Building Audience With Box Sets

After my marketing post last month, I promised a follow up on box sets. In fact, I’ve gone one better and invited Phoenix Sullivan to do a guest post on the topic.

This post is from 22 April 2014. It has not been updated except to clean up broken links but the comments remain open. If you are looking for something fresher, head to the blog homepage.

For those that don’t know Phoenix, she’s a self-published author who also runs her own publishing company – Steel Magnolia Press – together with romance author Jennifer Blake. In the last 18 months, Phoenix has also been experimenting with box sets and, as you will see below, the results have been astounding.

I’ve known Phoenix for a while and no-one knows more about Amazon’s algorithms and marketing e-books. When she invited me to participate in a recent box set – along with bestselling authors Denise Domning, N. Gemini Sasson, Monique Martin, and Michael Wallace – I jumped at the chance.

Phoenix Sullivan: Thinking Inside The Box

March 2014 was a watershed month for Steel Magnolia Press (SMP). It was the first time we sold over 100,000 copies of books under our management in a single month. And it was the first time one of the boxes we helped produce and market hit the New York Times Best Sellers list two weeks in a row. DEADLY DOZEN also hit the USA Today Best Sellers list and stayed on it for 6 straight weeks – the first multi-author thriller box to do so.  The work The Twelve, a consortium of authors banded together to cross-promote each other’s titles, did in preparation for the box’s run at the NYT list was exhausting. Many kudos for their accomplishment!

With the attention, of course, also comes the inevitable criticism: that 2012 was the year of the freebie, 2013 the year of the 99¢ book, and now 2014 is the year of the 99¢ box. All cheap marketing ploys that will devalue the written word and destroy an industry.

Our business ledger, of course, says otherwise. Despite having built our assisted-self-publishing micropress on the back of 1.3 million freebies and over 700,000 sales of value-priced titles, we’ve still managed to distribute half a million dollars in royalties in the short time we’ve been in operation.

While we produced 10 single-author box sets in the last half of 2012, we didn’t start producing multi-author boxes until the summer of 2013, shortly after gaining confidence via the success of Jennifer Blake’s Louisiana Plantation Collection, a single-author historical romance box that hung in the Amazon Top 100 for 7 weeks and went on to sell over 80,000 copies. That summer, however, saw big changes to BookBub policies and Amazon algos that meant finding a new overall marketing strategy for our multi-author boxes and tweaking old tactics to fit the new environment.

Our first multi-box – an epic fantasy set – floundered a bit as we tested the waters, selling just over 2000 copies. Still, publishing it gave me better insight into how to position our next effort. 7 DEADLY THRILLS sold over 20,000 copies and made each author over $1700 in the 3 months it was available.

Since then, we’ve published:

  • FORBIDDEN LOVERS (PNR) – launched Aug (retired): 30,000 sales
  • FLIRTING WITH FORTUNE (Contemporary Romance) – launched Sept (retired): 27,000 sales
  • SHOOT TO THRILL (Thriller) – launched Nov (retired): 29,000 sales
  • PIRATE HEARTS (Historical Romance) – launched Nov: 12,000 sales (retired)
  • WORKING GIRLS…DO IT FOR THRILLS (Thriller) – launched Dec: 26,000 sales (due to retire soon)
  • MAGIC, MYTH & MAJESTY (Epic Fantasy) – launched late Dec: 24,000 sales (due to retire soon)
  • SINNERS & SORCERERS (Urban Fantasy) – launched Jan: 19,000 sales (due to retire soon)
  • MOONCALLED (YA SF/F) – launched Jan: 6000 sales (due to retire soon)
  • HEARTS OF VALOR (Historical Romance) – launched late Jan: 12,000 sales
  • DEADLY DOZEN (Mystery/Thriller) – launched mid-Feb: 80,000 sales

Our newest release SINS OF THE PAST: 5 Historical Novels of Mystery, War and Adventure takes readers on a sweeping journey across the centuries and continents, featuring novels by David Gaughran, Denise Domning, N. Gemini Sasson, Monique Martin and Michael Wallace. This is the first Historical Fiction box SMP has put together. (And one of the first multi-author HF boxes out there!)

