I recently had a lengthy email exchange with a writing friend who asked me if I had any tips or suggestions regarding preorder campaigns, and I realized this information might be useful to a lot of writers. So here I am, sharing what I’ve learned after running several preorder campaigns of my own. Please keep in mind that there are many ways to run these campaigns. These are simply my suggestions, based on what has worked for me.
What is a preorder campaign?
It’s basically an incentivized call to action, encouraging readers to preorder your book before it comes out. If they do, they then submit certain info to you (the author), and you reward them with various goodies—swag, bonus digital content, maybe even a big-ticket item. (more on this later)
Do preorder campaigns work? Are they worthwhile?
Yes, they work, in the sense that they encourage people to preorder your book and earn you a few sales. Are they worthwhile? I’m not sure. The truth of the matter is that they are a ton of work. Unless you’re a bigwig (whose publisher is organizing the campaign on your behalf, footing all the bills, collecting all the responses, and shipping out all the swag), you will be shelling out a lot of your own money, not to mention, sacrificing lots of time. But still, every preorder is a sale! Get enough preorders, and your publisher might have to up your first print run! At the very least, they’ll see how dedicated and hard-working you are.
Also, when people talk about the preorder campaign on social media, your book is reaching new audiences. When readers who receive a swag pack snap a shot and post it on insta, it helps build buzz. Preorder campaigns aren’t just about selling books. You have to think about them as marketing tools, too. Case in point: someone might see the preorder campaign and not enter, but they may go on to buy the book later because of all the buzz the campaign helped build. It’s really hard to know exactly what effect the campaign will have on your actual sales numbers.
That said, I’ve reached a point where I always end up running one because I know that if I don’t, and the book ended up underperforming, I’ll beat myself up with, “If you’d done a preorder campaign it might have made a difference!”
TL;DR: If you have the time and money, I think preorder campaigns are worth a try. (Try everything once, right?)
My suggested preorder campaign do’s and don’ts:
DO leverage the tiered approach
- Have tiers of prizes, with everyone getting the smallest level simply for entering, and extra winners (drawn randomly after the campaign ends) receiving the bigger goodies.
- Tier 1: Everyone who preorders gets a small, easy-to-mail prize swag pack
- Tier 2: 5-15 randomly drawn winers get an extra goodie in addition to the swag pack
- Tier 3: 1 grand-prize winner, drawn randomly post-campaign, gets The Big Prize (eg: a prize pack themed around your book, gift card, kindle fire, etc)
- The benefit to tiers is everyone is guaranteed something, but The Big Prize really incentivizes people to enter.
- Lastly, Tier 2 isn’t as important and it can be cut given your budget needs. The key takeaway here is: small tier goodies for all, top tier Big Prize for one.
DO make sure the first tier contains flat, small swag
- I’m going to repeat that: FLAT, SMALL SWAG. If you listen to nothing else in this post, please take this one piece of advice to heart. It will save you money. How? If your swag pack fits into a standard #10 business envelope and is flat, it can be shipped with a forever stamp. When your envelope isn’t flat, it becomes a “package” (and must be hand-sorted), resulting in shipping rates that will drown you.
- Content possibilities for this tier: signed bookplates, bookmarks, stickers, postcard, laptop decals, etc
- You can also consider adding digital content to this tier, as it can be easily emailed and won’t up your costs. (eg: a deleted scene, bonus short story/novella, etc)
DO have fun with the upper tiers
- The more you can personalize the upper tiers to fit with your book, the better. A kindle is a cool prize. It’s even better if it comes loaded with three books in the same genre as your book, for instance.
