Nate Kenyon is one of our fastest growing new authors.  And out-of-the-box promo ideas such as this one help explain why. 

From his press release:

With 1,000 entries, ‘First Reader’ Contest Smashes Publishing Barriers

Newton, MA— Thirty years ago, it would have been unheard of for a publisher to ask a bookstore buyer what they thought of draft cover art or jacket copy. Now it’s done routinely. But writers and publishers rarely ask their real audience—the readers themselves—what they think about a book before the editing process is complete.

By partnering with powerhouse online book club DearReader.com to run an innovative “Be a First Reader” contest, award-winning author Nate Kenyon did just that—and received an avalanche of responses.

“It was sort of like a test screening in Hollywood, or product research in the business world,” Kenyon says. “I brought an early draft directly to my target audience, and they’re helping shape the final product months before it hits the shelves.”

As Kenyon was finishing the first draft of his fourth suspense novel for Leisure Books, SPARROW ROCK, he wanted “first readers” to give him feedback on the story. Rather than turn to family and friends, he thought Dear Reader, with its established fan base, would be a great place to find them. Why not make it fun?

With DearReader.com’s founder, Suzanne Beecher, on board, he worked bone-factoryup a simple contest: subscribers could email him for the chance to win a signed copy of his just-released novel, THE BONE FACTORY, and a manuscript copy of SPARROW ROCK. He would pick five names at random. The winners would get to read the new book before anyone–even his agent and editor. The twist was that Kenyon was looking for real feedback on the draft. He wanted to know what he did well and what didn’t work. He wanted honesty and–yes–some hard work.

Kenyon thought he might get a few dozen entries and a suggestion or two that would help him tighten up the book. But it ended up being so much more.

“I thought the idea was brilliant,” Beecher says. “My subscribers love to talk to authors and get an inside look at the publishing business, and this was closer than I’d ever seen them get before.”

Moments after the contest went live, the emails started pouring in. And they didn’t stop. After one week they were approaching 1,000 entries. But it was the nature of these emails that amazed Kenyon and Beecher. People sent their life stories; they wrote about their passionate love affair with books; about wanting to be a writer themselves, or an editor, or just get a glimpse into the writing process. They were begging to be involved.

“It was so heartwarming,” Kenyon says. “Writing is such a solitary business, you get so few chances to really experience how your work affects readers. But there was no ambiguity about this. I couldn’t keep up with the responses.”

Kenyon picked the names and sent the five winners an email, offering a PDF to start, since he was on a tight deadline. Two of them read the PDF he sent in a couple of hours. Their responses were far better and more perceptive than he had hoped for—they suggested adjustments in character, plot points, and tone, and one even caught a huge, yet subtle, technical error he had made.

The other three took closer to a week to read the draft—but it was worth the wait, Kenyon says. “I had pages of detailed feedback from all of them. One even line-edited the entire novel for me. I’m talking grammar, punctuation, everything. My editor at Leisure is fabulous, but this was like having five more sets of eyes. I wanted to deliver as clean a draft as possible, and this helped me do it.”

SPARROW ROCK will hit store shelves in May 2010. He has no doubt that it’s a much stronger book, due to Dear Reader’s help and the feedback he received from his first readers. But what’s stuck with him about the experience is the love and enthusiasm for the written word that they all shared.

“I’ve always thought of books as uniquely personal things,” Kenyon says. “But I don’t anymore. I just can’t express how shocked I am by this entire process. The passion that these readers expressed, their excitement and enthusiasm, and the very real and valuable feedback I’ve received so far has been priceless. I’ll be doing this for all my projects now–and my new ‘first readers’ will surely have a hand in how my stories turn out. It’s a brave new world out there for writers, readers and publishers–but it’s an exciting one.”

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