Upcoming multi-boxes for which we have signed authors include:

  • MORTAL CRIMES – Suspense (April)
  • ADRENALINE RUSH – Thriller (May)
  • HEARTS OUT OF TIME – Time Travel Romance (May)
  • FORCE MAJEURE – Disaster Thrillers (June)
  • Romantic Suspense Box (No Title Yet) – June

If I don’t burn out sooner than the box craze does, SMP will be putting out a box set every 2 weeks or so through the end of 2014.

With a dozen multi-author boxes behind us, we’ve sold 284,000 copies, earning the authors and SMP $120,000 in royalties. Mostly money additional to sales that would have been made if the boxes didn’t exist. There are always caveats, of course, but in general the audience for multi-box sets is only a small subset of the audience you normally target. The rest are readers you would never reach otherwise.

Answers to your inevitable questions

  • No, we’re not looking for new authors at this time, unless you’re a fairly big name.
  • You’re absolutely right – that isn’t fair.
  • Yes, we do ask for a simple contract up front. We have been lucky so far to work with only the most professional folk, but horror stories abound. Get the terms in writing whether you’re putting a box together or joining one.
  • Our typical ad costs run $250-350 per box. SMP pays all costs upfront and then is reimbursed exact expenses from royalties.
  • For titles already selling well, putting them in a box does not usually result in sustained cannibalization of sales. We do sometimes see an initial drop-off of maybe 10% during the time the author is promoting the box over their own titles.
  • Genre makes a difference. But as with most things in book sales, luck and timing and smart, effective marketing can overcome in a genre that’s a tougher sell.
  • No, I’m not going to share my marketing plan. Besides, it changes as new ad sites prove themselves or old ones go by the wayside. It also gets tweaked in response to identified changes in Amazon’s algos, to changes at other sales venues, and to the reason we’re producing each box. The plan will be different depending on whether the authors want a run at the NYT list, at the USA Today list, or – in most of our cases – just looking for 25,000 sales or so.
  • Yes, it does feel amazing to use the word “just” before “25,000 sales”.
  • Covers matter. 99¢ boxes are, in general, impulse buys. You have to instantly catch a reader’s attention and interest. Cover and title together need to convey genre and value immediately, with no guesswork. Think function over form.
  • Formatting matters. It takes extra time, but I ensure the same formatting across every book in the box. I also include a short, hyperlinked TOC on the overall start page, plus an NCX TOC, plus a full by-chapter TOC at the end. I also use indicator images at the beginning of each chapter to help orient readers as to where they are in the file.
  • Yes, we still get reviewers who complain about the difficulty of navigating from one book to the next. (Sigh)
  • Yes, the 3MB file limit for pricing at 99¢ on Amazon is hard-and-fast. This is the “finished” size as Amazon sees it. If you’re bumping up against the limit, then it will be trial and error (uploading the file to the dashboard, waiting for it to convert, then checking file size in the pricing section) to get it right. Text compresses better than images, so no I can’t tell you an approximate word count for squishing into a box because I don’t know how many images you’re using, how you’re compressing them, or what kind of file you’re uploading.
  • Yes, there does seem to be a “shelf life” no matter how well a box sells in the beginning. We generally retire our boxes around the 4- to 5-month mark or sooner.
  • No, I can’t predict if YOU personally will sell a lot or make any money. Are the authors in your box committed to promoting effectively? Do you have the marketing savvy needed to get visible? Do you understand what your goal is and what you’re committing to? If so, then with the right ratio of authors to sales to expenses, you CAN make money with a box set. But know it isn’t a slam-dunk.
  • No, BookBub will NOT advertise a multi-author box set (although they will take single-author boxes – those are what you remember seeing).  I too wish this answer were different.
  • Yes, they used to take them (and some multi-boxes made it to the NYT list because of it), but they stopped doing so a year ago. Plus, Amazon has made getting traction more difficult. You’re going to have to work a lot harder to get multi-box sales now.
  • You’re right, that does suck. But that’s what this business is: A lot of suckage with the occasional shining moment of reward – unless you’re a fairly big name author. And if that’s the case, do be sure to drop me a note (see Bullet 1 above).

Phoenix Sullivan is the General Manager of Steel Magnolia Press (Jennifer Blake, President).

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

36 Replies to “Building Audience With Box Sets”

  1. Great info and a terrific story to watch how you’ve come so far, riding the curl of the wave, Phoenix. One question about what happens AFTER the sale: You mention that 99c box sets are essentially an impulse buy (“covers matter”); do you have any sense how many of those books actually get read? If someone reads one book in the box, do they typically read all of them?

