I came to an important realization last week: there may come a time, in the next few months, when I have to publish something I actively do not want people to buy.

No, I don’t mean my next novel. (Good guess! But please buy it!) I’m talking about something else, a thing we industry professionals like to call the boxed set.

Actually, everyone calls it that, not just us. It’s pretty common. I don’t know why I went with that whole ‘industry professional’ thing. It’s not like it’s a secret.

Right! Anyway. Moving on.

Sometime in the perhaps not-too-distant future I am going to end up releasing a boxed set, and it’s going to end up being so expensive nobody with basic math skills will buy it, and that will be on purpose.

To explain why this is so, you are going to need:

  • a calculator
  • an alcoholic beverage
  • no, something stronger than that
  • the big bottle
  • yes, that one

First off, let’s talk about what a boxed set is.

Boxed sets

This is a sort of antiquated term.

Publishers might, on an occasion in which they discover themselves owning a series of books—a trilogy, let’s say—be interested in new ways to monetize the series. One way to do that is to repackage three books as a single unit: still three books, but in a box that can be purchased as if it were one. That one unit can be priced in such a way that it costs less than it would cost to purchase each book separately. Thus, the buyer gets a deal on three books and the publisher gets a guaranteed three-book sale.

It’s antiquated, because a ‘boxed set’ involves an actual box, meaning it’s for physical books, and not ebooks.

Nonetheless, when those of us who tend to sell more ebooks than physical books have a need to put out a collection, we tend to market it as a boxed set. We even make a nice 3-D version of it that has no functional purpose other than to pretend to be a physical collection of books. Really. Here’s the 3-D version of The Immortal Chronicles, which I didn’t end up using for complicated reasons we don’t need to get into here.

Pretty, and totally unnecessary.

Now that we’ve established that everyone knows what a boxed set is, I’m going to veer off sideways for a minute and talk about audiobooks.

Why are we talking about audiobooks?

Here is an important observation that is supported only by anecdotal evidence and may therefore be untrue: the buyers of audiobooks are looking for different things than the buyers of ebooks.

That doesn’t sound controversial, but that’s because I phrased it poorly. Here’s my point, and it comes in the form of advice usually handed to the average self-published genre author when they’re starting out:

  1. do not write standalone books because nobody buys them
  2. do write series books, books with sequels, books that lead to other books, maybe even books with cliffhangers

What I’ve found is that the exact opposite is true in audio. The readers (listeners?) there are looking for complete stories. They want standalone books and prefer them to first-in-a-trilogy books.

How do I know this? Well, I really don’t, but it jibes with the reviews I’ve seen for The Spaceship Next Door, and it also helps explain the next point.

“Boxed sets do really well in audio”

This was an opinion expressed by multiple contributors to KBoards when I posed this theory there. That is to say, a boxed set of a trilogy will attract a good deal more interest than the individual books did.

Why? They want the whole story, in one shot.

Okay, okay, there’s probably an even better explanation. Audible.com is also a subscription service, and subscribers get a monthly credit for any one thing they want to download, and that leads readers to look for the most recorded hours per credit, and that leads them to favor boxed sets they think they will enjoy.

Fine. I just blew up my own theory. I still like the ‘complete story’ theory though, and either explanation is good for the next part. Get out the calculator and fill the shot glass. Here we go.

Pricing, and Amazon, and it’s time to start drinking

Here’s some fun facts you probably did not know.

On pricing books with Amazon

Amazon has a pretty good idea about how much your indie-published ebook should cost, so they create an incentive to keep your price in a certain range. They do this by offering a different split depending on the sale price. Basically, if you’ve priced the book between $2.99 and $9.99, you’re getting 70% and they’re keeping 30%. (I’m ignoring VAT and delivery charges here, because my life is complicated enough, thank you.) Anything less than $2.99 or more than $9.99 and you’re getting 35% to their 65%.

On pricing books on Audible

Audible sets the prices for all audiobooks. You can’t set your own. I know a lot of authors who are annoyed by this because it’s hard to promote something with a price you can’t control. I get it, but I like this way better. Admittedly, I’m biased.

The full price of audiobooks is tied to the total number of recorded hours, which means a boxed set that’s 30 hours long is going to cost more than a 10 hour book, and the publisher is going to be getting the same percentage of that per unit cost. Audible doesn’t punish anyone for pricing something higher than what they think it should be priced, because it’s already priced at what they think it should be priced.

Conclusion: a boxed set of a trilogy on Audible would be a good idea, because everyone likes audio boxed sets.

Problem: it’s impossible to create a boxed set on Audible.

Go ahead and refill that glass.

How to create a boxed set

Audible is an Amazon company. They have made it extremely easy to set up an audiobook between the two platforms.

(Note: I use ACX for my audiobooks. There are audiobook publishers out there for which this experience may differ.)

First, you create an account with ACX. Second, you ‘claim’ a book as yours, from the Amazon listing for that book. From that point onward—from the auditioning of narrators to the publication of the finished product—the listing being used on ACX/Audible is the same one as the listing that existed on Amazon.

Now. As you know, I have four books in the Immortal novel series, and the first three of those books stand alone quite well as a trilogy, and they already exist in audio form. All I have to do is combine those three audiobooks into a single unit and sell it except… Audible won’t let me do that.

I can’t create a boxed set on Audible. I can only create it on Amazon, and then carry it over to Audible.

But, no problem, right? Creating a boxed set on Amazon is just a matter of combining the right ebook files on Vellum, commissioning a fancy 3-D cover for them, and putting it up for sale. Once Amazon’s listing is live, I can go to Audible, claim it, and put that down payment on the yacht.

