The Single Best Way to Sell a Lot of Books

Via Flikr Creative commons, courtesy of Tax Credits.

Via Flikr Creative commons, courtesy of Tax Credits.

There are a lot of ways to try and sell books. One way? Non-stop Twitter book spam, “Buy my book! Buy! Buy! Buy! #writer #books #ineedmoney #indie #selfpub.” Just make sure you set it to automate to EVERY writer hashtag and to repeat every fifteen minutes. People LOVE THAT.

We can advertise fifty times an hour and never have to bother actually talking to people on Twitter. Hey, our time is valuable, whereas others? They have plenty of time to be on Twitter, so why not give them a GREAT BOOK?

Then there are of course, form-letters on Facebook. “Dear Valued Person, I noticed you like puppies. My book has puppies, please buy now!”

We can also rufie invite people to FB fan clubs for our book against their will.

Me: When did I become a member of The Raven’s Chest Hair Fan Club? *scratches head* *leaves group*.

Then there’s always Goodreads Begging: “Hi, I’ve never even said hello to you and don’t know you from a hole in the ground, but my book is the best thing since Scratch-and-Sniff stickers, yet strangely not selling. I’m sure together we can make my book NUMBER ONE!”

Or not…

In my new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World I actually spend a lot of time explaining why advertising and marketing doesn’t sell books in the new paradigm (or any other, for that matter) and what changes to make for any advertising or marketing to be more effective. Yet, ads, banners, book trailers aside, people want to read a great book.

This means our best way of selling books is…

You ready for this? *drum roll*

Writing great books.

Price is no longer as big of a determining factor as it used to be. A couple years ago, John Locke started the .99 bandwagon and many authors jumped on. At first readers were excited, until they realized the slush pile had just been dumped onto their Kindles and Nooks.

This is good news and bad news. Bad news? Being cheap isn’t the game-changer it used to be. Good news? People are gravitating to higher priced books, because there is a presumption of higher quality. This means good books can make more money. Yay!

***Btw, I said higher priced not stupid priced. Traditional publishing has taken many a hit for this. Strange fact. Consumers won’t pay the same price for an e-book as a glossy hardback. Wow, who would have imagined that?

Yet, just because potential readers are gravitating to higher priced books, doesn’t mean an automatic purchase. It means our customer’s time is *gasp* valuable. Yes, they are browsing the slightly more expensive books…to whittle down which books they will invest time in reading sample pages. We have to earn the sale.

Our sample pages, which are the beginning of the book, are our most priceless selling tool.

I know most of you’ve heard agents and editors usually give a book one to three pages, before continuing or chunking into the circular file. You might be thinking one to three pages? But, my story really gets going on page 21.


I’ve run the first-twenty-pages-contest on this blog for about three years. Most of the samples I get? I don’t need 20 pages. I need one. I already know all the writer’s bad habits and level of education and skill (or lack thereof). It’s simply shocking how many of the same problems plague the beginning of most first-time novels.

And it’s easy to think this is all very unfair, but think of your own experiences browsing a bookstore. Aside from cover and interesting title and story description, what do we do? We open the book and scan the first couple of pages. If those first pages stink, we don’t give the writer twenty of fifty or a hundred pages to sell us.

Unless you wrote Girl With the Dragon Tattoo but he was dead.

So when you are dead, I suppose people give more gratis, because I cannot count the number of times people have said, “Well, yes GWTDT bored the paint off the walls, but after the first hundred pages, it’s awesome!”

I…am not that motivated. I gave the book more than it’s due (because the writer was dead) and gave it 20. Next! I’m aging here.

So if you are reading this blog and you’re dead? You get more leeway. Also, what’s it like on the Other Side? Feel free to leave a description in the comments :D.

For the rest of us who remain among the living? One to five pages.

I can tell 99% of what’s wrong in a book by page five, and so can agents and editors (and readers, though they might not know what is wrong, only they aren’t hooked).

It’s sort of like going to a doctor. He/She can tell from the sphygmomanometer (been DYING to use that word) which is a blood-pressure cuff, a look at skin pallor and basic symptoms to tell if a patient has a bum ticker. No need to crack open the patient’s chest and stare right at the sickly beating heart.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

Most new writers (especially) have what Candy Haven’s calls a fish-head. What do we do with fish-heads? We cut them off and throw them away, unless you are my family, who are scavengers Scandinavians and then they make soup *shivers*. This actually explains the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo mystery.

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of David Pursehouse

Original image via Flikr Creative Commons, courtesy of David Pursehouse

The writer was dead and Swedish. Apparently Swedish readers looove fish-head-story-soup and somehow convinced others to give it a try. Not saying these are bad books, btw. Clearly, they have a huge fan base and rave reviews. I’m just I am not patient enough to get to the good stuff (and neither are a lot of other people).

Most new novels need to lose the first hundred pages. But that’s just something I’ve gleaned from experience. Yet, who cares about the first hundred if we can’t care about the first five? Often, the problems in the next 95 pages can be fixed by knowing what went sideways with the first five. Seriously.

Sample pages are…samples. If we go to Sam’s or Costco, how many will stop for a sample of egg rolls, pizza, or Acai juice? How many will stop to sample the Fish Head Surprise?

My point, exactly.

For a fantastic resource about this, I highly recommend Les Edgerton’s Hooked. Also, August 21st, I am running a Your First Five Pages webinar. Bronze is $40 and Gold is $55 (I look at your first five pages) and use WANA15 for 15% off. The webinar is recorded in case you can’t make the time and a PDF with notes will be sent to you following the class.

