While the question of whether offering free e-books will lead customers to buy more books continues as a hot industry topic, Kensington Publishing is utilizing targeted promotions offering free one-week downloads of e-book releases to push the sales of digital and print titles as well as attract readers to first-time authors.

Alexandra Nicolajsen, executive assistant to Kensington publisher Steve Zacharius, also oversees Kensington’s promotional e-book program, and she is enthusiastic about the program’s results. “Kensington has been testing a variety of new ways to promote e-books to see if we can not only increase revenue from their sale but also increase sales of physical books,” Nicolajsen said. She credits a free download promotion in late June of Mary Jo Putney’s Loving a Lost Lord—her first book after a long hiatus—as well as “great reviews” with helping to push the print edition onto bestseller lists in July.

In August, the house offered one-week free downloads of bestselling author Richelle Mead’s Thorn Queen, a $6.99 Zebra mass market paperback original, and it immediately became one of the top 10 downloads in the Kindle store. Nicolajsen said the free download of Thorn Queen, the second book in Mead’s Dark Swan series, has pushed sales of backlist e-books across all of Mead’s series. She said sales of the e-book edition of Storm Born, the first book in the Dark Swan series, increased over 2,000%, and noted that Thorn Queen remains among the Kindle’s top downloads despite the end of the free download promotion.

The house added new free promotions in September, among them Charlie Carillo’s Raising Jake and Shobhan Bantwal’s The Sari Shop Widow, both $15 trade paperbacks. So far, e-book sales of Bantwal’s 2008 novel, The Forbidden Daughter, her first book with Kensington, have increased 4,500%, Nicolajsen said. In addition, a free download of Michael Walsh’s Hostile Intent, a $6.99 Pinnacle mass market release, was “the number one download on Kindle within 24 hours of its being posted,” said Nicolajsen, who added the Walsh promotion “absolutely” helped e-book sales of other political thrillers on the Pinnacle list. “We’ve seen an increase in sales for several other Pinnacle [e-book] titles due to the increased visibility of this title,” she said, claiming titles that had been available for months registered a spike in sales after the Walsh promotion.

Kensington has about 1,000 e-book titles available, and each month the house adds about 30 frontlist and about five backlist titles to its digital publishing program. Although the program focuses on frontlist, backlist titles are added “by request,” said Nicolajsen; Kensington publishes about 450 frontlist titles a year and has a backlist of about 5,000 titles.

Kensington continues to experiment with its digital program; it is offering exclusive digital content, like short stories added to the paid e-book release, as well as free downloads, “buy one get one free” promotions and traditional merchandising deals through e-retailers that offer feature spots on the main e-book title page and e-mail newsletter blasts to customers. “Our e-book business is growing exponentially every month,” she said, adding, “We’re looking for next year’s e-book sales to beat this year’s by a large margin.” Kensington offers e-books in ePub, Microsoft Reader, Adobe and MobiPocket formats.

Nicolajsen said that while she’s excited to see devices like the new Sony wireless reader available in the marketplace, she emphasized that “Kindle is tops” when it comes to digital sales. While sales of e-books for the iPhone and other phones and devices are rising, she said, “I don’t see people reading whole books on the iPhone. Maybe chapters. It’s hard to imagine the Kindle getting knocked off the top, but all of this is so new. We’re very curious to see what happens with e-books over the holidays.”