Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Putting the chips where the words are

Books are funny things to sell.  All you really have is imagination in coherent form, like a dream taken out of sleep and into the waking world so you can share the experience with someone else.  But once put into a tangible or at least shareable form -- is digital really "tangible"?? -- the book becomes a product that has to be sold.

Traditional publishers of course have advertising budgets, and they had put print ads in Publisher's Weekly or Time or The Wall Street Journal.  They can book the author on a talk show tour or whatever.  These efforts may catch the reader's attention, but the reader still has to make the effort to buy the book.

At the 1991 Romance Writers of America conference in New Orleans, each attendee received a "goodie bag" upon registration.  Many of the publishers took this opportunity to distribute copies of some of their books, or collections of excerpts or whatever else they thought would serve as effective promotion for their product.  One publisher, however, took it one step further.  Each of the 1600+ attendees of that conference received a free hardcover copy of Diana Gabaldon's debut book Outlander.  Romance novels were just starting to move into hardcover and book club editions at this time, so the readers and writers who attended that conference were impressed that Dell had not only published Outlander in hardcover first, but that they were promoting it so lavishly. 

The book had been published in January and the conference was in July, so maybe Dell just had thousands of unsold copies lying around because it hadn't found an audience.  It wasn't marketed as romance, but maybe someone at Dell decided maybe there was enough of a romance in the story to justify moving it into that market.  At any rate, they gave away a bunch of copies to romance writers and readers.

The rest, as they say, is history.

One of the current schemes for selling books is to tie the sale to a charity, with the author promising to donate a portion of the proceeds to her favorite organization.  There's usually some connection between the material in the book and the issue addressed by the charity, but not always.  And there have been some alleged abuses of this tactic.  Authors have claimed they're making donations to a charity that doesn't exist, or they claim affiliation with an organization that later says they've never heard of that person.  Or the charity demands any links to their group be removed from the author's website.

Not that I think the unethical writers will pay any attention, but for those who do still have some scruples and are reading this, maybe the message will sink in:  Don't try to guilt your potential readers into buying your book.

You might want to take a lesson from my local coffee shop:

Customers who bring in their own cups are offered a choice of a 15-cent discount or paying full price and receiving a poker chip which they can drop into one of three jars.  Three local charities -- one protecting animals, another providing shelter for domestic violence victims, and a third that helps disadvantaged students with school expenses -- receive a check each quarter based on those 15-cent donations.

The shop also sells a variety of coffee and tea cups and carriers to facilitate the bring-your-own, and of course those mugs and bottles are emblazoned with the shop's logo.

This costs the coffee shop nothing.  If they give the customer the 15-cent discount on the price of their drink, that's partly made up by the actual cost of the paper or plastic cup that would have been used.  If the customer pays the full price and takes the donation chip instead, the coffee shop owner gets the charitable donation credit on her taxes.  Sales of mugs and carriers of course generates profit, as does the advertising on them.

The charities, of course, get the direct benefit.

Does the charitable contribution actually bring in traffic?  I don't know.  Probably not.  But it's a measure of the owner's sincerity that the program has continued for over a year, with no signs of stopping. 

So what's the tie-in between the Gecko Espresso coffee shop in Gold Canyon, Arizona, and Outlander?  It's that advertising your charitable donations isn't enough to bring in business.  You've got to have a product that appeals to your target audience first.  Your generosity alone isn't going to bring you customers.

Write a good book.  Write a damn good book.  Then, when it sells, make your donation to charity. 

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