Boxed Sets: What is Old is New Again

[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, February 2014.]

I still remember it: the first boxed set I ever saw: The Lord of the Rings. I begged my mother for the three crisp paperback volumes held in a sturdy cardboard box. She refused, saying that I already owned all three books. Besides, the boxed set cost as much as the three volumes did separately; it wasn’t a bargain.

My, how things have changed.

Boxed sets are a popular promotional device for ebooks. One author can gather together all of her books in a series, or a group of authors can pool their books, creating a unique set offered as a single electronic file.

This article will focus on a multi-author boxed set. I’ll use my first one, Six Times a Charm (created in conjunction with Deanna Chase, Angie Fox, Julie Kenner, Rose Pressey, and Liz Schulte) as an example.

Selecting the Authors

After hearing lots of buzz about boxed sets, I decided to create my own. My first step was to identify potential authors to join in the fun.

I began my search at Amazon, focusing on the sales page for my most popular book, Girl’s Guide to Witchcraft. I browsed through the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” section of the page, looking for authors whose books were similar to mine in genre and tone (light paranormal). I concentrated on authors who had more reviews than I did (using number of reviews as a proxy for number of readers.)

After identifying four potential partners, I emailed each author, asking if she’d like to participate in a boxed set. One author politely declined. Another did not respond, even after two additional emails. The other two were eager to participate. In fact, they suggested other authors to join us, and we ended up with six writers.

We quickly set up a private group on Facebook to correspond among ourselves. (While one member preferred to use another service, she yielded to the group’s preference.) Private groups are invisible to other Facebook members; while Facebook regularly suggested new people we might want to add to our group, we ignored all such suggestions. Our group automatically informed us when each member had read each correspondence. In addition, commenting on any correspondence brought that item to the top of the group (a useful tool for handling urgent matters.)

Selecting the Books and Pricing

Each of us had complete autonomy to choose which book to include in the boxed set. Some authors selected books that were already “perma-free” (offered for free on a permanent basis), while others chose books that were regularly priced.

If purchased separately, our books would have cost close to ten dollars. We used that price to designate the “Original Price” for our boxed set: $9.99. We then agreed to discount the set to $0.99. (We considered offering the set for free, but we wanted to try to recoup promotional costs. Also, we wanted to retain the possibility of hitting a national bestseller list, and free sets don’t qualify for the lists.)

Together, we brainstormed a name for our boxed set. While we were united in our genre of light paranormal, individual novels included ghosts, demons, witches, and other supernatural creatures. Ultimately, we selected the name Six Times a Charm, to cover our paranormal bases.

We also discussed the order of the books in the set, ultimately deciding to place them alphabetically, by author’s last name. In retrospect, we were somewhat cavalier in this decision. Readers are much more likely to read books written by familiar-to-them authors, then books positioned early in the collection. While we avoided uncomfortable discussions about sales status and “big name” appeal, we did not necessarily maximize readers’ experiencing all six volumes in the set.

Creating the Set

Next, we needed to create the electronic file for our boxed set. One member of our group stepped forward to coordinate this step. She asked us each to send a clean Word file of our novel, along with a short biography, links to our social media, and links to our other books.

Those files were forwarded to an ebook designer the coordinating member had previously used. We paid the designer to create a single file for the set, which she generated in .epub and .mobi format. (Originally, we planned on using our individual book covers as interior artwork in the boxed set. That plan needed to be discarded because the relatively large graphics files made the complete file too large to load at some vendors’ sites.)

Another member stepped forward to coordinate our cover art. Reaching out to a cover designer she’d used in the past, she requested two versions of the cover. The first was a “three-dimensional” image, representing a boxed set similar to the old paper-and-glue boxed sets of my childhood, with a cover design on the “front” and glimpses of the “spines” of the novels inside the “box”. The second was a traditional “tile” in a 200 x 300 format, similar to the cover of any ebook. While the spiffy three-dimensional cover could be used at most vendors, Apple required a traditional tile cover.

Yet another member stepped forward to create the Product Description for our boxed set. This marketing tool needed to capture the tone of our books, each of our names, each of the titles of our novels, and a (very short!) summary of each individual book. We used bullet points to capture some of the information. One member donated an ISBN to us from her personal stock; as a result, our boxed set is officially published by her imprint.

At each stage, we consulted with each other about the ebook file, the cover, and the metadata. We brainstormed solutions to any minor problems that arose.

Once our electronic files and covers were finalized, I uploaded them to Amazon KDP, Barnes & Noble Nook Press, Kobo, and Apple iTunes. While the files and covers functioned just like those for any other ebook, I did encounter a few challenges:

  • We had no way to convey our “discount” price off of our traditional price. Therefore, we added a first line to our Product Description: “On sale! Regularly priced at $9.99!”
  • Some vendors did not permit six co-authors. Therefore, I used a random number generator to determine which of us co-authors would not be listed on those sites.       (Their name(s) remained in the Product Description and on the graphic of the book cover, of course.)
  • After a publishing delay of seven agonizing days, Apple objected to the first line of our Product Description, saying we could not include a dollar sign. Therefore, we amended the Product Description, finally getting our book into the Apple Store 10 days after it appeared in other venues.

