One Sunday this month, the crime thriller “Gone, Baby, Gone,” by Dennis Lehane, sold 23 e-book copies, a typical number for a book in 1998 and since faded into obscurity.
The next day, boom: It sold 13,071 copies.
“Gone, Baby, Gone” had been designated as a Kindle Daily Deal on Amazon, and hundreds of thousands of readers had received an email notifying them of a 24-hour price cut, to $1.99 from $6.99. The instant bargain lit a fire under a dormant title.
Flash sales like that one have taken hold in the book business, a concept popularized by the designer-fashion site Gilt.com.
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Consumers accustomed to snapping up instant deals for items like vintage glassware on One Kings Lane or baby clothes on Seattle-based Zulily are now buying books the same way — and helping older books soar from the backlist to the best-seller list.
“It’s the Groupon of books,” said Dominique Raccah, the publisher of Sourcebooks. “For the consumer, it’s new, it’s interesting. It’s a deal and there isn’t much risk. And it works.”
With bookstores dwindling, publishers worry about how readers will discover books.
One-day discounts are part of the answer. Promotions like Amazon’s Kindle Daily Deal and the Nook Daily Find from Barnes & Noble have produced extraordinary sales bumps for e-books, the kind that usually happen as a result of glowing reviews or an author’s television appearances.
Websites like BookBub.com track and aggregate bargain-basement deals on e-books, alerting consumers about temporary discounts from retailers like Amazon, Apple, Kobo and Barnes & Noble.
“It makes it almost irresistible,” said Liz Perl, Simon & Schuster’s senior vice president for marketing. “We’re lowering the bar for you to sample somebody new.”
E-books are especially ripe for price experimentation. Without the list price stamped on the flap like their print counterparts, e-books have freed publishers to mix up prices and change them frequently.
Consumers are flocking to flash sales, said Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s vice president for Kindle content, because the deals whittle down the vast number of choices for reading and other forms of entertainment.
“In a world of abundance and lots of choice, how do we help people cut through?” he said. “People are looking for ways to offer their authors a megaphone, and we’re looking to build more megaphones.”
Grandinetti said one book, “1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die,” was selling, on average, less than one e-book a day on Amazon. After it was listed as a Kindle Daily Deal, it sold 10,000 copies in less than 24 hours.
Some titles have tripled that number: On a single day in December, nearly 30,000 people snapped up digital copies of “Under the Dome,” by Stephen King, a novel originally published in 2009 by Scribner.
For publishers and authors, having a book chosen as a daily deal can be like winning the lottery.
In February, a crime novel by the little-known Oregon author Lorena McCourtney was selected as a Nook Daily Find. The sales from that promotion were enough to put it on The New York Times best-seller list.
Part of the allure of flash sales is what can happen afterward: a ripple effect that increases sales on an author’s other work.
Jim Hilt, the vice president for e-books at Barnes & Noble’s Nook unit, said sales generally peak Wednesday and Thursday, when customers start planning for the weekend and thinking about which books they are going to read.
“Those are really good days to get the right piece of content in front of someone,” he said.
McCourtney said she was shocked to learn from her publisher in February that her most recent book, “Dying to Read,” was a best seller. “I had never made The New York Times best-seller list before, so I was delighted,” she said.