I have Lisa Unger, Laura Lippman, and Alafair Burke to thank for the information and inspiration behind this post.

People who work in, around, or near the book business know that preorders are important. Assuming that most of you fit into that category, I’m not going to go into that here. Let’s just acknowledge that they are important. Often very important. For a bunch of reasons.

That said…

How to get consumers to preorder books is an ongoing conundrum for authors, publishers, and marketeers. We talk about it…we try different tactics…we look at the efficacy of things we try…but a conclusive answer is still elusive.

The only thing I know for sure works is having an author ask readers to preorder, but that seems…what? Too easy? Not snazzy enough? I’m not sure, but it definitely leaves me feeling like it’s not enough.

But when I look at it as a reader, one who preorders quite a few books each month, I’m left with one truth: No giveaway or contest has ever incited me to preorder a book. I don’t even both entering most of the preorder promotions for which I’m eligible. I preorder books when an author (or his or her marketing person) asks me to. I preorder when I want to support a particular author. And for the record, I preorder regardless of whether I get an advance copy of a book.

I’ve seen big contests—the prize for the preorder contest for IN THE BLOOD, Lisa Unger’s latest release, was an all-expenses paid trip to her release party in Florida and preorderers of Cara Black’s MURDER BELOW MONTPARNASSE could enter to win a trip to Paris—and smaller ones, with prizes like signed books. Character namings seem to be gaining in popularity as prizes too. I’ve seen unusual prizes, and contests that started long before a book’s release and those that lasted only the week or so before.

But I’ve never seen a preorder giveaway or contest that was a resounding success. (I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, just that if it has, I’m unaware of it.)

Which has led me to the conclusion that there is a relatively fixed group of people who preorder books, the size of which doesn’t change much over time, and reaching this group is as simple as making a request and providing links.

Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s important—crucial, even—to raise awareness of a title in advance of its release. I’m just not convinced that inciting preorders is the only or even most effective way to do this. I think asking your readers, via your website, newsletter, Facebook page and Twitter feed, to preorder is the most effective tactic you can employ to garner preorders.

The reality is that we live in an immediate-gratification society now more than ever, and people aren’t inclined to think so far ahead as to order a book months before its release. With one exception: ebooks.

Preordering ebooks is a different consumer experience, one that usually goes something like this: You click a button at the website of your vendor of choice, which costs you nothing more than a few seconds of your time. Then, you go on with your life, quite possibly forgetting completely that you ordered the book at all. On release day, the book magically appears on your reader, delivering with it a moment of delicious surprise (along with a deduction from your payment account, because this is the point at which you pay for the book).

That’s a neat moment for readers, that surprise of a new book from an author she likes enough to have bothered to preorder to begin with.

I think that moment is where the marketing key lies. Reminding folks who have experienced it, and telling those who haven’t about it.

How exactly one might go about doing that is the topic for another post…