(courtesy of Gwynn White)
Sorry in advance for the very long post but there is a lot to cover. Tomorrow, after six months on pre-order, Dominion Rising Spec SFF boxed set goes live with just over 16000 combined pre-orders on Amazon, Nook, and Apple.
A year ago, when P.K. Tyler and I met online and decided to organize a list-making boxed set, we had no idea of the amount of work involved, the joy and frustration we’d experience, or the angle of the learning curve we’d so blithely embarked on. I was already a boxed set veteran with two NYT bestseller titles from previous sets, and P.K. Tyler was a USA Today bestseller in her own right.
We barely knew each other—the first risk—but after a few Facebook messages, we realized that we shared core values: integrity, a strong work ethic, and a belief in the power of the collective. Why do something yourself if you can incentivize a few hundred people to do it for you? And yes…that is compatible with work ethic.
We also believed in the need to forge a team of authors who would not only work hard together but would also play hard together. We wanted a team that liked each other enough to work for everyone’s success both in and out of the set.
People who care for each other are less likely to shirk tasks and are more willing to go the extra mile for the team. Getting enough sales to hit high on the bestseller lists requires many, many extra miles.
That wasn’t the only requirement. The authors had to bring in brand-new, never-before published work. As far as we know, Dominion Rising was the first multi-author boxed set to require new material. It made a huge difference to sales. They also had to bring a meaningful mailing list—vital for any effective promotion.
No easy task, but we set out to find A-grade authors who we thought shared those values. I hand-picked the fantasy authors, and P.K. wooed the science fiction crew. By the end of October, we signed contracts with 22 authors. Some already had letters, others held prestigious awards, while some were Amazon best sellers in their genres. Not all those authors have stayed until the end. We’ve dealt with illness, the call of world travel, overbooked schedules… you name it. We even had the tragic death of Tom Shutt. Tom became our friend in the months we worked together and we were all devastated by his loss. To honor him, we’ve dedicated the set to him, and have included his half-finished novel. But no matter the challenges P.K and I faced, we’ve never struggled to find an A-grade author to fill a vacancy.
In November, we all met in the Dominion Rising Facebook group. That was interesting. Terrifying, actually. What had been an idea was now a reality. Real people—not just profile pics on Facebook—were looking at us to deliver, at worst, a USA Today victory, at best, NYT. I didn’t sleep properly for two months (Actually, I haven’t slept properly since last October )
By end December, we had a title, a cover (which has changed a few times as we’ve tried to balance SciFi and Fantasy) and a deal with Apple. We gave them a 3-month exclusive pre-order in exchange for some visibility. That helped enormously in getting sales on what is arguably the most difficult vendor to shift pre-orders. We now go into our sales week with way more than the 500 sales required for that vendor.
Meanwhile, back in the Dominion Rising Facebook group, our ‘build a team of friends’ plan was struggling. We spent December and January skirting around each other. To be honest, at times it was quite hostile. Although everyone wanted letters, many were wary of multi-author boxed sets. The science fiction authors didn’t know me, and the fantasy authors didn’t know P.K. Many of the authors were strangers to each other. No one knew whom they could trust.
Issues like compliance to retailer TOS and gifting books kept cropping up. P.K. and I had made those decisions long before any author was recruited: we would not wittingly break a single vendor TOS. And as for gifting, we’re in the business of selling books, not giving them away in vast quantities to boost numbers. It took a huge amount of energy, endless tact, and, when that failed, a few sharp words to finally get everyone calmed down enough so we could start working together.
All through this tough time, I knew the only solution was to build friendships based on trust. To date, every boxed set I had been in had been managed top down. I took the radical step of opening the group up to collective decision-making.
It was the best move P.K. and I made.
Virtually every decision in Dominion Rising is presented to the group to be hashed out and agreed before it is implemented. We strive for a unanimous vote. Not always possible, so if we occasionally fail, we go with the majority. Once a decision is made, P.K and I enforce it. Suddenly it wasn’t P.K. Tyler and my set anymore. It belonged to everyone.
