Building a Killer Email List

wanted-alt71-200x300There is a lot of upheaval in publishing today and I think that’s likely to increase rather than decrease. The best insurance policy any writer can have against the future is a targeted mailing list.

I’ve written before about how the author with the biggest mailing list wins, and I’ve invited Nick Stephenson along today because he’s got some great ideas on how to boost your list.

The cool thing about his approach is that it’s something anyone can do. And, as you will see, it really, really works. Here’s Nick with more:

Building a Killer Email List

As an author, I try to read as much as possible. I tend to get excited over 8 or 9 different authors across a few different genres, and I always buy their new releases as soon as I hear about them. Whenever I find out there’s a new book on the shelves, I go buy it straight away. I don’t even check the price. It doesn’t matter to me, because these particular authors always deliver the goods.

And you know how I know they’ve got a new release? They tell me. Not Amazon, not Goodreads, not Bookbub – the author tells me direct, with a message straight to my email inbox.

Let’s face it. Book promotion is difficult. You know the feeling, right? Your new novel hits the shelves to minimum fanfare, you grab a few sporadic sales in the first week, and then… nothing. It’s happened to the best of us – and it’s a rite of passage that all new authors have to face at some point.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

David’s touched on this point before – the author with the biggest email list wins. If you’ve got legions of fans all signed up to hear about your new releases, you can hit the ground running. No more waiting around for months to collect enough reviews and sacrifice enough goats* to apply for a Bookbub ad spot – you can take out the middle man and go direct, and give your book the best possible start.

*(vegetarians can try sacrificing pumpkins. The net effect seems to be the same)

panic-for-web-200x300Collecting readers’ email addresses isn’t as difficult or intimidating as many people think. There are a ton of people out there who would love to find out about your next book, but simply don’t know how to go about it. Your job is to make it easy for them, give them a reason to trust you with their email, and then honour that relationship. The results can be incredibly rewarding, and you don’t need to be a NYT Bestseller to see some great results.

Here’s how I started adding an extra 500 – 1,000 email addresses to my list each month:

At the end of 2013 I decided I wanted to focus on building up an email list. I had set something up previously; a simple “sign up here for new releases emails” link at the bottom of my website, but I was only seeing 5 or 6 people signing up each month.

I figured – what’s the incentive? If my readers are anything like most people, they’ll probably figure “nah, I’ll just keep an eye on Amazon if I want to get the new one” and then promptly forget about me after a couple of days. That’s no good. That’s a lost sale right there.

So, I figured I’d give people a reward for signing up. In December 2013, I started giving away a free book (a novella of 25k words) in exchange for an email address. The results? My subscriber rate shot up to 80 – 90 people a month, without any increase in website traffic. I was converting visitors to signups at a rate of about 35%. Not bad, but definitely room for improvement.

Finally, in April this year, I set up a custom “squeeze page” on my site, devoid of any links or buttons whatsoever – except for the email signup button. That way, visitors could either sign up, or leave, with no distractions. As a result, I started converting at 60%.

That’s a pretty badass improvement. But, still – 60% of 150 monthly visitors wasn’t going to cut it. I needed more traffic. I needed more GOOD traffic. So, I used one of my permafree novels as a traffic funnel – I put links to my site in the front and back matter and mentioned that another free book was available at my website. The results? I went from 2 or 3 signups a day to over 20 signups per day.

For free.

departed-revised-for-web-200x300That’s 600 new readers each month, signed up to receive updates from me. That figure goes up even higher in months where I promote heavily – with a 60% visitor-to-signup conversion rate, my most recent Bookbub promotion scored me an extra 500 subscribers in one day. On average, my emails have an open rate between 40% and 50% and a click rate of 15% to 20%.

