Monday, March 15, 2010

The Elemental First Page

For those of you outside the business in which me and my friends are engaged, you may not be aware of current Common Sense, vis-a-vis the publishing industry.  According to this contemporary Common Sense, the first page is EVERYTHING to a new book.  This is a result of extensive market research, of that I have no doubt.  Browsing habits of people in bookstores were examined, and these marketing professionals determined by observation that if a book can't snag a reader by the first page, then the reader puts the book back on the shelf and carries on with her browsing.

I certainly understand the inescapable logic of this.  I mean, I've done something similar my whole life.  I read the back of the book, the inside flap of the book, study the cover art, then, if all of those conditions tickle my fancy, I dive into the copy.  

Now that I'm on the other side of the great divide -- the gulf between writer and reader -- I wonder about the wisdom of this.  I know we're an instant-gratification generation of people.  We can't be bothered to listen to the whole album to find the songs we like best; we go to iTunes instead and download the few tracks we've heard on the radio.  We can do that now.  We don't have to read the whole paper anymore.  News is delivered in three-paragraph gulps to our internet home pages.  We don't have to sit down to a full meal anymore, not with tapas bars and smoothie counters.  

We are, here and now, enamored by convenience and speed.  We want what we want, and we want it now.

But -- doesn't that run counter to the entire concept of a book?  A book isn't about the first page.  Most of the masterpieces of classical literature couldn't have made it in today's climate (a notable exception that comes immediately to mind is "Metamorphosis," by Franz Kafka, which had me from the first sentence).  A book took years, and in some cases, decades, to write, and it was assumed those of the public who spend their hard-earned duckets to by the book would savor every word, examining sub-plots and character depths that most fiction readers have to be forced to find by their college professors.

I know some of you are arching your dominant eyebrow at me.  I have confessed to many that I am very, very weak at the first-page concept.  I'm really not here to make excuses for my literary deficiencies, only to find myself puzzled by this over-reaching need for a compelling first page.  From the first line of agents to the pocketbooks of readers, it means the world.  Writer-development websites have made contests that focus on the first page.  Again, I understand the sound marketing judgment behind this focus.  However, I can't help wonder if Austen, the Bronte sisters, Poe, or Clemens would have persisted in this environment.

They probably would have.  Feel free to chalk this up to sour grapes, and return to your regularly-scheduled day.


  1. i don't subscribe to the "first page concept". i generally get the cover, the back page, read the synopsis on the inside cover (if it's a hardback) and flip to some middle page. i never read the first page, although i understand the concept and have done what i can to make my first page as appealing as possible. now i'm going to have to go back and make sure it's good. haha

  2. I'm torn on this issue, because it's not something I excel at as a writer, but it's something I want as a reader. I recently started a book that couldn't hold my attention during the first chapter. I let it malinger on my nightstand for almost two weeks, reading a sentence or two at a time, until finally I realized I was not reading much at all and my time could be better spent on another book. I returned it to the library, unread. So, maybe there is something to be said for that first page after all--or maybe this book wouldn't have held my interest no matter how long I gave it.

    Hmm. As usual, I've just confused myself more by thinking about this.

    - Liz

  3. Hi, MJ. I have been following you as much as I can through WEbook and the fact that Nandyekle is a friend of mine and now blogging with me. I have been struggling with writing books toward publication since the early 90s. I don't know how long you've been around so bear with me if I repeat things you've already heard. After meeting several editors for some of the big houses in the 90s, it was drilled into me that when your book goes to a publisher, as an unrepresented ms especially, it goes to a worker called the First Reader. Agencies often have people like this too.
    They give you about 30 seconds to 3 minutes on your fist page, IF they get past your query letter. That means they usually only read the first couple of sentences. The it goes to the editor IF the First Reader likes what they saw. The editor usually gives you the first three paragraphs and either chucks you or read the entire submission. IF you pass that test, they will ask for your entire ms. Thus, that is why the first sentences is so important.
    And, respectfully, I would have to differ with you about the some of the older writers. Dickens, for instance, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." What better first line can you think of? But in more modern times, it would be, Ken Follett we have to blame for this being the norm. The Key to Rebecca begins with, "The last camel collapsed at noon." Don't you want to know why?
    But in truth, most of the readers I know (and I hate this) tend to read the first page and the last page. Now THAT is scary.
    P.S. I love this blog!

  4. Suzanne: I know exactly what you mean about the hoops a manuscript has to jump through to get to the finish line. Really, I do. I don't resent the industry model; in this time of market research and the exact science of whipping consumers into a buying frenzy through the use of science, I don't begrudge that. If the concept of the Elemental First Page hadn't been exploited by now, it would be in the works. It's a fundamental truth.

    The reason I wrote this is because I see a fundamental logic disconnect. We've sped up all things, not just how we bank, shop, exercise, consume information, and enjoy entertainment, but how we shop for and consume literature. Book clubs were established so that members could share with each other great book finds. Upon recommendation, I will slog through a book with a trite or marginal first page, because I know there's a gem under that. I mean, of all forms of entertainment, it seems weird that the most leisurely and time-consuming should be shopped and promoted based on so narrow a definition of the total work.

    This still bears out your point about UNSOLICITED MS, but even then a well-trained agent and/or editor would encourage the writer to perk up that first page.

    I don't begrudge Dickens. He knew how to write a first page. "A Christmas Carol" has a great one, too. I only bemoan the fact that some of the "classics" made it without that distilled narcotic that's being pushed nowadays.

  5. Oh, and I'm eternally grateful you like my blog. Xoxo to you. :)

  6. MJ, I think we actually agree more than you realize. You're just better at saying it than I am. That's why I don't make a very good teacher. :) Thanks. Stop by our blog some times.

  7. Now you're just being silly. I'm all over following your blog. :)