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What Giveaways Might Do for You

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What Giveaways Might Do for You

August 2012

by Linda Carlson


At first glance, today’s giveaways may not seem to be anything new. For quite some time, publishers have promoted books by offering free samples or a gift with purchase, or by giving books—or parts of them—away. Other free offerings have included author readings and presentations, excerpts in newspapers and magazines, previews of forthcoming titles printed in the back of related current titles, and copies of books for bookseller contests, fundraising auctions, and other public relations events. And, of course, publishers have always provided free books for reviewers.

So what’s different today?

● Social media are the usual venues for giveaways.

● More and more publishers are offering giveaways, often as regularly as every week.

● Many of the giveaways are digital.

● Both for-profit and not-for-profit businesses (think Amazon and Goodreads) have formalized giveaway programs for publishers.

● Readers as well as critics—in fact, instead of critics—are being courted with most new giveaway promotions because recommendations from people perceived as friends and equals are becoming as important in purchase decisions as reviews by professionals.

● The goal of a giveaway is often to improve a title’s Amazon rank.

Documenting the impact of giveaways on sales remains a challenge. It’s particularly difficult if you’re counting on reviews and promotions by bloggers to generate sales. Many blogs are so obscure that the spiders for Google and other search engines don’t find them, limiting the number of readers. Some online sites link their reviews to several booksellers, creating a fragmented marketplace where it’s hard to monitor results. And, just as in the days when we relied on major print and broadcast media for publicity, it’s impossible to determine how many potential buyers view a review or an author interview.

IBPA members who have offered giveaways in recent months have seen these promotions result in thousands of sales or as few as a handful. Some publishers have spent almost nothing on digital-only promotions, while others have incurred significant postal costs and production expenses by giving printed books away. The most positive reports in terms of cost-effectiveness come from publishers participating in Kindle promotions, which also offer a flash sale option (see “Flash Sales: Exploring Short-Term Big-Discount Options” in the July issue).


Experience at Amazon

Chris Meeks, publisher at Los Angeles-based White Whiskers Books, is one fan of the Kindle program. “Publishing three authors and myself, I’ve found this promotion can inject new life into what seems to be a dead book,” he says. “Every time I’ve tried it, I’ve had modest sales after the free period. They haven’t been anything spectacular—nothing more than 60 copies—but it’s always a nice jolt.”

Meeks offers several observations about Kindle promotions:

● Thrillers and mysteries attract more readers than literary fiction.

● Titles that have sold well in earlier years or earlier editions attract more readers than new titles and books by authors with no track record.

● Giveaways that attract at least 2,000 readers have the best chance of getting a title into the top 10 for its Amazon category, which Meeks believes is important in attracting buyers after the promotion.

● Reviews are almost as important for attracting readers to giveaways as they are for influencing a purchase decision. “Time is the new money,” Meeks believes. “If a book looks interesting on its Amazon page, people will start to notice.” Because so many books are available free now, he continues, “people want great free books.”

Among the titles White Whiskers has given away is the dark noir mystery Iron City. “My author David Scott Milton just could not get his book reviewed by readers even though he had a lot of attention on Goodreads,” Meeks reports. “In a three-day promotion, I gave away nearly a thousand copies, then sold a few dozen instantly and received some good reviews.”


If you’re considering a giveaway, Lori Verni, publisher at Brickstone Publishing in Holly Springs, NC, also has advice for you. “After exhaustive research, we used Kindle promotions for our chick-lit title, Momnesia,” she reports. “Overall, we’ve been very pleased.”

Brickstone marketed its one-day Kindle promotion via Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, and was delighted with the results: More than 10,000 Kindle editions were downloaded, pushing the title to #6 in its Amazon category. Sales of the print edition also soared, moving it to #998 in its Amazon category.

“Because we only did a one-day giveaway, we lost many opportunities for promotion,” Verni says, explaining that “bloggers, retweeters and directories that post to Facebook all need more notice to get the word out. We were contacted by many who said they were sorry to have missed the opportunity.”

Then she adds: “I’m confident that had we run the initial campaign for more than one day, we could have gotten the page rank even better, potentially to #1 in Kindle and better than #50 in printed format. For our next title, we plan to run our free promotion four or five consecutive days.”

