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Promotions That Pay Off

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Promotions That Pay Off

by Linda Carlson

How do you get sales to go up when the economy is going down? IBPA members have dozens of ideas for publishers who are introducing new books or trying to increase sales momentum for backlist titles, especially as the holiday season nears. None of these is complicated, and none works magic. As one publisher noted, even successful promotions for good books are unlikely to send any of us to Aruba for a midwinter break. But, as another member emphasized, the results of the simple and seemingly mundane efforts that we make every day will distinguish us from publishers who expect books to sell themselves.

Here’s a sampling of simple promotions that have worked for IBPA members:


combo pricing

display racks

free freight

bonus gifts/“freemiums”

prepublication sales

Internet advertising and publicity

the help of friends


One of the most common price promotions is a discount, sometimes timed to coincide with an event that ties into a book topic, an author appearance, or a publisher’s market niche.

Because H.E. Freeman Enterprises publishes books on personal finance, one of the discounts it offered was during April, for Financial Literacy Month. “We publicized this via our newsletter, email, and book club email lists,” reports owner Harrine Freeman. Such discounts have increased sales by for this Bethesda, MD, publisher by at least 10 percent.

In Seattle, Parenting Press often offers discounts on an author’s books during the month of that author’s birthday. These are usually promoted to readers of its free monthly newsletter. The most successful promotions have offered 20 percent off for orders of two or more titles by company founder Elizabeth Crary, the best known and most prolific of the press’s child-guidance authors.

Last year Gorgias Press ran a two-month promotion that it publicized as a one-time eventbecause it would have resulted in a loss if it hadn’t received significant response. All books were discounted by 40 percent, and in addition, every 10th customer received each book in its order for $3. All sales were final and no cancellations were offered, reported co-owner Christine Kiraz of the Piscataway, NJ, publisher, which issues most of its titles using print-on-demand.

Many publishers offer quantity discounts on the same title or mixed titles, and with a new or classic title, a reduced price can also be marketed as a book-group special. Although no IBPA member reported doing so, this would be an excellent way to sell scuffs with at least a 50 percent discount and free shipping if the order was prepaid, shipped to one address, and nonreturnable.

Package Deals

Many publishers offer multiple-copy or multiple-title discounts to retail customers, either direct or through such Internet retailers as Amazon.com.

“My husband and I perform Celtic music, and during the breaks in our performances, I sell my Madd Irishman cookbooks. Our retail price for each book is $19.95, and at these shows we offer them for $15 each. We sell the two-book set for $25,” says Marianne Kelly of Safe Harbour Press in Bradford, VT. “We never take books home,” she adds. “Many times we have gotten later, full-price orders from friends and relatives of those who bought at performances.”

Last summer fledgling publisher Laurel Downing Bill of Laudon Enterprises in Anchorage sold Aunt Phil’s Trunk, her three-book series on Alaska, at a discount—$50 for the set instead of $19.95 each—to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s statehood. The twist? The deal was offered only at an outside market in Anchorage. “People are snapping up the series as fast as I can lay books out on my table,” she says, and she recommends that other publishers offer discounts related to community events. “It’s sure working for me.”

Display Racks

Offering something extra is an excellent way to increase sales to retailers, several members report. George Kotarides, Jr., the author and publisher of A Day in God’s Country, says, “My book usually wholesales at 40 percent off. Buy at least a dozen, and I will discount them 50 percent and provide a sharp-looking promotional package. The vast majority of retailers, large and small, go for this.”

Kotarides, who runs pizza restaurants in Virginia Beach, VA, in addition to writing and publishing, points out that providing only books to retailers does not lead to significant sales. “What does work is a marketing package that distinguishes my product from the thousands of others out there.”

He furnishes an 11″× 17″ color poster, an acrylic rack, a promotional shelf-talker that fits behind books in the rack, and bookmarks. “This encourages retailers to buy more than two or three copies because the racks hold a dozen books,” he explains. “And, because the racks take up less than six square inches of shelf space, they are often placed at checkout registers, information counters, and in other premium locations.” Summarizing, Kotarides says, “The proof is in the numbers. My average book sale per consummated sales call is over 20 copies. The cover price is $15.95. At a 50 percent discount, that’s around $160 per transaction.”

Even when he sells only a dozen books—one rack full—Kotarides grosses $96 per sale. (And because he sells direct, he can—and does—refuse to accept returns.) He estimates the incremental cost of his promotional package after the initial artwork at $14, or about $1.20 per book when the rack is sold full.

Marianne Kelly also believes in selling books by the dozen. “The Madd Irishman cookbook series is doing very well in Irish import shops, and we are expanding to mainstream gift shops,” she says. Her incentive? She offers an extra book free to new customers who purchase at least a dozen. “We also offer free shipping on a minimum of 12 in any combination to everyone, which usually encourages prospects to buy more than the six that is our minimum.”

Free Freight

For both retail and wholesale customers, free shipping on quantity buys or every order can be another effective promotional tool. As the CEO of e-tailer Overstock.com told The New York Times last year when L.L.Bean introduced free shipping for the holiday season, consumers generally respond to shipping promotions more enthusiastically than to discounts.

