Why to Start a Mailing List
How to Create the Mailing List
Creating Subscriber Lists
Getting Subscribers for Your Lists
Sending E-mails to Your Lists
Making the Most of your Mailing Lists
The world of publishing is rapidly changing. The number of books published per year has never been higher than it is now. There’s never been more competition for the eyes of readers, particularly because books must compete with the internet and social media. Right now you’re reading this online. I’m tempted to tell you to go read a book instead.
It’s therefore important for authors to have a platform to reach potential readers. This might include a publication history (stories and books), speaking engagements, fame, or infamy. Many authors won’t yet have those things, meaning that they must build their platform online. No matter how you do it — blogging, discussion forums, writing contests, social media, etc. — a pivotal goal of your online presence should be to build your e-mail list.
There’s a good reason for this, something anyone who’s worked in online marketing can tell you: opt-in mailing lists convert better than anything else. Better than blogs, social media, and even online advertising. A mailing list is one of the 8 things every author website needs, and if you don’t have one, you should get it started right away. Here’s how.
There are several options for creating the mailing list, but I’ll give you two contrasting examples:
MailChimp provides an all-in-one mailing list service with no technical expertise required. They give you the signup forms, store your subscriber list, handle the technical stuff (like confirming users), and provide a number of easy-to-use templates for you to design your newsletters. In other words, they do almost all of the work for you.
The best part is that MailChimp is free until you reach 2,000 subscribers. Unless you’re already established or have a great marketing hook, it will take you months or years to reach that level. After that, however, you’ll need one of MailChimp’s paid plans and they’re not cheap. You pay monthly, or else buy credits to send e-mails to your list. As of April 2015, with a list of 2,000 subscribers, you might be looking at $50 per month, or else $60 per e-mail. There are many paid e-mail services (usually called “E-mail marketing”), so it’s in your interest to shop around.
As with any all-in-one service, you trade the easy use for some operational freedom. For example, MailChimp requires you to provide your physical mailing address, which will be included in the footer of every message you send out. This is because FTC guidelines require this, and MailChimp requires you to follow FTC guidelines. It has to be a real address, by the way, not a post office box. For authors who don’t feel comfortable sharing that — in other words, people conscious about safety & security — this presents a difficult situation. You either have to pony it up, or find a suitable alternative. Perhaps your work or your literary agent or a friend/relative would let you use their address, in the name of safety. Please be careful about giving out personal information. Any nutjob can join a mailing list.
If you’d like more flexibility and don’t mind a slightly more technical approach, you might consider PHPlist. This is not a service, but an open-source software package that you can install on your web server. It’s like the WordPress of mailing lists: you unzip a folder, navigate to that folder on your web server, and start setting things up. You will need a MySQL database, but otherwise it’s quite intuitive. The PHPlist package has seen dramatic improvement over the past few years, and I’d argue that once you have it installed, it’s just as user-friendly as paid services.
The two things I like most about PHPlist are the cost (free) and the flexibility. Since it’s open source and the only resources required are generally included with a web hosting package, PHPlist won’t cost you anything even if you have 5,000 subscribers or more. Also, it’s more flexible in terms of how much you wish to follow best practices, keep close tabs on your users, etc. PHPlist encourages but does not require you to do things like provide a physical address and an unsubscribe link with each message you send.
If you know how to manipulate a MySQL database and/or PHP code, then you’re in complete control.
The down side to PHPlist is that you have to do a bit more work up front, and your web host might have e-mail sending limits you’ll have to dance around. My host, for example, won’t let you send more than 1,000 e-mails per day, so I have to do my larger lists in batches across multiple days. In contrast, with a paid service they handle all of the e-mail sending so you won’t have to worry about this.
Both of the options I outlined above would let you create multiple lists that subscribers can join. Some authors might feel comfortable only creating a single list, which is just fine. That way, all of the people who are interested in you will be in one place, to receive all of your updates. I ultimately decided to create two lists based on what types of messages subscribers want from me:
- Fellow authors, who will get updates about craft articles, publishing industry news, etc.
- Readers and fans, who will get updates about my stories and books, SFF genre news, etc.
When someone signs up, all I ask for is an e-mail address and which list(s) they’d like to join. Yet this is informative, because it tells me a bit about who they are and what they’re after.
Now is a good time to start thinking about what your subscribers will want. Your author mailing list is for them, not for you. Keeping the subscribers happy with appropriate content is important for later.
Now we come to the tricky part: getting people to actually sign up for your mailing list. This is harder than it seems. Just because you have a mailing list doesn’t mean people will join it. Because everyone has a mailing list, and most people already get too many e-mails. If you simply drop the form into your sidebar, I promise you’ll be disappointed with the results.
So what are some ways that you can entice new subscribers? I can recommend four effective strategies:
- Provide good content. The best way to do this is by blogging regularly, and sharing those articles on social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit) to put them in front of people. Shoot for at least 500 words per post, keep to a regular schedule, and write about things that you care about. Many authors share tips on writing craft, which will appeal to fellow authors (but not necessarily the wider fan base). Others write about the publishing industry, their genre of choice, or books reviews.
