We Won! Publishers Learn That Everyone Loves (to Talk About) a Free Book

Just as a hunter sends a spray of buckshot into the forest, the book publicist can never be sure an ARC hits the right reviewer at the right time. As professional book reviews dwindle and higher-ups put pressure on publicists to “do something online,” a serendipitous moment has arrived when publisher, web, consumer, and reviewer come together in the crosshairs: Several notable social bookshelf sites along with the biggest online bookstores have launched ARC giveaway programs to consumer-reviewers in the past few months, lining up voracious readers with pre-pub titles gratis in the hope of scoring some worthwhile online buzz and sales.

Targeting citizen reviewers might be a wise move considering 68% of consumers trust “people like me” first for product advice, according to Edelman Trust Barometer in 2006. An oft-cited statistic from Marketing Sherpa this summer says 89.9% of consumers surveyed would trust a friend’s recommendation over a review by a critic, and 83.8% would trust user reviews over a critic’s. And in the conflated world of social networking, trusting a “friend” takes on even more importance.

The Book Report Network (BRN) began combining ARC giveaways with newsletter and website ads in promotion packages sold to publishers way back in 2003. For between $2500 to $4500, depending on the length and ad specs of a campaign, the BRN will send out 10 to 20 ARC’s to a random sample of its readers who express interest in the ARC’s category. Though the Book Report Network encompasses a wide range of services and sites, Carol Fitzgerald, Founder and President, reported that revenue for the ARC giveaway and ad promotion packages rose 30% this year, signaling that publishers really are paying closer attention to the consumer reviewer.

Following in BRN’s footsteps, Bookbrowse, LibraryThing, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble all initiated ARC giveaways last summer and this fall. First Impressions launched at Bookbrowse.com in July in response to a survey in which most members said they were “very interested” in reviewing advance copies. Davina Morgan-Witts, who founded the recommendation site ten years ago, reports the average member reads three to four “middle to upper intellect” books a week and most of them actively participate in the forums, reviews, and recommendation sections of the site which has a $34.95 access fee per year. To take part in First Impressions, publishers pay $500 and agree to cover the shipping cost of all ARCs to members on a list supplied by Morgan-Witts.

Not surprisingly, members claimed all 20 copies of four titles within an hour of their online posting. Response each month since has not lagged, but in order to keep the titles of high quality and the program intimate, no more than four titles will be offered to Bookbrowse’s 200,000 unique monthly visitors. “Opening up the ARC requests is like Christmas,” said Morgan-Witts.

Like an Informal Focus Group

Though posting a review is not required to participate in First Impressions, it’s strongly encouraged and, as with all the new ARC programs, not giving feedback will hurt your chance of receiving another ARC in the next round. Over 90% of members who receive ARCs at Bookbrowse write a review and most of the reviews (approximately 2/3) come within the first three weeks of receiving the book. The reviewers often can’t help themselves from giving advice directly to the publisher: For one title last summer, the majority of reviewers urged the publisher add an index and map to guide the reader.

Tim Spalding, Founder & Developer of LibraryThing, uses an elegant algorithm to determine who gets which ARC in its Early Reviewers Group (ERG) which launched with a few Random House titles in May and opened to all publishers in October. To get the right book in the right hands, LibraryThing asks the ARC’s publisher for a list of similar titles. When the requests from Early Reviewers come in, LibraryThing runs an algorithm against the “libraries” of each requester, searching for the titles similar to the ARC. If a reader requests Your Orgasmic Pregnancy, for instance, but none of the similar titles shows up in his/her library and 85% of it is filled with military fiction, chances are the reader won’t “win” the title. On the other hand, a reader whose library tips toward parenting books will have a much better shot. “We had people requesting Amy Bloom books that had 3,000 books in LibraryThing and not a single work of literary fiction,” explained Spalding. “We don’t want to give it to those people.” Sending books according to the algorithm means readers are more likely to write a review and publishers get better feedback from a “consumer expert.”

Ultimately, It’s All About Sales

For a publisher with limited marketing resources and a literary list like Unbridled Books, an ARC giveaway program, especially when it’s as tightly focused on a target demographic as the ERG is, is a relatively safe risk. “We can’t offer as many ARC’s as big publishers can, but 35 is not prohibitive. [ARC’s to consumers] wouldn’t work as well if we offered them on our website because we wouldn’t know who was actually getting them,” said Caitlin Hamilton Summie, Marketing Director, adding that consumer reviews are almost like an informal focus group. Still, she’s not ready to give up on the professionals. “Consumers listen to each other, but we’re not focusing any less on the major media,” she said. “If the print media hasn’t already picked up on the title, hopefully the online buzz will get them to pay attention.”

At HarperCollins, Christine Casaccio, Online Marketing Manager, has set up recent titles at several of the consumer ARC giveaway programs. “Many more people are going online for their news and information now, so a customer online review is just as valid as a professional book review,” she commented. “I also believe that the customers who write reviews on sites such as Amazon, take it very seriously and have a true passion for whatever it is they are reviewing.”

