Boxsets, Bundles and Anthologies: Are They the Right Marketing Tool for You? SFR Authors Explore the Potential This Season
by Selene Grace Silver
Reaching new readers remains one of the most challenging tasks indie authors face when publishing their books, regardless of genre. The ratio of authors to readers sometimes seems to equal zombies to humans in The Walking Dead or Tribbles to crew members in Star Trek. Every year, hundreds of thousands of books get published to a limited market of readers, many never to be widely purchased or, indeed, read. Competition is intense. As a beginning or midlist author, how do you rise above the horizon to get noticed?
Frankly, unless you have a huge marketing budget for advertising, your books can fire up, launch and fade away within weeks, if not days. The task of finding readers who will buy what you publish, and willingly share their love of your work with other readers, can feel like trying to reach the moon in a cardboard rocket ship, especially if you are flying solo. Maybe you picked up some loyal fans after your last book, but in numbers large enough or eager enough to fuel your next release’s sales? No? It might be time pool your resources to team up with other authors in an anthology or a boxed set.
Traditional publishers have long faced the challenge of introducing readers to new authors without blowing the budget. One marketing strategy they developed is to package two or three new authors with an author who has an established readership. These collections are designed to attract readers who love the well-known author’s stories, while enticing them to try the new authors’ efforts. The strategy successfully gains readers for authors, with minimal financial investment. Benefits include increasing the established author’s status as a top-billing author.
Today, indie authors, especially in paranormal romance, or PNR, have adopted this popular marketing technique of bundling their stories together, then further magnifying it into even larger anthologies and boxed sets; with enough authors and contributed funds, some projects have even manage to sell sufficient books to hit the best seller lists, particularly in the PNR category.
With its recent gains in popularity, Science Fiction Romance, or SFR, seems to be following in the smoke trails of her PNR colleagues’ flights. In fact, autumn 2017 showcases the release of several new futuristic romance anthologies, Embrace the Romance: Pets in Space 2 and Cosmic Cabaret, both out Tuesday, October 10th, and The Great Space Race, scheduled to go on sale in November.
Definitely, the authors of these new sets are attempting to capitalize on each other’s marketing reach, but the reasons to join an anthology can be complex and altruistic as well. According to Embrace the Romance organizer and contributor Veronica Scott, the goal is “to sell enough copies during the first month to give our charity, Hero-Dogs, Inc., a nice hefty donation. After that,” Scott says, “I hope to attract new readers to my scifi romance novels. Making a list would be nice of course, but it’s not a driving factor in any way for me.” Rosalie Redd, one of the organizers and contributors of Cosmic Cabaret, adds that the goal of their anthology is, “to provide readers with quality stories around a shared theme, the LS Quantum, a cruise liner in space.”
Sound interesting? Maybe, you think, marketing my SFR (or PNR) all by myself is lonely and inefficient, so I should find a way to be part of an anthology or boxed set too. Every author needs to market in a manner that fits her style, schedule and budget, of course and not everyone is a fit for these kinds of collaborations. What considerations do you need to contemplate before you commit to a joint publishing project?
Reasons to Join an Anthology
Tell your readers that you have a new book out and you’ll see a tepid rise in sales. Tell your readers about your fellow author’s new book—that you loved!—and her book sales shoot up like a missile. Anyone who has spent time marketing her own books knows that it’s a lot easier to sway people into buying someone else’s book than it is into buying her own. Bundles can tap into and exploit this phenomena. Frankly, unless you were born a salesperson, you’re much more comfortable promoting an anthology of which you are one of many authors than promoting your individual books.
Multiple authors’ joined budgets and social media contacts can easily reach far more readers than one individual’s. Collective dollars and social media posts spent with one goal exponentially extend branding into each other’s reader bases. Joining a boxed set or an anthology means your story will appear in front of readers who have never before read your work, but who already read stories in your genre. By promoting the anthology and all of its authors, you’re essentially promoting your own story and brand too. Sharing readers in a targeted marking approach is a natural way to expand the love of your genre and drive more sales for its authors.