- Remind visitors to join, and make it easy. If you’ve been following the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy series, you’ll notice that each article has a little preamble, in which I encourage readers to join the mailing list and be notified about new articles. You don’t want to come across as annoying, but you should remind your visitors that you have a mailing list and make the sign-up forms easy to find.
- Offer rewards for joining. Even if people know you have a list, they might be on the fence about joining in spite of your awesome blog. If you tweet every blog post, for example, they can get the updates by just following you on Twitter. Your mailing list should have added value, such as exclusive content (things only shared with subscribers) or a small reward. My friend Diana Urban, for example, offers a free internet marketing kit to anyone who joins the mailing list at U Stand Out, her online marketing consultancy. You get a social media content schedule, an SEO worksheet, a Facebook marketing checklist, and some classy social media icons for the small price of your e-mail address. Sounds like a good deal to me.
Now you’re wondering, wait, didn’t he say he could recommend four strategies for adding subscribers? I only count three! Well, my fourth strategy also happens to be my most effective one. So it’s only going out to my e-mail subscribers, when I send a message this afternoon about this article. See what I did there?
You may be surprised at how few people are willing to sign up for your mailing list, at least right away. These tend to grow slowly, so adjust your expectations accordingly. Celebrate the small victories: your 10th subscriber, or your 50th. Keep working at it. Remember that opt-in email lists are marketing gold, so even a modestly sized one could make a real impact on your future book sales.
It seems only fair that I should share some numbers from my own author mailing list. I’ve been building it for about a year. Together, my two lists (together) have 600+ confirmed subscribers and add about 50 per month. I’m thrilled by this performance, especially because I work so hard at publishing solid content and giving people reasons to join.
If you can get even 10 people per month to join your mailing list, you should call that a win. You’ll be celebrating your 100th subscriber in less than a year. The publishing industry moves slowly. Growth (even small growth) is a good thing when you’re planning to make a career as an author.
Some authors I’ve spoken to are concerned about starting an e-mail list, because they don’t yet have a book deal and thus feel like they don’t have much to share. This isn’t true! You don’t have to share only things related to you and your writing. Operating an author mailing list is about building relationships with followers and potential future readers. This is your chance to be interesting.
Obviously if you’ve had new blog articles or guest posts since your last update, you should tout those in an e-mail to your subscribers. The same goes for any writing news or upcoming events that you’d like to put on their radar. If you run out of material quickly, don’t worry. Here are some other things you could share:
- A recent writing craft article you found interesting
- Your progress on ongoing writing progress
- Books you’ve read and can (or can’t ) recommend
- Events or stories from your personal life.
People who joined this list want to get to know you, so sharing a bit of personal detail is fine, as long as it’s in moderation. There is such a thing as over-sharing. Especially if you’re a crazy cat person.
The first and most important rule of your author e-mail list is this: don’t be annoying. If you send too many messages too often, you risk losing a lot of subscribers. People are busy, and you shouldn’t hog their inbox any more than you need to. E-mailing more than once per week is almost certainly too much.
There are exceptions, of course. If you happen to be a prolific blogger, like the fabulous Michelle Hauck, you might have updates a few times a week and that’s just fine. I love getting her updates, even if I don’t always have time to read them.
It’s also possible to neglect your e-mail lists by not sending enough messages. If people sign up, they expect to hear from you. But if you only send one message every three months, you won’t do much to build a relationship. Worse, it will be both awkward and transparent when you start e-mailing them about your forthcoming book release.
Find the right balance for good content in your e-mails versus keeping in touch on a regular basis. For most authors, 1-2 e-mails per month should be enough.
I’ll leave you with a few tips that I’ve picked up directly or heard from others about building and maintaining author mailing lists:
- Focus on quality. Take your time drafting messages, and send test versions to yourself to double-check both spelling and formatting.
- Use a template. This will help you build your brand as an author, and it looks more professional than a plain-text e-mail. Many free newsletter templates are available and can be customized however you’d like.
- Avoid the spam filter. Make sure your messages are at least 250 words, and keep links to a minimum. Avoid the spam keywords whenever possible. Once your messages start going into the spam e-mail box, it’s hard to get out.
- Put the important stuff up front. I’ve done extensive analytics on my mailing lists, and found that the first call to action (link) in the newsletter gets the most clicks by far. Make it count!
- Expect occasional unsubscribers. Every newsletter you send will have an unsubscribe link at the bottom. It reminds people that they’ve give you their e-mail and probably already collected the freebie. I lose one or two subscribers with each message I send.
- Join your own mailing list. That way you can see how your messages look to your subscribers.
- Use your analytics to evaluate how your lists are doing. Both MailChimp and PHPlist have built-in statistics tools for this purpose.
Have Any Tips to Share?
If you have a tip to share from either the author or subscriber perspective, please share it by leaving a comment!
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