And that’s just awesome. I’m making it easy for people who like my books to find out about new ones. It’s as simple as that… in theory. There are, however, some best practice tips that I can heartily recommend to keep your subscriber engagement high and prevent anyone from relegating you to the spam folder:

Top Tips:

Get your traffic from a reputable source. All my website visitors come to me from a link inside my permafree book, so they’re already qualified visitors. Don’t bother paying for traffic or putting up ads on non-reader sites – you’ll get a terrible conversion rate, and those who do sign up are probably only after a freebie. They’ll junk-mail your ass the minute they get the chance, and you run the risk of getting your mail account shut down.

Don’t force people to give you their email. Sure, I offer people a free book in exchange for their email, but I also give them the opportunity to say “no thanks” and then get the book anyway.

That way, I avoid having people on my email list who don’t want to be there – which also helps keep unsubscribe rates low and reduces the risk of getting blacklisted. My subscriber rate halved after I implemented this, but my click rate and engagement scores improved.

Segment your list. Not all subscribers are created equal. If you use a mail server like Mailchimp, they make it easy to see who your best-performing subscribers are, and who isn’t engaging well. They’ll also help you segment your list according to when they last received an email from you.

It’s imperative that you don’t send too many emails, or you’ll end up annoying people. You also don’t want to send too infrequently, otherwise people might forget who you are and automatically assume your message is spam. The optimum number of emails you should send depends on too many factors to give a blanket answer – but I send 2 emails a month. I’ve found that any more than that can lead to problems.

To make sure people aren’t receiving too many messages from me, I make sure I segment my list of emails each time I send out a note. I avoid sending anything to anyone who hasn’t been on the list for at least a week, and I avoid sending to anyone who has already heard from me in the last two weeks. It’s pretty simple to do, and it keeps people from sending your emails into their junk folder.

Use affiliate programs. I’ll send out a book recommendation once a month, usually for free or 99c books that I’ve read and think my readers will like. I also ask them to send me recommendations back, which goes a long way toward creating a dialogue and improving engagement. I also get to hear about what other authors my readers enjoy, which means I get to read some great books too.

I include affiliate links in those emails, so I earn a few bucks in commissions and can track the number of clicks I get versus the number of sales. It really helps figure out buying habits, which makes it easier to tailor my emails to suit my audience. It also helps offset the cost of maintaining a growing email list.

Don’t use sales copy. We’re not trying to sell people diet pills. These subscribers like us because we’re writers, not salesmen. Act appropriately. Keep your emails informal and try not to pitch them anything. Your messages are to keep people informed, not to convince them to buy. You’ve already done that by this point, so don’t treat them like prospects.

PAYDOWN-COVER-2-200x300Final Points. There’s a lot of hoo-hah going around at the moment concerning Amazon’s power over the market. This is only going to get more heated as Kindle Unlimited starts to grow, and authors have to decide whether or not they want to go “all in” and sign up for KDP Select.

Many authors are concerned about how beholden they are to Amazon, or how much reliance they have on advertisers such as Bookbub – having none of the power when it comes to promoting your work can be pretty intimidating.

Well, to quote Jeff Bezos himself, “Complaining isn’t a strategy”. I decided I wanted to take control over my writing career, and figure out a way to build up a following without having to rely on other people.

Building up an email list is an important part of this, and there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same. It’s free to get started, and, if you can add even a handful of new emails each day using these approaches, you’ll notice the difference.

An example to leave you with – if you can add 10 new emails a day (and that’s entirely do-able), you’ll have a subscriber list of 10,000 people in less than 3 years. If you treat your list well, you can expect anywhere up to a 10% email-to-sales conversion rate. How would it feel to know you can sell an extra 1,000 copies of your new book the week it goes live? You’ll make more money than you would from even a Bookbub spot, and you’ll have all the power.

The best time to get started is yesterday. The second-best time to get started is now!

Nick Stephenson is the author of The Leopold Blake series of thrillers and blogs at At his site, you can find detailed breakdowns of marketing strategies and sales reports going back 18 months, detailing how he went from selling a handful of copies to over 3,000 books per month. No goats or pumpkins were harmed.