What makes you stop reading a book? How long do you give books? Are you patient enough to wait a hundred pages for it to get interesting? What do you find the hardest about writing the beginning of the book? Have you lopped off your own fish heads?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novelor your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

ANNOUNCEMENTS: I have a class coming up SOON, Creating Conflict and Tension on Every Page if you want to learn how to apply these tactics to your writing. Use WANA15 to get 15% off.

Winner of 20 Page Edit for July is EDWARD OWEN. Please send your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com.


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  1. Hi Kristen, will your book ever be available in paperback or Kobo?

    1. I am actually going over the formatting today and should be available in paper next week. Got behind due to a cold, then a vacation to get over said cold. Will announce next week :D.

  2. Great post! Enough said!

    1. Hot-diggity!

    2. Awesome! Let me know when it’s available and I’ll pick up a copy 🙂

  3. Thank you so much for posting this. It drives me nuckin futz to see people auto-spamming their wares on twitter. Does it make me want to go out and read their books? No. Does it make me want to unfollow them immediately and avoid anything they’ve ever written? You betcha.

  4. Great advice, Kristen. Not to flatter, but I’ve learned a lot from your blogs. Thanks for the book recommendations, too. Now, I’m going to go back to the first five pages on my WIP.

    1. Flattery is always awesome. I hope you are learning. Means I am doing my job and investing my time and efforts wisely :D.

  5. This is something all my creative writing tutors at Uni told me again and again: that in all likelyhood, you will lose the first three chapters of your first book and it will be stronger. Tough but true! I can see it’s right too.

  6. And if I really like a book, I buy it twice. Once in the electronic version for ease of portability and once in paperback for likelihood of survivability.

  7. While I enjoyed GWTDT (yes, I had to give it 100 pages) I think your point comes through in the movie version (Daniel Craig edition) cause they cut out a lot of what’s in the book and still catch the major plot points and keep things moving so audiences are interested.

  8. I have a fifty page rule when I’m reading. That’s not to say I wouldn’t give up after five if it were truly awful. But if I am not hooked by page fifty, I move on to the next one in the pile.

  9. I sample a lot of Indie books, and I’ve just been waiting for someone to ask me what turns me off in the first five pages–or first page: #1 crime: overwriting–no adjective/adverb not used; using ten gajillion ways to say “said”; cliches specially in certain genres (in fantasy books–that ubiquitous, mysterious cloaked figure really drives me nuts.) Nothing original on first page, story feels like something popular re-written. An opening with a character waking up or dreaming… I could go on but I won’t clog up the comments. I should go blog about this right now 🙂

  10. I’ve tried a few times to read a book everyone LOVED — Bel Canto, and could never get past a few sentences. Tried one of Nicole Krauss’ and gave up after a few pages. Who’s got time to read stuff you simply don’t enjoy? (that would be school.)

    I think any form of journalism training — esp. news writing for a tabloid — teaches you to grab the reader quickly. Keeping them slogging through the next 80-100,000 words? Not so much.

    1. I agree. That was my training as well and it tightened up my writing. It’s a struggle when I’m told to pad a piece.

  11. I’m with ozonenut… it’s about fifty or so pages for me. If its a great book, I know in the first few pages. Otherwise, I slog on a bit to see if it improves or not. Too much to read, too little time to waste time.

  12. I recently clicked on this ad by Ryan Deiss where you get trapped in a spiel about selling crappy, useless books on Amazon. I thought exactly what you’re writing about here. The marketing world seems to think that consumers are brainless blobs who click and buy cheap.

  13. Great points! I have one question of clarification though. What if your book has a prologue? Would the rule of thumb be to give the first five pages of the prologue or the first five pages of chapter one? Thanks!

    1. Most samples in digital form, the prologue counts. In paper (at a bookstore) it’s gonna get skipped. One of the reasons I advise avoiding prologues is most readers page past them. Most prologues I’ve seen are totally unnecessary and can either be cut or made Chapter One.

    • Chrstine Ahern on August 9, 2013 at 10:40 am
    • Reply

    You are soooo right. I won’t buy a book that does not keep me wanting to read past the third page. I glance through to make sure there is enough of a balance of dialogue and description and read something in the middle too. I work in a bookstore so you can imagine the height of my bedside stack. I actually have more trouble lately with the books I’ve chosen to read with the middles. I’m drawn in, happily reading along, then feel let down when the middle drags or pulls me away from the promised story. I start to not care how it ends and put it down. I lose sleep over the thought of my books doing that. Yikes!

  14. I just love your writing ability Kristen and that’s a genuine compliment coming from me because there are only a couple writers I appreciate.

    I post your articles to Twitter and Facebook!

    1. THANK YOU! *hugs* I appreciate that.

  15. I gave up on Frankenstein because I don’t care about some guy’s Arctic voyages that have nothing to do with monsters. Based on what I’ve heard, there’s no way that kind of exposition would make it through a slush pile these days. 🙂

    I know, I’m a horrible person. But really, it seems like writers used to get a lot more leeway with this. I’m not saying that it was better or worse, but I do wonder why. Are our attention spans shorter now, or is it just that there’s so much content out there, and we know we could be spending our time on something we actually enjoy?

    I try for 30-40 pages. If the writing really turns me off I’ll put a book down more quickly, but I’ll give a story that long to get going if a slow start seems to be the only problem.

    1. They didn’t have other forms of entertainment competing with instant gratification. No TV, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, video games, Sims, etc. The world changes and we have to appreciate those changes to remain competitive.

      1. True. I’m certainly not complaining about the changes- as a reader I like a quick beginning, and as a writer I’m happy to comply with that requirement. I do find it interesting that so many people judge those who don’t appreciate the classics, though. We do have a different mind-set, and more things competing for our interest, but we’re expected to gag down books we don’t enjoy because they’re good for us (like literary brussels sprouts), or because we’re idiots if we can’t appreciate all of them.

