On June 23rd, we attempted to do something that (as far as I know) has never been done before: get a multi-author nonfiction box set book on the New York Times Bestseller List.
If you don’t know what a box set is, it’s basically a set of several books bundled together so that readers can buy them all in one, and usually at a discount. In this case, we published the box set only as an ebook because it was over 2,000 pages – much too big for Print on Demand (POD), and too large for an audiobook as well.
The idea for the box set launch first came to me in early April, 2014 after interviewing Joanna Penn and Aubrey Rose for the Publishing Profits Podcast show, both of whom became New York Times bestselling authors with their multi-author fiction box set books.
I had a detailed conversation with Aubrey Rose about her experience becoming a NYT bestselling author with a fiction box set, and it all just made sense. It was definitely one of those “light bulb moments” where I realized that this would be something big, especially for nonfiction authors with established author platforms.
I figured if a multi-author box set worked for fiction authors, it should definitely work for nonfiction authors, too!
Our main goal was to sell at least 10,000 ebook copies of the box set in 7 days or less and hit the New York Times Bestseller List.
Hitting the Wall Street Journal and USA Today Bestseller Lists were secondary goals.
Once I had the idea formed and got some more great advice from Aubrey about how to set everything up, I started to think about how we should position the box set, and who the audience would be.
I finally decided on a generic self-help / personal development positioning for a few reasons.
First, we would need authors with the ability to sell a lot of books in a very short period of time (7 days or less) because the New York Times Bestseller Lists only count sales from Sunday to Sunday in a one-week period. I’ve heard from other authors who made the NYT lists that they had anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 sales in one week.
With 10 authors in a box set, that means each author would have to send about 1,000 sales each in 7 days. Few authors can do that without a large, active and responsive email list. So, I knew I needed to find authors for the box set who had large email lists with 10,000 or more subscribers.
That’s not an easy thing to do. In the internet marketing world, I’d say maybe 1% of internet marketers, at most, have a list of 10,000 or more subscribers. For authors, it’s probably 0.01% (one in ten-thousand) who have a list that size. Social media and blogs just don’t convert to book sales nearly as well as a direct email to fans.
Opt-in email lists can allow authors to sell books fast. Few other forms of marketing have that kind of instant impact on sales. You can read more about email marketing and how to build your email list in my book Email Marketing Mastery.
Because it’s so hard to find authors with an email list of 10,000+ subscribers, I knew I had a choice: either create a niche book and struggle to find authors to contribute, or create a more generic book and struggle less to find enough authors to contribute.
Okay, there were some other very important considerations as well to make sure the plan would work…
The authors would have to own the rights to their book in order to include it in our box set. That means traditionally published authors were out (unless they wanted to write a brand new book and allow us to have nonexclusive ebook rights to publish it). Also, any authors who had signed with an independent publisher (other than TCK Publishing) were out as well.
Also, I wanted to launch in the summer because that’s the least crowded time for major book launches (apparently, a lot of traditional publishing folks tend to go on vacation in the summer and that makes it the least busy time of year for book launches). That’s why we chose June 23 for the launch start date.
Since I only just had the idea around April 1st (ha, Fools Day – maybe I should have taken that as a sign?), that only gave us about 9 weeks to find all the authors, collect all the manuscripts, format the manuscripts, get them published and live on all the various platforms, plan the entire marketing campaign, and more.
Looking back, I can’t believe I was so naive to think we could get it all done that fast! We regularly publish ebooks in 7-21 days for clients at TCK Publishing, but this project was entirely different. With 20 manuscripts from 20 authors and all the additional work that would go into this project, I should have planned more time to get everything done.
If I could do it again, I would have given myself four to six months to really plan everything out. I might even plan it out a year ahead to give some authors a chance to write a new book just for the box set and/or to finish up a book they are already working on.
Because there just wasn’t enough time before the launch, we couldn’t use Smashwords Premium Distribution to distribute the ebook via iBooks, Nook, Kobo, Google Play, etc. So, we had to upload the ebook directly to all the major distributors.
Finding the Authors
I started creating a list of potential authors who would make a good fit. These were the basic criteria I knew we needed to make it work:
- Own the rights to a well-written, currently published self-help or personal development book (or a new book that was completely finished, edited and proofread).
- Have an email list of 10,000+ subscribers (in hopes of selling at least 1,000 copies in a week).
