Discover more from Gina DeMillo Wagner
All we ever wanted was everything.
On great first lines, why preorders matter, and other happenings
When Kris and I were first dating, we’d sometimes wander into a local bookstore and browse the new release section, picking up various books and reading the first sentence and ONLY the first sentence. It became a game. The goal was to find the best first line on the shelf. Was this line the doorway into a magical world? Was it cryptic or compelling? Did it make us uncomfortable or curious? Did it live up to some of our favorite first lines of all time? A few classics we love (an incomplete list):
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” — Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God;” — John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany”
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”
“I lost an arm on my last trip home.” — Octavia Butler’s “Kindred”
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster.” — Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle”
After picking the best opener, we’d usually buy the new release, take it home and read it to see if the rest of the story lived up to the intro.
This was obviously before BookTok and Instagram and celebrities told us what books to buy. And it was before preorders became part of our collective awareness. No one I knew ordered a book months in advance. You waited until its release. You browsed bookstores or airport newsstands. You judged books by their covers, or you trusted a recommendation from a close friend.
Why do preorders matter so much now?
The book industry is more competitive than ever. On one level, preorders signal to the publisher (and to booksellers and libraries) that a book is important and they should print and stock more copies. It helps them decide which books to put on display or recommend on their websites and newsletters.
For a debut author like me, preorders are our best shot at making it onto bestseller lists. Why? Most bestseller lists are issued weekly and reflect sales from the previous week. And, all those months of preorders accumulate and count toward your first week of sales. That boost is sometimes enough to grab a coveted spot on a list.
For readers, preordering means that you’ll have the book in your hands within a few days of its launch (if not the day of), and you won’t risk it selling out. You’ll get to read it before any spoilers hit social media, and oftentimes there are discounts, free shipping, or other incentives for ordering your copy early.
But even if you can’t buy a book, requesting it from your library helps, because the library will buy more copies to circulate.
All this to say…
If you’re excited for my memoir and think you might want to buy it at some point for yourself or a friend (or maybe 5 friends??), it’d mean the world to me if you preordered it, asked your local bookshop to stock it, requested it from your library, or recommended it to someone who might enjoy it.
And, while you’re at it, try the opening sentence game for yourself. Visit a local bookshop and see what first lines you like best. Share them in the comments:
I’ll be joining the Zibby Online Writing Community on December 4th at 1pm Eastern to talk about my recent essay, “The Waterfall Cure” and the craft of essay writing. If you’d like to attend virtually, sign up here.
There’s an auction going on to support equity in publishing, and there are some really cool items up for bid, including consults with a publicist, tarot readings, signed first editions, having a book character named after you, and more. For writers or aspiring writers, I’ve donated a query letter critique to help your pitch get noticed by agents or editors. Bidding ends December 15th.