By the time our Amazon pre-order went up on Pronoun in March, and Nook and Kobo on D2D, we had sorted out the team. On our Amazon, Nook and Kobo release day, we sold 1685 books just on Amazon, largely attributed to the excitement and spirit in the group. We got months of organic sales from that boost, consistently ranking us between 1000-2000 in the store.
Collective decision-making created ‘Blue Sky Territory.’ Put 25 motivated, savvy authors, who also happen to be friends, into a room and you get dynamite promo ideas. No one held back on their knowledge. Everyone had an ‘official’ task to perform, (buying ads, creating graphics, Facebook posting etc.) but people contributed waaaaay beyond their assigned tasks.
I can’t tell you how many ideas we’ve debate—always peppered with GIFs and stickers. The results have, in many instances, revolutionized how multi-author boxed sets sell books. At times, the suggestions were coming so fast it was bewildering. We had to appoint a secretary to keep us all from spinning out of control.
Many of these ideas pulled in the collective might of the SFF indie Facebook community to help us sell 16000 pre-orders. Yes, we spammed you with our graphics, our author giveaways, and our pleading for newsletter swaps. Even I’m tired of our posts. But it worked. We got the sales. Thank you for putting up with us and for helping. We could not have done it without you.
So what promotional stuff did we try and how effective were they?
We’ve run both BookBub and Facebook ads throughout the pre-order. The cost of BookBub ads is eye-watering. When I started building ads in January, bidding opened at $6.15 CPM. Now it’s $7.44. But when you’re going for a list, ROI isn’t as important as sheer volume. So, you pay in blood and try not to wince when the bills fly in. Ad fatigue is also a problem. Ever noticed that most of the Amazon SciFi and fantasy bestseller lists are owned by the same authors? That narrows the options for a lengthy ad campaign targetted at genre authors. It helped that we have a brilliant graphics team who kept up a steady flow of new images. For Facebook ads, we used lookalike targets based on our individual mailing lists. This proved very effective. We’ve also booked every single paid newsletter service for our release week. Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to run AMS because we’re listed through Pronoun. A definite downside to Pronoun. I say a few words about working with Pronoun at the end of this post.
2. A bonus author.
To keep the momentum up during the long pre-order, in May we brought in a 23rd novel as a reader bonus. So instead of paying 99c for 22 novels, they’re paying 99c for 23 novels. This gave us something new to hype about—and hype is everything if you are trying to hit a list. Every month, we rolled out something new to shout about. We snagged over 1100 Amazon sales on the day we announced our bonus author. Propped up by BookBub and Facebook ads, the tail of organic sales kept us bobbing in our chosen rank— 1000-2000—for months. If you’re running a boxed set, I would consider doing something like this.
3. Deals with Vendors.
Getting 500 sales on two additional vendors is often the toughest part of a list-making boxed set. We made courting vendor reps a high priority. We gave Apple an exclusive three months and it paid off. We got a lead on a Nook rep from the For Love or Money Facebook group. Even though we used D2D for Nook, we managed to negotiate a deal with her for a promo through Nook Press during August and September. We already have the required 500 sales for Nook, but hey, more can’t harm. It does mean that we delay going into KU until October, but the team decided it was worth the tradeoff.
4. Cross-Author Promo—the real power behind this effort.
Hand on heart, I can say that we’ve courted every single SFF indie author on Facebook for newsletter swaps. We’ve organized book sales with a newsletter swap component to incentivize you to swap with us. We launched a monthly 300K Newsletter Blast giveaway aimed at wooing you to share our set. Thanks to the 300K Blast, we also helped a few authors launch their new releases onto bestseller lists. We have two team members dedicated to arranging swaps with big-hitting SciFi and fantasy authors, who don’t trawl Facebook groups looking for swaps. The result: we go into our launch week with over 500 000 newsletters sharing Dominion Rising. This excludes our own data base of almost 500 000 subs. That is BookBub size.
5. Instafreebie and Reddit.
We worked twice with Instafreebie to get Dominion Rising vendor links into new readers’ hands. We had a slot on Reddit, which allowed us to chat with keen fantasy readers. How effective these were in getting sales is hard to tell, but it was added exposure.
