By Iola GoultonIt is a truth universally acknowledged that the author with the biggest email list wins.
Well, not quite.
It’s not exactly universally acknowledged, especially not in by the major traditional publisher—which makes sense. Think about it: successful indie authors use email lists and newsletters to build relationships with readers. They use mailing lists to connect with readers and ask for reviews. They use email lists to sell (but the sales come from relationship, not from pushy sales techniques).
Email Newsletters Sell BooksWho needs a big-name traditional publisher if you can sell thousands of copies of your new book simply by sending an email?
Who needs a publisher to organize an expensive blog tour or NetGalley listing when one email can net you 200 eager readers offering to review your next novel—in under six hours? (Yes, six hours. By the time I read the email, the 200 spots on Valerie Comer’s Berry On Top launch team had already been filled. The book released on 25 February, and the book had close to 100 reviews within the first three weeks.)
The BookBub ListMany indie authors are seeing huge sales success through accessing the giant of all mailing lists: BookBub. Their combined US, UK, Canada and India Christian Fiction list has 920,000 subscribers. Yes, close to a million separate email addresses. And that’s not even in the top 20 biggest lists—the three biggest lists are Crime Fiction, Cozy Mystery and Historical Mystery, each of which has around 3.65 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 3,790 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 37,500 downloads—1.1% of those emailed. However, that’s still enough that most authors make back their advertising fee with paid downloads of other books (the most common author tactic is to write a series and make the first one free).
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 ListThere 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.
If you’re not convinced, have a look at what some of these successful indie authors say:
I hope I’ve convinced you of the ‘why’ you need an email list. Now, what about the How, What and When?
How to EmailYou can’t simply email everyone in your Gmail inbox. That’s illegal in several countries (including Canada and the US), and the long arm of the law means you need to adhere to US law for any US citizens on your email list. You can only add people who’ve opted in to your email list, and CAN-SPAM laws require a double opt in—they choose to join your email list, you email a confirmation message, and they confirm they want to be included on the list.
There are various other rules you need to follow as well, like giving subscribers the option to unsubscribe, and including your mailing address on all emails sent. Fortunately, there are tools which make this easy, by requiring and enabling the double opt in, and including the other required information on every email sent.
The three main email tools I’ve heard of are:
Many people start with MailChimp, because the basic version is free up to 2,000 subscribers (although automation is no longer included in the free version). Aweber charges from the start (well, from the conclusion of the 30-day free trial), and Constant Contact charges from the conclusion of a 60-day free trial (and automation is part of the more expensive Email Plus option).
The one must-have is the ability to export your list (what’s the point of “owning” a list if your mailing system provider actually controls access?).
Other features, such as customizable templates and automation, will depend on what you’re using the system for. Remember that you can have multiple lists: for example, I currently have one list for www.iolagoulton.com, and another list for www.christianediting.co.nz, as the two groups will have different audiences. Other authors have exclusive reviewer lists as well, and I intend to move to that in time . . . like when I write and publish a book.
What is automation?I’ll give you an easy example. Sign up for my author mailing list at www.iolagoulton.com (or click here) and you’ll receive a list of 50 book recommendations—the Top 50 (ish) Christian novels I’ve reviewed over the last five years.
I don’t send that to you. MailChimp does, via the automation function.
Yes, I could send it manually to everyone, but that’s going to take time, and you won’t necessarily get it quickly (because, despite popular belief, I’m not on the computer 24/7). So it’s worth it to me to pay for the automation function, especially as I can have multiple automated emails. (You can opt out again if you don’t want to receive my newsletter. I won’t mind. If you’d prefer to receive my editing newsletter, click here to opt in. Sorry, but there’s currently no carrot for subscribing, although I am working on it).
What do I Email?I subscribed (or attempted to subscribe) to around fifty newsletters of contemporary Christian romance authors to research this article, and I think I’ve received emails from less than 10% of those. On the plus side, I haven’t received any spam! I’m also on a lot of other email lists, and I’ve observed five broad kinds of emails:
- Blog Post: Some authors email the full text version of each blog post—Beth Vogt takes this approach. 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, but many readers report they check and read their emails more often than they check blogs, so this will be the best way of connecting with some people.
- 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. Publishing expert Jane Friedman takes this approach.
- 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.
- Sales and Promotions: Some newsletters exist simply to share relevant sales and promotions. I’m signed up to the Goodriter newsletter, sent by Buck Flogging, guaranteed to help you rite gooder than ever (and I’m pretty sure his middle name is “Innuendo”). He has some good deals, like the $10 Udemy courses I shared on the ACW Facebook page a while back.
When do I Email?By this I mean how often do you email, not what time of day (what time of day is easy, as MailChimp can tell you the best time of day to send the email for maximum open rates, or you can select your own time).
How often is the big question, with no good answer.It’s going to depend on what you’re emailing: sales and promotions probably have to be daily, or they will be out of date. Blog posts would be as often as you post. Digests could be weekly or monthly, depending on how often you post. Exclusive content could be weekly or monthly, depending on your writing schedule and whether you’re blogging as well (it’s probably too much to blog and produce exclusive newsletter content weekly, especially if you have more than one blog, or more than one newsletter list).
Basically, the answer is to be regular—as with blogging, pick a schedule and stick with it!
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? Share your signup link in the comments.