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Building Your Author Platform: Do I Need an Email List?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the author with the biggest email list wins.

Well, not quite.

It’s not exactly universally acknowledged. But successful indie authors use email lists and newsletters to build relationships with readers, then to sell. But the relationship comes first. Remember:

  • Attract
  • Engage
  • Convert

Potential readers may have been attracted to our website through a range of methods: social media (which I’ll talk about next week), word of mouth, advertising, a previous book. Email is a way of engaging with potential our target audience, and hopefully converting them into paying readers.

Yes, email newsletters sell books.

The BookBub List

Many indie authors are seeing huge sales success through accessing the giant of all mailing lists: BookBub. Their Christian Fiction list has over 800,000 subscribers. And that’s not even a big list—the biggest lists are Crime Fiction, Thrillers, Cozy Mystery and Historical Mystery, each of which has over 2.9 million subscribers.

This is why authors are prepared to pay big bucks to get a featured deal on BookBub: it’s getting your name in front of a lot of readers who have indicated they are interested in your genre. But BookBub also illustrates another truth of publishing:

Advertising sells books. But not many.

A Crime fiction paid listing will sell an average of 4,000 books—a little over 0.1%. So an advertising blast to 1,000 people (e.g. 1,000 Twitter followers) might sell one book.

Even a free BookBub Crime Fiction listing (the author paying to list a free book) will net an average of just 52,000 downloads—a little over 1% of those emailed. However, that’s still enough that most authors make back their advertising fee as people read the free book, then buy the next in the series.

But authors—indie, small press or traditional CBA—can’t afford to rely on BookBub or similar programs. For one, BookBub is inundated with authors willing to pay hundreds of dollars for an advertisement, so no one can guarantee a listing. The same goes for the other major ebook advertisers, such as EReaderNewsToday, and Inspired Reads. The answer: build your own list.

Build Your Own List

There are good reasons why authors should develop their own mailing lists, and the main one is control: you want to be able to control how and when you connect with readers, rather than being at the mercy of when BookBub will accept your book, or when your publisher will decide to promote you.

What do I Email?

Blog Post

Some authors email the full text version of each blog post. This is an easy feature to set up in MailChimp, and doesn’t even require you to write the email—MailChimp does all the work. I personally don’t like this approach as I’ve probably already read the blog post through Feedly. However, many readers report they check email more often than they check blogs, so this will work with some people.

Link to Blog Post

I’ve also found authors who send a link to their latest blog post, but with some extra information e.g. what motivated them to write the blog post. I rather like this approach – it’s not difficult (the hard part is writing the blog post), but it still gives newsletter subscribers something extra they wouldn’t get if they were only following the blog, something that makes them a little bit special. It also means you can alter your voice a little—I find newsletters often have a more chatty feel than blog posts.

Digest Email

Some authors send a digest of all the posts on their blog and guest posts they’ve written, in case you’ve missed any.

Exclusive Content

Some authors go to a lot of effort to produce an informative newsletter full of exclusive content (i.e. not something that’s previously appeared on a blog!). Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing newsletter is a great example of this (and if you don’t subscribe to Randy’s newsletter, you should).

Special News

Some authors only send emails when they have special news to announce, like a new book release or a sale. While this is great, I’m not convinced it’s sharing often enough to build any form of relationship with readers, which might mean people unsubscribe when you do email simply because they can’t remember subscribing.

Automation Sequence

The email marketing experts recommend sending new subscribers an automated sequence of emails as soon as they opt in to your email list. This can be between one and five emails, and they are designed to engage with new subscribers.

Sales and Promotions

Some newsletters exist simply to share relevant sales and promotions, such as AppSumo and Goodriter. I don’t recommend this as an approach for fiction authors, and non-fiction authors should only use it with caution—you don’t want people unsubscribing because they think you sold them a dud.

Some newsletters are a mix: Randy includes information on sales and promotions, for example. My Christian Editing Services newsletter includes a digest, some exclusive content, and I feature books I’ve edited which are now on sale.

Do you have a newsletter? Which provider do you use? How often do you email? What content do you send? What do your readers seem to like?

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32 comments

    • Iola says:

      Yes, it is work to build it. I get a handful of organic subscriptions every month with no promotion, but the big gains come from taking part in group giveaway. However, those people often aren’t as engaged as the organic subscribers.

  1. Chrys Fey says:

    I have a mailing list and love it. I used to do it monthly, but now I do it bi-monthly unless I have something special to announce. My newsletters all have “welcome messages” with what’s new (including release and sale announcements) and then I add something more personal to let subscribers in on what I’ve been up to in and outside of writing/publishing.

    • Iola says:

      That sounds great!

      One of my favourite newsletters has two photos at the bottom, his meal of the week, and a picture of his sons. I love the insight into his life, and I almost always open the newsletter – if only to see what fun things he’s done with his sons this week.

  2. E.M.A. Timar says:

    Great information, Iola! I think it is critical to provide value when you are engaging with your audience. I had heard about including original content in your emails, I love the idea of including motivation behind a post in a newsletter. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Iola says:

      A good newsletter reflects the personality of the writer, because that’s the best way of engaging with your target reader. So it’s a case of coming up with doable ideas that work for you and that will attract your target reader.

    • Iola says:

      I find blog posts are visible, and it’s easy to see if I’ve missed a post. Newsletters are less visible, so can become a lower priority … not a good thing.

  3. Lupa says:

    Having decided to finally focus on book marketing (since writing and publishing a good novel is obviously not all of it), this comes in handy. In fact, I have been considering switching my WP blog to its own host server to the business plan so I can start building a mailing list. Thank you for sharing the guide!

  4. J.J. Burry says:

    Excellent post! I don’t have an email list, yet. I also don’t have a newsletter… I have no idea where to start with that.

    I’ll definitely keep these tips in mind for when I’m ready!

    • Iola says:

      I suggest you start with your target reader: what are they interested in?

      For Christian Editing Services, my offer is a list of Christian fiction publishers. My target editing client writes Christian fiction, so it’s natural they will be considering how to publish.

      For Iola Goulton (my fiction author site), I offer a list of my favourite authors. People who download the list and hate my choices aren’t my target reader 🙂

    • Iola says:

      All the advice I’ve read says start collecting email addresses even if you’re not ready to send a regular newsletter (although it’s better if you do, so people don’t forget they signed up and mark your newsletter as spam).

    • Iola says:

      As you can see, there are lots of types of newsletters, and what’s right for you might not be the approach recommended by the social media “experts”.

    • Iola says:

      The idea of writing a 90,000-word novel is scary. The idea of writing 500 words every day or a chapter a week is not so scary. Marketing is the same: do lots of small things often, and they will add up.

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