Well, hang on. First, let’s revisit the whole pricing thing we were talking about two drinks ago.

Please-don’t-buy-this pricing

I price my novels higher than most indies. Generally speaking, we’re all just stumbling around and looking for the ideal price point for our books, and the one that has worked for me is $5.99 per book. By that I mean I appear to sell as many books per day at that price as I did when the books were priced less than that.

This is a good thing to know, and I’m happy about it. Most of the time.

$5.99 per book means I’m clearing about $4.19 per book sold. ($5.99 x 70%) So, figure each book bought individually in the trilogy brings in $12.57.

Now obviously if I’m going to make a boxed set of these three books, it has to be a deal that makes sense for both the buyer and the seller, i.e., they’re spending a little less for the set, and I’m getting a little less in royalties.

Full price for all three books is $17.97. Let’s say I lop off just about $3 and price it at $14.99. Buy all three, pay a dollar less for each one. Good deal?

Sure, except Amazon is happier about this than I am, because the split went from 70% to 35% when the price passed $9.99. Now I’m getting only $5.24 per unit.

All right, but I can play by Amazon’s rules instead and price it at $9.99 and keep my 70%. Now the reader is getting one hell of a deal and I’m getting… $6.99. Sure, I’ve reduced the price by $5 and gotten an extra $1.75 per boxed set sale for doing that, but I’m still losing $5.58 each time someone buys the set instead of each book separately.

This is not a good deal for me.

To summarize:

  1. In order to maximize my Audible sales, I’m going to need to put out a boxed set
  2. In order to put out a boxed set on Audible I need to first put the boxed set out on Amazon
  3. The full cost of my novels makes it impossible to find a price-point for a boxed set that makes sense for both the buyer and the seller

Keeping everyone unhappy

One of the things I learned when raising two children is that most of the time it’s impossible to keep both kids happy at the same time, but it is possible to keep them both equally unhappy.

This is now my pricing strategy. I’m going to make everyone unhappy.

If I price the boxed set at $17.99, I’m only going to make $6.29 per unit sold—which, I should point out, is still less than I would make at $9.99. This makes me unhappy. But at this price the set is actually $0.02 more expensive than the purchase price of the three books individually. This makes the buyer unhappy, and maybe a little confused.

Again: the most effective strategy is to price the boxed set so high that its usefulness as a sellable product is completely eliminated.

This is insane, and it makes complete sense.

Your mileage may vary

I know, you’re still not convinced. Let’s have another drink together and think about this some more.

As long as I have to keep my prices between $2.99 and $9.99 to hold onto that 70%, I’m going to run into an issue somewhere. For instance, I could just lower the prices of the novels to $4.99 apiece, which makes the $9.99 less ridiculous in contrast, but remember that they’re selling just fine at $5.99. Doing this just so I feel better about how much of a hit I’m taking in the boxed set seems a little silly. Also, it makes the novellas I have priced at $2.99 and $3.99 look overpriced, never mind that $9.99 anthology I already have out there.

I could also just live with the $9.99 price tag and keep the novel prices at $5.99. This would actually make sense if I was selling more than six novels total. If, for instance, that number was sixteen instead—and some of those sixteen were additional books in the Immortal series—then sure, I could do this. But I’m not there yet.

There are two other options, but neither of those are in my hands. Either Audible lets me package a boxed set without having to list it first on Amazon, or, Amazon lets me price a boxed set for more than $9.99 without cutting the royalties in half.

I’m pretty sure neither of those things are going to be happening.

So: cheers! And welcome to the wonderful world of indie ebook pricing. We’re all mad here.


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3 Comments

  1. Lawrence Tate on April 10, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    Ahhhhhhh! My head is going to explode!!!
    Love the books! I started with “The Spaceship Next door”, the move on to “The Immortal Series”. I tend to get obsessive when I find an author I like, so I read everything they put out until I’m through their entire portfolio. Then I grumble and cuss until they write more. I’ll also buy multiple formats. I enjoy Audible, and e-books, but I like print books too. I’ll even spend stupid $$ on “signed and lined” print copies of my favorites. Numbered special editions? Love them! There’s one more thing to factor in to future equations… Keep up the good work, and I’ll keep reading…

  2. Cindy Kurneck on April 24, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    It is a shame that Amazon pays you less if you go over 9.99 – because your books are more than you charge – over 9.99.

    I read voraciously, over 60 books a year. I purchase my books, now, exclusively on amazon.com for my kindle. So I kinda have a good idea about what’s out there.

    You are a writer that is far above average. In fact I would go so far as to say that you are TERRIFIC (in all caps). I have read your entire immortal series and have just concluded the Fixer. I will read more. Basically i will read anything you write because it’s smart, funny, and incredibly insightful.

    What a ridiculous pricing schema amazon has. And you have beautifully, and in a most pleasant, comic way have pointed that out. The same as you do in your books. And that is why I love them.

    Thank you. I am honestly grateful.

  3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt on November 3, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    If I ever finish the Pride’s Children trilogy, I will come back and read this post – because there is no way I can keep this straight in my head from now until 3-4 years from now.

    I intend to keep the prices high for the individual books – they’re 167K or better, so I’m not skimping or cheating a reader. I may just not be able to put them into a boxed set – and still get decent royalties from Amazon.

    But I read these posts, and think about the audio versions, and try to figure out what would be fairest for me and my readers. At least, as an indie, I don’t have to deal with a publisher on top of that. Then I’d need a lot more than the big bottle.

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