* * *

ratio-cover-webYou can see from Nick’s covers and branding that he’s doing all the right things. His ideas about building and maintaining your list are really smart and I’m going to start implementing the above as soon as possible.

Nick also has a really great reader-friendly author site – something I’ll be working on as soon as I finish Digital 2 edits (i.e. in a week or so, hopefully). Once that’s in place, I can start tackling the rest of the stuff above.

If you want to check out Nick’s books – and you should – Wanted is permafree so it will only cost you a couple of clicks. Wanted has been downloaded over 300,000 times in less than a year and has lots and lots of great reviews.

Nick also has a very helpful blog for writers where you can get all sorts of useful data on the various experiments he tries to boost sales. It’s especially worth checking out because Nick just put a post up about his first Kindle Unlimited numbers.

I’m sure he’ll be along at some point if you have any questions – time differences notwithstanding. I know I have plenty!

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

112 Replies to “Building a Killer Email List”

  1. Great tips on email marketing. I personally feel that Gaughran is one of the those currently best in the business. Some of those tactics were found in the email campaigns of Ashraf Chaudhry. Email marketing is still quite effective in this perspective

  2. Mmmm. I’m building my newsletter list slowly. It only goes out once a month. I try to time it when I or other authors in my network have books on promotion. As far as reviews: David suggests in Let’s Get Visible to putting this little gem or some variation in the back of book right after The End.
    “Thank you for taking time to read [title]. If you enjoyed it, please consider telling your friends or posting a short review. Word of mouth is an author’s best friend and much appreciated.
    Thank you, (author name). Does it work? Since mid-November of 2013 (when I finally got my indie legs), almost 600 readers have written reviews and posted them AVP on Amazon–on three titles. I do not fill the back of my book with clutter which IMO are stumbling blocks to reviews. I add a single short blurb for one other title and a bio, which often gets mentioned in the reviews. I don’t want my reader to be distracted by excerpts to my other books before heading over to Amazon to write a review.

    Jackie Weger

  3. A few thoughts

    1) Great advice.

    2) For people who don’t have their own blog and traffic – Why not? It’s the only thing you really control.

    3) Very important to have DIRECT Channels to Readers that you Control 100%.

    a) Must be DIRECT. Not through someone else’s sites.
    b) You must Control them 100%.

    4) If you use FB and Twitter use that to channel traffic to your own blog and email list. Only 8% to 16% of FB Fans get updates. For emails – 100% of your email subscribers get updates.

    5) Use your books as marketing channels. Promote your other books. Promote your site.

    6) I’ve had people suggest having a free ebook to increase subscribers. It was great to see an example of how well this works. I’m going to steal that idea. Thanks!


    1. All super true, and I’ll add one more piece of advice that has worked wonders for me: Make the first book in a series free, and the FIRST CTA in the back of it is: “DID YOU LIKE THIS? I WILL GIVE YOU THE SECOND BOOK IN THE SERIES FOR FREE IF YOU WILL REVIEW THIS FIRST ONE.” Create a form on your site for them to do this. They review the book on Amazon, paste the URL to their review in the form, and send it to you. Then you email them a free ebook copy of the second book.

      1) You will get more reviews. People obviously wanted the first book for free. Why wouldn’t they want the second one for free, just for typing ten nice words about your book?

      2) You will get GOOD reviews. People won’t want the second book if they didn’t enjoy the second one! Every single review I’ve gathered this way has been 4 or 5 stars, and MOSTLY 5 stars.

      3) You are creating an even more gradual funnel. We all know that a free book is the best entrance point to a funnel because there’s literally NO friction. They don’t have to open their wallet. Converting those free reads to a paid read, however, is a little trickier. But for the second book, you just say, “Review and it’s free.” That’s easier (psychologically) than paying. So it’s a small step up from “free” to “free for a review,” but now that they’ve contributed, it’s an even smaller step up from “free for a review” for “only costs you a buck.”