- Content possibilities for this tier: cover prints, notebooks, pins, candy, bracelets/jewelry, gift cards, pre-loaded kindle, books/movies on theme with your book, a chance for the reader’s name to be featured in a future book, etc. The options are endless! (Just keep your budget in mind)
DO make the campaign international*
- *If your budget allows it, I highly suggest keeping the campaign open to ALL readers. (more on budget below)
- International campaigns drive more people to participate, and the more preorders, the better. (For reference, in my last preorder campaign, about a third of my entries were from international readers)
DON’T over-complicate the entry process
- You don’t want entering to be a chore for readers. Make it as simple and painless as possible. Ideally, there should be two steps: 1) preorder the book and 2) submit your info
- Let readers preorder from anywhere—Amazon, B&N, their indie, etc, and let them preorder whatever format they prefer (hardcover or ebook)
- Decide if you want to require proof-of-purchase
- In the past, I have required POP only if the reader wins a runner-up or grand prize pack. That means I shipped first tier prizes on the honor system. It made it easy for readers to enter and made my life easier because I didn’t have to sift through tons of receipts.
- For my upcoming book, my first tier is going to include a digital novella (which I consider kind of a big-ish gift), so I will be asking people to email me their POP as part of the entry process
- Long story short: Most people are good and aren’t going to lie. Honor system works well, especially if they must share POP for a big prize later.
DO use Google forms to collect entries
- Google forms are life-savers. They are easy to build, can be embedded on your website, and then all submissions will feed into a spreadsheet for your convenience. (Never used them? Here’s a how-to)
- Data I suggest collecting:
- Reader’s email (in case you need to contact them with a question)
- Readers name + mailing address (have them format this exactly as it should appear on an envelope)
- That’s it. (Unless of course you’re collecting POP, in which case, remind them on the form to email that to you.)
DO keep all the preorder info in one place and DON’T be vague about details
- Make a dedicated page or blog post on your website and keep ALL information there.
- I suggest the following format for the page/post:
- A list of what readers can win (the tiered goodies we already discussed)
- Directions for how to enter (and when they must enter by)
- The embedded google form
- If you need to answer questions/clarify information, update this one page and always direct readers here
- I always summarize the campaign rules again (in tiny font) at the very bottom of my preorder campaign page
- Check out the old Vengeance Road or Retribution Rails preorder campaign posts for a visual example.
- I’ll have a Retribution Rails preorder campaign kicking off in the coming months and will link it here once its live as another example.
Final things to consider:
Your preorder campaign should double as a promotional tool. Even if someone doesn’t enter, you want news of the campaign to pop up on their feeds and simply remind them that the book is coming out. Most marketing and promo efforts are reserved for the last four months before pub. For this reason, I suggest kicking the campaign off no earlier than 4 months to pub, but no later than 1 month to pub. Honestly, the sweet spot is about 2-3 months before release.
When budgeting for a preorder campaign there are two things to consider: the cost to purchase your swag AND the cost of mailing.
- Cost of swag: This will vary depending on what you chose to order and in what quantity. Look at your budget and determine how much you are willing to spend. Remember that swag can be used at events/appearances if you have some left over after the preorder campaign.
- Mailing: As I type this (April 2017), a domestic forever stamp is 49¢ and a global forever stamp is $1.15. Not too shabby, but you can imagine how this can quickly add up. (Make sure those first tier goodies fit in a flat envelope, TRUST ME!). Your upper tier packages will naturally cost more, but you can use this USPS price calculator to guesstimate shipping fees to various destinations. (Remember, if your package is small but heavy, flat rate boxes are your best bet!)
Here’s a rough breakdown my Vengeance Road preorder campaign costs:
- 250 Bookplates: $95
- 520 Stickers: $120
- 1000 Bookmarks: $45
- Cover prints: $10
- Grand-Prize goodies: $60
- Mailing: $120
- Grand Total: $450
111 people entered the campaign. My grand-prize winner was in the US, so that package wasn’t too awful to ship, and about 1/3 of my entrants were outside the US, so most of my first tier envelopes only required a standard forever stamp (49¢). If you use my budget as a guide, please keep in mind that I tend to wait to order swag until there are sales at my printing vendors. Also, I have a background in design, so I don’t have any designer fee costs.
I actually spent a lot more than $450 promoting Vengeance Road because I also ran a street team that year. (I dropped thousands, folks. It wasn’t fun.). But since I’m only doing a preorder campaign for Retribution Rails, I’ve looked at my budget and determined that I can stretch it a bit farther. This means readers will have a shot at things like laptop decals, postcards, and tote bags later this year. Currently, my estimated costs for the Retribution Rails campaign is $800.