    1. It does take a while for readers to get through the larger boxes. We get a lot of reviews where Amazon has obviously sent out a review reminder email and the customer notes in their review, “I’ve only gotten through 3 (or 2 or 4, etc) of the books so far…” We do occasionally put in trackable links so we know who’s clicking. And we have some strong clues with sales patterns.

      For instance, one of the box sets got a boost on the Amazon UK site and hit and hung in the Top 50 there for a few days. Most of the authors don’t have a strong UK presence, so the pick up in sales to their other books was quite noticeable. I don’t have any hard data points, though I’d guess about the same number read through a box as read a freebie.

      One thing I tend to think about when I’m deciding the order of the books is whether any of them are standalones, especially in a genre the author may not have a large presence in. My own thriller, for instance, points nowhere once it’s read, so I usually pop it at the end of a box, giving the authors with series a better chance to be read.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Phoenix. I’d like to do a steampunk boxed set soon, if I can find some other folks in the genre who have followings and would like to jump on board. 🙂

  3. This is a really interesting article, and I’m so happy for those authors who hit the NY Times list! I’ve heard the box set bubble is already starting to burst though. Does anyone have any insight into whether or not there’s truth to that?

  4. Belated question: I’ve seen some readers grumbling about both multi- and single-author boxed sets that include a perma-free book, or several, in the set. Despite getting 5+ books for $.99, this seems to irk some people.

    Should we think of this as just the ways things are–can’t please all the people, etc.–or is this something to avoid (which isn’t really an option for single author sets, obviously, unless you posted a weird offer of “books 2-4” or something)?

    Related: If we raise the price on the set after a limited sale period of $.99, what’s a fair way to price a three book set that includes a perma-free book?

    1. Sorry, Matthew! I totally missed your question earlier. *blog guest FAIL*.

      We just crossed the 28,000 sold mark for an epic fantasy box with 7 books, 2 or 3 of which are also free. Yes, there are reviews that grumble about the freebies. Yes, I might think twice if we were charging $9.99. But these are 99c boxes we’re talking about. I’m waiting for someone to say, “But DEADLY DOZEN has 12 books in it and MORTAL CRIMES only has 7 for the same 99 cent price. What a rip-off!” The guideline I personally use for most of the boxes I’ve put together in the past and those going forward is no more than 1 freebie in a box of 5 or fewer titles, and 2 in a box of 6 or more. Other than that, I don’t worry about it.

      As to raising the price: I’ve never done just 3 books with a freebie in a multi-author set. And I don’t recall ever raising the price on a 3-book box. I just unpublish. We have a few single-author 3-book boxes, though. Those have a completely different marketing strategy behind them. All to say, I believe that’s one of those questions that you have to know pretty much everything about the books, the authors and the motivation for doing the box set in the first place to even start answering that question. I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all answer.

  5. Thanks to David for hosting and Phoenix for guest blogging. I’m a baby compared to you with my own “assisted self-publishing” micropress, but I’m learning all the time, and it’s starting to come together. One of the best parts of this new world of indie writers is the way information is shared. Makes for better profits and a more collegial atmosphere. Great days to be a writer!

  6. David and Phoenix, you make good points. Is placing your brick and mortar store in the area of highest foot traffic ‘gaming the system’? No.
    Besides, all you accomplish by figuring out a marketing strategy is generating exposure for your book(s). If the content is crap you won’t have legs.

  7. “big changes to BookBub policies and Amazon algos that meant finding a new overall marketing strategy…” –

    Why does that not ring well for me?

    Seriously, is the game that gamed? Or is it attempts to right or keep the playing field at least relatively level?

    I’ll continue experimenting with subscription services (augmenting traditional ebook channels).

    1. Amazon regularly tweaks its algos (although major changes happen less than is commonly assumed), and BookBub revise their criteria every so often. Some of those changes will require a change in our approach. Certainly, the decision of BookBub to stop accepting multi-author box-sets is one such change that requires an amendment to any marketing plan for same.

      But I wouldn’t worry that things keep changing like this. I think it’s safe to assume that Amazon and BookBub generally make changes with the aim of pleasing their customers. I’m happy that both companies have such a focus on keeping readers happy – I wish some of Amazon’s competitors were as focused on the needs of customers (rather than, say, the needs of large publishers).