Scott says, “For myself, I have definitely seen follow-on sales after being in PISA1 [Pets in Space Anthology]. I think it was very beneficial for my ‘author brand’ to have my style of storytelling in a volume with fans of amazing authors like S.E. Smith, giving me a chance to appeal to new readers.” Her anthology partner and contributing author Pauline Baird Jones agrees, “Like Veronica, I saw follow-on sales of my books, but beyond that I learned so much working with pros like S.E. Smith and Narelle Todd of Get My Book Out There.”
With enough funding, a collective of writers can even breach the best seller lists, further extending each author’s visibility in a crowded market. The old adage about power in numbers proves true in book sales if a group of authors, with enough individual readers, and enough money, sell enough books to reach the star-studded ranks of the USA Today list. Indie authors keen on making a list should anticipate contributing significant money to the marketing pot though. Even with dozens of authors pooling their money, advertising on places like Book Bub can cost thousands of dollars for just one romance ad placed just one time.
Aligning one’s author name with the names of other—sometimes more prominent—writers in the same genre can improve your brand recognition in general as well, while the headline authors will broaden the base they already have established, often introducing a new series to the market. Brand recognition eventually leads to more follow-up sales as well, helping new authors rise above the radar into the site line of bloggers and reviewers.
Bundles can be financially rewarding efforts, whether the earnings are distributed among the writers or donated to a charitable organization. Though they publish in the historical romance fiction genre, not SFR or PNR, the established group The Bluestocking Belles sold 15,000 copies of their third boxed set and raised more than $6,000.00 for the Malala Fund in one year. Follow-up sales of the individually republished stories from the anthology sold thousands more copies for the contributing authors when their rights reverted.
Although marketing is the primary reason for joining a bundle or anthology, there can be other incentives, like the desire to raise money for charity, as is the case with Embrace the Romance, or just to experience the rewards of teamwork. Cosmic Cabaret’s Redd says, “Working with others on shared marketing activities, collaborating on stories, and getting to know the other authors are all big benefits.”
What It’s Going to Cost You: Money and Time
The costs to join or organize a boxed set or anthology range from $100.00, as it was for Cosmic Cabaret, upwards to thousands of dollars. The more ambitious the project, the more it demands from each author in financial support. Fortunately, not all of that money comes from the initial investment; some of it will likely come from reinvested profits made during the time the book is available on the market.
With that in mind, it’s important to note that bundles are first and foremost marketing devices. Profits from sales are frequently funneled back into more advertising during the publication timeline. Contributors shouldn’t go in with expectations of making a lot of money directly from the bundle. The return on investment, or ROI, will be limited for the most part. If your contribution gets read, and if you pick up new fans of your writing, you may see sales pick up on your other publications. Of course, there are no guarantees, but those are the results most authors hope to experience.
Book bundles cost money to create, publish and promote. The upfront costs for organizers might include establishing a business to publish the book and a bank account to manage the funds, both which will incur administrative costs to set up, some or all of which might be spread among the contributors. Cosmic Cabaret is being published by the managing authors of the SFR Shooting Stars site, which creates anthologies, and they absorbed the startup costs themselves, but all other costs for the actual book are shared by the roster of authors in the anthology. Those costs include a professional cover. Some bundles will also require a professional editing budget, which can eat into the marketing budget very quickly. Finally, initial marketing costs will likely drain the coffer long before sales can fill it back up.
According to organizers, Cosmic Cabaret and many other anthologies are not that expensive to participate in, but getting on board as an author may be difficult without an established backlist of titles. Of the two anthologies releasing in October, one, Embrace the Romance, was by invite only, and the other, Cosmic Cabaret, solicited broadly on Facebook and the F, F, & P forum, before selecting the most appealing candidate authors from the applicants.
Embrace the Romance organizer Scott, who has been part of nine collaborations in the past, says, “PISA is by invitation only; we don’t put out a call for authors.” She continues, “Pauline and I came up with a list of people we’d love to work with and who we felt scifi romance readers would enjoy reading. Of course, we hoped including the element of pets might invite other readers to give our genre a look! Then we contacted the other authors and invited them to participate.”