That’s certainly the impression at Peace Hill Press in Charles City, VA, which offered free shipping last December and saw its sales jump 33 percent over the same month the year before. Publicizing this offer was easy and economical. Office manager Kim Norton reports the company used its own Web site and notices on its message boards.

At North Country Publishing in Scandia, MI, a short-term free-shipping offer is promoted with postcards to retailers each spring and fall. “The cards also serve as a reminder to reorder for the summer tourist or fall preholiday buying seasons,” says Lynn McGlothin, the business manager. “While we get a small increase in direct orders from resellers after the mailings,” she reports, “we always see an immediate and larger bump in orders from distributors.”

North Country sees value in offering savings on shipping to direct customers too. For books sold through its Web site, there’s a discount for multiple-copy or multiple-title orders sent to the same address. “Direct customer orders—which are the most profitable, of course—have increased since that adjustment,” McGlothin adds, suggesting another easy promotion: “We’ve added an autographing-instructions feature to our Web site order page.”

Retaining those profitable direct sales to consumers was the primary reason Signature Press began offering free freight. “Our individual sales were shrinking compared to our sales to hobby shop and rail museums,” says Tony Thompson, partner in the Berkeley, CA, rail history publisher, where book prices range between $50 and $75.

Free freight, which can be expensive for publishers, is not always an incentive for corporate customers, reports Sheila K. Vertino, vice president, Information and Research, for the Herndon, VA–based National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP). “Most of our books are purchased by members of our trade association,” she says. “Although free shipping is very attractive to online consumers paying out of their own pockets, it is less of a motivation for people using company dollars.” That’s why NAIOP is switching to combos and “freemiums” as incentives, Vertino notes.

Bonus Gifts/“Freemiums”

Vertino describes freemiums as items that her association has acquired, usually at no direct cost. They are distributed free to stimulate sales of related products. “For example, NAIOP partnered on a report on sustainable development and received 1,500 copies in exchange for our time. When we promote our green/sustainable development books and CDs, we can offer that report as a freemium.”

Carolyn Howard-Johnson, a southern Californian who describes herself as an author “who publishes about every which way,” recently ran a special for subscribers to her newsletter and for members of Authors’ Coalition, the writers’ group she founded. “I offered to send anyone who ordered any of my books a copy of my new Amazon Short, The Great First Impression Book Proposal. I explained that for 49 cents (that’s the cost of a Short!) it was more like sending an inexpensive holiday card and that I’d throw in my autograph and, yes, free postage.”

Her response rate? About 7 percent. “From my retailing and marketing days, I know that is very good percentage,” Howard-Johnson remarks, “but it certainly wasn’t enough to send my family to Aruba for New Year’s!”

Kathleen Gage has a bonus-gift strategy that involves as many as a hundred partners and downloadable extras. Gage, who runs The Street Smarts Marketer in Pleasant Hill, OR, provides each book customer with a receipt number, which can be used to reach gift redemption pages. The number of bonuses depends on the title. For example, a book on business could have complimentary bonus gifts in the form of MP3 files, e-books, and e-reports, some by authors of books similar to Gage’s, dealing with business, team building, and organizational skills. Gage sticks to virtual premiums for her clients and her own book to eliminate manufacturing and shipping costs.

The program is somewhat complicated, she says, but it works. The day she launched her own book, it sold more than 1,500 copies on Amazon.

Prepublication Sales

Interested in a promotion that gets books out of the warehouse fast—sometimes precluding the necessity to get them in—while generating higher-margin, nonreturnable purchases? Prepublication sales work well for publishers and for authors.

At the Independent Institute in Oakland, CA, communications director Roy M. Carlisle explains his organization’s success with a book on the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) co-published with Ivan R. Dee Publisher: “We knew this book was going to be very important to Second Amendment scholars and various supportive groups. So after much Internet research to build a list, we went directly to more than 150 groups and sold 3,350 copies of the book before it had even been published at our usual bulk discount.” When he wrote me a while ago, he had just received the last payment for these prepub sales. One organization bought more than $21,000 worth of books.

“This was a spectacular success for a very readable but niche scholarly book,” Carlisle says. “This experiment was a wakeup call for our team. We should all be going after groups and people who care about the topic long before the book is published.”

Encouraging authors to buy large quantities of their books can also contribute important income. “We offer authors 60 percent off and free freight if they order 500 or more copies drop-shipped from the printer,” says Dawson Church at Energy Psychology Press in Fulton, CA. “Because we select only authors who are go-getters and self-promoters, most say yes. That brings in $3,000 on a typical soft cover, enough to cover a chunk of the print bill. And it gets lots of copies to the author’s professional circle.”

Internet Advertising and Publicity

The Independent has done many articles that provide advice on generating publicity through Web sites, e-zines, blog publicity and advertising, email lists, message boards, social networking sites, search engines, and other online resources. Here are just a few of the strategies that IBPA members recommended recently for using the Web to publicize special promotions.

