How successful self-publishers share their excerpts

Detailed, specific advice for new writers using chapter previews to grow their book sales and newsletter list

Sandwiched between lofty ceilings and concrete floors, sprinkled between the $1.50 hot dogs at the front and the $5 rotisserie chickens at the back, Costco’s samples all but guarantee a boost in sales for whatever’s on the table.

Everyone loves free stuff. Everyone wants to try before they buy. And, most importantly, everyone feels the need to reciprocate something offered gratis. That makes sampling, as one executive told The Atlantic, “the highest sales lift” of all Costco’s in-store strategies.

Another higher-up, Paul Bogaards, told The New York Times “The key is not to sate them…you want the hunger and thirst to still be there.” Only, Bogaards wasn’t talking about how small to slice microwavable pizzas at demo stations. He was talking about his approach to maximizing book sales with pre-launch excerpts.

Bogaards' comments, like most advice on drumming up interest and pre-orders with sample chapters, are hand-wavey at best. Recommendations on excerpt length, frequency, and format in communities like /r/selfpublish and 20Booksto50k almost always boil down to some copout along the lines of “it depends on your target readers.” That’s true enough, but also useless to self-published authors still finding their footing. So, let’s talk some inside baseball.

When and where to start sharing excerpts of an upcoming release

Chapter previews are an excellent try-before-you-buy offer for people already on your email list. They’re also a tried and true strategy for generating new subscribers to said list. With sites like BookFunnel and StoryOrigin, authors can submit excerpts for newsletter swaps and group promotions that require interested readers to give up their email addresses in exchange for a sample of a book.

One historical fiction author shared with Jane Friedman that a BookFunnel campaign brought in 300 new subscribers to her newsletter. You want your newsletter list ready six months before your book launch. And since a list growth campaign from a site like BookFunnel will take several months to run its course, you'll probably want to kick that off about a year before your book launch.

If you already have a decently sized email list, Julie Broad of advises “Email them at least once a month. And if you’re working on a book, that’s a great way to test the content that’s going to go into your book. You can put it in, it doesn’t even need to be perfectly edited.”

There are plenty of observable examples of this tactic in action. Charlie Jane Anders, for example, sends a weekly Happy Dancing newsletter that typically includes a 1,000-2,000 word pop culture essay followed by a “My Stuff” subheading. For book one of her Unstoppable trilogy, she started sharing chapter previews four months before its launch.

Content that’s unrelated to your books isn’t a prerequisite, though. Comic book artist and mystery writer Alex Segura sends a newsletter that’s far shorter than Anders’s and includes mostly personal news, updates, and recommendations. He tends to include samples of upcoming books as early as eight or nine months before they come out.

Authors of research-heavy non-fiction like Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer often start earlier, previewing passages and tidbits from their explorations one to two years out from publication. But for fiction and non-fiction authors alike, excerpts are usually one-time announcements (often paired with cover reveals). Subsequent nudges, then, are usually a one or two-sentence book summary with a link out to a pre-order page that has the original excerpt.

To find what should work best for you, look for other self-published authors in your niche. If they use a newsletter platform like Buttondown, all of their past newsletters will be in a searchable archive, letting you see how they’ve used excerpts in the lead-up to a release so you can model your timeline after that. Otherwise, sharing a preview in your newsletter six months before a launch is a safe bet.

How to pick what to excerpt

Writing for self-publishing company IngramSpark, Jody Blanco says “When I owned a PR firm, most of my clients were authors, and I’d select their excerpts all the time. Piece of cake! Then I became an author and soon discovered it’s much harder when it’s your book.”

Again, researching what other writers are doing is one way to triangulate your own strategy. For book two of his Failures of the Four Kingdoms series, Elijah Kinch Spector gave newsletters subscribers a 2,000-word preview. Isabel Cañas sent something about the same length before her book, The Hacienda, hit the market.

Thriller author Matt Gemmell recommends choosing excerpts “in terms of story units, like a chapter or such, so that the potential reader is left in a place you’ve chosen intentionally.” For him, that’s usually the book’s prologue, but sometimes, it’s a chapter that he ends up cutting from the final draft.

In fact, sharing writing that didn’t make the cut eliminates several obstacles built into most self-publishing arrangements. Kindle Direct Publishing can delist your account if it finds more than 10% of your finalized book available elsewhere, for example. Unused chapters, by design, also avoid the pitfall of giving too much away, especially for non-fiction books. Finally, they’re a way to give subscribers something they can’t get anywhere else (not even when buying the actual book!) and justify keeping your newsletter in their inboxes.

Redditor Galen_Adair commented that with his latest release, “I put the first three chapters on BookFunnel and gave it to my newsletter readers as an exclusive sample while the book was on pre-order. This way, I got to make my newsletter readers feel special.” And, since it was a link to the excerpt rather than an in-line text block, they could also see which of their subscribers clicked through.

When you have information about which subscribers are reading which excerpts, you can start segmenting your lists and refining your strategy. The next time you have a book launch on the horizon, you can finally start making calls, as the veteran self-publishers say, “based on your target readers.”

All you have to do is give them that first taste.

The sales tactic for authors who hate sales

Costco spends practically nothing giving away samples. There are no graphic designers, copywriters, or ad experts. Their only losses are the portions they heat up and hand out. For authors, the overhead is even lower.

Share what you’re already writing. Ideally, one or two chapters of it (~2,000-3,000 words) with your newsletter subscribers, six months before the projected release date (one year for non-fiction). If you don’t have a newsletter yet, start building one today and joining swaps and promos on BookFunnel, StoryOrigin, and /r/selfpublish/.

It’s as easy as giving away free bagel bites on a Sunday afternoon.

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