Prior to compiling a roster of authors for Cosmic Cabaret, author Jayne Fury developed the concept of the LS Quantum and a space age cabaret as the basis of the anthology. Then she, along with Redd and myself, created a questionnaire for interested authors to fill out. From there, we looked at each applicant’s social media presence and their publications, looking for quality, reach and professionalism. It was a more difficult process because, as organizers, we ended up with more attractive applicants than we had space for the project. Sending out decline letters to perfectly wonderful writers was uncomfortable and awkward.
The other side of the financial equation is the fidelity and transparency of the organizers’ financial reporting. It helps to have an accountant author in the mix. For example, Cosmic Cabaret organizers have committed to sharing financial reports with its authors throughout the process. The three managing authors, who run the website, SFR Shooting Stars, all have access to the financial records, and while one controls the spending of the funds, another manages the reports, resulting in shared oversight of the funds. In all collaborative efforts, contributing authors may or may not see a direct financial return on the anthology sales, but they definitely deserve to know how the money donated and earned was spent on marketing, what the sales figures have been, and which advertising efforts had the greatest ROI.
Anyone who has been part of a project in which the financials were poorly managed or never reported out on, can understand the frustration incurred as a result of such record or money mismanagement. Before joining a project, don’t be tentative about reaching out to fellow authors who’ve participated in a previous project to inquire about their experiences. On Cosmic Cabaret, Redd, who has extensive experience in accounting, supervises funds and creates regular financial reports, while I manage the funds in a special bank account devoted to SFR Shooting Stars and its marketing and publishing efforts.
Baird Jones manages the account for Embrace the Romance. “I also manage the money. Because I am obsessively careful about this part, I run all the numbers past Veronica and also place reports in a folder where all authors can look at them if they want to. We are also transparent about numbers as we go along. Basically, I try to provide information that I’d want to know,” she says.
Keep in mind though, unless you’re agreeing to participate in a project put together by an experienced and well-oiled production team, there are bound to be lapses and mistakes made. Baird Jones says, “I’ve learned the hard way that Life Happens.”
Indie-author organized bundles and anthologies are by nature both democratic and authoritative in alternating moments. The organizers of Embrace the Romance are upfront that they will make most of the marketing and organizational decisions, while the organizers of Cosmic Cabaret have attempted to set up a more collaborative process.
The more democratic the structure, the messier things might get, and the more likely missteps or miscommunications will occur. It’s important to keep an open mind regarding expectations. A good contract can prevent a lot of miscommunication glitches. Scott says it’s important “to spell out even more clearly in the contract the promo requirements and the exclusive rights of the organizers to make the decisions,” including the way funds are collected, managed and spent.
In addition to money, most projects demand its contributors help market the book. This time obligation includes promoting the book through the author’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as through newsletters and blogs. Individual authors are generally expected to seek and obtain reviews and blog posts promotions across the romance reading market. One respite: you shouldn’t be asked to buy individual ads since the organizers have collected the marketing funds to do this on behalf of the whole group.
Some bundles will also ask participants to beta read each other’s stories. The benefits of this requirement is that the authors, who may not know each other’s publications before signing on, get to know the other stories in advance of marketing. Interactive feedback helps improve and polish the cohesiveness of the final book, and it builds comradeship among the authors. When the set releases, it’s often easier to convince readers to buy the anthology in order to read a story you loved by another author than it is to get them to buy the book in order to read your story. If the project contract doesn’t include hiring a professional editor for the complete book, keep in mind that you will have to cover the costs of getting your individual story edited as well.
Finally, unless you’re contributing a story that you’ve already written, you need to commit time to writing and revising a new story. As a writer, this task may seem a given, but if you’re an indie author used to working alone on your own time scale, you might find external due dates onerous and difficult to meet. Be sure to note the contracted due dates of any rough or final drafts and plan your schedule accordingly. Beware of signing onto a project without enough time to meet its deadlines. As one of many authors, your ability to meet deadlines affects everyone. Just as you expect the organizers to be professional, so too, they will expect you to be professional as well.
