On March 30 of last year, just weeks after the U.S. began locking down to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, Blue Box Press, the second imprint of boutique publisher Evil Eye Concepts, released Jennifer L. Armentrout’s fantasy novel From Blood and Ash. And Blue Box’s three proprietors—Liz Berry, author M.J. Rose, and Jillian Stein—knew they had a potential hit on their hands.
Armentrout quickly turned in drafts for two sequels of a planned six books in the Blood and Ash series, which she described as being like “if A Game of Thrones had vampires.” The three titles that Blue Box has already published have sold about 900,000 copies across digital and print formats. The third book in the series, The Crown of Guilded Bones, has been on a number of e-book bestseller lists since its April 21 release. And Armentrout, whose books in the series average around 200,000 words apiece, just keeps writing: a prequel series, Flesh and Fire, will kick off in October with A Shadow in the Ember.
“When we published From Blood and Ash, it did remarkably well, and it had great legs,” said Berry, Armentrout’s editor. “But when [the second book] A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire came out, everything got crazy. Because the readers could devour book one and then book two.”
That type of marketing was part of the strategy. “I knew when I started writing that if I was able to get the book published in spring of 2020, there would be a gap in other releases, and that if this fantasy had a chance to pick up steam, it would happen when some of the other series that are popular had finished,” Armentrout said. She also knew that print-focused traditional publishers couldn’t get the book out as quickly as she wanted, so she turned to Blue Box.
Blue Box was formed late in 2019, but its parent company, Evil Eye Concepts, was started by Berry and Rose in 2013. Under its other imprint, 1,001 Dark Nights Press, Evil Eye has published romance novellas since 2014, primarily in e-book format for $2.99 but also in print-on-demand paperbacks from Amazon’s KDP, digital audiobooks, and the occasional print-on-demand hardcover put out by Barnes & Noble Press or Lightning Source. Dark Nights releases roughly 20–24 books per year, plus a handful of five-book backlist bundles. According to Rose, Dark Night’s books have collectively sold more than three million copies in all formats to date.
Rose and Berry launched Evil Eye in order, Rose said, to see “what would happen if a publisher treated an author the way an author wanted to be treated.” The company began by employing a strategy the duo called “strategic elevated marketing,” which focused on having its authors cross-promote each other’s works. They felt confident the strategy would succeed specifically in the romance market, after research found that roughly 50% of romance readers will try a new author—a much higher percentage than readers of other genres.
Dark Nights published a dozen books in its first year, all edited by Berry and marketed by Rose—and the authors themselves. On each book’s release day, all of the press’s authors put up dedicated posts on Facebook about it, including links to where to buy it. (As social media has evolved, cross-marketing strategies at the company have moved beyond Facebook, including marketing to a newsletter audience.) To promote each book, the company also contracts with Rose’s other company, the marketing service AuthorBuzz, and public relations firm Social Butterfly PR, spending what Rose described as “way upwards” of $10,000 on promoting each title.
“It’s really powerful when you have Gina Showalter posting about Larissa Ione, and then Heather Graham is posting about her, and then Kristen Ashley is posting, and Kennedy Ryan—all of these different wonderful authors posting about one book,” Berry said. “The fans love it, and they like to see the relationships, and they like to see that the authors like each other and like each other’s books.”
The reason the cross-promotions work, Rose explained, is because Evil Eye is a small company and only publishes books by people she and Berry know. The press’s legal agreements, which Berry referred to as “handshakes,” really drive the point home.
“Our contracts with our authors—with every single author—are just one page,” Rose said. “I think that that says so much about everything that we’re doing. It is a different relationship, and that’s why it works.” Under the contracts, authors do not receive advances but earn higher-than-usual royalties.
By 2019, Dark Nights authors were looking to publish bigger books with the press, and Rose and Berry decided it was time to launch Blue Box. That’s when they brought in Stein, who had been Evil Eye’s social media manager for years, as a partner.
Blue Box published seven books in 2020 and intends to publish eight to 12 books a year going forward. In addition to Armentrout’s The Crown of Gilded Bones and A Shadow in the Ember, 2021 titles include the first installment of a new contemporary romance series by Kristen Ashley, which she will write in part by collaborating with her Facebook audience via polls suggesting plot developments and the like; a book by Steve Berry and Rose in July; and the first in a new series of longer-length novellas penned by Rose and C.W. Gortner.
Rose will also publish a standalone through Blue Box once a year. Her first one, The Last Tiara, was released in February. (She has published 21 books with traditional houses, but when her contract with Simon & Schuster expired, she declined a two-book deal. “I own a publishing company,” she said. “I decided to try out the merchandise myself and couldn’t be happier.”)
It’s an ambitious slate for three people running a publishing house remotely from three different states—which they did long before the pandemic struck (Berry lives in Florida, Rose in Connecticut, and Stein in Pennsylvania)—with a staff of 10 or so contract workers. But it’s clearly paid off. And Blue Box and the Blood and Ash series have pushed Evil Eye into new territory. While e-books have been the company’s bread and butter since its founding, the popularity of Armentrout’s series has encouraged it to branch out into small print runs with Lightning Source. Evil Eye is even starting to keep Blue Box print books on hand and allow independent booksellers to buy directly from it at cost, plus what Rose called “a small royalty” for authors.
“This is one of those situations that just happens in publishing that you can’t predict and can’t make happen,” Rose said of Blood and Ash, which Blue Box initially marketed by sending out expensive influencer boxes the day before the first book’s release. “We could do the same marketing, and the same social media for any book, and the book would probably do well, because we put a lot behind it. But you can’t create a phenomenon. A phenomenon happens because the book touches something in readers, and the readers take it to heart, and word of mouth starts, and the retailers pick up on what’s going on, and then they start pushing the book.”
Armentrout thinks the women of Evil Eye are too humble about their role in her book’s success. Still, she said, the source behind the Blood and Ash boom is easily identifiable: “TikTok. It was BookTok. It just blew up. I’m still flabbergasted by some of the numbers—last time I had looked at one of the hashtags for From Blood and Ash, it had 20 or 30 million views.”
Berry, for her part, credits Armentrout. “I don’t even know how Jen did this with the speed and the expertise that she did,” she said. “In this genre, typically the fastest you’re going to get a new book from an author is once a year, 18 months, or two years. These are massive books. But she finished the first one and immediately started writing the second one, which we were able to release in September of the same year. She has a capability to drive the plot and romance forward, while mixing character development with high-concept plotting, that few people have.”
Rose added that Armentrout’s speed is what allowed the momentum for the series to really build. Once The Crown of Gilded Bones was published, she said, “a whole new group of readers who waited to binge started buying books one, two, and three all at the same time. That’s when everything just went kablooey.”