Unfortunately, I think a lot of existing IF isn't what the average reader is looking for. The characters and conflicts (such as they are in many IF titles) don't interest them, and learning to play requires too much effort, too many unfamiliar elements.
Do we dumb it down? Cater to fans of popular genres? Most of us would die a bit inside at the prospect of typing KISS EDWARD into a Twilight IF fanfic. On the other hand, while I won't touch anything by Stephenie Meyer, I would definitely read an interactive young-adult vampire romance by Emily Short, because it would have complex characters with interesting interactions.
But let's say we have a new "IF-lite" title that's catchy and reasonably easy to get into. How do we get readers to it?
I think we can learn a bit from some other one-man creative enterprises with free or cheap products: webcomics, online novelists, and indie video game developers. The good ones all do a reasonable job of promoting their works on limited budgets.
For example, indie gamers usually have a dedicated website or page for screenshots, videos, demo downloads, freebies, etc. Some examples would be yofrankie.org, afistfulofcows.com, and fiveminutemmorpg.com. Graphic novelists have the same sort of thing: wormworldsaga.com, and sevenextraordinarythings.com. The better online novelists' pages tend to be less visual, but still professional: davidwellington.net, craphound.com. Aaron Reed’s lacunastory.com is a start, but most IF writer websites look like they were designed by, well, writers.
Digital delivery is a powerful thing, but it's hard to download "feelies," the physical objects that allured players to buy golden-age IF titles. However, we can offer similar enticements digitally. For example, James Patterson's young-adult Maximum Ride and Witch & Wizard series launched free iPhone apps that allow readers to take pictures "with" characters from the books, create wanted posters, and do personality quizzes, as well as read the first few chapters. Some iPhone CYOA titles have unlockable art. Echo Bazaar encourages social networking, and thus word-of-mouth/link. The right kind of IF game could incorporate a worldwide high score board, alternate reality gaming elements, or digitally tradeable aids and items — creating a sense of community and joint exploration.
At the very least, we need good cover art. A quick search showed that most indie/free novels have pretty sad cover designs, so we're not alone, but readers do judge books by their covers, and if ours don’t even have one, or it’s clip art...
Most IF titles also lack a good tagline or dust jacket blurb. We're not short on interesting and unique concepts, but we need to hook readers with them when they're browsing an IF database or a writer's website.
The last time I was in an airport, I saw "trailers" for new novels playing on screens at the bookstore. They were mostly slide shows or details of the cover art, with title cards and a voice-over, but held my attention with audio/visual while pitching the book’s idea. I think there’s something to be learned there for promoting IF as well, even if it was just a good animated banner ad or something.
Perhaps because of my background in advertising, a lot of these ideas use artwork. Graphics require hiring an illustrator or graphic designer, and maybe a web designer. But the aforementioned developers and writers budget for that, and IF like Floatpoint and Everybody Dies definitely benefits from having professional-quality illustrations.
For the time being, interactive fiction is a non-paying market (with a few exceptions). But there are thousands of game developers, filmmakers, webcomic artists, novelists, bloggers, podcasters, composers, and entertainers that offer a free digital product, but promote it like they were selling it. They believe in their medium, and they're shooting for something bigger (a contract, living off ad and book sales, etc.). Interactive fiction has some of the most enthusiastic enthusiasts, but we need to convey that excitement to new readers if we're to entice them.
[A while back, Jim Aikin asked about how to entice and reward players of IF. This post is my thoughts on enticing, and I hope to write more on rewarding in a later post.]