- Preferably, someone I already knew and trusted or someone referred by a close friend or colleague (with only 9 weeks to pull everything off, trust was definitely a big issue. Trust speeds up business deals. Without it, it’s hard to get things done quickly and efficiently).
With these key ingredients in mind, I started creating the list of authors I would reach out to. Some were already TCK Publishing clients which made things much easier. Some were close friends and people I already knew which was great. A few others were people I knew of, but had no direction relationship with yet.
With the list in hand, I started reaching out to see who might be interested.
I sent the pitch by email. Here’s what it said:
I’m not sure if this is a good fit for you, if you have a self-help related book or not, but I thought of you anyways and just wanted to let you know.
I’ve got a plan for how we can become New York Times and USA Today Bestselling authors together.
Recently, a lot of fiction authors have become NYT bestsellers by selling ‘box sets’ where several authors in one genre will sell several books as a bundle for 99 cents and they all promote the box set when it launches.
I think we can do the same thing in the personal development/self-help niche, and I want you to be one of the twelve authors to come along and become a NYT bestseller with us.
You can either include one of your existing books in the box set or use a new one; it’s up to you.
If you’re in, let me know and we can schedule a time to chat and discuss the details.”
The response was mostly very positive. Many authors said yes right away.
There were a few questions:
How would the authors get paid?
Some asked how they would get paid. Basically, we would all share the royalties generated from the box set sales after deducting our publishing and marketing expenses.
How would the author benefit?
In addition to a small extra source of revenue from their existing book (splitting royalties between 20 authors doesn’t leave a ton of cash left over), they would get the chance to become a New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal bestselling author, get massive exposure, and build their email list and fan base from new readers for the box set.
The Publishing Contract (or Lack Thereof)
After the questions were answered, we had 20 authors who agreed to participate (actually, we had more, but some of them didn’t deliver their manuscripts in time).
Only one author asked for a contract, so we sent it and signed and everything worked out. That means 19 authors (well, 18 and myself) didn’t have a formal written contract for the box set. Shocking, right?!
Normally, I’m all about contracts. We always sign a contract before we do any work for clients at TCK Publishing. But this was different. We didn’t need exclusive rights to publish the ebooks – we only needed limited rights to publish in ebook format as part of the box set. No subsidiary rights or other rights were needed.
Here’s the deal: contracts suck. So do lawyers. Hey, I love my attorney. He’s a great guy. But negotiating just one contract, let alone 20, is a huge pain in the butt and the legal bills add up fast.
Contracts and lawyers slow down business. They reduce trust (maybe not directly, but the process reduces trust). The truth is that if someone really wants to screw you over in business, they can do it with or without a contract. That’s why you should always be honest, work with honest people, and do your best to do everything the right way. Don’t just do what’s legal – do the right thing.
That’s also why you should only work with people you trust, and get legal advice from a great attorney.
But in this case, if every author had hired an attorney to review a publishing contract, the legal bills would probably have exceeded the profit, and maybe even the revenue, generated from the book sales.
In other words, this profitable, and potentially very successful business opportunity would have been destroyed by legal fees alone. That’s why trust is so important. It reduces costs, speeds up results, and everyone wins.
If you’re hoping your attorney or contract can protect you from ever getting burned by untrustworthy people, you’re living in a dream land. Attorneys and contracts can definitely help protect you, but it’s never bulletproof. I can’t tell you how many entrepreneur friends I have who have gotten burned, scammed or cheated and their attorney’s advice (after thousands of dollars in legal fees) was basically, “Just let it go. If you took them to court, you would very likely win, but it wouldn’t be worth the time and expense.”
I met a billionaire a few years ago named Tom Mower who said he sealed a deal to build a $100 Million+ factory on nothing but a handshake and trust. That’s what business is about: relationships and trust. A contract, no matter how well it’s written, is no substitute for either.
Collecting and Accepting Manuscripts
Once we had an agreement, the authors sent over their manuscripts in Microsoft Word format. We had to reformat them all for Kindle.
We also removed a lot of front and back matter that wasn’t necessary and might take away from the reader’s experience. Things like dedications, acknowledgments, forewards and other information that wasn’t necessary for the reader were removed to 1) make the reading experience cleaner and flow better, and 2) reduce file size (see below).
