The Point of Know Return


No, this is not a rambling about the classic Kansas song – which I did hear on our 1980’s rock drive across the Sunflower State last weekend.

I had an interesting discussion the other day with several friends. The question that I posed was, “at what point have you invested so much time into reading a novel that you will finish it no matter what?” The context for the question is that, as a publisher, I want to allow readers a good sampling of a book before they commit to buying it. A chapter? Several chapters? Half the book?

The other side of this equation is that once a reader has reached this point of know return – when you have to flip to the next page – the process should be trivial to sell them the book. Now, Cory Doctorow posted in The Guardian a couple of days ago that you should give the entire e-book away – and readers will come back for printed copies. This actually makes some sense if e-books were to include commercials and other means for authors and publishers to make money. Otherwise, Stephen King’s experiment with free, serialized giveaways proves this is not yet economically feasible.

My wife was watching one of the those talent shows on television the other night, and inertia overcame me – so I sat there and watched four or five insipid acts vying to move on to the finals. All of a sudden, the show ended, and I was informed that I would have to tune in tomorrow to find out the results. Well, I wasn’t hooked, so I never bothered to find out who won. The same might be true of a book. Even if you gave away 90% of the story for free, readers might not buy the ending.

E-books would be easy to solve the problem of instantaneous gratification for readers who have reached the point of know return and want to buy the last few chapters. A button at the end of the last free chapter could prompt the reader to “Buy Now” and auto-magically have the remaining text appear. The one caveat that I would require:  a warning should be printed in BIG, BOLD letters in 42-point font that the book you are reading is not complete unless you purchase the last few chapters. It really annoyed me the other day to have the talent show end without resolution.

The other concept on the table is that of the background story novella, which would be given away in its entirety for free – to generate interest in the book. However, there is a cost to doing this for the author, and some stories don’t really lend themselves to this type of marketing. This would eliminate needing to give chapters or parts of a book away for free, however.

In the end, I find that I will give a book about an hour’s worth of time before reaching the point of know return. I would love to get your thoughts.

Please Note: This blog is free in its entirety. If you send me money, I might add a snappy ending, however.


  1. Jeff Reid says:

    If I already like the author, the threshold is lower: a good back cover or engaging synopsis is enough. For unknowns, it’s the back cover plus 2-3 pages; I’ll know by then if it’s something I want to buy.

    That’s just me, of course.

    Jeff Reid

  2. Todd Newton says:

    For me, it depends on the book and the genre. With a lot of Fantasy novels, I will try to get to the halfway point of the book before giving up, as with Sharon Shinn’s “Mystic and Rider.” By then, I should have a feel for the development of the characters, the direction of the plot, and whether I care about either one. Some Fantasy novels, like Karen Miller’s “The Innocent Mage,” I barely got past the map and into the first chapter before losing interest. With China Mieville’s “The City & The City,” more of a detective noir, I got three chapters in before abandoning it — not because I didn’t like it, but because it read like a book written solely for the enjoyment of the prose, and that’s not why I read (or write). Prose is all well and good, but I’m in it for the plot & characters.

  3. Greg Byrne says:

    You’re a patient man to give a book an hour. For me, it’s got five pages, maybe a bit more and really depends on three things. (i) The quality of the opening hook, (ii) whether or not the hook delivers or was just a gimmick or (iii) the quality of the prose. Again, (iii) has to deliver. Beautiful prose that describes nothing is far worse than plain prose with a great plot.

    As humans, with the need for tension and change hardwired into our DNA, and with the novel promising both, the novel has to deliver on that promise soon or the desire for change and tension is gone. Literary novels, with beautiful prose that deliver small town angst and ordinary people facing problems, defy this principle, and one of my favourite novels of all time is precisely this. But it’s the exception.

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