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.