The Size and Scope of a Project
Finding the ideal project is a challenge. Scott advises interested authors to “ensure that you have common goals [with the organizers]…make a list, support a charity, attract new readers? Is everyone willing to put in the time and energy required to achieve that goal?”
Once you’ve decided you’d like to join forces with other authors in your genre to sell your brand, you need to find (or create) a set that matches your style and goals. Are big boxed sets loaded with dozens of 250+ page novels selling for less than a buck better than a $5.00 anthology filled with half as many authors contributing short stories or novellas a better gamble?
It depends on your resources and goals. Giant boxed sets of full length novels might pick up more sales and make a list initially, but the downside may mean getting lost in the mix—how does an author with limited name recognition stand out in a crowd of 20 other authors? At 99 cents, readers might click buy, but let the book languish in their Amazon account for years until it disappears under the weight of a thousand other unread 99 cent books. With so many authors and titles collected in one book, a contributor has to wonder whether readers will even read her story in the set at all, especially if your story comes third to the end of twenty-five full length book titles.
Also, the larger the set, the more likely the variation in quality and style of writing within the bundle as well, watering down the possibility of crossover sales. At 99 cents, readers might click and buy, but such a cheap price might also cause the reader to devalue and therefore set aside the book for later reading that they never get to.
Finally, these big bundles can be the most expensive to join. They go big to expand their reach to try to hit a list. Organizers might demand additional financial contributions as they spend on Book Bub, Amazon and Facebook Ads. You might contribute $300.00 upfront, then be asked for another $200.00 three to four months later. Also, the management costs may be built into the contract, diverting funds towards the organizers (they may be paying themselves for their time) and away from actual marketing of the book.
Midsize sets selling at higher prices can be a better fit, especially in SFR, which has a smaller readership in comparison to the general romance market. It appears to be the philosophy behind the SFR anthologies coming out this fall. They include only around a dozen authors each contributing shorter novellas, and are listed for sale at higher prices. Baird Jones says, “because we are doing anthologies, not boxed sets, we put an upper limit of 25K on the stories for inclusion. We also put the limit on because authors wanted to do a limited print edition this time around and we wanted it to be readable.” Cosmic Cabaret set their limit at 30K, but are only producing a digital book.
Quality vs. Quantity, maybe? Reach to new readers will be more limited, but organizers of smaller books believe more of the individual stories are likely to get read by those who buy the books. With fewer buyers though, the possibility of making a list shrink substantially. Conversely, when readers invest more money on a smaller collection, it can increase their incentive to read the book sooner than later. If the goal is to get your story read rather than make a list, modestly sized bundles are probably a better choice.
Finally, the small collections of three to four author novellas, made popular by traditional publishers, could be the best fit for a beginning or midlist author, If the book is headlined by an author with wide name recognition and a large readership. Should you get an opportunity to join such a project, make sure you’re all set to capitalize on the project with a backlist of titles and another new release in the wings set to push your brand out into the market.
No matter what kind of collaborative publication you decide to join, Scott says, “there absolutely has to be a written contract. It should cover who does what, what are the authors expected to do, what upfront costs are there (if any), how are expenses to be paid, are the organizers taking any extra cut, all the details about when and how royalties will be paid, the schedule and due dates, will there be a print edition, when can authors publish the stories on their own, at what floor price – this is a business and as such everyone’s rights need to be safeguarded.”
Does Your Brand or Style Match the Individual Aspects of the Project: Do You Fit?
Anthologies and boxed sets are organized differently, dependent on their goals and purposes. Some have limited publication runs, ranging from six months to two years, while others are contracted to sell indefinitely. Some are built with short stories, some novellas, and some full-length novels. Some solicit completely original stories, while others demand tales connected to a concept or previously developed world. Some are genre specific, some are heat-level specific, and some seek to broaden readership for their authors, while others want to deepen it. Some sell for 99 cents while others sell for $9.99.
