Everybody tells you we need to have one.
Every author will spend months, and years refusing to believe it.
I addressed some of the concerns writers often have about the value of the newsletter and why I think every writer should have one in Creative Business 101: Optimization Hacks to Get Your Platforms Working Together – Part Three – Newsletters, in which I was apparently attempting to win the “longest blog title of the year award.”
But that’s a different story.
(Did I win?)
Next to the question “Do I really need an author newsletter?” the most common question that I field from my fellow authors is this: “I know I need a newsletter, but where do I start?”
How to Build a Mailing List in 5 Easy Steps
I’m taking a break from refreshing my KDP dashboard to check my pre-order numbers in the last few hours before Tropical Punch goes live on Amazon, to bring you my answer to this question.
There are a lot of different ways to build a newsletter. I’m not going to try to tell you all of them. I’m going to keep things as simple as possible and tell you what I did.
#1 Think of All the Reasons Why a Newsletter Will Not Work For You
I bet you have a list of them ready to fire off at me right now.
I know, because I literally spent years refining and reinforcing this list in my own mind and avoiding what I knew needed to be done.
It’s too hard. It takes too much time. Nobody will read it. Everyone hates junk mail. I don’t want to give away my hard work to freebie seekers.
Are you done yet?
Now, write them down on a piece of paper.
Crumple that paper up into a ball.
And light it on fire.
We’re done with that now. We’re going to commit to giving this a solid effort for 6 months before we give up.
Okay then. Now, onto…
#2 Choose a Reader Magnet
A reader magnet is the cookie you are going to use to entice people to join your mailing list.
In order to get the most out of this newsletter experiment, this must be chosen strategically.
Reader Magnets for fiction writers can be: sample chapters, short stories, novellas, or full length novels.
For non-fiction writers: sample chapters, how-to-guides, collections of your favourite blog posts, essays, or complete books. (One marketing expert I follow swears by quizzes as the best magnet for non-fiction writers and other creative businesses. I have no experience with this myself but it’s intriguing! Check out Nikki Clark here.)
I’m going to deal with fiction writers for the most part, but most of these points can be adapted.
Your Reader Magnet Should:
- Be connected to your other work.
- Be professionally edited.
- Have a professional cover.
- Be a complete story or guide rather than a sample.
- Have a link in the backmatter where readers can buy the next book.
Let’s break this down a bit.
If you are going to give away for free something that you have put your blood, sweat, and tears into, you want to expect a reasonable return on that investment. The goal of the reader magnet is to lead readers toward buying your other books.
If you are still working on your magnum opus, you can still start building a mailing list. Arguably the best time to start your list is BEFORE you publish anything beyond the reader magnet.
A strategic reader magnet will help you build an audience before your first book even comes out. That’s gold.
EVEN IF YOU HAVEN’T WRITTEN ANY OTHER BOOKS YET!
What is a strategic reader magnet?
Ideally, it will be connected to your other work. Best is a direct connection, like a prequel, origin, or backstory for one of your characters. At the very least, it must be in the same sub-genre as your other books.
(Note: If you have more than one series, you can use more than one reader magnet. In this case you will likely need to run two separate mailing lists, unless they genres are closely related. We’re just starting out, though, so pick one.)
In my experience, and from the vast amount of research I’ve done reading about other people experiences, the ideal reader magnets are complete.
Yes, you can make samples work if you end on a great cliffhanger or call to action, but it’s risky. Some people will be annoyed by this, and we don’t want to annoy our readers.
The time they spend reading our work is an investment and we need to treat them with respect.
Where are you in your writing career? Are you still working on your first novel or do you have multiple series under your belt? If you are writing in multiple genres or write standalone novels, the newsletter will be more challenging. But you can still make it work, so long as your reader magnet is designed to attract you ideal reader and it links to the book you want to drive that reader towards.
But don’t stress too much. If at first, like me, you use a less than ideal cookie, you can always cull your list later. That’s a good problem to have, trust me!
#3a Set up Your Email Service
MailChimp is what I use. I went with MailChimp because it has a higher threshold before you have to pay.
