Market Books Like the Big Boys Do

So why am I giving away copies of my novel Place of Skulls? I spent more than a year writing, re-writing and re-working the thriller, adding a few characters, throwing a few away, changing their names, wondering where they would take the plot next, and always watching it head off in a direction I had no intention of going.  I changed the title, for better or worse from Duel in the Desert, to The Man Who wouldn’t Die, to Valley of the Shadow, and finally to Place of Skulls.

I have always been a writer. I have always made my living with the written word.

As far as I’m concerned, a good book is just like any other good product. It is a commodity. It has a price tag. A good book is what we sell.

Some people take a hammer and nail and build houses. Some people take sheet metal and iron and build cars. Some people take electronics and semi-conductor chips and build computers.

We take a few nouns and verbs, throw in an adjective or two, and build books. It takes time. It takes commitment. It takes dedication. I still remember the final version of the sixteenth rewrite of the opening paragraph, which I consider the seven most important sentences in the novel:

Andrews St. Aubin watched the ragged edges of night paint the streets below and waited for the dead man to step from the shadows. They were never together, he and the dead man. They were seldom apart. They had never spoken. Their eyes had not yet met.  Death was the only thing they had in common. And often St. Aubin had wondered which of them had really survived and which was destined to roam the earth in search of an empty grave.

Those are the words I bled. And I bled them over and over.

So why am I making Place of Skulls free to anybody in the Nook and Kindle world who wants one?

The answer is not that complicated. I wanted to market my book the way the big boys in the publishing industry market their best sellers. So I checked. And it’s not what I expected or like it used to be. The big boys, the power brokers of publishing, are entering a brave new world with the same fears and trepidations that we possess.

So, in all of their power and glory, what are they doing?

They’re giving away eBooks.

According to The New York Times, more than half of the “best selling” eBooks on the Kindle eReader are available at no charge. The report pointed out, “Earlier this week, for example, the No. 1 and 2 spots on Kindle’s best-seller list were taken by Terri Blackstock, a writer of Christian thrillers. The Kindle price: $.0. Until the end of the month, Ms. Blackstock’s publisher, Zondervan, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, is offering readers the opportunity to download the books free to the Kindle or to the Kindle apps on their iPhone or in Windows.

“Publishers including Harlequin, Random House, and Scholastic are offering free versions of digital books to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other eRetailers, as well as on author Websites as a way of allowing readers to try out the work of unfamiliar writers. The hope is that customers who like what they read will go on to obtain another title for money.”

Some of the big boys consider giveaway as purely promotional, a new version of a marketing tactic they have used for years. A major part of their marketing strategy always included giving away free galley proofs to booksellers or reviewers. The more, the merrier.

Publishers wanted to attract attention. Publishers wanted to build the names of new writers with good books. Publishers wanted to build hype and spread the word.

Nothing has changed.

But now, they use giveaways. The only difference is, the big boys did not have the promotional genius or ingenuity boiling up within their psyche to invent the giveaway program. Indie authors did. Indie authors proved that it worked. The big boys, without a better idea, have joined us.

As Steve Sammons, executive vice president for consumer engagement at Zondervan has said, “Most people purchase stuff because somebody has recommended the title.”

So here’s the formula: Let as many people as possible read your free book, and they will recommend the title to others. And even more importantly, if those readers like this book and the kind of story that an author can tell, they may be persuaded to buy your next book as well.

And therein lies the secret. You need more than one book, either already published or on the way.

My favorite writer of legal thrillers, Stephen Woodfin, give away Last One Chosen, and he immediately began selling Next Best Hope and The Sickle’s Compass. His name wasn’t unfamiliar anymore. He was no longer an unknown. He became an author to be reckoned with.

He was beginning to build a faithful following of readers.

It stands to reason that if a free eBook rises to the top of the Kindle best-seller list, its success automatically gives an author instant credibility and more visibility.

The writer of books, however, is caught hanging in limbo between the desire to experiment with new marketing opportunities and protecting an income generated by book sales.

Henry Thompson found himself trapped in the web. He had written a series of books about Joe Pitts, a vampire detective, and he was not all thrilled with the idea that Random House wanted to give one of his precious books away. Henry was afraid that such a radical move might undermine his career.

A reader, however, made Henry Thompson see the light. She wrote him in an email: “There are so many authors out there that fall into obscurity. Simply no one knows them, and some readers are hesitant buying an author they never heard of. Free books allow you to experience the writer as a whole, not just a small tidbit.”

She took one of his free books. She took a chance on Henry Thompson. And, she wrote, “Fifty dollars later, I have the entire Joe Pitts series.”

It had been, Henry conceded, a risk work taking.

So that’s why I’m giving away free copies of Place of Skulls.

I’ve decided to steal the idea that the big boys stole from us. I’ve decided to do what the big boys do.

Place of Skulls will be available at the Kindle store on Tuesday, April 17.

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