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The Art of the Free Sample
Contributors: Steve O'Keefe

If you've created something that's easily distributable over the Internet, be it as humble as a single image, or as weighty as a book, you could give all or part of it away as a free sample. Why you might consider this, and how you would go about it is the focus of this article. Although Steve O'Keefe uses the example of an author to illustrate 'the art of the free sample', Steve's advice applies equally to many creative areas.

Getting it right

Using a free sample as a sales tool dates back to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve couldn't resist the apple, and neither can we. That's why the giveaway has become almost cliché in Internet marketing. It's one of the most effective ways to promote books online.

The trick to free samples is reaching a large audience without angering online authorities. A botched campaign on the Internet can lead to a steady stream of flaming e-mail. On commercial services such as America Online and CompuServe, you must satisfy forum moderators who can remove your postings or revoke your access. The following tips will help you structure a giveaway campaign that will reflect well on your company and keep you in the good graces of the net cops.


Almost any book can benefit from a giveaway campaign. For fiction, the best approach is to offer a sample chapter. You want to pick a passage that contains the strongest writing, pulling people into the story so that they need to know what happens next. For poetry, pick powerful poems or ones that represent a cross-section of the poet's style.

Non-fiction books lend themselves to free resource lists of tips or instructions. Try to sculpt the sample so that readers will want the in-depth information found only in the book. For example, I crafted a campaign for a book on building-related illness that offered a sample chapter on how buildings make you sick. The text is compelling, and almost any reader would want to know how to prevent the trauma described.

The length of the giveaway is not critical. About ten pages of text is typical. Non-fiction resource lists are often much shorter. Fiction excerpts can be quite a bit longer; readers will hang in there if they like the writing.

Content is a bigger issue than length. You should try to pick something geared toward the Internet audience. Look for passages that deal with computers or business. Cyber-fiction and science fiction work well. Anything that helps people in their careers is good. Other popular subjects include sex, health and pop culture -- anything that a youthful, business-minded audience would find interesting.


Care must be taken to prepare the giveaway for electronic delivery. First, be sure that your sample contains instructions on how to buy the book. You can include phone and fax numbers, your mailing address and Internet address, the names of distributors, wholesalers, and retailers, how to order the book online, even contact names for media or rights inquiries.

The next step is to save the file as text. This will allow you to distribute the file to the greatest number of people with the fewest technical headaches. When you save as text, you lose all your formatting commands: bold, italics, tabs, large point sizes, etc. You should view the file before launching it to make sure it looks decent.


You are now ready to place the file online where people can view it or download it. Your Internet Service Provider may provide an FTP directory where you can store files. Otherwise, ask sympathetic people on the net if you can put files on their sites. You might find ones that cater to science fiction fans or cooks or gardeners, etc.

America Online and CompuServe allow members to upload files into libraries located in each of the special interest forums. You need to find an appropriate forum, then look in the library for uploading instructions. It's a good idea to print these instructions for future reference.

Both America Online and CompuServe welcome member contributions and even credit your account for the time it takes to upload files. Before you upload, you need to think of a catchy name for your file (eight letters or less is best) and write some teaser copy telling people what the file contains and why they would want to read it. The teaser copy will be stored as an abstract that people view before downloading the file.

On America Online and CompuServe, the file will be checked for viruses and content before being placed in the library. It might take as long as two weeks for the library administrator to release the file. If they reject it, you can rework the file to fit their criteria or look for a more hospitable forum.

When the file appears in the library, view it yourself to make sure there are no technical problems. Sometimes the line endings are messed up. Technical difficulties are usually caused by not saving the file as text before uploading. If something is wrong with the file, ask the library administrator to remove it and try again.


Now that your file is ready for prime time, you can tell the world about it. On the Internet, you can post messages to discussion groups telling people how to get the free sample. Your announcements should be short and sweet and only posted to groups that have a strong interest in the material.

One newcomer to the net posted his financial services announcement to a cancer support group reasoning that these people would need estate planning. I don't have to tell you his posting came off as callous and insensitive. He should have stuck to the financial discussion groups.

On America Online and CompuServe, look for special interest forums where your announcement should be welcome. Forum moderators will remove announcements if they sound too commercial, so keep the ad copy in the giveaway file and stress the free sample in your postings.


The useful life of a free sample is about 10 days. Most people either download it right away or forget about it. The commercial online services will remove your excerpt after one month, possibly burying it in an archive before purging it from the system.

You can extend the life of your free samples by offering them via e-mail. You might include a line in your "signature" that says something like: "Top Ten Tips for Business Success: Send E-mail for Free Sample." The signature file is appended to all outgoing e-mail and Internet postings. When you get a request, simply attach the giveaway file to your reply.


It may be that you feel somewhat uncomfortable about giving something away for nothing. Don't. How much you give away will often correspond to what you get back...

Authors background

Steve O'Keefe is a prolific writer. He has edited six newsletters and has written more than 100 articles and several books. His writing has appeared in Harper's, The Wall Street Journal, Outside, Salon, HotWired, NetWorth, Entrepreneur, Curio, and dozens of other magazines. He was one of the original writers for Internet World magazine, a columnist for the COSMEP Newsletter, and a frequent contributor to Small Press, PMA Newsletter, SPAN Connection, and other publishing periodicals.

Steve's writing has been anthologized in several books, including Publicity Basics, by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. His latest book is Complete Guide to Internet Publicity (John Wiley & Sons, 2002-2007), the successor to the critically acclaimed 'bestseller', Publicity on the Internet (Wiley, 1996).

Contact Information
Steve O'Keefe
Adjunct Faculty, Tulane University College
Executive Director, Patron Saint Productions, Inc.
741 Saint Philip St. #241, New Orleans, LA 70116 USA
Voice: (504) 586-9517 Fax: (504) 586-9518
Web Site:

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