make sure you pay particular attention to what will hook the reader. If non-fiction, what is the problem you’re solving. If fiction, why would the reader read on? What have you caught their attention with? What loops have you opened mentally that they must close?
  • Make sure the formatting is excellent and easy to read throughout. I have deleted samples straight away when they start with coding errors. It denotes a lack of respect for the reader. This is why you need to test and curiously this has happened with more traditionally published books than indie. Seriously, one book was entirely formatted in Bold. Did no-one even check it? (Make sure this doesn’t happen to you!)
  • If non-fiction, DO include the table of contents. If fiction, your chapters don’t really add anything so aren’t so necessary.

What other suggestions do you have for improving samples? How do you shop for ebooks? Please leave your comments in the notes below.

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  1. Rick says

    I am really late to this conversation, but it is very timely and I have learned a lot. I have graphic design, marketing, and advertising experience (was freelance for 16 years) as well as some publishing experience (helping others get published) so I am curious and have a question.

    It seems most people are talking about how awful it is that they get the front matter in a sample and get little sample to read. How come people aren’t putting a “Sample” section at the front of their books and then front matter? I must be missing something if this isn’t an obvious solution. Front matter is great, but shouldn’t the industry adapt to the delivery model?

    I am getting ready to release a “Sample” book to introduce the series, but I intend on putting a “Sample” at the beginning of each book because of the front matter issue. Should I not do that?


  2. says

    You’re not harsh, Joanna – I rarely give one click of the Kindle before deciding to delete a sample. Oh, but of course… you’ve read some of those samples, too, haven’t you?

    You’ve missed a stage I go through (but I’m sure you do too).

    My process is:

    – Hear about a book or browse or read a review.

    – Check the cover and title. If the cover looks bad I’ll likely go no further.

    – Check the sample.

    There are a few authors who skip this stage and I buy sight unseen, but maybe only a dozen.

    Interestingly I’m reading a book at the moment through Goodreads from a well-known author and he wouldn’t have gotten me beyond the first page of the sample either.

    • says

      At the moment I don’t have the budget to buy a kindle or an e-reader so it would be great if you added to your article you can download e-reader software to view your own self -published books on the ordinary PC. Unless you feel they don’t work? If so I will have to test my book elsewhere.

  3. says

    I published my first novel and had the formatting done by a professional. He put all the chapter numbers at the beginning of the book and I wondered if that was really important. Now after reading your post I realize my gut instinct was right. I don’t need those chapter numbers at all!! Just like I thought. How often do I even go back to a chapter in a novel Em reading anyway? Almost never. Thank you for bringing this up. Sometimes I need a professional to tell me what I already know. Confirm it so to speak. I also read in Writers Digest of a writer who put her chapter numbers in the back of the book instead. Thanks for the post.

    • creativepubtalk says

      Brighid – Joanna is absolutely right at the beginning about maximising your sample on the novel. Golden rule is non-fiction always has a numbered chapter page in the front matter, but fiction doesn’t. But your eBook version does need a Table of Contents (TOC) so readers can tap around the chapters as in most instances any page numbers disappear when formatted for the reader device. More and more indie writers now put traditional front matter like author bio, other books, and contents etc at the back. Digital publishing, marketing and promotion is rewriting all the old publishing and book design rules, that’s OK, embrace it happily.

      • says

        This all makes so much sense. I wonder if my formatting professional can move the stuff in the beginning of my ebook to the back since its already published. Do you know if this can be done by simply copying and pasting to the back on my own or would that ruin the formatting?

        • Joanna Penn says

          Yes Brighid, your formatter can definitely do that – not by copying and pasting as they will need to sort out the Table of Contents, but it’s not hard. Or try Scrivener for DIY.


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