You pick up a book from the shelf. Or download a sample from the Amazon. It starts great. There’s break-neck action from the start, the characters are sketched roughly but believable, the setting is hinted at but not disappointing. You’re convinced. You pay for the book and start reading.
And then, after the first few chapters, it stalls. The plot sags, the characters wander about aimlessly, the scenery overburdens you with too much piled-on detail. You have fallen the victim of the Sample Curse. A book written with the sole purpose of enticing an agent.
In this competitive market, it seems, a Sample is everything. The first few chapters, the first few thousand words. It’s the ultimate lure, a honey trap set for the reader. The publisher – whether a corporate giant or a small indie – is only interested in you until the moment you part with your money. It doesn’t matter what happens next. You’ve been trapped.
Not every agent, editor or publisher is blind-folded like that, but many are, or at least they like to make themselves out to be. And they like to claim this is what the market demands. Perhaps they’re right – for now.
In evolutionary terms, this is equivalent to what fish, amphibians and reptiles do with their young: put all your effort into spawning a lot of eggs, and not worry about the outcome. Perhaps even perish in the process. Some of the eggs will hatch, some of the young will survive – a certain amount of the books will sell and maybe even grow up into bestsellers.
But the amphibians and reptiles do not rule the world. Mammals and birds do, because they take care for their young, nurture them, allow them to develop at their own pace. The really popular books, the ‘cult classics’ are like that: they start off slowly and then grow in a peaceful, nutritious environment into a beautiful rare rhinoceros.
I’d like to hope that the rhinoceroses of the book world will one day prevail over the frogs and that at some point we will be rid of the Sample Curse.