However, there is no customer support with the free version, the program is bloated with a bunch of stuff I never use, and the subscriptions once you do have to pay are much higher than with MailerLite. I will likely switch at some point, as I’m not enamored by the Chimp.
Do some research, but don’t get too bogged down by the options.
At the free level they’re pretty similar and that’s all we need right now.
Before we get started, I have two bonus tips for you:
- Consider using an email address connected to your website rather than a generic gmail, outlook, hotmail, yahoo, etc. account. This will increase your odds for landing in people’s inboxes. Plus it looks more professional.
- Decide on a name for your mailing list. Don’t call it a newsletter or a mailing list when you’re talking to your readers. We associate this with junk mail. If you call it a Fan Club or a VIP Readers Group or a Reader Club, your readers will feel more like they belong to something special and intimate. And that’s exactly what you want your newsletters to feel like. You are not going to spam them! You are letting them into your world.
On your newsletter service you will:
- Create a landing page to collect email addresses from your website. Not the “blog follow” emails that send people a notification when you put up a new blog post. This is for your VIP Readers. Organic email address collection from your website will typically be the most engaged people on your list. You may want to create a separate audience for these organic sign ups. Check out Newsletter Ninja: How to Become An Author Mailing List Expert by Tammi Labrecque for more details on this.
- Create a simple welcome email automation. This is triggered any time someone joins your list. Keep it simple, remind them who you are and why they are receiving this email, request they add you to their contact list, provide a link to follow your preferred socials, or if you have a Facebook Group. One link is best.
- [Extra Credit] Create a cookie email automation, either with a link to your reader magnet or to another freebie. Reward them early for opening your mails. This can be triggered to sent a couple of days after they sign up.
- [Extra Credit] Create a series introduction email automation, if you are a series author. Let them know what you’re working on, provide links to your most recent work. Keep the tone friendly and informative, not salesy. This should come a couple of days after your last email.
- You can make this onboarding sequence as simple or complex as you like. Multi genre authors might get fancy here. In my opinion, simple is better. You only really need the welcome email, and maybe the cookie.
- Set up BookFunnel (#3b, below) and integrate with your newsletter service. You can integrate with as many sites as you use to collect addresses from. Follow the FAQs of your chosen service. It’s pretty straightforward.
#3b Set up BookFunnel
I recommend BookFunnel, not because it’s the best or only, but because I have personal experience with it and I feel confident in my recommendation. It costs $100 a year, and is well worth it. You can use it for sending out encrypted Beta and ARC copies as well, which is fantastic.
On BookFunnel you will:
- Create Your Reader Magnet: Upload the cover file, and the mobi, epup, and PDF files for your manuscript. You can create this using a number of free programs. When I don’t pay for professional formatting, I use Draft2Digital.
- Create a Landing Page that requires email opt-in.
- Set up Integration with your Email Service, the FAQ is very helpful if you have troubles.
You can also:
- Create ARC campaigns.
- Create Landing Pages that do not require email opt-in, or which can only be accessed by folks already on your list (helpful for when you want to give a freebie to your list but don’t want them sharing that freebie with other people)
- Gift books to people.
- Create Printable download codes for in-person events or bookmarks, etc.
- Lots of other stuff
But the BIG ONE is this:
- Check out the Promotions tab and join some promos for your genre! It’s so big, in fact, that this is step #4
#4 Join Promos
In BookFunnel you can browse promotions by genre, or by promo type. The two main types are Sales and Newsletter Builders. When you are first starting out, you will be using Newsletter Builders.
What is a BookFunnel Promo?
A Promo is essentially a landing page with a grid of reader magnet books from all the authors who have joined the promotion. Whoever creates the promo will have a particular theme (Witches and Werewolves, or Christmas Horror, or Sweet Country Romance, or whatever). These themes can be broad (SF&F) or very narrow (SF with Strong Female Leads).
When you join a promo (check the guidelines to make sure you’re a good fit) you will agree to share the promo link in your newsletter on a particular day of the promo. You may share as many times as you like on social media, etc. but you must share with your newsletter on the date you say you will. You will be provided with a trackable link, and when the promotion is finished you will be able to see how many people clicked the link. At first, it won’t be a lot because you will have a non-existent list. That’s okay. The important thing is to keep joining promos, and keep sharing on the dates you say you will. The number of promos you have joined and the number of links clicked become your “reputation” and having a higher rep will unlock higher end promos.