        1. I can’t answer that. I was forced to read “The Great Gatsby” THREE times and still hated it. Storytelling has evolved to be far more intimate. Also, it was necessary for early authors to give a LOT of detail because 1) those writers were paid by the word, so there was incentive to pad a work more than a freshman term-paper, 2) the image revolution hadn’t yet happened. Before 1850, most people only saw paintings/images in churches or homes of the very wealthy and 3) people didn’t move around a lot. Melville HAD to spend a bazillion words describing the ocean and whales because people didn’t have Google or The Discovery Channel. A lot of people might never have seen (or would never see) the ocean or a whale. Thus, the details were critical. For a modern audience? SNOOZE FEST.

        2. I totally understand what you mean, but I’m one who happens to love the classics, including Frankenstein. I also love brussels sprouts. 😉 Most modern readers wouldn’t go for Frankenstein though.

    2. Oh boy Kate, wait till you see my throwback review on Frankenstein, lol. I loved the Arctic story in the beginning. It is actually a clever writing technique that Mary Shelley could have used better but still clever. Essentially you have one character telling the story to another character which can work really well if done right.

      1. Yeah, I know… I just don’t like it, myself. It’s not the style so much as the fact that I didn’t find all of that interesting. In a different story, i might love it. To each his/her own, I suppose; the world would be boring if we all liked the same books. 🙂

        1. You know sometimes if I hear the later half of something is good, I just skip the boring stuff. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

          1. There’s a thought. I like your attitude. I probably give up on things too easily- I should pay more attention to “it gets better” reviews.

          2. Nah, I am like you I usually just stop reading. It’s just now and again I do that. Usually when it starts out good and then gets boring is when I do that.

  16. Enjoyed the post, great info. I will remember the first 5 pages is the mantra. Thanks.

  17. How come I didn’t get invited to The Raven’s Chest Hair Fan Club? Great article. I’m glad I’m not the only one who couldn’t get into TGWTDT

  18. I am so glad you said that about GWTDT. Everyone who recommended it said, “Once you make it past the first quarter, it gets good.” I was scorned by others because I refused to give a book that long to “get”me.

  19. I thought I had a fish head with my first book and during the editing process, tried to eliminate the first 30 pages. But then one of my editors said that I lost all my character development, so I put it back in and tried to fix what I could. I see it now as a learning experience (it was my first, after all), and now I know how to go about starting in the right way. 😀 Too much foul language or promiscuity makes me put a book down. I don’t talk or behave that way, and neither do most of my friends, so it makes the story less believable for me.

  20. I used to give a book 100 pages or 3 chapters (whichever came first). Now? Uh-uh. I’m no longer that patient. I do try to give at least 20 pages or 1 chapter, though, rather than just 5.

  21. I give a book whatever the length of the Kindle sample is. If I’m not eager to click the Buy button, there are plenty of other samples on my Kindle to try. 🙂

    1. Yep, same here. Tempus fugit.

      1. When is your book out?

  22. My house is full of books with a bus ticket, a menu, a folded tissue, a receipt, or someone’s business card stuck in them at or about page 40, so I do heartily agree with you.
    Hopefully the paperbacks I wrote do not contain long-abandoned bookmarks anywhere, in anybody’s home.

  23. Great post as always, Kristen. The non-stop litany of “buy my book” posts have driven me away from social media. Of course that means I’m spending more time focusing on my writing. BTW, I wonder if my Swedish heritage is the reason why I have such a difficult time killing my “darlings.”

  24. I, too, am glad I’m not the only one. Maybe we should start a, “Really, GWDTD Wasn’t Really All That” club. I listened to the whole thing on audible. I never would have made it through, otherwise.

    Kristen, I hope you run your First Five webinar again in a few months. I’m not quite ready for it now.

  25. Meeee, pick me! Please. And while you’re at it, buy my book, Shatterworld, coming out on Aug 30. Or read the first page. Or something.
    I enjoy your blog posts. Thank you for your offers and your writing.

  26. Great advice! You’re right, I only give a new book around 10 pages till I decide, but the title is also a huge factor towards whether this book looks interesting or not to me. But sometimes it’s so hard to write the beginning of a book and I’m probably guilty of leaving what could have been amazing books…

  27. Great post and I’m glad I am not the only one trying to get the message come through that endlessly twittering “Buy my book” isn’t the way to go.
    I never got past the first 3 pages of that book, and actually thought it was me and not getting it. But I just didn’t have the gusto to go any further. Like you said, “Hey, I’m aging!”

  28. FYI, your registration site won’t accept WANA15 for the First Five Pages event.

    1. Fixed. Forgot to check that box. Should work now.

  29. Here’s another “Strange but true” story to prove your point: I went to a seminar which included the publisher who picked up Vikram Seth’s “A Suitable Boy”. This book weighs in at slightly more than a portly baby Orca. He admitted that his PA had brought him the manuscript as a joke while he was in hospital recovering from surgery. She joked that he would have plenty of time to read the MS now. He said he would not have even picked up the manuscript otherwise.
    There will always be exceptions to every rule (even this one…) because getting published sometimes comes down to meeting the right reader in the right frame of mind, or hospital bed. Your advice is always good and makes perfect sense. But i think I have to complete the first draft before I start to rewrite the first five, yes?

