How to use sampling on Smashwords to help sell more books

Image by M. Maggs from Pixabay

In which PV rants about ebook sampling, and shows you how to sell more books to people like me…

What makes a person choose to buy a book by an author they don’t know?

For some it’s the blurb. For others it’s the eye-catching cover. Many people will look at the ratings and perhaps scroll through a few reviews to find a reviewer who seems to be interested in the same things they are.

For me it’s the sample.

Oh, the cover and the reviews and the blurb all contribute to getting me in the door, but before I hit that buy button I want to see the author’s writing and decide whether I like their style. As time goes on, and I get older and perhaps more jaded, I find it harder and harder to find writing I can immerse myself in. Maybe I’m unusual in that respect, maybe it’s a factor – at least in part – of starting to write myself, but I’ve picked up so many books that have looked really great, that have wowed people I know and trust, and yet I simply haven’t been able to get into them. I bet there are at least a few people like me, or at least people who use the free sample of a book as part of their decision to buy, albeit not as big a part as I do.

All of that is just a long-winded way of saying the sample you offer prospective readers is an important but often overlooked part of your marketing. I’ve yet to find a way of altering the sample offered on Amazon, and that’s just one of the frustrations I find in publishing on that platform, but with Smashwords you can change the amount of your book you offer to prospective readers. Moreover, tweaking it to best effect costs you no more than a few minutes of your time when you publish, so why wouldn’t you take this opportunity to maximise your book’s attractiveness to potential buyers?

Reaching buyers through samples

So here is a quick explainer on how to reach Smashwords buyers through samples.

I should say at the start that I assume you want people actually to read – and for them to want to read – your books, and that you’re not solely in this business to sell books. What I mean by this is that if your business model is to tempt people in with eye-catching covers and enticing blurbs, but you know full well the content is utter dogshit and all you’re trying to do is part fools from their money, then this guide is not for you. I’ve got nothing for you here, because the last thing your business model wants is for people actually to read your content before buying, because then they might not buy it.

No, I’m talking here to writers who – like me – think if people read their work they’ve got a good chance of enjoying it and thus buying, and your primary goal is to find such readers. Moreover, you don’t actually want people who won’t like your book to buy it. You goal should actively be to get people to read a sample.

So anyway, on Smashwords sampling is turned on by default, and is currently set to (I think) offer 15% of the book as a free sample.

So that’s the whole thing, is it? Simply leave the sampling turned on?

Well… it’s the start of it.

I see a lot of books on Smashwords which offer no sample at all. Personally, I never buy these books, no matter how enticing the cover or blurb. I may be an extreme case, but there must be other potential buyers out there you lose at this point. Put simply, if I can’t browse the book I won’t buy it.

One type of publication that commonly offers no sample is the multi-author compilation. And I can understand why that is – whoever’s story is first in the running order is going to carry a disproportionate amount of the burden of selling the collection as a whole, and 15% of a long anthology might mean the entirety of the first story gets published for free, so that might cause some reticence about giving the jewels away. But I would urge you to find a way to resolve this reticence.

There are two things you can do. First, of course, make sure the opening story is a strong one. Make sure it sets out the stall representatively for the collection as a whole. And secondly, change the sample amount to give some but not all of that first story. I’ll come to that subject in a moment.

Changing the sample amount

Oh, we’re here.

Okay, sample amount is a real bugbear of mine. And here’s why.

I mainly write in the erotica genre, which naturally means I also encounter and read lots of stories by fellow erotica authors. This is a genre where the stories are habitually short and sweet, perhaps 2-4k words. So when we’re considering sample amounts, a 15% sample of a 2000 word story would be about 300 words.

And here’s where the problem arises. When working out what gets included in the sample, Smashwords is calculating a proportion of the entire book, including the front and end matter, not just the story itself. It has no idea which bit is story and which isn’t, so it counts it all. What this means in practical terms is that counting 300 words into the book may take you through the title page, a copyright notice, a content advisory, perhaps a synopsis or blurb, and then…

…oops, out of words.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve opened a book sample and then barely reached the first paragraph of the story before hitting the end of the text.

Fellow writers, this is not good enough. I’ll be blunt here. If you’re publishing very short stories on Smashwords and you’re not troubling yourself to check whether your samples contain any useful amount of story at all, you’re being disrespectful to your readership.