That’s a lot of info. Don’t worry about it too much. Here’s how it works:
- Join a Promo (I usually join 3-4 that overlap and commit to sharing them all on the same day). Pro Tip: If you are just starting out, you will want to pick a date near the end of the promo if possible, because then you will have some people on your list to click those links when you write your newsletter.
- Follow the link to each promo and save the header image/banner image, or create your own in Canva or BookBrush if you’re handy at that kind of thing. Better images get more clicks. Experiment!
- On your share date, create your first email campaign. This is just a fancy way of saying write your email. At the bottom of your email, you will post the promo images with your tracking links. This provides value to your readers! Not sure what to write about in the rest of the email? I’ll cover a bit more on that at the end.
- Share your images/links as many times as you like on your blog and social media. You can even do a $5 boosted post on Facebook to get more clicks and improve your rep. The more times those links get shared by all authors in the promo, the more eyes are on all of the books. Sharing is caring!
- Repeat. With a good cover and joining 3-4 promos a month, you should start seeing a couple hundred newsletter signups a month!
#5 Newsletter Maintenance
You don’t need to make this a full time job. Commit to writing one email a month to share your updates and promo links. Unless you have a rabid and highly engaged audience you don’t want to send out more than two a month. Big authors can get away with one or two a week. But start with one or two a month. It’s more than enough.
What Should I Write About in my Newsletter?
Check out my suggestions here or do a bit of searching on the interwebs. There are lots of lists!
The important things to remember are:
- Keep it casual and friendly in tone.
- Use your “natural” voice, be yourself. If your books are full of smut and cursing, you don’t want your emails to be too prim and proper. You want people who don’t “get you” to unsubscribe. Yes. I said that. You don’t want deadweight on your list. You have to pay for those people! Be yourself. If anyone doesn’t like that, they can take a hike. That makes room for someone who does like you.
- Don’t try to sell anything, yet. You can use your mailing list to shout out new releases and sales, but try to keep it at an 80/20 ratio. 80% of the time you are providing value to them. 20% of the time you can ask them to do something for you, a gentle ask. In my opinion, one email for e-book pre-orders, and one for launch day is plenty. If it’s been a while between releases, you can use your 20% to remind them of an existing series.
- Provide value. I know I just said that, but it’s important enough to say it twice. Give your readers something. Tell a funny story, share a relevant meme, or pictures of your pets (these will get more engagement than anything, I swear! we love our furbabies!), link to your most popular blog posts that week. Share your BookFunnel promo links.
- Build engagement. Take a poll, ask to see a picture of their pets (seriously, try it), ask an open ended question and ask readers to “hit reply” to respond then share the results of those responses in your next email (this is great social proof, when people see that other readers are engaging with you they want to be part of the inner circle too!) Engagement helps your emails stay out of the junk mail. Win win!
Keep an eye on your open rates and click rates. This can give you a good idea of what kind of Subject Lines get the most engagement.
You can get fancy and run A/B testing (send half your list one email and the other half a different one and see which performs better)
I don’t. I just mess up and let people unsubscribe.
If they don’t unsubscribe but they haven’t opened one of my emails in the last three months, I unsubscribe them myself.
I would rather have a small, highly engaged mailing list than a big bloated list of people who never open my emails. I aim for an open rate of 50% or higher. If my open rates drop below that, I cull my list. It’s not the only way to do it, but it’s my way.
And I have a great little list!
Unexpected Benefits of Having a Mailing List
These are some of my happy discoveries. My mailing list has:
- Helped me find new beta and ARC readers.
- Started some great conversations.
- Given me motivation to keep writing when I start to feel like no one cares.
- Given me a place to ask questions and bounce ideas when starting a new series.
- Helped me find my superfans (it’s a small, but growing list!)
I highly recommend these books:
Do you have a newsletter yet? If so, do you have anything to add to this list?
If you don’t have a newsletter, did this post help answer some of your questions or ease some of your fears?
What else would you like to know?