  30. Thanks so much!

  31. Thanks for the Hooked shout-out, Kristen! And, now I know why you’re my long-lost twin sister. I hated the Dragon thingy too and also Gatsby and also Moldy Dick! I kept going into bookstores and picking up the Dragon book and couldn’t get into it at all. Then, a good friend, author Bob Rotstein, called me a year or so ago and asked if I’d read it. He begged me to read it, since, as he put it, “It went against everything I teach against.” He wanted to know if I could come up with a reason it did so well. In his opinion, he thought it sold well because of the “creepiness” factor. I still don’t know what he meant by that. Well, I plowed through it and still don’t know what its attraction is. I do know why it got published and got rave reviews, though. It was written by the editor of the most liberal magazine in Europe and literary folks love that stuff. And, then, because he was room temperature, that gave it gravitas in their eyes. And, those are the folks who run the well-known literary reviews. Gatsby has always seemed to me to be basically a soap opera. It’s like daytime TV. I was made to read it again in grad school, even though I told my advisor I hated it. Well, I read it again… and still hated it. And, the first third of Moldy Dick was everything you never wanted to know about whales… designed for a pre-Discovery channel audience. It didn’t even sell in Melville’s lifetime–less than 500 copies. Only when some obscure English/lit prof proclaimed it to be the best thing since sliced ham did it begin to sell. And, today, I daresay if you poll bookstore clerks as to who’s buying it, you’ll find out it’s primarily freshmen English students who’ve been ordered to… Don’t believe folks are picking it up because they’ve heard it’s a yowza book… Gatsby does have one interesting thing going for it. It’s probably the only book where the protagonist never changes–there’s no arc at all to Gatsby. But… this is where it’s very different from almost every other book… two people do change in the book. One, the narrator, Nick, and also (presumably) two, the reader, as a result of having read it. That’s a big deal in the history of story structure. Fitzgerald is an interesting story himself. HIs babe, Zelda, told him she wouldn’t marry him until he sold something. Anything–short story, poem, novel. He covered all four walls of his bedroom with rejection before he sold anything… and this was in the era that was the easiest time in history to get published. Today, I have a feeling he’d be the head writer on General Hospital or Guiding Light… Sorry for the rant! You rock, Kristen!

    1. Oh, dear, and here I love, love, love Moby Dick. Read it to my kids. But the Great Gatsby. A skillfully written book about nasty people doing nasty things, while being well-dressed.

      1. Ha-ha, Lelia! My best friend, the recently-deceased Cort McMeel loved Moby Dick also. He considered it one of the best books ever. We had some great arguments/discussions about it. There’s no book that everyone loves.

  32. Love your reference to the fish head. I’ve been using the fish-cleaning approach to editing in my own work and in my editing workshops for many moons. Cut off the head and tail of your book, your chapters, your scenes, and sometimes even your sentences. (smile)

  33. Thank you so much for the timely advice! It applies to nonfiction writing as well. As writers we should not bore, embarrass, or turn away any potential readers because of poor writing, grammar, stupid ideas, or any other obstacle. When we write our best we will see excellent results in our readership and folllowers. Good editing is as much an art as writing and a skill we need in our repertoire as writers. You always give us new ideas and ways to work. Thanks!
    Patricia Woods

  34. Why is deciding where to start a story so damn difficult? I have gone back and forth with this issue on three different projects. To prologue or not to prologue is a never-ending argument that I have seen no clear direction on. It seems to depend entirely on who you ask and what phase the moon is in at the time. I got tired of the arguments and on my current project, I just wrote the beginning that was in my head. I have no intention of calling it a prologue even though some might say that is what the first seven pages are. We will just have to see what happens when I get to the revision process.

  35. I understand completely what you are saying because if I’m not hooked by the 3rd chapter (I must have a little more patience than you) its sad because I have spent money on a book that I will have to waste and I detest wasting books! Your great advice means I will have to edit-edit-edit and edit some more. It’s so hard to trash what you have put so much time into but to write a great book I guess sometimes you have to write slop and then figure out what that slop is! Thanks for all your wonderful advice.

  36. I like long, complex books with lots of characters. When I buy a book like that, I’m willing to give it a hundred pages or more because it may take a long time for the relationships to start to come together.

    If I’m reading a book a friend wrote, I’ll almost always read the whole thing, whether it’s to my taste or not or whether the story is bad or good.

    For a self-pubbed book, I can tell within a page or two whether the writing will be good or bad. I may read longer than that if the premise or main character sounds particularly intriguing. Or if the reviews said the story was good despite the poor writing.

    For the typical book, I’ll give it 50 pages.

  37. During NaNoWriMo last year I planned plot lines for three characters. One main, one supporting and an antagonist. After 30,000 words I realized that I HATED my main character (Jill) and LOVED my antagonist (Sarah). So, I either had to make Jill more loveable and Sarah more evil or, I thought I could just flip it around. Flipping it around seemed easier, but it also meant that I no longer cared about my first 10-20 pages that were almost all about Jill. No one wants to start about reading about how the bad guy had her heart broken. I must admit that I still haven’t finished the book — or decided who the good guy really is — but even if Jill is the good guy the beginning is not the place for the that info. It’s just too tedious. I needed to know those things about her and I maybe even needed to write that info, but it does not need to be at the beginning just because it was the precipitating circumstance.

    1. Crystal, hope you (and Kristen) don’t mind me jumping in here, but here’s something that may help. When you think of your protagonist and antagonist in moral terms, i.e., hero/villain, good guy/bad guy, then often you end up with one-dimensional, cardboard characters ala Snidely Whiplash/Dudley Doright. All the protagonist is is the individual through whose pov you experience the story through. All the antagonist is is the individual whose goals conflict with those of the protagonist. Example: In the film Thelma & Louise, the protagonist is Thelma (no co-protagonists–Louise is simply the Mentor character), and the antagonist is Hal, the state cop. Thelma’s surface goal is to escape jail and Hal’s goal is to catch her. It’s that simple. And, Hal’s the “goodest” person in the story. I see this over and over in my students–thinking of their characters in “moral” terms. It sounds as if your story is about Sarah and if so, then she’s your protagonist. If her story problem/goal is opposed by Jill, then she’s the antagonist. When you begin to think of characters as heroes/villains, I think you’ve created a problem for yourself perhaps. Thanks for letting me chime in!

