That would be the word “free.”

Whether it works or not, free has always had magic qualities. As an advertising copywriter, I know that tucking the word “free” into a headline was always considered the Holy Grail of benefit advertising. (What’s better than free?) So it stands to reason, that the word would prove to be alluring in other avenues. I read on Passive Guy’s blog yesterday that the publisher, Sourcebooks, revealed that they experience “full-price sales that are 46 times greater on average after a “free” promotion than the four weeks before the promotion.” And if you go on Kindle Boards or Twitter or anywhere else writers congregate, you’ll get a first-hand snapshot of how the Kindle Select promotions are going for them. (This is where writers put a title up exclusively with Amazon and for that, they get to offer their book free any five days of their choice in a three-month period. )

I must say, I was curious enough that I had to try it myself. I have a three-book mystery series and offered the first book in the series free last week for two days. 500 downloads later, it’s still selling heaps better than it did before the Kindle Select “bump,” (as it’s called.) I typically sell twenty copies of this particular title a month. I sold that much in two days (over the weekend). Today, however, it’s back to selling two copies a day so I don’t know whether the “bump” is over or what, but even if it is, I’m happy to have had it.

People like free stuff. Who knew? If it’s crap, you’re not out anything, and if it’s good—hey, you got it for free! The executive director of Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network (SPAWN), Patricia Fry, wrote a great piece in the October 2011 issue of IBPA Independent called “Give Something to Get Something.” (The piece was taken from her book, which looks great, BTW, “Promote Your Book: Over 250 Proven, Low-Cost Tips and Techniques for the Enterprising Author.”) In the IBPA piece, she reinforces something that grocery stores and used car salesmen have known for decades, and that is the concept of the loss leader. This is where you give something away of value, in order to enhance the prospect of gathering a customer you might’ve missed before. Hopefully, if the customer is happy with the free thing, they’ll tell their friends and come back for more—at full price.

From Ms. Fry’s article, here are six ways to give it away and have it come back to you:

  1. Donate your book as a prize in an online contest, especially if that means it is prominently featured on the site—which is free advertising for you.
  2. Give a copy of your book to your local library. If your book can be ordered (so, not a CreateSpace edition) there’s a greater chance of that happening if the librarian is holding a copy in her hands.
  3. Offer your book in local charity events. I put the second book of my French mystery series in a big basket with lavender soap, flowers, a Provençal coffee mug and a decent bottle of wine (the mystery happens in a French vineyard) and donated it to the silent auction at my son’s middle school. It sat on exhibit for hours and was then verbally and enticingly described (I wrote the sales copy) by the auctioneer. In my case, I was also invited to sell and sign books after the event but even if that doesn’t happen, it’s still good visibility for your book. (Make sure you create a decent sign to prop next to the basket that sells the book.)
  4. Leave the book in professional waiting rooms. If you have a nonfiction book especially, distribute a few to waiting rooms around town: doctors, dentists, veterinarians. (Note: these’ll go “walkies” on a regular basis so be sure and check back often to replenish the supply.)
  5. Focus on the unique promotional benefits of certain genres. Children’s books or books with a special hook: (equestrian fiction, travel or food-related plots, etc.) can often be put on display at tack shops, gift shops, open houses at schools, even restaurants. I have a little neighborhood café that positions itself as all-things-French. The people who run the café are friendly and were happy to add another tincture of Frenchness to the ambiance of their place by putting my Provençal mystery series on display by the cash register. It’s true these aren’t free, but they are loss leaders in that I sell them for much, much less than customers could buy them (after shipping) from Amazon. (Note: because my print-on-demand books are created through Lightning Source, I can typically sell them for $5 a piece and still break even. Remember: I’m trying to spur word-of-mouth and create goodwill in this instance, not make a profit.)
  6. Say “yes” to endorsements for other books. There’s nothing that says “free advertising” like a line on someone else’s book (if it’s good) that reads: “Blah blah blah,” by Susan Kiernan-Lewis, author of the award-winning mystery “Little Death by the Sea.”

So there you have it! “Free” really is the hottest word—on or off the Internet—and there are a lot of different ways to make it work for you. If anybody else has ideas of something they’ve tried at the local level to give their books away (whether it worked or not), I’d love to hear!

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