It took a lot of work to format all twenty books. Different manuscripts by different authors in different formats made the process a lot more time-intensive than I thought. Several of the manuscripts had unnecessary HTML and formatting that needed to be eliminated.
Once the manuscripts were all properly formatted for Kindle, here’s what happened next…
We Lost the File!
Just after we finished formatting the manuscript for Kindle, I switched to a new Macbook Pro from my old PC computer. During the switch, I somehow accidentally deleted everything in my Dropbox folder. Dropbox was able to recover all the files, but somehow I still lost the fully formatted manuscript.
We had to go back to an older version of the file and start again which took another week of work. Not cool!
Be careful with your manuscript files! Always back them up, and use multiple sources of backup as often as you can. This is a lesson I have definitely had to learn the hard way.
Book Title Testing
After we fixed the formatting fiasco, it was time to start testing book titles.
Here are a few of the titles we tested:
20 Life-Changing Books Box Set
Healthy, Wealthy and Happy Box Set
You Can Have It All
There were several others, but these were the top three. We tested the titles with Facebook Ads. We created a Facebook Ad Campaign targeting readers of personal development books and everything in the ads was exactly the same except the headlines. Each ad had a different headline using the exact wording of one of the titles we were testing.
In the end, 20 Life-Changing Books Box Set won out.
Book Cover Design and Testing
Here’s the final 3d cover we went with:
And here’s the flat version:
The file size for the box set became a bit of a problem. In the beginning, it was around 34 MB and the manuscript was over 2,000 pages. Having a file size that big created several issues:
1) Our ebook delivery fees would be much higher than normal.
2) Our pricing would be fixed. Amazon doesn’t allow pricing at 99 cents unless the file size is 3 MB or less (more about that soon).
3) Converting the file to Epub with Calibre took several hours instead of the 1-2 minutes it usually takes with a single book file.
4) The online Epub validator didn’t work (It only accepts files 10 MB or less).
5) It took an extraordinarily long time to open or make changes to the file in Microsoft Word.
We compressed all the images and got the file size down to about 14 MB, a great improvement but not good enough. We then had to selectively delete images to get the file size down below 10 MB. The final file size was around 9.6 MB.
Publishing the box set on Kindle was relatively easy. We just uploaded the file, cover, book description and all the regular info and the book was live in a few days. Amazon did email us asking if we had the rights to publish the book, but we got that straightened out in less than a week.
Nook was (surprisingly) the easiest platform to publish on. We simply submitted the files and it was live within about 48 hours. I must say that I greatly prefer the design and functionality of the new NookPress site compared to the old Pubit site that Barnes & Noble used to have for ebook publishing.
Kobo was quite easy to work with as well. The book was live within a few days of uploading the files.
On June 23rd, we attempted to do something that (as far as I know) has never been done before: get a multi-author nonfiction box set book on the New York Times Bestseller List.
If you don’t know what a box set is, it’s basically a set of several books bundled together so that readers can buy them all in one, and usually at a discount. In this case, we published the box set only as an ebook because it was over 2,000 pages – much too big for Print on Demand (POD).
Uploading to Smashwords was pretty straightforward since we didn’t opt in for Premium Distribution. The cool thing about publishing an ebook on Smashwords is that it was live in the Smashwords store immediately. If only Smashwords there were more readers buying books from Smashwords! We sold 11 copies of the Box Set on Smashwords to date.
The iBooks Publishing Debacle
We published the book on iBooks like normal. You know, we had to convert the ebook file to epub, use epubchecker to make sure everything was good, and upload it to iTunes using iTunes Producer. It’s probably the most complicated and ridiculous ebook publishing system in existence right now.
Everything seemed to be going fine until we got a ticket in the iTunes Connect platform saying that there was an issue with the metadata… two weeks after we submitted the book. So we fixed it right away.
Then, three weeks later (this was the day before the launch), we got another ticket saying that the book couldn’t be published on iBooks because it included a link to a competitor’s site.
We had already removed all the links to Amazon and other sites in the manuscript, but apparently we missed a few that were embedded in text throughout some of the books. So, we fixed that right away, resubmitted to iTunes, called iTunes Publishing support who promised us that “there’s nothing we can do. The review team will review it when they can.”
Three weeks later (well after the launch finished), we received another ticket in iTunes Connect saying that there were still links to Competing Websites.’
