Book Excerpts

Posted on April 22, 2011 by


Film still from Bram Stoker's DRACULA (1992).

Pictured: My imagination as I read your excerpt.

Please put an excerpt from your book on your website.

Let’s assume you may want me to buy your book. I’m looking around your website because I’d like to determine whether or not I want to buy your book.

I can’t do that if you don’t show me how you write.

Since I began writing under contract, my voracious appetite for books has expanded; I’ll give anything a fighting chance, so I look for the book sample first. Only if I can’t find a book sample will I begin to judge the book’s merit based on its cover, its summary, your website, your photo, or whatever other information I have to hand.

You really, really do not want me to do this. Most of your covers are ill-favoured monstrosities made of MS Paint, discarded ice-lolly sticks, cat hair and glue. Most of your websites are self-maintained (like mine), hideous (not like mine), and difficult to navigate (possibly like mine). Most of your author photos are in soft-focus and either feature silly Myspace poses or the kind of glasses that are just on the absolutely wrong side of the crevasse that separates awkward from dorky cool. Most of your summaries, when they aren’t a puddle of drool spelled out in ellipses, are evidence that you spent ages and ages trying to come up with something witty and catchy and ended up throwing the keyboard across the room and going with stilted SEO prose that has about as much charm as a copy machine. (I’m mostly addressing the self-published crowd with the cover bit, and to be fair to the self-pubbers, it makes sense that when you have an entire design team behind you, your cover is yum. The rest applies to everyone.)

Well, there’s nothing I can say that will give you the cash you need to hire a team of people who know what they’re doing. But I am entirely sympathetic to your plight. What the shit, right? You’re a writer, not some itchy intern in a damned marketing firm or a talented and destitute design student. I’m looking for something that indicates you can do your job. That’s what I’m shelling out money for — your prose. So you know what? I need to see some of it on your website. I need to know that when I read your book I’ll get swept away in the riptide and not surface until I absolutely must pee or sleep or breathe or something.

Look at it this way: let’s imagine you’re bestowed with bajillions of £/€/$/¥/₹ and said design team and you get to pick your own cover artist. You stumble across a website that has everything but samples of art. Hmm. Hire, or not hire?

Same with you, big shot. I don’t want bricks of useless paper pulp sitting around my little house nursing their watery drinks and wishing they could get with me. I only invite cool books here. I don’t care that they’re ugly — I just care about the stories they tell.

Websites for published books absolutely must have sizeable excerpts (one chapter, up to five if they’re short chapters). What about authors trying to promote their unpublished manuscripts?

Okay, look. Professionals in the traditional publishing world tell you time and again not to publish your manuscripts online. And for certain manuscripts, this is a non-issue. Short stories, for example, are like women in the Dark Ages: they sell depending on whether or not they’ve been er, “exposed” before. Journals and zines pay for short story first publication rights. Non-fiction projects are mostly pitched when they are but an elaborate scheme in the mind of their impressively credentialled creators. Previously published books can and do get re-sold or re-published after the rights pertaining to them expire. Books in the public domain get packaged and sold all the goddamn time. Et cetera.

Novels are different: some people tell you to put up samples, some forbid you from it. I suggest, given the attitude of the Big 6 and larger indie press crowd, that you keep fiction manuscripts to yourself until they’ve found a home.

That said, my publisher is up-and-coming, and we have an excellent relationship. I’m always scouting for writing I love and that I can dump on her lap, for authors who are willing to jump in the deep end with us. Of course she doesn’t sanction this behaviour, but she does know that I’m super fucking picky. Like, irritatingly picky, viz., she gives me a manuscript to cast my eye over and even though she’s told me probably five thousand times I’m looking at the unedited version that has since been copyedited that I’ll copyedit it anyway picky. So she really listens when I tell her I like something. She might then tell me I’m wrong, but she does listen.

You really want someone like me (let’s face it, probably someone who’s with a bigger and more established publishing house, because you have no vision, do you) to come along and find your manuscript. We will treat you like an uncut diamond large enough to be hollowed out and used as a paddling pool.

Of course the chances of you being that one are basically zero, but that’s okay. Me liking you enough to buy your book is waaayyyy easier than me liking you enough to champion your book for publication. So if you’re published, I need to see an excerpt. If you’re not, stalk me on Twitter or something and then I can check out your website when you are and it had best have an excerpt or there will be pain and suffering.