Free ads. Levine’s Breaking News E-lert (www.lbnelert.com), a free daily newsletter with a circulation of 256,000, offers free 30-word ads, says Stacey Kannenberg of Cedar Valley Publishing. “When Amazon discounts my book, I post an ad saying: ‘Let’s Get Ready for Kindergarten! on sale at Amazon,’ and I post the direct link to my book.” The Fredonia, WI, entrepreneur averages about 50 sales on Amazon.com each time she posts this ad.

Author articles. Because of the significance of the Web sites that cover energy psychology, Energy Psychology Press asks each of its authors to write a case history for submission to one of the sites. “If it gets published, it results in sales of about 200 copies,” says Dawson Church. “Do this five times a year, and you sell 1,000 copies because of that site, plus sales through other retailers that result from the publicity.”

Blogs. At New York City’s Columbia University Press, a “white sale” brought in many new customers, in part because bloggers posted the announcement of the sale sent out by publicity director Meredith Howard.

“We’re not talking huge numbers, but the uptick was particularly good for our science titles. It helped that we had a mix of print, online, and direct-to-consumer promotion for the sale’s six-week duration,” said Howard, who noted that other promotions included an ad on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Inside Higher Ed blog. Similarly, there was good response to Columbia’s online-only sale on animal-studies titles after an open letter by the acquisitions editor was reproduced on several important animal blogs.

Amazon.com. When you look up a book on Amazon.com and see the suggestion that you buy it plus a similar book to get a discount, you’re looking at the “Better Together” program. Amazon selects the titles for it, but you can set up something similar with “Buy X, Get Y,” which allows you to feature your title in the “Best Value” section on another book’s page. (For more information, see “Paid Placements,” and note that using this feature means that you must participate in the Advantage program, which in turn requires that you pay a $29.95 annual fee and sell direct to Amazon at a 55 percent discount.)

“When my Choose to Be Happy: A Guide to Total Happiness was being sold on Amazon only as a POD title, I tripled my sales by pairing it with Eat, Pray, Love. It definitely worked, although it was expensive,” says Rima Rudner of Choose Inc. Publishing in Pacific Palisades, CA. “When I did it a second time,” she adds, “I didn’t get the same results as when I picked an author who was on Oprah. So, the trick is to pair with a book that is going to be highly publicized that month.”

Friends as publicists. Having friends and colleagues who will be evangelists for your books is another recommended strategy. You can ask them to write shelf talkers for the book at their local independent booksellers, email reviews to online booksellers, host parties for authors and new titles, and rave about the books to their contacts.

Based in Asheville, N.C., Adrienne van Dooren created a coffee-table book of trompe l’oeil effects, The House That Faux Built, as a fund-raiser for Habitat for Humanity, and asked all her friends and the dozens of other artists involved in the book to email everyone they knew about it and the Hurricane Katrina victims it would benefit. The goal: to have hundreds of prospective buyers contact Amazon.com on the same day, thus pushing the book to the online retailer’s bestseller list.

Van Dooren used the bestseller status to attract bookstore and media attention to the book—and she sold 2,500 copies in that single day, too. Like Kathleen Gage, van Dooren offered a virtual incentive to generate all those purchases at the same time: hers was a short how-to book on staging by Jeannette Fisher, the author of From Doghouse to Dollhouse for Dollars, who gave it to van Dooren at no charge in return for the publicity.

Linda Carlson (www.lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she is constantly trying to dream up successful promotions for her clients and IBPA members.

A Special-Promotion Checklist

Before you publicize a discount or bonus gift, consider these tips from IBPA members:

Determine your goal. Is it moving scuffs out of the warehouse, generating prepublication cash, increasing the size of orders, or creating buzz about a new title? Attracting new customers was one reason L.L. Bean offered free shipping last holiday season, even though the special promotion also raised the cost of servicing existing customers, who used it to place more of the small orders that are relatively costly.

Make sure you understand the cost of publicizing your special offer. If you’re paying on a per-click rather than a per-sale basis, try to cap your potential expense.

If you are using direct mail, either postal or electronic, make sure your list includes decision-makers. As Roy Carlisle at the Independent Institute pointed out, it’s important to invest time in careful Internet research to ensure the accuracy of your list.

Rough out different scenarios to see if you will at least cover costs with high and low rates of response to a special promotion. If you’re offering a significant discount and counting on volume to break even, determine where you’ll be financially with a low number of very small orders that need credit-card processing, packing, and postage. Similarly, ensure that you have the staff and inventory to keep from being overwhelmed by a high response.

If you’re offering a physical rather than virtual premium, figure out in advance what it will cost to produce, pack, and ship.

Make sure the results of your offer can be tracked.

Make the offer valid for a limited time. Publicize the expiration date and any other limits and conditions.

Remember the KISS strategy. Drawing on his experiences with publishing books and with selling pizza, George Kotarides summed up his philosophy: “This is not rocket science. Sometimes just opening your mouth or showing a bookmark is all it takes.”

Plan ahead. Ensure that you have adequate time to publicize your sales promotion. The best idea is unlikely to work if no one hears about it.



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