Needless to say, I’m not a fan of iBooks distribution platform. It’s like a black box trapped inside an outdated and incredibly un-userfriendly system.
A friend of mine recently did a book launch and sold 1,600 copies on Amazon in a week and 30 on iBooks. I’m guessing we didn’t miss out on many sales, maybe 100-200 or so. But still, there were several disappointed subscribers who wanted an iBook copy and sadly we couldn’t provide it in time.
Normally, the review process for iBooks only takes 2 or 3 days, so I’m guessing the reason it took so long is because the box set was over 2,000 pages. It’s definitely a lot of material to read through!
The Launch and Marketing Campaigns
The Landing Page
We tested several different landing pages to drive traffic to in order to maximize book sales. If you’ve ever tried marketing a book online, you’ve probably found that sending traffic direct to Amazon works great if you have a close relationship with your audience, but for paid traffic and social media promotions, you’ll often get much better conversions using a well-crafted landing page.
This is the landing page we ended up with: https://tckpublishing.leadpages.net/20-box-set-launch-page/
We used Leadpages to create the landing page.
The Press Release
We wrote a press release and distributed it with the help of Dan Janal and www.PressReleaseSender.com. You can see it on PR Newswire here.
We offered a Facebook Sweepstakes as well timed to coincide with the book launch to help get extra exposure on social media, especially Facebook.
We used the ZoSocial software which at first looked great and seemed to work well, but we had dozens of comments from upset people who couldn’t get the app to work. Nothing seemed to be working, and the folks at ZoSocial couldn’t or just didn’t help us get the problem solved.
Even with the problems, we still had about 183 people enter the Sweepstakes. But the Sweepstakes post on Facebook had over 600 likes (you had to like the post to enter the Sweepstakes), so it looks like several hundred people just couldn’t connect to the ZoSocial app and enter the Sweepstakes.
The failure of the Sweepstakes app was definitely a big disappointment. So much so that I asked for a refund from ZoSocial. In the future, whenever we run a Sweepstakes, we will do it on our own site and not use a 3rd-party provider, software or host (except maybe LeadPages because they rock).
The 20 Life-Changing Books Box Set made #1 in Canada in Self-Help.
The Box Set even made it to #5 in all of Canada on Kindle (I think it went as high as #4 but we missed the screenshot of it). You can see it below in the screenshot between The Fault in Our Stars and The Goldfinch.
Never Use Goo.gl for a Launch
We used a goo.gl shortened link to send to all the authors to use to promote the book. I thought it would be great to have all the analytics information goo.gl provides for the traffic the authors were sending. This ended up being a huge mistake.
About two hours after we launched, the goo.gl links stopped working and took users to a page that said “This link has been disabled because it was reported as spam” or something like that.
We probably took a huge hit from this. It’s never a good thing when you send your subscribers an email with a link that Google says is spam. Right now as I’m writing this post, the links are working again correctly.
But I’ll sure as heck never use goo.gl again for a launch. And probably won’t ever use them again at all. What good is analytics and data if it comes with the risk of a link not functioning correctly, especially during a launch when you need it?
Not good at all, I say.
Sometimes Shorter is Better
If I had to do it all over again, I would probably choose less books to be included in the box set. Maybe 7-12. That way the file size and formatting work would be a lot more manageable.
In order to sell 10,000+ books in a week with 7-12 authors, each author would have to send around 1,000 sales through their email list and platform during that one week. That pretty much eliminates 99% of nonfiction authors.
Our conversion rates we tracked (before the goo.gl links broke) for emails sent to our email lists and purchases on Amazon were around 21% for the box set. This is pretty low compared to our normal conversion rates of 30-40% when I email my list (and I’ve heard other authors experience similar conversions when promoting one of their own books to their list).
I’m not really sure why the conversion rate was so much lower. Maybe 20 books was a bit overwhelming for some people. Maybe there weren’t enough 5-star reviews. Maybe the books covered too many diverse topics. I can’t say for sure, but these are just some possibilities.
The Major Bestseller Lists
In the end, 6,000 sales just wasn’t enough for the book to hit the New York Times, USA Today or the Wall Street Journal Bestseller list. If the book had been live and generated sales on iBooks during the week, I’m not sure it would have made enough of a difference to land us on any of those bestseller lists.