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Start Strong or Lose Your Readers

5 February 2016

From Digital Book World:

One of the data points we record at Jellybooks is how many chapters a reader finishes. Reading fiction is a very linear activity in which you start at the beginning of the novel and, following the story arc, read until you reach the end. You don’t usually hop in and out of chapters as you would do in a non-fiction book or textbook, and reading analytics bears that out.

However, what if the novel doesn’t grab your attention? What if you get bored? Reading analytics can measure that, too!

The way we display this is through a completion graph. To facilitate comprehension by authors and editors, the graph is deliberately structured like a Table of Contents (TOC), listing each chapter in the book. Next to each chapter is a horizontal bar graph in blue showing the percentage of readers who read that chapter (or substantial parts of it). The grey bars show front- and back–matter (introduction, dedication, prologue, epilogue, copyright page and so on) that are organized as chapters but are not part of the main narrative. As readers progress, the percentage drops off, showing that readers lose interest and even stop reading.

. . . .

The example above shows a title that was tested several months prior to publication date. Readers received it as complementary Advance Reading Copy (ARC), like they would from say, NetGalley, but instead of being asked to write a book review, they were asked to upload their reading data with the click of a button. Though participation in this focus group was generally very high, this book stood out from the dozen or so others, as an astonishing 90 percent of readers gave up after just two chapters. Let that sink in. Nine in 10 potential readers who took the time to start reading this book, expecting to read it all the way to the end, gave up after less than 50 pages. Just 50 pages!

. . . .

Surveying readers confirmed that people gave up because they genuinely did not like the book. They either didn’t like the writing, couldn’t identify with the main character or simply “weren’t that into the book.” Many a reader also stated, “I will stick it out for 50-100 pages for any book I try, but after that I move on if I don’t like the book”.

Last year we also had the opportunity to exchange data and information with some senior executives [from] a certain company in Seattle that has data on millions of readers (but not prior to publication date), and it confirmed what we had seen. Readers don’t get past the first 50-100 page for the majority of books. Wow!

So dear author and editor, what is the lesson? In today’s world of infinite distractions, you need to capture the reader’s attention within the first 50 to 100 pages. The 19th century approach of 100-page rambling introductions that lay out the background will turn off 21st century readers.

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

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34 Comments to “Start Strong or Lose Your Readers”

  1. They should tell you what the book it, so you don’t buy it!

    I have few readers so far. Some of them tell me once they started it, they could not put it down.

    One who didn’t like some of my writing choices gave me my first negative review, but still finished.

    I think the beginning of a book should be compelling, and the story never flag until the end. It shouldn’t just show polish of the first three chapter ‘sample.’ Isn’t that what we’re aiming for as writers?

    • “I have few readers so far”

      Alicia, since you’re saying, I have to ask : why have you priced your book so high ? Don’t answer if you don’t feel comfortable. Is it a deliberate strategy ?

      • It IS a deliberate strategy, and I don’t have any problem discussing it.

        Since I’m working out some of the details, I’d rather keep it private, but if you’d like to know, email me at abehrhardt at gmail.

        It’s priced where it is, and I will run a Kindle Countdown Deal once a quarter for the immediate future; if you’d like to know when, go to my blog or the book’s blog, and follow – I let all my friends and readers know when it’s lower.

    • Data is legally owned by the publishers which thus gives them a veto over the affected titles being mentioned. Sorry, it sucks, but those are the rules we have to play by…

  2. I wish that Amazon would let us see that data. If you learn where we lose our readers, we can improve our books. Improved books mean improved sales.

    Alas, we don’t get that. As self-publisher, we get none of the data that we really need.

    • Even trad pubbed writers don’t get that data. Besides, there are as many reasons a reader gives up on a book as there are books. Last week I set a book aside because it was just too weighty for my fatigued brain to follow. I will pick it up later when I have better concentration. I quit on a book last night about a third of the way through because I could not take one more explanation from the author. Another book I gave up on was a best seller that I thought was one thing but turned out to be another and it wasn’t to my taste. Of the three, only the second was what I’d consider poorly done, but explainery is one of my pet peeves and many readers might not consider it a flaw.

      So what take-away could I possibly give the writers that would be useful?

      If a writer wants to increase their sales, they need to work harder at figuring out what their particular audience wants. Relying on this kind of data is dangerous. Especially if the underlying reason for a reader not finishing is “Not to my taste.”

      • In addition, there’s also the possibility that the book is good and the reader likes it, but real life intrudes too insistently so they have to stop for a while.

        I have a book sample on my Kindle, and if the author had the data that indicated I didn’t buy it, she could potentially think it hadn’t grabbed me. When actually, I enjoyed it a lot, but 1) I’m saving it as a reward for myself. And, 2) she’s writing in the time period of one of my projects, and I don’t want to be too influenced: CJ Cherryh mentioned she avoided reading “Dune” while writing “The Faded Sun” trilogy, yet even so she coincidentally had a character named Duncan.

        I think if you’re looking for actionable intel, you’d have to go with reader reviews, whether those readers are buyers or beta readers. I was looking at reviews for another book recently where the readers kept saying they could not finish that book. Several of them gave solid reasons why they couldn’t finish, solid enough that the writer could learn from those responses.

      • What would make it useful is if there was a big trend for readers to give up on a book around a similar point.

      • Readers are surveys and questions depend on how you read

    • Gotta agree with Jaye and Jamie on this one because data in and of itself can be terrible misleading.

