How Authors Sell; How Readers Buy

Have you read Joanne Kaufman’s “How Authors Move Their Own Merchandise” in the Wall Street Journal?  She documents how authors are offering free books, iPods, and even sex toys to boost sales in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

As an author who has thus far worked with small publishers with even smaller marketing budgets, I understand the role an author can and probably should play in the marketing process.  All books sell on the basis of publicity, whether that is word of mouth or the Today Show.  I have this blog, I’m on Facebook and Twitter, I’ve called the bookstore myself to request a book signing.  But, unlike Ayelet Waldman, my publisher has never offered to foot the bill for an iPod giveaway; I can’t even get free copies of my own books to give away.  I want as many potential readers as possible to know about my books, but I also don’t want to be coy or exclusive; I’ll sign and send a custom bookplate (created by my co-author, by the way, and not the publisher) for anyone who wants one, whether they’ve purchased a book or not.  And like most authors (perhaps especially, but certainly not exclusively, those of us who have non-writing full-time commitments), I have to be careful about balancing marketing time with writing time.  So I’m out here interacting on the web, I’m genuinely thankful for those who review or otherwise discuss my books, I reply to questions and other requests—but in the face of 1500 books being published in the US every day, I’m just not going to shout to be heard above the others.  Ultimately I want people to read my books because they think they might enjoy them, not because I bribed them to do it.  And if I ever write a best-seller, I want it to have made the list because so many people genuinely appreciate what I tried to say and not because they picked it up impulsively in hopes of netting a freebie.  (Yes, I’m an idealist.  I can’t help it.)

Reflecting on this article as a reader, of course I love getting free books and swag.  I have discovered a few authors I may not have otherwise by winning copies of their books, though as I write this I can’t think of one that turned out to rank among my real favorites (which I see as more indicative of my selective reading choices, rather than indicative of giveaways and contests being fundamentally unhelpful).  I’m never going to be loyal to an author on the basis of having received something free; if I don’t like the book, I don’t like the book, and if I love it, I’m going to tell everyone I know, regardless of how I discovered or obtained it.  Of the sales-boosting methods that Ms. Kaufman describes, as a reader I probably would pay a little more for a two-for-one deal—I definitely would if I had already read the author and knew I would enjoy the books—but I would never buy a random book just for the chance of winning an iPod.  Apparently some people do buy for those reasons—the sales statistics she quotes seem to bear that out—but I wonder if these people are really book readers or just book buyers.  There is a difference.  What I can say for certain is that I have paid full-price for books by authors I have met or heard speak, which is why I think readings and signings and book festivals are still the best publicity venues for authors (and for readers!).

What I most appreciate about Ms. Kaufman’s article is her prompt to reflect on what’s really driving my reading (and writing) choices.  Maybe this is something more of us need to do more often.

So what do you think?  As a writer, do you find this article inspiring or dispiriting?  As a reader, how do you respond to contests and freebies?  What drives your reading choices?

(This article cross-posted from

In search of belief changing ideas