If you genuinely don’t want the buyer to read any of your story you’d be better off just turning off sampling altogether, rather than teasing them by letting them download a sample and wade through it to find it’s empty. All you’ve done is rile your potential customer, who as a result is less likely to buy the book, and is less likely to come back to try others.

Myself, I make a mental note of books I sample which turn out to have no actual story in, and try to avoid those writers in future. Because, quite apart from anything else, it comes across as lazy. It tells the reader you didn’t care enough about your book to check the sample contained anything worthwhile to allow the reader to decide whether to buy it. Or – worse – you did know there was nothing worthwhile in the sample, and you didn’t care enough about your reader to do anything about it.

So, what can you do?

Change the sample amount! Here’s how.

(These instructions apply to Word; vary them for your own word processor/workflow.)

  • Before you upload the book to Smashwords, open the doc file you’re about to upload. Note the word count.
  • Open a calculator and multiply the word count by 0.15.
  • The answer you get is the approximate number of words Smashwords will put into the sample if you leave it at the default 15%.
  • Now position your cursor at the top of the document, hold down the shift key, and hit the down arrow to highlight the text in your document as you scroll. At the bottom of the screen, you should see a count of how many words you have selected so far (see image).
  • Still holding down the shift key, keep scrolling down until you reach the number you calculated above. Somewhere here is where your sample will end if you leave it at the default 15%.
    Smashwords will always end a sample at the end of a paragraph, and the selection isn’t exact, but this exercise is close enough to be able to ask yourself – is this where I want the sample to end?

And this is where the marketing power of the sample starts to show itself. Because why not choose a place in your story that doesn’t simply give the reader a chance to see how you write, but also makes them go “Wow! I really want to read more!”

  • Choose a cliff-hanger moment, a point where the reader will be so immersed in the narrative that they’ll have to buy the story to see how it turns out.
  • Keep scrolling down until you reach that point. And then note down the number of words you’ve highlighted.

  • In my sample here, I’ve highlighted 6291 words out of the total 18256.
    So break out the calculator again, and divide the number of words you want to include in your sample by the total number of words in the whole document, and then multiply the result by 100 to get the percentage your sample should be. Here it’s (6291/18256)*100 = 34.4%.
  • Enter that as your sample amount when you upload the book. Smashwords only allows you to enter whole number percentages (I’ve tried). So in this example I’d start off by entering 34% as my sample amount.
  • So now upload your book. Wait for it to process, and then download the sample from the book’s listing page.
  • Open the sample in your ereader, scroll down and check where the text ends.

If you’re happy with where the end has landed, and you think a prospective buyer reading it would get to that point and be desperate to read more, then congratulations! Your job is done, and your sampling is now maximising the chance of getting readers to buy your book.

If, however, it is not quite right, then it’s on to the tweaking.

Tweaking the sample amount

You can change the sample amount at any time you like after your initial upload.

The place you set this is not intuitive, and it took me a little while to find, because it’s not with the other settings for your book but on the USD Pricing page.


So here is where you can tweak your sample amount up or down a percent or two.

  • Break out the calculator again, and divide your total word count by 100 to see roughly how much your sample will change by the addition or subtraction of that amount. Again, it’s not exact, because Smashwords will always break at the end of a paragraph, but with a bit of trial and error you should get the end to sit in a place where you’re happy with it by simply adding or subtracting one or two percent at a time.
  • Each time you change the sample amount, download the sample it creates, and check it on your ereader until you’re happy with it.

And what else? Well, if you’re like me, you’ll not be above adding or removing a few words from the front or end matter with the sole purpose of nudging the sample to break at the precise point you want it to, but although I confirm this method does work I can also confirm that way lies madness. Stick with the tweaking method above and you’ll not go far wrong.

Also, and it took me a long time to realise this, you can direct readers to a text-based preview of your book on the Smashwords site, which means they don’t even need to download the sample to be able to read it.

Here’s the one for Xenofestation 1-01, for example.

You can find the shortcut for these on your book’s listing –

So just give that link to anybody to send them direct to a sample they can read right there in their browser.

The End

So now you know why my books offer a seemingly-random sample anywhere from about 22% all the way up to 46%…

If this all seems a bit of a faff, well, once you’ve done it a couple of times it genuinely only takes a few minutes to do. And, unlike other factors affecting self-publishers, like proof-reading and editing, which can cost money a self-pubbed author often cannot spare, doing this costs you nothing.

And it might make you a few more sales. Some of them may even be to me…