      Take for example, the three people who bought the first book in one of my series on Amazon. They returned the book the next day, only to “buy” the second book. They continued through the available books of the series, then started on the second series, buying them then returning them the next day. So did these people “like” my books, or “hate” them? 🙂

      • If they are the same people, they are thieves – or can’t remember where they left off in the series.

        If the first, they love your writing, but are fast readers, and too cheap to pay for them. You’d think Amazon would notice that behavior when flagrant.

        Amazon eventually puts limits on serial returners – they know when they are being scammed.

        • That’s the reason for the smiley face, Alicia. I’m pretty sure they were serial returners.

          The OP also doesn’t include the folks reading pirated material. I discovered someone who was extolling one of my books on forum I used to frequent. He was literally bitching because no one had pirated the rest of my books for him to download. 😆

      • In our case we would be able to see if they read them, the example you cite sounds like cheats 🙂

    • If Amazon gave jellybooks the data, we would prep it up for consumption, but we get the impression that Seattle is busy with other things 🙂

  3. I have to say, I find the tone of the article hilarious. You only have 50 pages! Let that sink in! You need to capture attention in the first 50 pages! Or maybe 100! But either way start strong!

    Good golly I’d hate to hear what a “slow” start would be.

    “You’ve got thirty of my f$#@ing seconds. Thrill me.” – Gay Perry, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

    I can’t be the only reader who picks up a book basically daring it to let me put it down. I don’t look for reasons to keep reading; I look for reasons not to. Most books I try are lucky I make it past the sample, never mind the entire book.

    • I don’t spend a lot of time with a book that doesn’t grab me pretty quickly, either, Will. But I’ve been surprised to hear so many people say they will finish a book even if they don’t like it. Seems like a waste of time to me. I guess there are a lot of committed readers out there, in which case, this advice doesn’t really hit the mark.

      I’ve also heard that you only have 10 pages to grab your reader. So, I guess, YMMV, as they say.

      • I did–once–finish a book I really loathed. Diana Palmer’s “The Briton” had them sailing from the east coast of England into the Irish Sea, which I assume was located then in the place it still is today. This was the least of this writer’s sins. But I finished the book to see if it would get better.

        It didn’t.

    • I found that funny, too.

      When I come across a random book on Amazon that looks interesting, it gets at most two pages to grab me before I move on.

      Yeah, if the plot meanders through the first hundred pages after I buy it, I’ll probably give up. But if the first two pages–and preferably first two paragraphs–don’t make me want to read more, I’m not even going to buy it.

    • They kept saying 50-100 pages while the graphs show 1 or 2 chapters. If 50 pages equals one chapter, that’s an 1800 page book for their first example and 1500 for their second. Those are big books. (And what’s a page?)

      Looking at the graphs in the article, it’s probably more accurate to say you have one chapter, maybe two, to hook a reader. And we already knew that.

      • They can only measure on e-readers, and their measurement doesn’t equal a normal page…AMazon uses about 600 I think for their Kindle Unlimited estimates in e-format for typical 50K word book.


  4. I’ve been fooled a couple of times by a book with a good start – the whole sample – which then showed its true colors and twisted into something else.

    On rereading the beginning, I realized I had been giving the author a bit of a break because of, well, a personal online relationship.

    The book was terrible (IMHO). Later reviews (I didn’t finish, but skimmed the ending) were very revealing, and far less kind then I had been.

  5. My first thought is, ‘this article was written by someone who has no idea why readers read, why they stay in a story, or why they leave.’
    You get about 400 words to hook a reader into the story. On average. Maybe literary readers are more patient, but mostly people will give you a couple of pages. Once they’re hooked, you got to keep them in the story. This takes a lot more craft, and if you’re uneven you can lose a reader at any time. Mostly by the second chapter, if we believe the graph.
    The failure in craft won’t necessarily be glaring, either to the reader or the writer. Uneven pacing, not sustaining depth… these will pop a reader out of the story. And they won’t even be able to say why — just that they ‘weren’t into it.’
    Knowing how to control the reader experience so you can keep them engaged all the way through takes more advanced skill sets than to just write a good opening chapter. Writers who do that — grab a reader so they can’t let go — consistently and well become best-sellers. It takes time and work and long-term learning to get that kind of mastery though, and if we could see a bell-curve of all the writers writing, most of them would be in the early part of their development. And by definition, still learning to consistently hold readers.

    • No doubt for *some* readers it’s just 10 pages

      But I can see the data that the drop from for most readers across most books is not that quick

      Loosing 90% of readers within just two short chapters? Yes that happens too, but such books are outliers

    • I agree, Teri. And I think the article is incorrectly titled. The task is more to *stay* strong than (just) start strong. And staying strong is a function of many of the things you detailed (oh, and having an engaging story).

  6. So, does anyone read fiction the way my dad did? If the beginning of a book didn’t grab him, he would jump to the middle, and then, if it held his interest, after he got to the end he would go back and read the part he had skipped.

  7. Maybe I’m jaded, but I don’t give writers a long time to grab my attention. You got the first half-page and maybe the next page to grab me or bye-bye.

    Once in a blue moon, I make exceptions. Like right now. I am reading P C Wren, Beau Geste, and I have the honor to report that it is egregiously bad. But I made it a goal to read the frelling thing. So I intersperse a chapter of Beau with a chapter from Libby Hawker, Baptism for the Dead. BftD is my reward for reading Beau.

    (Really. Beau is horrible. Watch any of the movie versions, but burn the book.)

  8. “Frelling”? I am so, so stealing that. Thanks, Antares.

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