I just finished reading a (published) book last night (which I enjoyed for the most part - it snapped me out of the slump I'd been experiencing, and about which I blogged last week). While the book wasn't perfect, it did a lot of things right and more than a few things wrong. The author is someone who achieved massive success with the first book (which I read and loved), but this sophomore efforts shows a lack of experience (or of editorial guidance).
The book doesn't really kick into gear until page 100, which is a little later than I like (I usually think it's gotta get your blood going by page 50). The biggest problem was the introduction of way too many characters in the book's opening pages.
And the author makes the most basic mistake possible, that of giving the characters everyday, rather pedestrian names. A Methuselah or a Manfred among the Bills and Johns helps readers keep track of who's who; ditto for a Maribel or Mariposa among the Pattys and Debbies. That's particularly important in the early pages of a book, when readers are looking for mnemonics, or other easy ways to remember the cast.
Of course, in the old days, books opened with a Dramatis Personae, a convenient list that one could refer to if the author had not done his/her job of differentiating the characters enough. That device isn't used much these days.
Why? Because, whether we realize it consciously or not, I think many of us editors edit with the idea that a time-crunched, rather stressed person is going to be reading the book. The amount of stimulus these days is extreme; books are competing with the Internet, movies via Netflix and other video streams, 100 radio channels on Sirius XM, and more media than any human being can ever hope to wrestle to the ground and manage.
Which means that our books have to grab and keep the reader's attention, and they have to do it quickly. The physical product (I'm talking about printed books here, though I'm pretty sure this would have to be true in ebooks as well) has to look like something that people can get through, something they can read and want to read. I think casual readers, looking for good escapist entertainment, don't want to work too hard, especially at the beginning of the book, when they're trying to orient themselves to its completely new world (unless it's a series book with characters they're already familiar with - which might explain precisely why people like them so much: They require much less effort to begin).
So, as I edit, I pay attention to signs that my attention is flagging. If a chapter is going on too long, it's easy enough to split it into two chapters (or more). If too much is happening too soon, well (and I know others strongly disagree with me), that seems like an opportunity for a prologue. I love to be teased in a book's early pages, but there's a fine line between teasing/intriguing the reader and annoying/overwhelming the reader.
Once the writer has captured the reader - at the 50 or 100 page mark - then the rules ease up a bit, as long as things don't spiral out of control.
But this arbitrary mark - 50 or 100 pages - is a double-edged sword. Here's why. I admit frankly that some, even many, books require a good build-up. This is one of the factors that separates mysteries from thrillers, in my opinion - I think the expectation is for action much earlier in a thriller. I also think that most devoted readers are willing to give a book 50 or 100 pages, simply because their experience has been that many of the books they've enjoyed most are also books that didn't engage them fully until page 50. This reader goodwill is an incredibly valuable asset, and we must manage it very, very carefully.
The problem comes when readers stay with a book after page 50/100, even though they are not liking it. I admit I fall into that category, maybe because hope springs eternal. But then bad things start to happen, including resentment against the book or author and, quite possibly, a really negative review in a public forum like Amazon or Goodreads. I don't have any way of knowing this for sure, but I guess that most people who give 1-star reviews have hated the book by page 50/100, by which point they were so furious/frustrated that it became almost impossible to get them back.
What's the solution, then? If you're me, you're more willing to put up with a slower start from an established writer with a fan base. And you're less willing to put up with a slow, labored start from a first-timer. Because why take the chance that your early reviewers are going to put up with a book for 100 pages, their resentment growing with each page after that?
And that leads me to the ongoing controversy about Amazon/online reviews. I see many reviews by people who give the book 1 star and state they couldn't finish the book. Oh, the rage such reviews engender, and I can understand why. But I do think these readers need to have a voice. They need to be able to say: I tried this, I didn't like it. I wish there could be a separate category for those people: maybe a "Did Not Finish" category, separate from the star system, that would allow readers to say: I didn't care for it, I gave up on it, and here's why. I think this system might benefit many. It would give readers the opportunity to vent their frustrations and express their opinions while not skewing the rankings, because at the end of the day, it probably isn't fair to rate a book that the reader hasn't finished (or hasn't gotten past page 50).