Flogging smelly, soiled, radioactive copies of other people's books on Amazon seemed like a great way to market my own one. But it wasn't
March 1, 2009

Would you buy a bile damaged, snot encrusted, radioactive novel that's been dropped down the toilet, has the wrong cover, blank pages and holes drilled through it? Many people would—and did—as I discovered when I tried out ambush marketing techniques to boost sales of my short story collection on Amazon.

My book, Sawn Off Tales, had been out a couple of months but hadn't become the bestselling phenomenon I had dreamed of. There's an area on Amazon called the marketplace where anyone can sell books. As I had a few copies lying around the house, I offered to sell them signed. I sold a few, and as a treat I gave each buyer a free gift. Initially these were magazines that contained a few of my short stories. But I soon began to run out of free magazines and looked around the house for other stuff to offer. There were plenty of books I didn't want any more, so I decided to offer The Kite Runner free with my next sale.

It was then I hit upon what I thought was a brilliant if devious plan to boost sales. Which was the free gift after all: Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner or David Gaffney's Sawn Off Tales? It didn't matter. The deal was the same either way and as The Kite Runner page on Amazon got much more traffic than mine, I chose to sell The Kite Runner with a free copy of my book. The marketplace listing would also act as an advert; even if people didn't purchase my second-hand copy of The Kite Runner, they might look at my book's Amazon page, read the reviews and perhaps even buy one. The final touch was my seller's name: "buy-sawn-off-tales-by-David-Gaffney." I made sure my copy of The Kite Runner was the cheapest. This ensured it was at the top of the list and that every visitor to the page saw my seller's name.

But five minutes later my copy of The Kite Runner was sold, which meant my little ad was gone. If this viral marketing strategy was to work I had to keep my listing up as long as possible. And to maximise the traffic, it needed to be connected to bestselling books. So I identified the top 20 fiction sellers on Amazon, bought a copy of each and put them up for sale, trying to ensure that mine was both the cheapest and—crucially—that no one in their right mind would actually buy the book I was offering, thus maximising my advertisement's time on the page.

To give you a sample of the adverts I used: "QI: The Book of General Ignorance. £4.50. Dropped down toilet so still damp and a bit smelly. Free sample of David Gaffney's hilarious Sawn Off Tales with every purchase." And: "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian £3.00. Book stored on pig farm so strong odour of animal feed." (I was now offering only a sample of my book—a few pages—as I couldn't afford to send out a free book each time.)

Surely, I thought, no one would buy books described in this way? Yet they snapped them up within minutes. Copies of The Book of General Ignorance (loose pages and in the wrong order) and A Short History of Tractors (porridge stains and a corner chewed off by the dog) sold like hot cakes and soon I was stuffing books into envelopes at a financial loss of about £2 each time.

Supplying the books was difficult enough. However, another worry soon arose: did the buyer expect them to arrive in the state I had described them, and would they be disappointed when pristine copies turned up? Should I be spilling milk on them, ripping out pages and finding dogs to chew them? The other problem was that every time I sold one, the advert disappeared from Amazon, so the whole purpose of my plan was defeated and I had to list them all again.

I upped the ante. I would make the next set of books so undesirable that no one in their right mind would want one. I published several ads with the following descriptions: "Cheap ink used in this edition causes headaches and comas in pets"; "Printing error means every page printed with image of Bruce Forsyth"; "Bile damaged from colostomy bag"; "Blood stains on cover and inside from bedroom fight." "From abattoir staff room. Some gristle and meat may still be present." "Has had eye-holes drilled through for comedy spy prop"; "Ex-nuclear plant library stock. Checked, safe caesium level, no polonium"—and finally: "Rodent attack leaves just one page readable but it's a good one."

But still they sold! I even took to writing "please, please don't buy this book, buy the one below," but it didn't work. What could I do next? I had the addresses of all the people I'd sold to. I contemplated visiting each buyer and offering a free reading of my book in their living room, or ringing them up and reading them stories down the phone. One-to-one personalised marketing might just be the way for new writers to get noticed, I told myself.

In the end, though, I was forced to a different, and more obvious, conclusion: I should just write a better book.