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Rough breakdown my Retribution Rails preorder campaign costs:
- 1000 Bookmarks: $65
- 1000 Quote Cards (500 of each design): $65
- 400 Bookplates: $90
- 720 Stickers: $115
- 350 Laptop Decals: $250
- 6 Tote Bags: $100
- Grand-Prize goodies: $40
- Mailing: $250
- Grand Total: $975
This was my most successful preorder campaign to date, with 342 entries. 72 of those entries were international. My randomly drawn runner-up and grand-prize winners were all the US (save for 1 Canada reader), so shipping wasn’t terrible. I think the e-novella I provided was the real draw for this campaign, hence the high numbers. (For reference, Contagion had physical swag only and it drew 150 entries.) Because the number of entries was higher than I ever imagined, I went over my budget by almost $200. That said, overwhelming entries is a good problem to have.
Rough breakdown my Contagion preorder campaign costs:
- 1000 Bookmarks: $50
- 1000 Quote Cards: $55
- 400 Bookplates: $0 (Provided by Publisher)
- 270 Stickers: $90
- Grand-Prize goodies: $50
- Mailing: $150
- Grand Total: $395
Contagion pulled in 153 preorder entries, with roughly a third being international. Again, I believe the underperformance when compared to RR is due to the lack of a free, digital story/novella. My randomly drawn grand-prize winner had a US address, which saved me a bit on shipping. I’ve also found that I don’t seem to use designed bookplates much after a launch (whereas other physical swag I continue to hand out), so instead of designing a special Contagion-themed bookplate for this campaign, I reached out to Harper and asked if they could send me some of their own. Luckily, they agreed, and my wallet was grateful.
Budgeting is the trickiest aspect of the whole campaign, because you never know how many people will enter. If you are concerned about managing costs, I have two suggestions:
- Option 1: Cap the campaign (eg: The first 100 people to preorder will get… ). Once you get that many entries, you close the form. The obvious down-side to this is that some readers may end up unable to enter.
- Option 2: Offer swag only while supplies last. I did this with my Vengeance Road preorder campaign. (Again, it can be viewed here.) I had a thousand bookmarks, but only 250 bookplates. I didn’t run out of anything, but had I, the wording on my original post made it clear that the sooner readers submitted their entries, the better chance they had of receiving the complete swag pack. It also guaranteed that I wouldn’t have to reorder swag and shell out more money if I ran of a certain item.
Real talk: I am a solidly mid-list author and I had what I like to consider substantial buzz for VR, but I still only had 111 pre-orders via my campaign. I’m not scoffing at that number. 111 sales is 111 sales. But the book’s overall performance puts the preorder campaign to shame. (Remember what I said about being uncertain if preorder campaigns are worth the effort?) I feel like the campaign was definitely worthwhile in adding to the buzz. Did the initiative earn me hundreds of pre-orders? No, clearly. Was it worth $450? I’m not sure. But people purchased VR via many avenues, as my overall sales have shown, and I’m doing another preorder campaign for RR, so I haven’t written them off entirely. ;) Besides, they are a fun way to reward your super fans with goodies (and the super fans are the ones who typically enter these things).
Lastly, some thoughts for debut authors:
I’ve had more participation in my preorder campaigns with each book I’ve published, which I think is a result of steadily building my audience over the years. Because you’re competing with so many voices as a debut—and because readers don’t know you or if they’re a fan yet—it can be hard to capture people’s attentions. If you decide to run a campaign your debut year, I suggest running a simple one. A first tier of bookplate + bookmark, and a simple themed grand-prize package is probably plenty. Test the waters and see if you like it and the engagement you get.
If you decide to run another with your sophomoric novel, you’ll now have readers/fans and can consider bulking up what you offer. In my experience, digital content (like bonus scenes from previous novels), have a greater draw the longer you’ve been in the game.