You've Got Mail by Ruby Barnes

I get mail. A lot of mail. Every day. I ask for it. In total I am subscribed to twenty-five (yes, 25) daily e-book mail lists. In addition, I'm also subscribed to a similar number, no, let's say maybe fifty author and publisher mail lists from which I receive maybe two or three e-mails a day. I like getting e-mails. However, I don't buy a lot of e-books, maybe one or two a month. But there is method in my madness. I'm studying mail lists.

Yesterday I was reading a thread in the Writers' Cafe on and the topic was Veterans, share your pro-tips! What's something you wish you'd known sooner? This topic or similar comes up frequently in on-line self-published author communities. A lot of great advice can be gleaned by mining these threads, with the caveat that your mileage may vary i.e. all things don't work equally well for everyone. One perennial gem in such threads is build your mailing list. As soon as you get into this self-published or micro-publishing business you should get that mailing list started. Don't delay, get yours today. You won't regret it. When you have a new release or a special offer you can inform interested readers and kindly give them the opportunity to buy your product. Having a zillion facebook likes or blog or twitter followers doesn’t give you a guaranteed e-mailbox through which to post your communication, but a mail list does. It’s worth spending time, effort and money on building a qualified mailing list as those valuable subscribers could potentially buy all your current and future books. But how best to go about building a list?

There are a number of ways to build your mailing list. However you do it, you will need permission from the individual before you add them to your list. In order to stay on the right side of data protection and spam laws, it’s a good idea to use an e-mail list management tool such as MailChimp or AWeber. These are free initially but can have a cost after a trial period or once a subscriber threshold is reached. I prefer MailChimp (as it has lots of cheeky apes onscreen).

Organic growth

Some authors are very fortunate that they write (and write well) in a popular genre with a high reading rate. Readers are eager to hear about the next release from the author and will bite at an opportunity to do so. Placing a mail list sign-up link in the back matter of an e-book is a good way to build a dedicated mailing list and some people call this organic growth as it results from genuine interest in the author’s work. There is no cost to this except time and effort in building the list in MailChimp or a similar mailing list tool, and then pasting the link into the ebook file via Kindle Direct Publishing or wherever. The link (which can also be included in paperbacks as a typed URL or QR code image, or link on your website / blog) can be a customized short-link from a service such as bitly which will provide statistics on number of clicks. This is a great way to build your list but don’t sit and watch it grow because, unless you have astounding sales success and are writing series, the organic growth will be slow.

No mail list pictures so here's what happens when a foot pedicure goes wrong

Bait and hook

Another way to build a list is bait and hook. This sounds exploitative but it’s not really. If you offer the reader something they want then they may well sign up for that free thing and more. The thing you’re giving away needs to have value for the reader. The value may be that it’s exclusive e.g. a prequel to a series, not available elsewhere, or that it normally costs but you’re making it free to subscribers. A free e-book can work well if it’s part of a series or if the author has other works nicely fitting into the same genre. Exclusive content or free, either way the objective is to build the author’s brand strength so that the subscribing reader is interested in more books from that author. (This assumes that the author has enough titles to play with and feels comfortable with giving one away.) There’s no financial cost in giving away a free e-book to subscribers, not unless you decide to gift it on Amazon. Although this has the benefit of increasing sales ranking, there is a risk that the subscriber might use the gift certificate for a different e-book and not yours.

Another way to gather interested mailing list subscribers with bait and hook is to offer something else for free. Typically this involves a free draw for a prize. This could be loosely or closely writing related e.g. an Amazon gift card, or a signed paperback or something else of value. There is a financial cost to building a list in this way and I’ve found that cost of prizes / number of new subscribers gives me a subscriber cost of around 35c.

Advertising to gain subscribers

In this modern digital world the opportunity to advertise is open to anyone with dollars to spend. A lot of authors are experimenting with product advertising, paying venues such as Amazon, facebook and the likes of BookBub to feature their e-book in product ads. Some authors are leveraging these ads to build their mailing lists.

The current thinking on Amazon e-book ads is that they are not giving a good return at present, so we’ll leave them alone for now. Facebook, however, is receiving a lot of attention from authors and publishers (and other product vendors) as they offer a range of options to build and target ads. Some authors are using these ads to try and sell individual e-book titles, some are using them for selling e-book box sets. The cost per click and conversion rates on these ads usually mean they are only economical for higher priced e-books i.e. usually box sets. However, some authors have used the ads to funnel people into their free e-book (usually first in series) bait & hook. There is, of course, a cost to facebook ads. I haven’t yet hit the sweet spot with facebook ads but I’ve seen people quoting costs per subscriber of a dollar or less.

Another route to building your list is to combine bait & hook with organic by setting up an enticing sign-up route on a book that is scheduled for a promotion. Placing the sign-up link in the front matter of an e-book will catch the eye of readers who browse the Look Inside feature on Amazon. Purchasers of the advertised book may also see the link when they read the book, but they might inadvertently skip it as Kindle readers / apps usually start on chapter 1 and not the cover or front matter. So be sure to put the link in the back matter as well as the front matter. The success of this approach depends upon reader behaviour and the amount of traffic generated by the ad. I’ve had a $450 BookBub ad for a temporarily free book generate 300+ subscriptions. If this were solely a list building activity, this would equate to a cost per subscriber of around $1.50, but the follow-on paid sales of the book more than covered the ad cost, so those subscribers were a free bonus. As more and more advertisers bid for our advertising dollars, and their results sometimes disappoint, nesting a mail list build inside an ad is a good way to optimise return on investment.