Recommendations that apply to giveaways of both digital and print books come from Frank Preston at Phenomenal One Press in Columbia, MD, which publishes young adult titles.

It’s important, Preston says, to determine the goal of your giveaway. Two possibilities are:

● developing awareness of a particular author and title

● generating enough sales to get a title among the top books in its category on Amazon.com

When a title gets to the top of an Amazon category list, readers searching that genre will see it first, which Preston believes will not only increase that book’s sales on Amazon.com but also create publicity on other bookseller sites and improve sales of other titles.

For Preston, the most effective giveaways are those focused on sales of e-books. His strategy dovetails with Verni’s: start with extensive publicity to create awareness of a short (24–48 hours) giveaway. A recent promotion for the 2010 release Bandits resulted in 534 free downloads and a higher Amazon ranking that prompted some 2,400 sales at $2.99 each.

For giveaways of paperback editions, Phenomenal One Press collects contact information from recipients and sends them information on new titles. When a library requests a giveaway, the press follows up with a phone call asking how staff and patrons liked the book and if the library would like to place an order.

At Nashville’s Pearlsong Press, which is reissuing print editions and creating e-book editions of four mysteries by Lynne Murray originally published by St. Martin’s, initial sales of both editions of the first two titles were disappointing. That’s why publisher Peggy Elam decided on a Kindle promotion for the digital edition of Large Target, the second in a series by Murray.

“I set the Large Target freebie offer to start at midnight May 6, in honor of International No Diet Day, because the books feature ‘a sleuth of size who doesn’t apologize,’” Elam reports. The publisher announced the giveaway on the company blog, on Facebook, via Twitter, and on “size acceptance” and “fat studies” email lists and e-groups sponsored by such groups as the Association for Size Diversity and Health and Show Me the Data. Murray also used her social media accounts to post the offer, which got additional publicity from “size acceptance” activists.


Amazon reported downloads of more than 12,500 copies during the giveaway. Even better, it led to sales of more than 200 e-book copies of the earlier title in the series, Larger Than Death, at $2.99 each. Sales continued throughout the month of the giveaway (in the preceding month, only one copy sold). “It’s obvious that the giveaway of one title prompted the purchase of the other available e-book in the same series,” Elam says.

Within two weeks of the giveaway’s conclusion, 16 copies of the featured title sold (compared to four in the preceding month). An important note: the giveaway did not affect sales of Murray’s titles in other series.

Another member satisfied with Kindle promotions is Paul Magid of Point Dume Press in Manalapan, NJ, the publisher of the metaphysical novel Lifting the Wheel of Karma. On an April weekend, Magid did a two-day giveaway that resulted in more than 3,000 downloads even though that was the weekend right before the federal income tax deadline. Publicized only on Facebook, the promotion pushed the novel to #1 in Amazon’s Free Fiction: Drama category for both days and caused a spike in e-book sales in the second half of April.


How It Goes at Goodreads

For a giveaway of printed books, several members recommend Goodreads. “This is the Facebook for book enthusiasts,” says Brendan Kelso of PlayingWithPlays.com in San Luis Obispo, CA. “It allows you to give away books that are releasing soon or were released in the past six to 12 months.”

Kelso, who writes the Shakespeare for Kids titles, is pleased with the visibility Goodreads creates despite his inability to track sales from it. “Since the first giveaway, 22 people have put my Taming of the Shrew for Kids title on their ‘to-read’ bookshelf,” he reports. “By the time its giveaway closed, 429 people had entered the drawing for the five free copies, and 36 people had put it on their Goodreads ‘to-read’ shelf. That’s pretty good awareness for the cost of five autographed copies.” By contrast, earlier titles are each on only two or three “to-read” lists.

At the YMAA Publication Center in Independence, MO, publicist Barbara Langley also likes Goodreads because of the buzz she believes it creates. “It gets the customer/reader excited enough to tell others,” she says. Although YMAA cannot tie sales to giveaways, it has done several Goodreads promotions. Like Kelso, Langley has the author autograph prize books before they’re shipped to winners.

Goodreads is also the favored giveaway program at Leda Publishing of Barrie, Ontario, which uses it to generate positive reviews. Jill Walsh, the general manager, reports: “For a title with a March publication date, 3 Off the Tee: Make It Happen, by Lorii Myers, we announced a 100-book giveaway last fall, allowing people to enter the Goodreads contest between November 1 and December 31, 2011. We shipped paperbacks to the winners on January 4.”

By the end of March, she continues, “we had 51 ratings, 32 reviews, and a rating of 4.31 stars (out of five) for the book, and we were ecstatic because the Web sites and blogs that post these reviews are often linked to online book retailers.”

Although Walsh acknowledges it would be far less expensive to offer digital books instead of hardcopies, especially because many books are sent across the border to the United States, Leda has decided there is great value for readers in receiving a printed book.

Hardcopies can be inscribed with the recipient’s name and the author’s signature, and each copy includes what Walsh calls “a fairly compelling letter” encouraging ratings and reviews. “We tactfully stress how important positive reviews are for the author,” she says, adding that these cover letters are carefully crafted. “We tweak our approach each time. Sometimes we track effectiveness by using different letters within the same giveaway. For example, the first half of the winners get letter A and the other half get letter B.”


Other Alternatives

Top Five Books, in Oak Park, IL, has a slightly different approach. As publisher Alex Lubertozzi explains: “Last November we published six editions of public-domain titles with illustrations, introductions, author bios—nicer alternatives to the free classics then available. In the back of each, we promoted our current and forthcoming titles.”

The result: more than 600,000 downloads of Top Five’s Great ExpectationsA Christmas CarolDraculaRobinson CrusoeAdventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes through Apple’s iBookstore (part of iTunes). In early 2012, Amazon.com price-matched three of the titles.

“Since then, we’ve had about 25,000 free downloads through Amazon,” Lubertozzi says. The giveaways have led to about a dozen sales of Top Five’s four-year-old mystery, Murder Bay. “We’re hoping that, as we build our fiction list, we might see some more Top Five Classics readers buying our new fiction,” he adds. “So far, the most tangible result has been getting one great submission.”

Two other giveaway programs that members have used are offered by BookCrash (bookcrash.com) and International Thriller Writers (internationalthrillerwriters.com).

BookCrash headlines its Web site with this invitation: “Are you a Christian blogger? You can receive FREE copies of BookCrash books! In exchange for a review copy of the book, you must agree to read the book and post a 200-word review on your blog and on at least one consumer retail website.” To participate, publishers must commit to giving away at least 30 copies of the title listed on BookCrash. They must also be members of the Christian Small Publishers Association ($75 annual dues).

At ROCK International in Greenville, SC, Paul Bramsen says he believes the BookCrash reviews can be effective in driving sales. One recent day, for example, a BookCrash participant posted a review of ROCK’s King of Glory on her blog and on Amazon.com. “That same day, Amazon sold 10 or 11 copies, and the book’s Amazon rank went from about #500,000 to #34,000,” Bramson recalls.

To use the giveaway program run by the International Thriller Writers, either a book’s publisher or its author must be a member of the association. Membership is free for authors published by presses the association recognizes, and there’s a list of them on its site. The cost for associate members, including publishers, is $95.

Many publishers offer their own giveaway and bonus-gift programs.


In March, the San Francisco-based Little Pickle Press gave away iBook and NOOK editions of What Does It Mean to Be Green, a title developed with fellow IBPA member Kite Readers.

The free editions of this children’s picture book included a final page advertising Little Pickle’s other titles at $1 off.

The payoff? Some dramatic sales increases. Revenue for What Does It Mean to Be Green shot up almost 90 percent between March and April for the NOOK edition, and almost 43 percent for the iBook edition. Sales for NOOK editions of two other titles also increased by more than 30 percent, and iBook sales of those titles rose between 10 and 15 percent. For other titles, sales increased by as much as 22 percent, marketing associate Cameron Crane reports.

Little Pickle publisher Rana DiOrio was also pleased with the attention the title received in “mommy” blogs and the home-schooling community. One blog, Documama: From Sahara to Suburbia, posted a 1,325-word feature about the press and DiOrio, and publicized a book giveaway specific to that blog’s readers. Another blog, Kids’ Ebook Bestseller, ran a 525-word interview with DiOrio that included an image of the book cover and a photo of her.

Sylvan Dell and Scarletta Press both did giveaways during Children’s Book Week.

Sylvan Dell, based in Mount Pleasant, SC, made all its 70 e-books available free during the week, attracting 20,000 readers. Publicist Heather Williams didn’t have sales figures as this was written, but she says telephone call volume and social media references to Sylvan Dell both spiked during the event.


Reporting on Duds

For Minneapolis-based Scarletta, a giveaway attracted almost no attention. Readers were invited to enter prize drawings by “liking” Scarletta on its Facebook page, “liking” posts about the drawings, or retweeting Scarletta’s tweets. Each post got only a handful of likes. There were no retweets, and a tweet by Book Week sponsor Children’s Book Council resulted in only six more likes, despite the CBC having almost 3,500 Twitter followers at the time.

Desiree Bussiere, Scarletta publicity director, adds that Scarletta also sent out two e-blasts, each to about 500 people, and that opens for each were at least 300.

Similarly, a month-long promotion by the Calgary, Alberta, publisher Motivated by Nature did not translate to increased sales. CEO Susanne Alexander-Heaton used Facebook ads to offer a free PDF of the characters in her ABC Field Guide to Faeries. She says she was amazed by the response rate (almost 400 downloads of the PDF in a month), by their international flavor (more than 100 from Mexico, 77 from Egypt, and 66 from Thailand, but only six from the United States), and by the fact that there were almost no sales. “I thought that doing eight faeries as a giveaway would interest people in the remaining 18 faeries in the book. This unfortunately did not occur,” she notes.

Another disappointed publisher is Jacqueline Zaleski Mackenzie, whose Summerland Corp., based in Guanajuato, Mexico, recently published the 320-page Empowering Spanish Speakers. Despite several enthusiastic testimonials by professionals in her multicultural education target market, and despite distribution of hundreds of free digital and printed copies, only about 50 printed copies have been sold.

Mackenzie believes that the used copies now for sale on sites like Amazon at prices like $2.32 are the samples she sent booksellers and libraries. (“Stamp ‘Review Copy Not for Resale’ on your giveaways if you want to try to avoid that,” she suggests.) After extensive direct mail, several book show displays, many personal appearances, and offering to combine discounted copies of the book with her training sessions, she has sadly concluded that some genres are very difficult to sell when institutional and educational budgets are tight.


Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle.

Two Effective Twists

Two IBPA members who gave “gift with purchase” a different twist report that their promotions helped jump titles into top rankings on Amazon.com.

For its launch of Coach Anyone About Anything: How to Empower Leaders and High-Performance Teams, The Eagle’s View Company in Kingwood, TX, offered a package of Internet-accessible bonus gifts to encourage Amazon purchases by its market, which it perceives to be mostly business managers.

Involving the authors as well as nine marketing collaborators, the bonus promotion took place through participants’ databases, newsletters, and blogs. In addition, co-author Germaine Porché reports, it was mentioned in articles and reviews published in popular newsletters for the book’s audience, including SelfGrowth.com and Zig Ziglar’s. And the author bio for the articles mentioned the launch bonus offer and links to the event page.

The giveaway included downloads of two publications by Porché and her co-author, Jed Niederer, as well as a subscription to newsletters, a teleseminar, a Webcast, a podcast, and short e-books. Early in the promotion, the title’s sales put it in the first and second spots in two Amazon business categories.

Shel Horowitz is using similar tactics to promote Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green, which he wrote with Jay Conrad Levinson and which is now being published by John Wiley. “I approached bloggers and e-zine publishers and showed them how they were likely to get more fans and subscribers by participating,” he explains. “With rare exceptions, I took whatever these bloggers and publishers offered as bonus gifts for my book customers.”

Most of the bonus gifts are downloads of articles, e-books, and podcasts. The gift-with-purchase offer was promoted through the book’s charity partner, Green America, which Horowitz says had 94,000 members at the time, as well as through the participating bloggers and zine publishers and through Levinson’s network of 84,000 subscribers. Registrations for the bonus have been limited in number, but the title was a category bestseller on Amazon for several months.

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