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December 13, 2011 / benrovik

Hooray for bookstores

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Ebooks are rockin’. They comprise a huge market segment that just keeps growing. They’ve removed the barriers to self-publishing to an astonishing degree. And the actual experience of reading on a KindleNook is still pretty fun.

But man do I love a good bookstore.

Yesterday, after some delicious cheesy pastry at a ping-pong themed pizza shop next door, I went to a little bookstore called Politics and Prose off of Connecticut Ave. It reminded me just how fun it is to browse through physical shelves and peek through pages. I looked at everything from kids’ books about cats to Patton Oswald’s autobiography to a compendium of the greatest graffiti artists of all time. That sort of random book-browsing just doesn’t happen to me in the same way online. It’s like being in a bookstore makes me more interested in everything, whereas sleuthing through Amazon makes me more focused on the thing I’ve decided to search for.

At any rate, my own behavior in the store brought something home to me as a writer as well. That ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon? Yeah, that’s exactly what I did with the books I read. I didn’t start at the beginning of any of them, nor did I start with the back jacket or the front flaps. I simply picked up a book with an interesting title and opened to the exact center. That’s probably the worst possible place to go if you’re actually trying to decide if you like a book. It throws you right in the middle of the action or the argument without a shred of context. When people are exploring books like this (and I think I’m not alone in kicking the tires on unfamiliar books this way), how can authors possibly hope to appeal to shoppers?

The only possible answer is to edit your book like a fiend, so every single page contains material you’re proud of. The snappiest opening in the world and the tightest ending in the world won’t do you a shred of good if your customers are judging you by two dozen sloppy words in the middle. It’s all important, not just because a good story ought to be good all the way through; but because you never get a second chance at that first impression, and a lot of readers’ first impressions might happen on page 190.

Crazy.

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