Self-Publishing: Book Samples and Formatting - Does It Really Matter?

This topic is a little off the beaten path of self-publishing, but it does tie in, and I'll tell you why.

As indie writers, we're in the business of selling books (among other things). So, I took a poll, and these were my questions:

1. Do you sample before you buy a book?
2. If yes, what are you looking for and what turns you off or makes you decide not to purchase?
3. Does formatting matter, mistakes, errors, etc. and if so, how much?
4. How much of a sample do you need to read before you know if you want to purchase or not?

The majority of readers said yes, they sample books before they buy them.

If a reader samples your book, that's great - now you just need them to buy it. So what are they looking for? I chose three responses that I liked (and my thanks to them for allowing me to post their remarks):

I absolutely always download a sample. I expect it to be well edited and reasonably well formatted whether it's from an indie (which most of mine are) or from the Big 6. (A lot from the Big 6 are miserably bad)

If the entire sample is TOC and dedications, I assume that tells me something bad, an I don't buy. If the sample is full of errors, I don't buy. If it can't even hold my interest through the sample, I don't buy.

Errors can definitely be a deal-breaker. If I see two or three errors in the sample, I know that they creep in. I'll ignore them. Beyond that, I can only assume it will get worse because the first of a novel always gets the most work.

I'm willing to buy only sometimes with only 10% but I prefer 15 or 20%. 10% if it's marginal might not be enough. But if most of that is taken up with introductory material, it makes me assume the author has something to hide. I want to see that much of the novel itself, not dedication.

Once I start reading a sample, I'll probably finish even if I'm going to buy it. I'm a very fast reader.

Yes, I'm tough, but I expect people to be equally tough on my novels.


I often download samples. If I run into samples that are nearly all TOC or I come across a lot of typos, extremely poor formatting, and/or weak or nonexistent plots, I delete the samples. I'm not wasting my time on an effort that more resembles a rough draft than a polished product.

I also have to admit (a bit sheepishly) that I don't read works by indie authors whose posts here on the Kindle Boards are full of grammatical and/or usage errors. I am a teacher, and those sorts of errors really bother me. (As far as I'm concerned, mistakes such as it's/its, their/there, whose/who's, and your/you're are inexcusable.) If I run across any such mistakes while reading a sample, I'm finished. It's a shame if someone has great ideas but neither the skill nor the talent to translate those ideas to paper (or e-ink). It's also a shame that someone in the life of that aspiring writer can't/won't find the courage to suggest that the writer take a couple of courses in writing. (I ran into a writer here a year or so ago who said that no one was allowed to read her books until they were (self)published, and that she had no intention of taking any courses in order to improve her writing. She felt that her ideas were good enough to get her where she wanted to be in her writing career, and she refused any constructive criticism. (Believe me when I say that there were several successful indie authors who offered her their wisdom, and she was very offended. She was a rare example of someone who shouldn't be publishing anything for which payment was expected.)

For the record, I'm not a writer, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for those of you who have the courage/skill/talent to commit words to paper (or electronic media), sharing your love of language and reading with the rest of us. Keep up the great work!


1. Do you sample before you buy a book? Yes, always.

2. If yes, what are you looking for and what turns you off or makes you decide not to purchase? This question is hard to answer because it depends on the type of book I'm sampling what I'm expecting from that type of story. Most of what makes me decide no are just personal issues/reasons that other readers might not care about ... like I don't like an overuse of curse words and first person, present tense. That type of POV just doesn't sound right to 'my ears' but others love it and enjoy it.

3. Does formatting matter, mistakes, errors, etc. and if so, how much? Yes. A couple of typos or formatting mistakes in the sample don't bother me too much if it's a larger sample. While I know that mistakes do get through at times, I don't want to read a book where it seems like the author didn't take their time because they feel that a certain amount of mistakes are standard so it's okay.

4. How much of a sample do you need to read before you know if you want to purchase or not? I always read the entire sample unless within a few clicks I know it's not my type of story. If it's a short sample, not even a chapter of the book, I'm less likely to buy it without reading reviews first because I don't feel that I've gotten a good feel for the book.


Now that you've read through those, I want to share some of my own thoughts. Over the last couple weeks I've been curious about about other indie's books and how they look compared to mine, so I downloaded probably about 75 samples and took a peek. I was shocked to find that only about 20% of what I looked at was properly formatted, for starters. Most of what I saw was title pages with no disclaimers, chapters that start in the middle of a page right below a chapter that just ended, and no sense of proper sentence structure. And here's what I was thinking:


Because those fixes are easy for anyone who takes the time to do their homework. And if your book looks like am amateur wrote it, who knows how many samples people are reading and not buying. Yikes!

The other thing that grated on me was something another person talked about above. The its/it's, spelling errors, grammatical errors. I found several errors on the first pages of many of the books I sampled, and I was thinking - if this many errors are on the first page, what's the rest of the book going to be like? What's sad is, it might be a really cool book, but I personally can't get over all the errors. How much do you want to bet other readers are thinking the same thing? Your sample is like a first impression and you know how the saying goes - you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

It's hard to catch every little error, I understand that. But you can tell the difference between those who try and those who just submit it without pouring over it one final time before it's posted. I'm just as impatient as the next person, but never at the expense of people reading my book and finding an abundance of errors. When I'm not writing, I am a copy editor. So, I was fairly certain after going over my book that it was practically perfect in every way. But, I still had two copy editors look it over, and I'm glad I did. My problem was, I was too close to it - I had memorized almost every line, so the more I went over it, the more I probably glazed over it not seeing the errors. And even the copy editors missed a couple things that I saw just this last weekend - so I think it's reasonable for a book to have a few little things here and there, but it should be as polished as possible. If anything creeps up on me now, I don't hesitate to make the change and resubmit a new copy of my pages.

My hope for all of you is that you become a success. You sell lots of books and live the dream, and I hope you take the time to really give your book a good look and present your very best work. Readers do notice.

On my blog under the READING LIST tab, I have several books that I urge new writers to read in order to improve your writing, but I am going to list what I consider to be the absolute essentials here to help with the grammatical stuff:

The Elements of Style - William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
On Writing - Stephen King
A Grammar Book for You and Me - C. Edward Good
Writing the Breakout Novel - Donald Maass
Stein on Writing - Sol Stein
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers - Renni Browne/Dave King

And here are a few indie books you can sample that will show you what the beginning of your book should look like and chapter spacing:

Saving Rachel - John Locke

Deep Rough - Chris Blewitt

Trojan Horse - David Lender

The List - J.A. Konrath

Black Diamond Death by yours truly (Cheryl Bradshaw)


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