July 17, 2009

Many journalists write books and thus know how today’s authors shoulder much of the marketing work for their books, even if they’re working through a publishing company.

An increasingly powerful tool in book marketing is the free “sample chapter,” given away in electronic format to be read on a computer or e-reader. Amazon’s Kindle store offers free sample chapters for nearly all available e-book titles; but e-books sold via Web sites or other channels also typically offer this service as well.

I get lots of sample chapters to peruse on my Kindle. Typically, I download the sample chapter whenever I hear of a book that might interest me. In doing so, I’ve noticed some editorial issues that really make sample chapters effective for marketing books — or not.

One of the better sample chapters I’ve encountered lately is for Mary Roach’s new book, “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.” After showing the cover art and table of contents, it presents a substantial taste of the book. About 85 percent of the sample chapter file is actual content — the forward and complete first chapter. It took me about 15 minutes to read, and by the end I was hooked, so I bought the book.

Contrast this to another Kindle book with a provocative title: “Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box,” by the Arbinger Institute. The entire first half of the sample chapter for this book is nothing but promotional testimonials — the kind of blurbs you’d see on the back cover of a paperback. Then follows the cover art and front matter.

Finally, at the very end, you get to the actual content: barely what would fit on a single printed page, and just 4 percent of the total sample chapter file. It’s a brief introduction that indicates almost nothing of the substance and style of the book.

In other words, it’s pretty bad marketing. The book may be good, but the sample chapter definitely prejudiced me against buying it.

Chris Anderson, Wired Magazine’s editor-in-chief, went beyond the sample chapter. Through July 22, the Kindle edition of his new book, “Free: The Future of a Radical Price,” is available for free. I assume that after July 22, only the sample chapter of “Free” will be free, which gives me giggles.

If your books are published through a book publishing company and they’re available on the Kindle, make sure you download the sample chapter. Is it compelling? If not, work with your publisher to craft a more effective sample chapter and re-upload that to the Kindle store.

So far, self-published e-books can be sold through the Kindle store, but Amazon’s Digital Text Platform (DTP) tool does not let you specify a sample chapter for these books. If you’re a journalist who’s self-publishing (or working with a publisher that does not have a Kindle deal with Amazon), I recommend offering a sample chapter on your book’s Web site. It’s not quite as prominent as a Kindle sample chapter would be, but it helps. And you’ll be ready to publish your sample chapter in the Kindle store if and when Amazon makes that possible.

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Amy Gahran is a conversational media consultant and content strategist based in Boulder, CO. She edits Poynter's group weblog E-Media Tidbits. Since 1997 she�s worked…
Amy Gahran

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