Start Strong or Lose Your Readers

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Audience + InsightIn the first post in this series, I introduced the notion of the “Internet of Bookish Things” to describe how ebooks were now nodes on the Internet that could record how books are being read. And in last week’s post, “Reading Fast and Slow – Observing Book Readers in Their Natural Habitat,” I began exploring what we can learn about readers using this new “superpower.” Today we will continue this exploration by looking at how the attention of readers decays while progressing through a book.

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.

Below I’ve included two real-life examples of books. For confidentiality reasons, the actual chapter descriptions have been removed and replaced with numbers (as well as F and B for front- and back-matter). I can’t take the chance of you guessing what book is being shown, but rest assured that this is real data from real books being read by real humans.

Completion Rate

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!

The book shown below was more successful. Its completion rate is about “average” at over 40 percent. Once again, though, the majority of readers gave up within just 50 to 100 pages.

Completion Rate

When we first observed this phenomenon, we thought it might be a result of publishers and Jellybooks providing the ebooks for free. But then we saw numerous examples of books with completion rates of 70, 80, 90 percent and more. 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. Get them hooked and get them hooked fast.

If they are women, you have 50 pages, maybe even 100, to woo them. If they are men—and we will explore this in more depth in a future post—you may have just as few as 30 pages to achieve that goal. Men are simply more fickle; women perservere for longer. Though once committed men are equally likely to finish a book as women are, except if the book is about feelings and relationships. Then all bets are off, but more on that to come.

Note: All the data reported in this post was collected in pilot projects financed by Innovate UK. EPUB3 files were modified with candy.js by Jellybooks so we could record, store and extract the user’s reading behavior when using iBooks, Adobe Digital Editions (ADE) and selected Android reading applications. The data stored within the ebook file was extracted when the user clicked a “sync” button in the book. All users were informed about the presence of the analytics software.

We will also be holding a workshop on data-smart book publishing at the upcoming Digital Book World Conference in New York City. The workshop takes place on Monday, March 7th from 2pm to 5pm, just prior to the main DBW conference. We will look at the challenges publishers face in collecting data, making sense of data and applying it so they can publish smarter, more efficiently and more profitably. The workshop will include speakers from Elsevier, Bonnier and others sharing their experience of turning themselves into data-smart publishers.

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5 thoughts on “Start Strong or Lose Your Readers

  1. Palessa

    This makes total sense as I have tried to give a book a chance if I feel that it’s got potential. Sometimes it’s a hit or a miss. This is why some of the readers I’ve encountered are afraid of trying new books from new authors or even different genres. Committing yourself is a big deal and you’re afraid to fall short and “miss.” Looking forward to the next installment

  2. Pamela Berkman

    Andrew (and Andrew’s blog readers) I’m curious about something. I love the novella form. These are notoriously hard to get traditionally published and sell — sometimes already successful authors can, usually with some short stories thrown into the mix, or relegated to e-only. Yet novellas are usually…50ish to 100ish pages. I also remember hearing that \short content is doing very well on the Net\ a couple of years ago but never saw anything concrete to bear that out. Is there an opportunity out there for traditional fiction publishers with the novella? For indies? For hybrid publishers? Thoughts?

  3. Jacqueline Diamond

    I’m not sure the lesson is really about starting strong. As a reader who often gives up after a chapter or two, I may get hooked initially but will quit reading if the initial grabber doesn’t bear fruit.

    Too often, I think writers put most of their energy into a great opening and then, especially if writing quickly, let the quality lag. Or, while the author’s voice may be engaging, that wears thin if the story and characters aren’t strong.



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