      Plus I could make the argument that constant change of the rules of the game plays into our hands. Large publishers especially are slow to react to changes. Long after we have figured out “free” and started moving away from it as a core strategy (perma-free aside), large publishers start embracing it. Same goes for regular 99c sales. I’m sure they will be onto the cheap box-set game by the end of this year or the start of next year, and we’ll be onto the next thing – constantly one or two steps ahead of them.

      tl:dr I vote for more chaos!

      1. “I could make the argument that constant change of the rules of the game plays into our hands….” –

        Really good points that followed, David; thanks!

        Also have usually felt much of what Amazon has done is better for authors like, than publishers.

        Having thought about my comment a bit 😉 I’d say what I’m sensing is a strategy approach line of thinking (pricing, title packaging, etc) I’ve not abandoned, but am moving away from as being primary.

        I’ve always maintained a belief in an integrity of my work first (not implying otherwise for anyone else at all) and am gingerly approaching subscription models (Scribd & Oyster at the moment) for workability there.

        But without the promised stats info in hand yet (understandable in terms of time in subscription programs) and that initial info when I get it will be partial month & inventory, all I can do is wait before saying what kind of sales feedback I’m getting & can work with.

        I certainly haven’t removed any books from anywhere, Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, etc. 🙂

        Thanks again so much David, always look fwd to your posts!


    2. There are a couple of perspectives to address with your questions, Felipe.

      The first, of course, is to not conflate working WITH the algos as a way to game them. Understanding how Amazon helps to sell books and which triggers it uses to do so is simple business intel. It’s no different than, say, understanding regional traffic in brick-and-mortar stores and targeting your distribution to best advantage rather than taking a blind, scatter-shot approach.

      The second is that the changes are prompted by undue influence. They are the course corrections taken to ensure the current vision for the field – let’s never call it a *level* playing field, because it is *Amazon’s* field first and foremost – and to not give undue advantage. Do I for one second believe it was BookBub’s decision to stop advertising lucrative multi-author box sets or new releases from popular authors? My opinion is that BookBub responded to outside demands on those decisions.

      And IME, the changes in Amazon’s systems were to mitigate undue influence from a single source in shaping their popularity lists, the same way they stepped in to change the algos once the free culture began impacting it more heavily.

      Is there something nefarious or unethical in publishers of any size using public business intel to foster sales or in the distributors moving the cheese in their stores to appease the demands of customers, vendors and outside influencers such as the Big List Makers? Not at all. We may necessarily *like* the changes, but smart companies will *always* be changing.

      I will say I think a lot of indies have jumped into the business without understanding the nuances of the business, and are somehow expecting the business to change to accommodate their needs. Terms like “level playing field” is one example, I think, where indies are showing their idealism. Name me one business where the merchant/vendor playing field is a level one. The democratization of ebooks is a myth, pure and simple, in my opinion, and one that has never held true.

      1. No problem Phoenix 😉

        Actually thought those were several good points in there: changes in algos (this is so much easier to spell!) are in response to a perceived tilting or gaming of the system –

        And that a “level playing field” is an ideal. Ideals, though, are not bad in themselves, nor easily ignored in the public eye.

        My typo-ridden comment you responded to (written on a phone while riding a train rounding some bends at 7 a.m.) was struggling with trying to say that all these strategies, though useful and necessary to ponder and try, ignore implementation within a subscription service like Oyster or Scribd.

        I prefer the latter because I’ve been able to communicate with Scribd as a writer, and should be receiving views/sales feedback soon, but Amazon has a subscription variation, has the power to join in when it wishes to, and my very limited experience with both Amazon’s and the two new services, says these current ebook strategies won’t hold as much value, and need to change.

        Kinda like when things went from trying to get on a table at the front of a Borders or other actual book store, vs selling digitally online.

        Because I am experimenting with both Scribd and Oyster, I’m interested in discussing these potentially different strategies.

        For example: pricing at 99¢ or free to garner attention is invisible to a subscriber.

        But does that price point have other value to either a distributor (like either Smashwords or BookBaby), or to the subscription service, Scribd and Oyster being most well known, but among several trying this new field out.

        And maybe book box sets, either one author or a collection of writers, would also still have value in a subscription service; but if so, how so?

