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Flash sales turning unknowns into bestsellers

Flash sales, a concept popularized by the designer fashion site Gilt.com, have taken hold in the book business.

J. Emilio Flores/New York Times

Flash sales, a concept popularized by the designer fashion site Gilt.com, have taken hold in the book business.

One Sunday this month, the crime thriller “Gone, Baby, Gone,” by Dennis Lehane, sold 23 e-book copies, a typically tiny number for a book originally published in 1998 but faded into obscurity.

The next day, boom: It sold 13,071 copies.

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“Gone, Baby, Gone” had been designated as a Kindle Daily Deal on Amazon, and hundreds of ­thousands of readers had gotten ­e-mail 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, a ­concept popularized by the ­designer fashion site Gilt.com, have taken hold in the book business. Consumers accustomed to snapping up instant deals for items like baby clothes on 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, publisher of Sourcebooks. “For the consumer, it’s new, it’s interesting. It’s a deal and there isn’t much risk.”

Finding a book used to mean scouring the shelves at a bookstore, asking a bookseller for guidance, or relying on recommendations from friends. But bookstores are dwindling, leaving publishers with a deep worry about the future. With fewer brick-and-mortar options, how will readers discover books?

One-day discounts are part of the answer. Promotions like the Kindle Daily Deal from Amazon and Nook Daily Find from Barnes & Noble have produced extraordinary sales bumps for e-books, the kind that usually happen as a result of glowing book reviews or an author’s television appearances.

Websites like BookBub.com, founded last year, 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.”

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. Some newly released e-books cost $14.99, others $9.99, and still others $1.99.

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.

“In a world of abundance and lots of choice, how do we help people cut through?” Grandinetti said. He 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 last year, 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 by a retailer as a daily deal can be like winning the lottery, an instant windfall of sales and exposure.

In February, a crime novel by the little-known author Lorena McCourtney, released by the Christian publishing imprint Revell, was selected as a Nook Daily Find. The sales from that promotion were enough to propel it onto The New York Times best-seller list.

But part of the allure of flash sales is what can happen afterward: a ripple effect that increases sales on an author’s other work. If one book in a series is offered in a one-day promotion, readers who liked it will often buy others in the series.

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