      1. I never mind The Master jumping in :D. In fact, I SQUEEEEE every time you pop by.

      2. Thank you, Les.

        Actually I may have originally chosen Jill as the main POV out of laziness. I envisioned her a lot like me so I thought she would be easy to write. When asking what she would do next the answer was usually similar to what I would do next. Maybe that’s why she is a bit boring to me.

        Sarah is the other side of Jill’s coin. One of the ultimate themes of the book is that we are all connected to one another. And one of the elements that is currently a crux and source of tension is the fact that Jill has done everything she was ever told she was “supposed” to do and Sarah has actively rebelled against what she is supposed to do at every turn. But they have still wound up at about the same place in life despite all of their choices.

        Because they were meant to be opposite sides of the same coin it became a matter of who’s perspective is most intriguing. The story may be outgrowing the characters. I am currently interested in the themes above the plot and I am trying to decide the best way to display those themes.

        Sarah’s story and perspective may just be more interesting.It is certainly more dramatic. I dunno.

        Thank you for your feedback and interest. I agree about heroes and villains although I was beginning to think of Sarah as an anit-hero because she isn’t really a good person. But Jill isn’t really a good person either. She just does what society tells her to do (until she and Sarah start interacting that is.)

  38. Just bought “Hooked” on your recommendation. Can’t wait to read it. Amazing, I feel like I’ve come so far in my writing, but every few months I look back and realize that I have so much more to learn. Your blog is a big part of that process, thank you for your help.

    1. Thank you, Edward! Hope you find it helpful!

  39. So much to say here. First, I am halfway through RISE OF THE MACHINES, and it’s awesome! Well-done, Kristen.

    Second, I used to give every book 50 pages, but the longer I’m alive and the more great books I know are out there, the less patient I’ve become: If I’m not hooked by around page 20, bye-bye. (“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” – Dorothy Parker)

    Third, even after writing a while, it still is challenging to chop that dang fish head off. At a recent writing intensive, I wanted to smack my head against a wall when I realized that the story problem in my novel was stated on page twelve…PAGE TWELVE!!!! I had to rewrite twice to get it where it belonged–on PAGE ONE. But it’s so much better. Thanks for this great reminder!

  40. Thanks again, Kristen! Very helpful and much appreciated.

  41. I’m a wanna be writer… so if I won I’d have to write something for you to critique! Yet, I would LOVE for you to pick me! 🙂 (fingers crossed)

  42. Great article! I’ve always said that about ebooks. If you are going to give it a 99 cent value, do it for a day or two at the MOST. Otherwise, people are going to think they’re paying for a book worth 99 cents.

  43. I’m rewriting my ms and it’s like a first draft, but it’s frustrating when I know I need to do this, but have to wait for the rest of the story to appear to tighten it up.

    Also, looking forward to your Kobo book option!

  44. I guess the real problem comes for working in a vacuum. Writing can become such a solitary task– a woman scribbling in a notebook she shows no one, a guy type furiously at his laptop in a basement–you fall in love with your words and a concept all alone. But like that great guy you met and have a few wonderful dates with, will he stand up to the scrutiny of meeting friends and relations? Maybe the idea is to foster more writing circles, safe spaces where you can share and get honest feedback without fear of being scooped or worse, ignored. That way we always know when we’re serving fish head surprise.

  45. I love my prologues 🙂 I have one in every book but 2. (21 books. 19 prologues.)

    Great blog, Kristen. The openings are crucial. They are the hardest … and easiest … part for me. I usually know where to start the story, but sometimes it’s that first paragraph … even the first sentence … that takes me days to get right. Hooking the reader is not only hard when you’re first starting out, but it does not get easier.

    1. Thriller authors generally get a pass on prologues :D.

    • johnschwartz1 on August 9, 2013 at 1:26 pm
    • Reply

    HI, I am John and a new subscriber. I am unfortunately on an assignment on August 15 9 AM. Thanks for referencing Hooked about the right beginning. I had just eliminated a lot of “back story” for that very reason. It dawns on you and then becomes second nature. And thanks for your comment that conflict is what we write but try to avoid in real life. We are all animals with a cognitive ability and in fact we are much worse. Animals kill for a living or sting in defense. We torture and kill because we like it. Though we apply PC, we are hypocrites. So we need to catch the reader with our real instincts. Because that’s what most humans and certainly today’s humans like, that’s how we are. Amen and rewrite accordingly.

  46. The amazing Beth Revis made me aware of a Reddit thread where you could have your first 250 words critiqued. If you aren’t ready to do this with a group of strangers, I highly recommend the exercise.

    Readers on the thread upvoted any 250 words that made them want to read more – very eye opening, I think, for the writers that participated. 🙂

  47. Thanks for the great tips, Kristen. So true that readers as well as agents focus on the first page or first few pages in deciding whether to read a book. I generally will read for 50 pages max and if it doesn’t grab me, I stop reading. My daughter’s language arts teacher taught her that rule. There’s too many books out there to read what we don’t enjoy. We should remember that as we market our own books and focus on riveting first pages.

  48. The best way is to write a good book.

    • Judy Stone on August 9, 2013 at 2:52 pm
    • Reply

    Just subscribed to your blog today. What an eye opener! I’m a picky, rabid reader (stole that line), a fledgling editor/proofreader and my passions are literacy and the written word. Read everything from the classics (Euripides rocks!) to YA and mystery/detective fiction to SF/fantasy with frequent stops at paranormal and romance. If I see an intriguing blurb on Kindle, I download a sample, but I don’t click the buy button unless the book grabs me by the throat. First love is print books, but I’m slowly being dragged into the 21st Century of technology. If I’m browsing the stacks and a book looks interesting, I scan the first few pages and then flip to page 99–if the writing sucks, I don’t bother.