        As I mentioned before, I have no stats yet to speak of, other than views for a title (no percentage read, etc; and that from only one service, Scribd) – so I’m waiting. I think it’ll be interesting. 🙂

  8. Thanks Phoenix and Dave for demystifying some of the aspects of boxing. Ahem.

    Question: By their nature, these short term, multi-author boxed sets will never have more than a handful of reviews and ratings. I notice you make it very clear in the description how many 5-star ratings the aggregated books have in order to get around this, but this may still not impress some advertisers and readers who are taking a 2 second glance at the title.

    Do you have any strategies you can share about getting over this, either for multi-author or single author sets? Have you thought about having advance readers of the set and/or special requests for the authors to contact fans to pump up reviews/ratings (since I assume they’ve read at least one book in the set)? Or do reviews matter less for your goals, since you’re looking for a surgical sales strike and not long term product success?

    1. I think advertisers treat it on a case-by-case basis. But for on-the-fence readers, there’s no doubt that having lots of stellar reviews helps sway them. The mention in the blurb helps, but not as much as lots of great reviews. If you have a street team, or a group of reviewers you provide ARCs to, you can ask them to review the set on the basis of what they’ve read out of it (and making that clear). It’s a little tricky.

      (If anyone has read my book or any of the others in the set, a review would be very much appreciated!)

  9. I’m in on 2 of these type of bundles (not this publisher’s), one this year one early next and am looking to organize one as well with like-minded, style-similar authors as myself next year. thanks for the post and fingers crossed.

  10. Thanks for asking me along, David! And your answers above are dead on. The only caveat I would have is that some authors are bundling their individual works on private sites and selling them as individual books but at a sale price for the complete bundle. While that’s a viable option for some depending on “why” they’re bundling and their philosophy about selling books in general, we’d rather have more sales, more money and more happy readers while letting Amazon and BN’s recommendation engines help do the selling for us. :o)

  11. Thanks David, and especially Phoenix, for sharing so much data and the genius behind that Deadly Dozen (which I bought!). I’m one of Joanna’s clients and we heard some of the ‘behind the scenes’ story, it was very exciting to follow.

    Smart marketing indeed, and goes to show how much we all have to stay on top of tactics and remember to keep the big-picture strategy in mind: Acquiring readers, one at a time! (I’ve already spilled over onto Diana Capri’s list now too, and have one of her books as one of the bonuses)

    One day, I’ll be one of those ‘fairly big name authors’ too, I hope 🙂

  12. Question on boxed ebook sets. I’m assuming you put all ebooks into one ebook file, or is there a way to bundle individual ebooks into one sale? Based on the discussion, it is probably the former, and the fact I’ve never seen an option like the latter on Amazon, B&N, or other retailer. But thought I would clarify that if possible.

    1. Hey – yes there’s no way around simply making one large file containing all the books. None of the retailers provide any bundling options to self-publishers (or publishers AFAIK).

  13. I echo what Joanna said. And what Phoenix said. And what David said, too! Deadly Dozen was a a lot of work. But it was fun and it made our readers very, very happy. That’s the bottom line, always: Will the readers love this? If they do, then you’ll have a winner for everyone involved! Good luck with yours, David!

  14. Interesting reading. Makes me wonder whether I ought to put a different cover on my own 5-novel box set (which I’ve been thinking of doing for a while now) and let it go for 99 cents.

    1. I haven’t seen your cover Lynne, but the aim of a cover like this is (as well as transmitting the genre) to grab the readers eye right away and make it obvious in a split second that they are getting multiple books for 99c. It’s a simple approach, but very effective.

      1. Thanks, David. The cover I have now does look like a box, and it’s apparent that 5 books are included, but the cover image isn’t very eye-catching and the price is $4.99. I’ve balked at lowering the price to 99 cents — but if, as Phoenix says, box set buyers are a different audience from those who buy the individual books, then dropping the price seems like it would be a very smart move.

      2. If you build some kind of campaign around it – ads etc. – and then drop it for a few days you can see how it goes. If it jumps to a great position in the charts and hangs on there, you can revisit the idea of raising price. And if it spikes then drops immediately, you can just put the price back up to normal. I think you have to play it by ear. Also weigh up what you would be potentially losing. Ed Robertson had great success bundling the first three Breakers books at 99c and using it to push readers to Book 4. It was a high-risk strategy because those books were earning him good money, but it paid off for him because he had that fourth book in the series readers could move on to right away.

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