Other publishers are participating with a bit more skepticism as it’s still too early to evaluate what the true impact on sales these programs will have. Paul Kozlowski, Director of Field Sales at Random House commented that publishers are experimenting with ARC’s because they’re scared of losing sales if the programs do end up working. Anecdotally at least, he thinks consumer reviews are very important online since “the consumer responds most to the closest point of purchase.”

Traditionally, an ARC’s impact is notoriously hard to measure. Brian O’Leary, a consultant with Magellan Media, recently conducted research for a publisher on how to quantify marketing efforts which included analyzing the cost effectiveness of ARC’s. On top of the average $2.75 to $4 it costs to produce each ARC, publishers have to factor in the cost of mailing envelopes, letters, and releases, and shipping involved in pushing it (and often the final book once it’s published) out into the standard “universe of influentials,” the 400-500 professional reviewers and hundreds of other industry “big mouths” around the country.

Without an accurate measurement mechanism to track how many reviews result from sending ARC’s, O’Leary noted, there’s only anecdotal evidence that the system even works. Rosetta Solutions recently launched net Galley, a digital ARC delivery program that, if reviewers of all varieties respond to it, offers publishers the elusive data they’re looking for to keep tabs on pre-pub buzz.

With an ARC giveaway program at a site that includes consumer reviews, however, results can be better tracked since most, but not all, readers post their reviews of a title in the same place that gave it to them as doing so increases their chance of getting a free book the next time. Citizen reviewers revealed not only their eagerness to receive free books, but their willingness uphold their end of the bargain at Amazon’s new Project Vine. The program features six titles of different categories from six publishers. Reviews coming from Vine are clearly marked with “Customer review from the Amazon Vine Program” on the product page. Two weeks after publication of The Year of Living Biblically (S&S), over 115 reviews showed up on Amazon and all but a few came from Voices. Run by Ann Patchett (HC) received similar numbers. HC Sales reports that Vine added momentum to the title’s launch. Amazon spokesperson Tammy Hovey declined to cite how many copies were requested and sent, saying instead that the program “has been well received since its launch and continues to grow.”

Barnes & Noble shipped 1,000 copies of Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff as its first title in the First Look Book Club in September. In addition to receiving ARC’s, readers can also chat with the author who makes online appearances at BN’s Book Clubs. When the title comes out in February, Groff will return to the Book Clubs to talk about the novel with a wider audience. BN editors choose the featured title and publishers don’t pay a fee to participate. “[It’s] a way of building word of mouth—and ultimately sales—for books that warrant the attention of the marketplace,” said Kevin Ryan, VP of Content Development at BN.com.

Shelfari remains coy about plans to start an ARC giveaway program, perhaps waiting to see how its minority investor, Amazon, does with Project Vine. “Lots of people have approached us about setting one up,” says Dave Hanley, VP Marketing at Shelfari. “Right now, we’re encouraging publishers and authors to interact directly with users, to access groups about specific genres or topics.” The other popular bookshelf social network, GoodReads, is taking a similar approach as of now, encouraging authors and publishers to mingle with the site’s members à la MySpace bands. Both sites are ramping up formal initiatives to get readers and authors talking.

Readers Love to Win, & Publishers Hope They Buy Too

In its October batch, LibraryThing sent out 31 eclectic titles from 12 publishers that included novels from established authors such as RH’s Amy Bloom and Lisa See, DK’s illustrated Lincoln: The Presidential Archives, practical health books from DiaMedica and Hunter House, and self-published titles from Nimble Books. When the ERG closed for requests on October 12th, LibraryThing’s blog reported there had been 8,369 requests for 578 available copies. The most popular titles were Do Not Open (DK, 11/07) with 611 requests and Every Last Cuckoo (Algonquin, 2/08) with 573.

As soon as the requesting window closed and email notifications were sent to the winners, joy, speculation, and jealousy spread not only in the comments section at LibraryThing’s blog, but on personal blogs and other reading-centric sites across the web. Multiple commenters wondered why they weren’t chosen to get an ARC this round while some “winners” claimed they were picked due to their track record of superior reviews. Once the ARCs began arriving, some commenters lamented how far they lived from the shipping source and others reported reading the other titles in an author’s oeuvre ahead of time to write a more informed review.

Perhaps best summing up the enthusiasm of “chosen” readers is Literate Housewife (www.literatehousewife.wordpress.com), a blogger who was selected for both LibraryThing’s ERG and Barnes & Noble’s First Look Book Club. “Today, my free advanced reading copy arrived! I cannot tell you how excited I am!” she writes. After receiving her ARC of Lauren Goff’s Monsters of Templeton from BN, she posted a 983 word review on her personal blog, a link to buy the book at BN, and a link to Goff’s site as well as this note to BN at the end of the post: “Thank you Barnes and Noble for providing me with an Advance Reading Copy of this book. Your First Look Book Club is an incredible opportunity.”

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] In 2007, we wrote about a new book publicity trend: ARC giveaway programs, in which publishers provide early copies of books to citizen reviewers through book sites or their own sites. Two years later, these programs have grown quite a bit. Details on a few: [...]

  2. By An Honor : literatehousewife.com on July 5, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    [...] latest trend in providing ARC (Advance Reading Copy) to the general public has been published in this month’s issue of PublishingTrends.com, a marketing newsletter for the publishing industry.  Over the past year, publishers have been [...]

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