    I must be one of the few that love prologues. I enjoy complex, three-dimensional characters, good character development, solid plot, amazing world building, and now that I’m older, it better have an HEA.

    Life is too short to read something crappy. Never again will I waste my time on drivel like Gone with the Wind! I’ve had heated arguments with folks trying to change my unpopular opinion! HAH! I destroy these fools with pithy comments.

  49. True, Kristen. Price is a big factor in determining the perception of quality in book marketing. I’ve just refused to download a 99c novel written by Val McDermid (a big name in the UK). At that price, it’s obviously one of her early potboilers. But I’ve placed a $15 order for her upcoming book. Why? The price gives me confidence. So much book selection is doe by intangible factors.

    On a separate note, yes, like you I don’t need 20 pages to asses a writer. One paragraph will do it. I’ve judged 3500+ stories at the Writers’ Village contest since 2009. The first 200 words is enough. That said, I still read every word. Who knows if it will be redeemed by a killer close?

  50. *Writing this in response to this post and your other post about ‘pruning’ yourself.

    I realized a while ago that I was having trouble hooking my beta readers beyond a certain point in my manuscript. So I set to study–to become an expert in hooking people!

    Now I run a blog dedicated to critiquing the opening pages of other authors, pointing out the good adn the bad, and giving them a pass/fail rating based on whether I wanted to keep reading!
    It’s done wonders for my writing ability in general, and especially for the opening of my books. Next time you have a contest, I might enter one!

    I recommend anyone who’s having trouble with beginnings check out my blog (shameless plug [but hey, at least it’s relevant]), or start your own!

  51. As always sound advice given with humor and a gentle touch. Revision of my WIP first five pages this weekends project then!
    Thank you Kristen.

  52. I recently gave a book far more time than it deserved. The reason is because it was the fourth in a series, and the first book was really, really good. The second book was all right, the third, forgettable. This author is a big NYTBS, but he’s started to get too fond of the sound of his own voice. Of the first 100 pages, only five total actually moved the plot; the rest was exposition and internal monologue (info dumping). The title contained the word “War,” and the first battle took place on page 167. I dunno I’m going to be able to convince myself to read any more of his stuff. Very doubtful that I will pay for it, even $0.99 at the used book store.

    When this author actually gets off his lectern and starts showing me action, I love his stuff. Except for that Deus ex Dracula stunt he pulled that one time. Not cool. But this author’s big problem is that someone convinced him that interrupting a three-paragraph dialogue to insert seventeen pages of backstory is the way to go. And hey, he still sells a lot of books, so it must be right. Right?

  53. This article is stored for future reference.

  54. Reblogged this on #StoryCraft Chat and commented:
    Hi everyone!
    I wanted to share this fantastic post by Kristen Lamb, which outlines what we knew when we started #storycraft chat, three years ago: craft is key.

  55. Thank you for the valuable insights. You are a great model to follow for aspiring writers!

    • lynettemburrows on August 9, 2013 at 7:26 pm
    • Reply

    Cutting off the head of the fish is a great analogy, until you start thinking about what else you do with the fish – descale it, rip out it’s guts, and debone it! LOL. Of course, then all you’re left with is the meat. 🙂 What else does a story need?

  56. Thank you! You have given me something to think about when I dig into my favourite fish head curry. 🙂

  57. Sometimes I just need to hear the words in a different context – & today’s blog did that for me. I knew I had issues on the first two pages — not gripping enough. Didn’t want to really dig into them. Now, I knew it wasn’t a good idea to put on a “bandaid” and hope for the best — but now I’m committed to full surgery. Thinks for hitting me over the head.

  58. The worst literary fish-head I’ve ever come across is Dumas’ The Man Who Laughs – first pages describing a character who hasn’t done anything yet, and then pages and pages and pages of guff about the law and customs regarding the English nobility, their titles, landholdings etc etc etc some of which (it turns out many many pages and years later) is vaguely related to elements of the plot.
    You could skip straight to ‘Another Preliminary Chapter’ (more interesting, if still not narrative) and it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. The actual novel doesn’t begin til about page 28 – with a page of weather description.
    Watch the movie with Conrad Veidt instead. Seriously.

  59. Perspective. Too often writers lose it. They forget what their perspective was when they were “only” a reader. Decorate your stage well and put on the best play you can, but don’t make the audience sit with fish heads on their lap because you think it adds to the experience. Here “on the other side” the books take FOREVER to get going because the assumption is we have FOREVER to read them. I’m going crazy. 😉

    • Hong on August 9, 2013 at 9:22 pm
    • Reply

    Kristen, I have a question about your First Five Pages webinar: What’s the difference between bronze level and gold level? What will be the approximate turnaround to receive your feedback?

    1. One is the webinar and notes and the other, I actually look at your first five pages. Turnaround should be quick, and might depend on whether you want to redo them after the class and then sumbit. But, my goal would be within a week.

  60. I’ve noticed the 100 pages problem in my own writing, now I just embrace it in the first draft. I give myself those 100 pages to get to know the characters but then know in the second draft that I’ll have to cut all those pages of details that are only really interesting to me.

  61. Excellent post. Of course every well written book is not a bestseller & every bestseller is not well written but I agree that those first few pages are the best marketing a writer has. There are a lot of things a writer cannot control but good writing & editing is one of them. Shared on my blog!

  62. To the point, another good posting thanks. My input is this: I enjoy reading the comments you get, they are also to the point and give great responses to your postings. The things said help refocus your posting comments and therefore highlight why your postings are effective, and will sell your books, an exact example of what you are trying to say in the first place. So…. Great posting thanks

  63. Thank you for this great advice. I was inspired to revisit my first chapter for the umteenth time (and this time thought of a way to inject more conflict) AND I thought of a new angle for my press release, which I’ve been struggling to write. Thank you! 😀

  64. I’m cutting off a dead fish head at the moment of a book I wrote half a dozen years ago and thought I’d revisit. No wonder it didn’t get picked up then! I had everything but the kitchen sink in the first few chapters (and I probably would have tried to shove that in too if I’d thought of it at the time.) So easy to see all these years later after I’ve learned so much and had my first book published this year that I just didn’t need that dead fish head at the start. Great advice, Kristen. And I also hate those auto-twitter-fb-buyme-buyme-feinds. I’m as yet to buy one of their books. However, some lovely people who blog interesting stuff, recommend other people’s books, share mine and other people’s posts etc – I’ve bought plenty of them!

  65. I’m looking forward to the class on thursday 😀 I hope I get the time right, I guess I’ll be 7 hours ahead.

  66. So, I open my inbox and take a look at that subject line “The Single Best Way to Sell a Lot of Books” — and I tell myself, “Isn’t it writing a great book?”

    I love it, when I get it right! 😀

  67. Great article! I have 3 novels on my hard drive; one of which I am getting ready to send out into the world.Finally!

  68. Does anyone else stop reading because of blatant logic errors? I was reading a NYTBS where the antagonist grabbed a woman’s arm, clamped his other hand over her mouth and then stabbed her. Since the author never established that the man had three arms I stopped reading right there. It was obvious that the author was dialing it in and the editors were just skimming, so why waste my time when there are other good books out there.

  69. Hi Kristen, social media seem to become a place for marketing and you raised pertinent questions.

  70. What a great post. Thanks so much for sharing. I know my book starts are too slow. It’s something I’m working on. I appreciate the links to resources.

  71. Definitely my #1 must-stop blog. I always look forward to your posts, if not to learn, then for inspiration. Thanks!!

    1. Awww, thanks Tim *hugs*

  72. I’m really enjoying your posts! I’ve been getting sick of ubiquitous “advice for writers” posts accross the internet, but I like yours because you have a unique voice, you actually know what you’re talking about, and you’re REALLY entertaining! Thank you. Now I need to find out what formats your book is available in. If it’s half as entertaining as your blog posts I’m in for a treat.

    Oh yeah, and if the secret to selling good books is to write good books, then I’m covered 😀 Just waiting on my cover artist. And building the website. And reformatting the ebook!

  73. Love the idea of getting the first few pages right! I might need to adapt this as a writing exercise for my undergraduate students.

  74. I’m even more critical. I have a habit of making my ‘read or toss’ decision on the first paragraph. If it’s extremely short (like the beginning of Stephen King’s “Wizard and Glass”) I’ll go on for a bit longer; at least enough to get four or five sentences.

    With some books, even a one-sentence paragraph is enough to bait the hook. The first example that comes to mind is from “Neuromancer”:

    “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

  75. I’m about halfway through The Rise of the Machines, and I think this is an outstanding book! I will be encouraging my other author friends to pick it up. The sheer common sense of what you say in it is really eye-opening (kind of a “I coulda had a V-8”) moment. It’s definitely made me change my point of view on marketing.

    • Ramon on August 10, 2013 at 4:13 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you for this post. I was just entering in 2010 when the indie spamming was in full swing, so I saw what not to do before I came all in. One thing that I’m wrestling with is price. I’ve had a veteran that I truly respect to tell me my ebooks are priced too low. All are full length novels that range from 85k words to 220k words. (only two are that big. Others are around 90-100k mark) I have the first book I ever wrote at 3.99, and the others are all at 4.99. I’d like a second (or more) opinion. Do you think this is too low? I’m finally starting to sell quite well on BN, while I sell practically nothing on amazon, kobo, and apple. Perhaps this is the cause? I know I’m knew to this, having only seven books to my name, so I am also trying to be patient and just keep writing and let the audience find me.

    Any opinions welcome and thank you. 🙂


    R J Terrell

  76. Sphyomanometer. Love it! As always a spot-on post too… and yeah, the key problem in selling books is discovery…and a friend of mine pointed out, on experience, that even ‘free’ doesn’t work if people won’t give their time.

  77. I don’t have time for 100 pages in a book either, but I’ll read 100 pages of your posts any day!

    And as for the doctor thing, I’m not a doctor, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night, so the thing they do when you visit them is called a Review of Systems (ROS). You may want to use it in a future post analogy. The ROS is a check-list of the human anatomy – what makes us tick correctly – and is used to uncover disfunction or disease. We writers should call it a Review Of Synopsis. Don’t get me started on other things doctors do like the History of Present Illness (HPI)…although I’d love to write a guest blog on these for you if you’re ever interested in taking a day off.

  78. I love YOUR writing style. My god, you realize your readers are intelligent! How refreshing! Captured me from the first sentence. That, and the topic. I find myself so immune to all the spammy tiresome marketing that I seldom even notice the good stuff. I often ask myself, “What does it take for people to reach you?” as I work on marketing my business and soon, books. Now, I will backtrack how I got engaged in your post. Something worked like a hot damn.

    1. Thanks. A LOT of practice. And I am blessed with THE BEST followers. The comments are often better than my post. Great to meet you!

  79. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is another example of the posthumous-book-that-starts-slow phenomenon, though the patience needed for the first 50 pages really starts to pay off down the line. Of course, if Toole had been alive when the book was sent around to publishers, one of them probably would have made him revise the opening, and it probably would have been better (or at least easier to read).

  80. Great post Kristen you always make me laugh even when you’re dead serious. Thank you

  81. I’m about halfway through Les Edgerton’s HOOKED. Loving it! Thanks for the suggestion.

    I just finished plotting my next novel. I might be a pod person with all this planning I’m doing–you better check! 😀

    1. Thank you so much, Diana! Hope it helps you get your book on the bookshelves!

  82. This is great information and I’m considering signing up for your class on the 21st. I am struggling with getting the first 5 pages to matter of my book. I want them to matter!

  83. Great post–very funny, too.

  84. Great post. Love your humor. Love the information. So helpful. You’ve got me studying my own first five pages in the novels I’ve already had published as well as the one that’s almost ready. But don’t think I can be objective enough. Great post. Thank you

  85. Now this was extremely interesting and very teaching too. – And I’m even more scared of hearing your critics. *tremble*

  86. I think reading this post has convinced me to finally tackle the first chapter of my book, as I have known needs to be done (and have avoided most stubbornly!) for a while now. Am going to bite the bullet. Thanks so much for the encouragement and ALL your advice and wisdom. Enjoy every one of your posts.

  87. I love your articles, they are so insightful and helpful. I recently started a very popular book and found the first chapter confusing and not very interesting. I said, “Okay, I’ll give it a few more pages.” 30 pages in, I put it down because it didn’t get any better. However, I have OCD about finishing books, so I am terribly conflicted every time I see that book, sitting on my overstuffed bookshelf, looking at my with it’s puppy dog eyes, okay werewolf eyes, and begging me to give it one more try. But honestly, all the other books on those overstuffed shelves stare at me as well and every time I look at “said” sad book, the other glare at me accusingly and wonder what makes that one so special when I still haven’t given them their chance. So there in lies my conflict. I wonder if it is that way for other people as well. I just put down one book, that I have been trying to get through for a year, at the second to last chapter because I just couldn’t go any further. I tried so hard. And I liked the book, but it just was so poorly written IMO that I just couldn’t.

  88. I chopped off the fish head of my book when a fellow writer in a critique group I used to attend recommended beginning it at page five-ish or so with the line, “We threw it overboard.” In the words of Stephen King, this had the effect of “literary Viagra”.

  89. Okay, I do tend to give a book too long to see if it will “get good,” maybe 100 or more pages. Especially if the writing is good. To me, good writing doesn’t necessarily mean good reading. I’ve begun many books with stellar writing, but they’ve bored me to death. Those are the books I give the benefit of the doubt. I keep thinking that they’ll get better…because the writing is good. That’s just me.

    • Kathryn on August 12, 2013 at 7:07 pm
    • Reply

    Five pages? Fifty pages? Heck, I give a book its first two or three sentences to hook me, or it’s back on the shelf. When questioned, I blame it on being a Gemini, thus the very short attention span. But really, if a writer can’t put heart and soul into the very first lines, what’s the hope for the rest of it?

  90. Sorry, Kristen, but I can’t help myself. You mentioned fish heads, which immediately brought to mind this ridiculous song I learned when my kids were little. I am forced to share the words with you, “Fish heads, fish heads, rolly-polly fish heads. Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up, yum!” Just imagine it set to music, playing over and over in your head. Do not pity me. I am a survivor. 😉

    1. I remember listening to that song way back when on the Dr. Demento Show!

      1. Catchy little ditty, right? A Southern California 80’s favorite.

        1. Catchy enough that after you mentioned it, I had to go find the video on YouTube, lol.


    • nancy Ellis on August 13, 2013 at 8:35 am
    • Reply

    Unless you’re Stephen King. The hook for me in his books is the way they start slowly, drawing me into a complacent sense of normalcy and seguing imperceptibly into psychic horror.

  91. Great advice. You are always intereting, no matter what topic you write. I usually give the novel 25 pages before giving up but I totally agree the quicker the reader gets into the story the better.

  92. Great post! You cover a lot of things I am going to do for a future post on my review blog! Just loved this. (Definitely going to send a link back.)

  93. Hey Kristen: Great site. Really enjoyed this particular post. Such simple advice yet so difficult for so many.

    • Laura Russell on August 21, 2013 at 5:21 am
    • Reply

    I’m catching up on your blog and laughed about fish heads. Lovely photo! At first it seemed amazing that an editor could know at 1-5 pp if she was interested. Now after writing for a few years, I’m beginning to understand how.

  94. Great Advice! Some of this is common sense, but a lot of this is new for me. Yup, first time novelist. I’m getting 1 out of 8 agents asking for ms from my query, so I know the query is good, concept is good, must be I have fish heads. I can’t see where the head is attached to the body. (here’s hoping I’m winner for August). PS, addicted to your blog now!

  95. Okay, had another question (Sorry I am obsessed three comments in an hour, I’ll stop soon, promise). So, the big question is, HOW the heck do these other not so fab first 5 pages and books with a lot of metaphors and dialogue said “laughingly” get published. Don’t you read books and say, HEY, my book is better than this, how’d it get published? I’ve read 4 or 5 this summer fit that bill as well as several in my book club AND they were BEST sellers???? I know I am not good enough to “break the rules” but I’m confused about this. Thanks again 🙂

  96. I reread this again, since I was in a blog-reading frenzy the first time around and I just want to THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! I have gone through my ms again and looked for all those issues you named in this blog and others, too many metaphors, he said she said stuff and stage direction, (really bad with the stage direction, I act, direct and run a youth program—wow, such GREAT advice! Thank you!

    • Veronica Moss on December 10, 2014 at 2:22 pm
    • Reply

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