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Story Openings in a Digital World—The First Page is a Sales Tool

April 28, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified April 28, 2015

You’ve read all the advice about how your first page, first paragraph, even your first sentence and first words have to entice readers. And you’ve no doubt followed all the advice, diligently and creatively working and reworking your story openings.

But you’ve probably also argued against having to shape and then reshape and rewrite yet again that first sentence and first paragraph. Surely the first words are not that important, you’ve said. Not for every book. Not in every genre. Not when by the fifth page (or the tenth or the twenty-fifth) you can snare readers with your literary phrasings, your incomparable characters, your soaring dialogue.

Well, you might not get 10 or 25 or 50 pages in which to snare your readers. You may not get more than one or two.

You may not get more than one or two paragraphs.

 

Appealing to e-book readers

If you intend to publish e-books, keep in mind that potential buyers may not browse through them the way readers browse through books in bookstores.

In stores a reader may pick up a book, read the back cover, look at the story snippet inside. The reader may actually stand in an aisle and read, delving well past the first page and into the second or third chapter. (I admit I’m guilty of this stolen pleasure.)

The reader may even skip ahead a few chapters to see if the writing there is of the same quality as that in the first pages. (I’m guilty of this as well. I know the first pages have been polished to a high gloss—what of the rest of the book, I want to know.)

But readers who check out a book online don’t get that same experience. They don’t get to touch and smell the book. They don’t get to flip through the pages and quickly bounce between the back cover and the front. They don’t get to get a feel for the length of the read, not from a simple glance at the estimated page count.

E-publishing has changed the buying experience for many readers. Does that mean that it should change the writing as well?

It might. Maybe it should. If readers browse for only seconds online, shouldn’t you do everything possible to make sure those seconds snare the reader? Talk about needing to make a wow of a first impression.

I don’t know the ratio of online browsers to online buyers, and I don’t know how much time online browsers give to any single book—the numbers may be comparable to those at physical bookstores—but I’m guessing that bookstore browsers give books a bit more consideration before they choose them or put them back on a shelf. After all, readers made the effort of going to the bookstore, walking inside, browsing the shelves, and pulling a book out. Unless something about the book turns the reader off immediately—the genre is wrong, the reader doesn’t like a first-person narrator, the protagonist has the same name as a hated former friend—it’s probably likely that the bookstore browser will read a few pages.

And we’ve all heard statistics about how long internet users give a web page if it doesn’t provide what they’re looking for right away or it turns them off for some reason. One statistic I just read (from a March 2014 article—5 Reasons Visitors Leave Your Website) mentions that visitors, on average, spend only 10 to 20 seconds on a website.

Visiting a website may admittedly be different from browsing an online retailer, but online behavior in one area likely has similarities to other areas. The Internet has lots and lots of information and things to see—if we’re not satisfied right away, we can always go somewhere else at the click on a mouse or the slide of a finger.

The point is, you may not get a whole lot of time to strut your stuff on the Internet. At least not on retail sites. So what the reader sees first has got to be attractive or arresting, whatever attractive and arresting mean to your genre.

 

Suggestion

I don’t have any deep writing truth for you today. I don’t have any rules to present. But I do have a suggestion.

Imagine yourself as a reader, not a writer. Go to Amazon and pull up a book. Use the Look Inside feature so you can see the first page.

And now imagine your opening words featured on that page.

How does your story opening look on your computer or smartphone screen? Framed by the window’s borders, side by side with whatever else you’ve got open on your computer and nestled among Amazon’s sales details, how does your opening strike you?

Are the words alluring? Do the images you describe pop from the screen? Is there something in those first words that will make the reader searching for a good story keep that window open and scroll down to read more?

Have you accounted for the very real chance that browsers will only give you seconds to make your case?

Your words have to compete with a lot of other words and visuals on the page—how do your words hold up?

Are they strong? Attention getting? Arresting? Do they do as much as they can to keep the browser interested?

I hope so. I hope your story’s opening will lure the readers who will truly enjoy your books. I hope the browsers who find your books give your stories the benefit of the doubt, that they’ll read something appealing, see the promise in the first words and first paragraphs. I hope that you find lots of new readers and that you please all of them.

Yet do be aware that you might have to do more to attract readers sooner in your story than you would have even 10 years ago.

Publishing is a different animal these days. The way we shop for books is certainly different. Maybe it’s time to update your writing style to entice more of today’s readers.

I’m not suggesting that you explode a bomb in the first paragraph of all your books. But do consider giving readers more than the common, more than the same words they’ll find in the next book they browse and the same words they already found in the last dozen books they looked inside.

Write standout story openings that intrigue and entice, that provide not only a great beginning to your stories, but great sales tools as well. And then follow through with rockin’ stories that hold the reader’s attention through the final page.

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As I was looking for information on internet browsing behavior, I came upon a fascinating article in Scientific American—The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. You may find it interesting.

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7 Responses to “Story Openings in a Digital World—The First Page is a Sales Tool”

  1. Thanks so much for a great article. This morning, I peeked at an E-book and decided against a purchase based – as much as anything else – on the font inside the front cover. This, in a book intended to help me be a better writer. I suppose an argument can be made that I’m not a very sophisticated shopper of non-fiction self-help books. Well, I once walked away from a meal served at a fairly decent restaurant because the presentation was horrid. Does that make me finicky, or just particular about the nature of that which I ingest? Anyway, great article.

    • Thanks, Aaron. I’m glad you liked it.

      I do wonder if instant everything has changed the way we shop. Or maybe the availability of so many products has allowed us to be picky—we know there’s something else just a click away.

  2. Kimberly says:

    It’s interesting, I find myself focusing on the first paragraph of a book when I am in a bookstore, but when it comes to e-books and clicking on the “Look Inside” option on Amazon I scan more, the first paragraph as well as a few more paragraphs. I don’t feel as if I ‘enter’ the quiet world of the book as readily when I browse e-books online. Thanks for this interesting article!

    • Kimberly, I don’t know if there are simply too many distractions when we’re shopping online—I understand exactly what you mean about not being able to enter the quiet world of books as easily. In a bookstore, I can shut out every distraction. On a computer screen, there are too many distractions both onscreen and around me. We’ll probably get used to shopping that way in time, but I still love bookstores and printed books. I really miss Border’s. I used to spend hours there every week.

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