Every author who isn't backed either by Big Pub or by a huge following knows how difficult it is to stand out. Getting your book noticed is like trying to get a gasp of oxygen in a very tight crowd, and authors may resort to elbowing, using six-feet crutches, or wearing glittery clown costumes in order to grab a reader's attention for five milliseconds.
Isn't it discouraging, then, to think that the majority of people who start on your book won't even finish it? It's a sobering thought, but that's what happens according to this post by Creativity Hacker. I can't vouch for the exact numbers, but I do know that many readers who crack a book open don't get to its end. This happens increasingly often in a world where attention spans are short and the selection of new books virtually limitless.
So what can we do, as authors, to maximize reader engagement and optimize our chances of them getting through the book - and, hopefully, liking it and recommending it to others? We have all learned the big things. We know we need a strong plot, engaging characters, consistent and appropriate pacing, and some sort of hook in the very beginning. We do our best, writing and rewriting and sending the manuscript out to beta readers.
But what about the small stuff? You know what I mean - punctuation, grammar, spelling, little inconsistencies. Not long ago, I have reviewed a number of books for indie authors. Here's the approximate feedback I sent to more than one of them:
"Dear author, I loved the premise of your book. The plot and characters were well executed. I'm sorry to say, however, that all through the book I noticed missing commas (along the pattern of 'Let's go George', instead of 'Let's go, George', missing brackets, inconsistent capitals ('Stock Corporation', 'Stock corporation' and 'stock Corporation' all used at random). Plus, a minor character suddenly changed her name from Wendy to Mandy about halfway through the book. All of this hurts the eye and is extremely off-putting. I offer this feedback in good friendship and wish you every success, because I think you are really talented and deserve to be noticed. It's a pity to have a good book fail because of little things that can be easily corrected."
I am glad to say most authors write back and thank me, then go on to polish and update the book file. Some have engaged me as a proofreader. Others, however, either don't respond or get defensive, saying things like "you can never catch every error" and "most readers aren't that picky." Well, I can tell you I am that picky. If those hadn't been books I have committed to review, I would have quit.
It's true that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and you can't and shouldn't spend your nights tossing from side to side, wondering if maybe a single comma in your manuscript had been missed. I have noticed inconsistencies and mistakes in many popular and well-known books. In my copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Voldemort is referred to as "Slytherin's last remaining ancestor", when it should obviously be not ancestor, but descendant. In Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, the age gap between Gabriel and Bathsheba is stated to be six years at one point, and eight years in another. I've checked and double checked, and the error really exists - and Thomas Hardy's books are classics that have been printed and reprinted for many years, so the edition I have surely isn't the first!
If readers have forgiven J.K. Rowling and Thomas Hardy, they will forgive you a single slip or a few missing brackets. But a discerning reader won't gloss over consistent and unabated sloppiness in the text. Don't lose a reader to lack of a thorough proofread - you have poured time, sweat and blood into your book, and you deserve the best chance you can get. Pay attention to the little things, because they do matter.