Promoting the Set

The key to success for a boxed set, of course, is letting the world know it exists. We staged the majority of our promotion to stretch over the first week, with an eye toward building sales over multiple days (and, possibly, looking more attractive to the mysterious algorithms used by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the New York Times Bestseller list, and the USA Today Bestseller list.)

One member drafted a variety of promotional tools for each of us to use, including sample newsletter announcements, blog posts, Facebook status updates, and Twitter tweets. On the launch day, each of us posted to our blog, made Facebook status updates, and issued tweets. We each paid to push our Facebook updates to the maximum number of our followers.

On successive days, we each sent a newsletter to our subscribers. We also liberally re-blogged, re-tweeted, and re-stated our Facebook updates.

In addition to our “homegrown” promotion, we purchased advertisements from a variety of vendors. Alas, Bookbub (the leader in the field of discount ebook advertisements) would not accept an ad for a multi-author boxed set. We purchased ads from other services, including Book Blast, Book Gorilla, Digital Book Today, Ereader Café, Frugal Ereader, Kindle Book Today, and Ereader News Today.

Tracking Our Success

As the individual who uploaded our books to the vendors’ sites, I was the only person with immediate access to sales data. I committed to updating my fellow authors about our sales ranks once a day for the first two weeks, then on a weekly basis for the next two weeks, then on a monthly basis.

Amazon frustrated my initial attempts at updating. Due to a glitch in their reporting system, they did not list the rank of our boxed set for the first three days. (I could see sales occurring on the dashboard of the Kindle Direct Publishing platform, but no rank was reported on Amazon’s sales page for the set.) Ultimately, Amazon resolved the problem internally.

Our boxed set enjoyed strong sales in its first week. Our best rank on Amazon was 69; on Barnes & Noble we hit 181. We remained below 500 on Amazon for over two months (although our Barnes & Noble sales trailed off after six weeks.) Our rankings in three Amazon subcategories (“Angels”, “Ghosts”, and “Superheroes”) remain #1 (with occasional dips to #2 due to a different boxed set published by one of our authors with another group!)

For the first week of our boxed set sale, I experienced a 25% dip in sales of Girl’s Guide to Witchcraft (the volume in the boxed set), and that new, lower rate of sales has remained constant in the intervening two months. I kept Girl’s Guide priced at its standard loss-leader price, $0.99, which meant that it cost the same as the six-volume boxed set. I interpret the continued sale of Girl’s Guide to mean that the boxed set was purchased by a different group of buyers – people who were not looking for “Mindy Klasky” books. (I saw no change in sales for the omnibus edition of all three books in the series.)

For the first two weeks, I did not see any increase in sales in other Mindy Klasky titles. Beginning in the third week, though, I saw a nearly100% increase in sales of Sorcery and the Single Girl, the second book in my series. I also saw an approximate 70% increase in sales of Magic and the Modern Girl, the third book in the series. Both the second and third books have continued to sell at the same higher rate for the past six weeks. I interpret the two-week delay to be the consequence of my book being the fourth in the boxed set; readers needed some time to discover my work.

In addition to increased sales, I saw hundreds of new readers Like my Facebook page. I also received several dozen new subscribers to my newsletter. (Alas, my Twitter account was in transition at the launch of the boxed set, and I was unable to include my Twitter account in our promotional materials.)

Financially, the set has been successful as well. In the first month of sales, we each saw two-figure income (after our costs.) In the second month, we each received healthy three-figure incomes, and we’re on track for the same in our third month. Each of us views this income as “found money”, because we did not enter into the boxed set arrangement to make money.

Now, two full months after the release, we are beginning to see sales slow. While we still sell hundreds of copies a day on Amazon, our other vendors are beginning to trail off to two-figure daily sales. Eventually, we will decide when the income is no longer worth the minimal time processing payments, and we may pull the boxed set from circulation.

Legal Arrangements

From the beginning, we chose to keep our group informal. While some authors who create boxed sets choose to incorporate, we declined to undertake the cost and hassle of legal organization. Instead, we each agreed to a two-page letter agreement that stated in principle:

  • We agreed to share all costs and all profits equally.
  • We agreed that an author could pull her book from the boxed set at any time (with 60 days notice), but if more than half of us wanted to continue the boxed set, the exiting author would pay the cost of creating new electronic files and covers for the set.
  • We agreed that I would publish our boxed set at four vendors, I would collect payment from those vendors, and I would distribute profits by no later than the tenth day of the month in which I received payment.

I created a spreadsheet to calculate our earnings each month, and I circulate it monthly for my co-authors’ review. The spreadsheet was slightly challenging to create because of the different formats and currencies of vendors’ reports, but an afternoon of wrestling with the program has resulted in a tool that can be used repeatedly.

Conclusion

The Six Times a Charm boxed set resulted in greater exposure for each of its authors. While we did not make a national bestseller list, we did achieve “Amazon Bestseller” status. We made money on sales of the set, and we boosted the sales of later books in our series. Each of us was “charmed” by the success of our venture!