6. Facebook Party
We’ve run a massive Facebook party with authors joining us virtually every single day for months. We have over 1.2K people marked as coming to the launch week party. One of the team made the most incredible swag—works of art—as giveaways for the party. This swag is like nothing else you have ever seen. Come join our release party to see what we have on offer. You won’t regret it!
We’re the giveaway divas. Some giveaways were aimed at readers to encourage sales, and others were targeted at you for newsletter swaps. For readers, we’ve tapped into Instagram; we’ve run a huge reader giveaway on P.K’s website, which has almost 35K entries; we’ve offered a Swag ebook with bonus material to everyone who pre-ordered or buys the set during release week. We rolled these out over the months, so we’ve always had something new to brag about to our lists and on social media. For authors, we’ve run the 300K Newsletter Blast, as well as two cash giveaways attached to the romance and fantasy sales promos happening during our release week. These have definitely been worth the investment.
8. Blog Tours.
We’ve organized two blog tours. The first happened when the pre-order went live. The second one runs during release week and targets 92 blogs. That is massive exposure.
Dominion Rising has been featured on three podcasts: SF&F Marketing podcast, Hank Garner’s Author Stories, and Preston Leigh’s Leihgendarium podcast. How many sets this sold, I couldn’t tell you, but it’s all exposure.
10. The constant bombardment of social media.
That’s a nice way of saying we spammed you. Yeah, we admit it—it went on and on and on. And it ain’t stopping until the lists announce. But we know we made some mistakes here: too many of us posting the same stuff to the same groups. We’ve learned our lesson and that won’t happen again. Our fabulous secretary will make sure of that. But all that noise sold books, both through newsletter swaps and creating awareness. People say the jury is out on whether posting in Facebook groups works. Some call it the echo chamber. We have 26 authors who can attest that it sold enough books to make it a worthwhile endeavor.
11. Total Commitment
This was our ultimate strength. There isn’t a single author on the team who hasn’t contributed time, effort and talent. Every single person had a task and they worked their task without being nagged. They also all willingly contributed promo ideas and the benefit of their experience. The value of that is incalculable. The team deserves those 16000 sales. And if we do hit high on USA Today, or reach the holy grail—NYT—we can truly say we’ve earned that too. That counts for everything. For me, hitting the lists will be great, but my satisfaction comes from knowing that P.K Tyler and I created an environment which made such incredible magic possible. We had a dream that we managed to share with like-minded people who worked with us to make it happen. So, no matter happens over the next few days, I consider Dominion Rising a huge success.
A final word on Pronoun
I’ve mixed feelings about listing with them. Clearly, the big advantages are their long pre-order to get around Amazon’s 90-days, no limitation on file size, and the higher royalty. Also, we’re listed on Amazon as being published by Macmillan. This could help with NYT curation.
But these are traded against some serious shortcomings: 1) Reporting is painfully slow. It can take up to a week for Amazon to update figures. If you’re running expensive ad campaigns that is unacceptable. 2) You’ve no direct control over your Amazon sales page. All changes must pass through Pronoun. This becomes problematic if you use Author Central. You immediately drop into a hole between Amazon and Pronoun, with neither vendor willing to take responsibility for changes to the sales page. Getting things done becomes a slow-playing nightmare. 3) They require a completed manuscript when you upload the pre-order. This means you can’t just stick up a placeholder with a big notice saying, “If Amazon sends you this file, contact them because they messed up the pre-order.” You need a handy manuscript lying in a drawer to upload until the final file is ready. 4) You cannot run AMS. 5) If you delist to go into KU, you lose ranking and must start your promos again.
Watch out world . . . the Dominion Rising promo machine will soon be revving up for our KU promo drive We have some fun ideas for our KU period, and you can be sure that we will try and engage you with them!
Now I need to devote as much time and energy to my own badly neglected book marketing as I have to Dominion Rising… Thanks for reading. I hope you get something from our experience.
Update: 24 hours after the Dominion Rising launch, we have 109 reviews on Amazon with a 4.7-star rating. We are very happy with that! Thank you to everyone who purchased and read.