You're probably thinking this post is going to be a defense of my oft-reviled tendency to rate or review books based on a reading of a single page or less. Well, it's not.
This is a simple challenge to all you self-publishing novelists whose digital sales are languishing and who have resorted to giving them away for free in attempt to boost sales without achieving the desired result.
Understand that I'm not addressing this to the writers whose books are selling to their satisfaction. Nor am I addressing this to all writers who list their books for free. No, I'm only addressing those who are dissatisfied with their sales and have chosen to give their books away as free samples but still haven't seen a significant rise in sales, whether of the same titles when not free, or other titles. (Anyone else can try it, too, of course, but I'm specifically addressing that particular group.)
Part one of the challenge: Take a look at any page of the digital text of your book. First page, last page, third page of Chapter Twelve, it doesn't matter. Bring it up on your Kindle or Kindle for PC or iPhone or any of the Kindle Direct Publishing emulators. Not a PDF on your computer. Not your original .doc file. You need to be looking at the version that customers are going to be buying for their Kindles, iPads, smart phones, and so on.
Does your book have distinct paragraphs? That means, is the beginning of each new paragraph clearly defined? Yes, or no. No other answer is possible. Yes, the beginning is clearly defined, or no, it isn't.
Does it have block paragraphs? That means, is the first line of each paragraph even with the left margin, and then has a blank line to separate it from the next paragraph? Yes, or no.
Does it have indented block paragraphs? That means, is the first line of each paragraph indented from the left margin and there is also a blank line to separate each paragraph from the next? Yes, or no.
Does it have indented paragraphs? That means, is the first line of each paragraph indented from the left margin and there is no extra line or space between one paragraph and the next? Yes, or no.
You will have one Yes answer, and three No answers. If you have four No answers, see me after class. If you have more than one Yes answers, go back and review your answers. If you can't figure out how to come up with one Yes and three No answers, see me after class.
Now, the second part of the challenge. Look at random pages of several digital editions of books currently published by traditional print publishers. If you can't afford to buy them, at least download some samples. Go through the same four questions, and come up with the same single Yes answer.
Now, third part of the challenge. Look at random pages of several digital editions of books currently published by successful self-publishing authors. The easy way is to start with the front page of that listing on Amazon and just take the "Look Inside" preview. By now you should be reasonably familiar with the four paragraphing style and be able to recognize very quickly which style is used in each book you examine.
If we number the four styles -- none, block, block with indent, indent -- one through four, you should know what style yours is. You should also have recognized that most, if not all, of the books you examined in parts two and three of the challenge use only the number four style: indented paragraphs without extra space between them.
Therefore, if you want to hope to compete with the established authors, with the authors who are selling their novels, you might to at least make your book look like theirs. Nothing says, shouts, and screams SELF-PUBLISHING AUTHOR like no paragraphs, block paragraphs, and indented block paragraphs. Figure out how to get your formatting to look professional.
(This challenge would also give you an opportunity to look at font styles and font sizes, if you're so inclined.)
Why is the type of paragraph such a big deal? While it may not look to you like it should matter, it really does.
I'm going to assume you recognize the need for paragraphs on principle. So that leaves out style number one.
While styles two and three clearly identify the separation of paragraphs, they also stop the reader's eyes from flowing to the next word/thought/action. If you want your reader to keep reading, the very last thing you want her to do is . . . stop reading. Not even for the tiny fraction of a second it takes her eyes to see that blank space, recognize it as just space, and then go on to the next line of text. You want her to keep reading without a break, or at least until there's a break in the action, a change of scene, or whatever. You'll indicate those with either a double break (the aforementioned blank line with or without a squiggly little design for emphasis) or a new chapter.
Block paragraphs work well for non-fiction if the author is presenting distinct information and wants the reader to take a tiny pause to think about what she's just read. But fiction, when the author should want the reader to get into and stay in the story, any pause is just an opportunity for the reader to remember she has something else to do. While you as the writer may allow her a convenient bathroom break between chapters, you don't want to be giving her those breaks every single paragraph.
More than one writer has excused the block paragraph format on the basis that it's easier on the reader's eyes. While that's kind of the author to be so solicitous, it still means that the reader is given more and more and more chances to walk away, more and more chances not to be caught up in the story. If you're so worried about the reader's eyes, make sure you don't use a tiny font, but don't make her blink and reread to maintain the flow of your narrative.
It's true, also, that in the old days of paper and ink books, extra lines meant extra paper, too, and we don't need to be that concerned about conserving paper when we're talking about digital books. No, the only issue here is maintaining the reader's attention on the text.
Proper formatting of your paragraphs won't guarantee that you'll start selling 100 copies a week. Proper formatting of paragraphs won't make up for poor grammar, ginormous plot holes, and TSTL characters. But proper formatting of paragraphs may avoid some of the automatic turn-offs that come from readers who instantly recognize amateur presentation when they see it, before they've read a single word.