Another way to advertise for subscribers is to sponsor a prize draw wherein the participants agree to sign up to mail lists, twitter, facebook etc of the sponsors in return for multiple entries to the draw. These draws are usually run using Rafflecopter or similar. The cost for the author is whatever sponsorship fee is paid to the organiser. I’ve found the cost per subscriber for this to be in the range 15 – 30c. Some might say these are the least qualified subscribers of all the above methods. Whether or not they stay with you after your next newsletter mail-out is a matter of careful content selection.

My books fit the pickled egg genre

The importance of mail-out content

Data protection laws are very strict these days about the legitimacy of mailing lists and avoidance of spam. In order to have the right to email people about your writing and related matters, you need subscribers to opt-in. You need them to give you permission to mail them on occasion. Mailing lists such as AWeber and MailChimp have this opt-in functionality built-in. Even when subscribers have opted in, sometimes people will forget they gave you permission to email them and will mark your communications as spam. So it’s essential that your communication explains how you came to have their email address (where and when they opted in), what you have to say to them (value proposition) and an option for them to opt out (unsubscribe). That way your subscribers will stay sweet for you.

The first thing to do is make it clear that you are mailing the subscriber because they signed up to hear more from you via a link in an e-book of yours that they own, a facebook ad for title X, a prize draw which you sponsored with title Y, etc. This immediately establishes your bona fides. Sometimes people’s interests have changed – they have too many e-mails or they just aren’t interested anymore, or they don’t remember signing up for your list. You should offer an unsubscribe link in the mail-out so they can quietly slip away rather than brand your e-mail as spam. Too many spam complaints can lock up your mail list tool and cause all kinds of problems.

The second thing to do is make clear the value proposition of your mail-out. You might need to adjust this depending upon the source of the subscriber and what originally encouraged them to subscribe. For this purpose it can be helpful to keep separate lists in your mail tool. I have separate lists for organic, giveaways and sponsored. The subscribers from those Rafflecopter giveaways are motivated by prize draws so it may be a good idea to throw them a chance of another, more exclusive prize draw (plus a reminder that unsubscribers won’t be eligible in the next prize draw). Organic subscribers are likely to be more interested in the upcoming new release and, of course, they won’t turn their nose up at a prize draw either. The way to handle bait & hook subscribers depends upon what the bait was. If it was one of your e-books then you can treat them similarly to organic subscribers.

The mechanics of sign-up pages

I’m not going to go into the details of the workings of MailChimp or AWeber here. Both tools (and there are others) have very good help pages, but I find the best way to find out what looks good and works is to go sign up to some mailing lists (but maybe not 75 like I mentioned in the opening paragraph!) and read some internet threads on the subject in places like kboards. General wisdom is keep it clear and clean, it’s all about that click to subscribe. Work out a way to count the traffic that clicks your link from wherever, count the conversion rate (how many new subscribers / number of link clicks – my average is about 55%), keep a tab on any costs and work out cost per subscriber.

Mail campaigns, open and click rates

Hurray! You’ve gathered a throng of qualified, interested subscribers. Now what? Most importantly, don’t neglect them. If they’re organic then give them some periodic newsletter content on upcoming or current new releases. If they’ve come from an event – a competition, an ad campaign, a prize draw – then greet them en masse once the event has completed. Make sure to manage your content to retain them with info on how you came to know of them etc as above.

MailChimp gives some very nice statistics for each mail-out campaign and you should monitor these to ensure you are getting a good number of people opening the mail (my opens range from 42% to 71%), that people are clicking any links you have placed in your mail-out (my click rates range from 2% – 17%), that not too many people are unsubscribing (my average is 1 – 5 unsubscribers per campaign) and that spam reports are few and far between (I’ve had 1 or 2 total since I started a mail list).

And finally…

Don’t be intimidated by huge mail lists and uber-successful authors with prodigious writing output, several lengthy series, glossy landing pages with “reader magnets” and the like. My list isn’t huge. For over a year it was single figures. Even if you have just one book, or even if you just have a blog or a website, start building your list now. These are your readers, these are your audience.


Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for a most informative post, Ruby. I'm always prioritizing my time, because using all many of these tools to build readerships and promote what I've already written can become a career in itself, leaving no time for new writing -- fiction or blogs or anything else -- or even a life. I have a low threshold, therefore, for fuss, that is, costs in time as well as costs in money. I've found Facebook not only effective and flexible, but easy to use, whereas MailChimp entangling, time-consuming and promising little gain for all the effort it takes to sort and build lists, and so forth. That's just me. But it's nice to know all the options, and have them explained so lucidly as you have done here.
Susan Price said…
Thanks Ruby - and, indeed, Umberto. A link to this goes straight onto the How-To Page.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Ruby. It's a process we should all be using but which lazy sods like me keep ducking. It's great to have the options laid out so clearly. If you could point me towards an un-lazy gene, my life would be transformed.
Mari Biella said…
I may be able to help, Bill - I'll soon be approaching AE members with proposals for an AE mailing list. If everyone agrees, we could have one up and running before too long, and that might save you a bit of work. In the meantime, Ruby, thanks for these tips - very helpful.
Susan Price said…
Ooh, Mari! You are spoiling us! - I'd forgotten you were working on this. Thank you.
@Ruby_Barnes said…
Thanks folks. I forgot to mention that a mailing list can give access to early reviewers. I had eleven early reviewers ask for my zombie book and they were spread across the different sources. So folks who sign up for free draws are valuable as well as 'already read books by me' subscribers.

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Meet Author Virginia Watts, a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award, and Find Out How She Does What She Does

I Wish I May, I wish I Might... Understand What These Writers Are Saying says Griselda Heppel

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee