One of the most surprising pieces of advice that self-published authors get these days is that to sell books, they should start by giving away books. Offering free copies of one’s new releases via a contest on Goodreads, as well as social media channels and new sites like Rafflecopter, has become one of the most popular and effective ways for writers to get the word out about a book.

But, before going online to start handing out freebies, an author should keep a few tips in mind to ensure her investment of time and tomes goes as far as possible:

1. Set Clear Goals

Before getting started, determine what exactly you hope to gain from holding a contest to give away books. There are two main benefits that an author should be aiming for: wider awareness and reader reviews.

When it comes to generating wider awareness, Goodreads is your best bet, since users are going to the site specifically to learn about new books. The increasingly popular giveaway site Rafflecopter is worth considering as well, but targets a more general audience, making it a bit more difficult to ensure book buyers are the ones entering the contest.

“You want to get people to add your book to their shelves,” says Patrick Brown, director of author marketing for Goodreads. “Adding it and marking it as ‘to read’ is almost a mini advertisement for your book to them and also all the friends who see it in their feeds.”

While building this kind of awareness is a baseline goal, ultimately authors should be aiming to get reader reviews published on Goodreads, Amazon, and elsewhere from those who won the contest. Earning a number of positive reviews a few weeks before the book even publishes can be highly valuable during the early promotion period when a book first comes out.

Brown makes the analogy of a pair of restaurants opening on the same day. A passerby is more likely to enter the place that’s crowded (i.e. the book that’s already garnered a few reviews) than the empty one.

2. Timing is Key

Of course, to get these reviews lined up in time for them to make the greatest impact, an author has to get started on his contest early. Here are a few rules of thumb when it comes to timing:

  • Launch the contest two to three months ahead of the book’s official publication date. This ensures plenty of time for winners to receive, read, and review the book.
  • Let the contest run long enough for plenty of people to enter. Brown puts that at between two weeks and a month, which gives enough time for users to find the giveaway organically or from friends.
  • But don’t run a contest for longer than a month, since after that point, people may forgot they entered the contest at all.
  • Another interesting tip from Brown: Run a contest on random days of the month. A disproportionate number of promotions begin on the first and end on the last day of the month, so running it from, for example, the 9th to the 27th gives an author’s book a better chance to stand out from the crowd.
  • Send winners their books immediately. Tardiness in getting the copies out could annoy the recipient, and lower the chance they will read and positively review the book.

3. Play the Numbers Game

When deciding how many books to give away in a given contest, remember: five is good, but 10 or 20 is better, and one is probably not worth doing at all. Like any numbers game, the more books made available, the more likely readers will want to enter the contest, and the higher chance that those who win the book will review it.

“You should give away as many as you think you can afford,” says Brown.

To extend the reach of the contest, authors should be sure to promote it on every platform they use -- Twitter, Facebook, author blogs, and anywhere else. Goodreads also offers targeted advertising, and for $50 or $100, authors can get their promotion in front of the readers of books similar to their own.

While pre-publication contests are likely to be the most impactful, authors can boost their chances of getting reviews and growing word of mouth by holding additional giveaways at strategic times after the publication date.

For example, if you’ve written a gift book, consider holding a giveaway a month or two ahead of the holidays. If your book is on the romantic side, run a giveaway in the lead up to Valentine’s Day.

Alex Palmer is a freelance journalist and the author of Weird-o-Pedia.