19 Apr How to Sell a Book in America, Part IV: giving it away

It would be no surprise to you to hear me say that the internet has changed everything. Sure, all of us know this. But what most of us don’t know is exactly how the internet has changed everything, especially everything about selling books. So let me share what I’ve learned: the internet has turned all markets into a buyer’s market. This means that the buyer has the advantage over the seller, and so the seller is compelled to go to extreme measures to get the buyer’s attention. It used to be that we had to go to a store to get what we wanted and, then, once inside the store, we were subject to the store’s authority and its many means of beguiling us into buying its stuff — and there were lots of restrictions, such as, we could choose only from the store’s own stock. But now the store — or the seller — comes to us via the internet. The problem and great challenge for the seller is not only the intense online competition for the shopper’s time and attention but also the painful fact (to the seller) that everybody on the internet is giving stuff away for free: free information, free instruction, free software, free videos, free music, etc. In other words, the internet has created a new business model: you can’t sell stuff these days without first giving stuff away. Lots of stuff

This is why, when you’re shopping, say, for a cool mp3 player for your computer, you’ll find that every maker of player software will give you the player program for free — in the hope that you’ll like the player and want to upgrade to a “premium” version. Following that example, my publisher (Ig Publishing) gave away the e-version of my book — yes, the entire book for free — on Amazon this past weekend. The result was that it put the book into many readers’ hands (or Kindles, actually) and I got many more positive reader reviews on my Amazon page. This promotional effort could have backfired, for a number of reasons but, fortunately, it did not.

Next week, I am hosting a “multi-media extravaganza” at Cyclops Books here in Baltimore. It will feature a performance by composer David Smooke and ensemble, among other things. There will be free refreshments, including wine (while it lasts). There will be give-aways of posters and candy. It’s all free. It’s all to promote Kiss Me Stranger, even though I myself am not reading. Why aren’t I reading? Because there’s only so much you can ask of your readers (or your prospective readers). You can’t keep giving them the same stuff and you’ve got to give them more than yourself (unless, I suppose, you’re a brilliant extravaganza unto yourself). So I’m giving a party to my Baltimore readers in the hope that they will spread the word. And perhaps I’ll win a few new readers in the process. This is the new (internet-driven) model of doing business: giving it away in the hope that some of it comes back. It’s dangerously analogous to feeding a slot machine. You could go bankrupt doing this.

You may be thinking, Wait, haven’t sellers always given stuff away as “promotional” items? You’re right. This is an old strategy that long predates the internet. Most recently, fast food restaurants have used it, giving children little toys with their hamburgers. Before that, cereal makers put trinkets inside of their cereal boxes. During my mother’s era, you could get a free plate or bowl inside of a big box of dish-washing detergent. (Some women collected the entire 20-piece dinner set this way.) In the early days of mass advertising (1880s-1910s), sellers gave away elaborate gifts, even entire dining-room suites of furniture. Since the early twentieth century, grocery stores have given away certain products as “loss leaders” to attract customers into their stores. So, the customer would come in to get a great deal on eggs or bread and then decide to do the rest of her shopping at that store. It’s a simple, well-tested strategy. But never has it applied to the selling of books.

It used to be that the appearance of the author was sufficient inducement for readers to turn out. This still works for the really famous names. And, in the past, it worked better for someone like Charles Dickens than someone like Nathaniel Hawthorne, his American contemporary. The problem for writers is that, if they’re going to use the give-away strategy, they don’t have a lot to give. Writers aren’t corporations with big overhead and generous tax deductions. The book trailer is a kind of give-away — if it’s well done and entertaining. So is the book mark. A writer who visits book clubs or college classrooms is giving something in return for that group having bought the book. But what else? I met a writer recently who was giving out match books to promote his novel, which has something to do with fire. And I’d tell you more about it if only I could find that match book somewhere amid or near the clutter of my desk. You see how this goes?

Social networking goes to the heart of the internet’s give-away ethos. You are NOT supposed to promote yourself on social networks. You are supposed to give things away — stories about your life, jokes, recipes, music, video clips, photos of interesting things, compliments to your friends — and, in return, your “friends” are supposed to take an interest in you and then — then perhaps — seek out information about your professional endeavors. The social network events page is (supposedly) more or less a party invitation, not an advertisement. But social networking gets fuzzy really fast and not everybody can keep the lines sharply drawn between socializing and self-promotion. Here’s a rule of thumb: the more posts you put up about your professional accomplishments, the farther you move away from socializing — and the more you risk alienating your many friends until they block your posts because do you really want to hear me go on and on about a) how many pages I wrote today or b) how fast my latest piece was accepted for publication or (heaven forbid) c) how many books I sold last week?

We should think of social networking as we would a cocktail party. I don’t know about you but, when I gather with my writer friends for dinner or drinks, we talk some about the writing scene and our successes and failures, but that’s not the main thing and certainly never the only thing we talk about. It would be too boring. Mostly we talk about politics and movies and television and books we’re reading and how silly our parents are and how crazy our kids are and our latest home repair fiascos or triumphs, and so on. If I want to find out all about my friends’ many accomplishments, I go to their websites. I certainly don’t look for it on the pages of social networking.

So where does that leave us writers in this give-away culture? I’m still trying to figure it out. Throw a party or sponsor an event that ties into your book but does not oppress the event with your self-aggrandizement. Collaborate with another writer or other writers to create an event or a website that promotes something that you all care about (beside your books). If you can give something away that is associated with your story and is not a burden to the recipient (e.g., nobody wants to receive, say, a decorative sock just because you’ve written an expose on the garment industry), then give something away.  What else? You tell me. The irony of the internet revolution is that a great number of people haven’t gotten the message that you have to give something to get something. They think, instead, that the internet is first and foremost about and for them. We have only to survey the vast tracts of internet real estate that are populated with useless blogs, meaningless websites, and dead end sales pitches to see that this is not so and that most, if not all, of these destinations are seldom visited and easily forgotten.