Where Marketing, Mission, and Marijuana Meet

With all of the commotion surrounding the latest developments in digital publishing, there seems to be a shift away from the message of the content in favor of the platform on which it is to be read.

On any given day, the news over the publishing wire will be about a free book given away for marketing purposes, a video 'book trailer' with high production value and high hopes of becoming viral, or an announcement from a major publishing house of how they will be partnering with an equally major corporation to distribute their digital content.

When we at Chelsea Green decided to promote a non-traditional holiday ('4/20 Day' wherein the typical celebration involves smoking marijuana publicly) by giving away a free download of our backlist title Marijuana Is Safer, I thought we would be included on this list of publishing projects to hit the newswire and maybe sell some books at best. I couldn't have been more wrong: within 24 hours the book, hosted on Scribd, was read over 33,000 times and over 11,000 copies were downloaded. We purposefully decided to limit the free downloads to a 24-hour period, but were immediately slammed with disappointed readers when the promotion concluded. We extended the download window for another day and saw the number of reads hit close to 100,000. To date, the book (which is still available for full preview, but not to download) has been read over 113,000 times. Sales spiked, our website traffic was at its highest in months, it was a huge success for a small niche publisher in White River Junction, Vermont. And as author Steve Fox said 'This is in no way the end...' Chelsea Green and the authors intend to keep the long-form promotion going and to make a difference in the fight for the legalization of marijuana.

This wasn't your template marketing promotion, enveloped in a cold press release and pundit lingo. With our reputation for mission-based publishing and the 'sticking it to the man-ness' of the stunt, readers knew this free book wasn't just a tchotchke: this was a call to arms. We had three passionate authors, invested in the marijuana legalization movement: a cofounder of SAFER (Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation), the deputy director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), and the Director of State Campaigns for the Marijuana Policy Project. They reached out personally to every Facebook page, Twitter feed, MySpace group, and cause-minded Blog they could find. The buzz, pun intended, quickly spread.

The authors were not only were ready and willing to embrace this approach to promoting their book, but they were also encouraging those who did download the book to give it away, send it to their friends and family. The authors were actually encouraging people to copy and retransmit their copyrighted material. Their attitude, in part because they want to get their message to the public, was lock-step with foundational principles of the Internet: freedom, information and community. Having that attitude makes going viral easy. As the download numbers climbed, the feeling of connection to our audience was palpable, something which must be very exciting for an author - because there is nothing like holding a book reading and having 100,000 people show up.