Publisher Penguin says that it’s going to make the first chapter of all of its new fiction titles available for free online. So from now on, when the likes of Nick Hornby, Sue Townsend and Marina Lewycka put out a new book, you can read the start on your way to work and decide whether it’s any good before you shell out for the whole thing.
The idea is that we’ll be able to download these ‘Penguin Tasters’ as a PDF, which can then be read on our PDAs/ iPhones/ Blackberrys, or even forwarded on to our chums by email. Penguin clearly hopes this will encourage punters to try out and develop a taste for new authors, who would otherwise end up languishing in the WH Smith bargain bin.
Penguin is the first publisher to try this approach, so it’ll be interesting to see how it works out. Publishers are desperately trying to work out how books should be marketed and sold in our increasingly electronic world – particularly since these days we expect more and more of the content we read online to be available for free.
It’s also an attempt to offset one of the key reasons why people still like to go to bookshops – to feel the book in their hands and read the start to see if it grabs them. Amazon is clearly aware of this, which is why it’s introduced the ‘Look Inside’ feature – although these are often pretty short and unsatisfactory excerpts.
Of course, if this approach does become commonplace, it could affect the way books are written. If the average punter decides whether to buy a novel purely on the basis of the first chapter, the writer will be under pressure to start with a bang (rather than working their way into the story gently). This might offend purists – although to be fair, they’ll probably buy the book anyway.
We’re a bit sceptical about the idea that electronic media will consign books to the dustbin of history – these handheld readers seem to have been the Next Big Thing for about ten years now, but they’re still pretty rare. But using one to sell the other – now that makes a lot of sense.
Although how long until some smart-aleck sets up a website selling final chapters too...?