Which characteristics work best with your brand?
If your brand is about quality, you may want to avoid signing onto inexpensive or free bundles. Readers with limited budgets who are attracted to these price-cut books might love your story as it appears in that 99 cent boxed set, but will they go one to buy your individual full-length novels that you sell for $4.99 upwards to $9.99 a piece? If you spend two years writing and rewriting a book into near perfection, you might need to target readers who are willing to spend more of their entertainment dollars on fewer books. If you prefer to write and publish shorter stories that sell for 99 cents to $2.99 a piece, the free book bundles probably suit your work best.
Do you want to give up temporary marketing and publishing control over a full-length novel? If the goal is to reach the market with a sample of your work, you may not want to hand over 300 pages of effort to a freebie or 99 cent boxed set. It’s possible that book bundles made up of complete novels may hit the lists more easily, but it’s just as likely collections of shorter novellas will do the job just the same, with less time invested.
If you’re going after new readers, joining onto a boxed set or anthology of general science fiction or horror might not attract any new readers of your other work when most of the contributing authors’ fan bases don’t read romance. The more aligned your genre and brand with the other authors, the more likely you’ll see crossover in sales. In romance, that also means thinking about heat levels. Placing your BDSM space opera into an anthology of sweet romances or hard core military SF with barely there romantic subplots will likewise erase any effort to attract new readers to your work.
Building Trust and Relationships through Professional Expectations
Authors living all over the world connect through social media to create bundles and anthologies. Collaboration is made possible despite the geographical distances due to technology. The organizers of Cosmic Cabaret live in Washington, Oregon and California. The other contributing authors live as far away as Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Michigan. Some projects draw from writers across the world. So how do you trust someone you’ve never met with both your money and your creative work? Although most collective publishing efforts are organized by independent, self-publishing authors, you should still expect reasonable levels of professionalism.
First, investigate when and how contributors and organizers communicate? Is communication limited to email, or does the project have a private Facebook group or shared Google drive where authors can interact or share files? Is there a website with a forum where you can ask questions or share ideas? How quickly are your initial questions answered by organizers or other members of the group?
Given that most of these bundled book projects are managed by people who are already busy writing and publishing, and who may also hold down day jobs and take care of families, communication speeds might not match private publishing company standards. Still, if you write the organizers with questions, answers should be provided within days and certainly in less than a week’s time. There should be an open door policy that allows for transparency of information, even if answers to questions or concerns prove to be unpopular.
Second, without a doubt, contributors should be completing W-9s in anticipation of possible earnings, and professional contracts should be provided, carefully read and signed. The contracts should clearly outline the responsibilities of the managers and the requirements of the contributing authors regarding deadlines, beta read obligations, and social media activity. Even though the project might not be designed to produce significant monetary profits, authors should be able to review all financial dealings. Organizers should prepare and share regular reports. If authors are lucky, the organizers will also produce and share reports analyzing the effectiveness of various paid marketing efforts too.
Third, unless someone on the project has the expertise, a professional should be hired to create the cover, and an editor to review the final document for quality control. If a professional editor is hired, the cost to buy into the project will likely be higher than if the individual authors are required by contract to arrange for their own professional editing. Regardless, professional editing of all the stories should be a mandated responsibility noted in the contract. Even if the organizers of the project are new to this type of marketing, you can check out their previous publications and evaluate their personal brands. If you approve of what they are doing with their own indie-published work, then you’ll likely be satisfied with what they do for the group.
Still interested? Finding a project to join can be a challenge. There are closed Facebook groups like Boxed Set Opportunities for Authors that discuss and share information about anthology and boxed set projects. Also, the RWA and F,F & P forums provide places for conversation and discussion. Finally, approach the authors of the other anthologies to ask them how they got involved and what their personal experience was like. If none of these routes proves fruitful, consider starting up your own collective.
Selene Grace Silver is a managing and contributing author to the SFR Shooting Stars anthology, Cosmic Cabaret, which is currently available for order on all major online book retail sites.