      4) I don’t have hard data to prove this, but I THINK this discourages bad reviews. I say that only because both series I do this with have NEVER received a 1 or 2 star review on that first free book, and have received very few 3 star reviews. Psychologically, it makes sense. You’re reminding them that, hey, they got this book for free, and you’re even willing to give the second one for free in exchange for a review. If they DIDN’T like it, they see that message and feel like a douche if they were to go trash your book on Amazon.

  4. Okay, I’ll be the skunk at the garden party. Every article or blog post I’ve ever read about Email lists presupposes that you already have a sizable fan base – every single one of them! I’d to know if there are ways to build such a list to establish a fan base, or if there aren’t, I wish these articles would stipulate that.

    1. I think I’m confused by this comment. An email list is a way to BUILD your sizable fan base. That’s how you accumulate fans. Am I misunderstanding your question? I started an email list with my very first book, and only got about fifty subscribers in my first six months. That WAS my fan base. Now, eighteen months later, I’ve got hundreds, but…like, your email list IS your fan base. What don’t I understand about your question?

      1. I *think* the question is about “how do I get the ball rolling?” I get similar comments under some marketing posts. And I get why. It can seem like you need ads to get sales, sales to get mailing list sign-ups, reviews to book ads, fans to get reviews, ads to get fans, And then you’re all tied up in knots and see no way out.

        The short answer is step-by-step. The long answer is linked to above.

      2. Okay, I’m dodging edits, so here we go…

        I was starting at ZERO today (like I did 3 years ago – we were all there) launching my first book, the plan might be:

        1. Get 10 sales as soon as you can. Get those algorithms moving. Also boughts only appear after 10 sales, and they are central to the Amazon recommendation engine in ways we only partly understand.

        2. Get 10-20 reviews as soon as you can. This will take a while, but it opens up a world of possibilities ad-wise and ads social proof. (But don’t buy any, obviously. There’s lots of legit places to get reviews: Goodreads, LibraryThing, NetGalley etc. Be willing to give anyone a free book in exchange for an (honest) review. Don’t worry about cannibalizing your sales, you are building something MUCH bigger.)

        3. Apply for a BookBub once you have 20 reviews. They don’t have a minimum, but a new author probably needs that many before they’ll look at it seriously. If they still reject, don’t worry. Happens often. Reapply in 2-4 weeks (whatever they suggest). Instead, book an ad at ENT, BookSends, or Kindle Books & Tips (and that’s probably the rough order of juice at the moment).

        4. Once you get an ad at any of those, build something around it. Put another ad the day after, or before. Or both if you can.

        5. Drop the price to 99c for the ad. Don’t be tempted to run at $1.99, even if you are normally priced at $4.99. 99c always brings way better results at the deal sites.

        6. Before the ad runs, make sure you are in the best categories to get maximum exposure from expected results. Also make sure your mailing list sign-up is the first thing readers see when they reach the end.

        7. When the ad runs, enjoy the sales burst and the increasing in mailing list sign-ups.

        8. While all this is going on, write another book. When that’s ready for the world, you’ll have a bigger list to launch to, and you will throw the book higher in the charts, and have a longer tail of nice sales after launch. This will also increase mailing list sign-ups, so the next one goes even higher.

        9. It starts becoming a virtuous circle at this point. With more titles, you have more promotional opportunities, more ads you can take out, more launches, all of which result in more sales, more spill-over to other titles, more sign-ups, bigger launches.

        10. Don’t give up. Books have a million lives. It doesn’t matter if no one has read it yet and it has been out a while. It’s always new to the reader encountering it for the first time.

      3. I’m just getting back to this, so I haven’t read David’s reply yet, but my question is simply this: How does someone who’s never heard of you and consequently knows nothing about your work end up on your e-mail list?

        1. I don’t know, and I wouldn’t expect them to. I only build my list from my books. It takes longer — but I don’t know any way to get people on your list who have never heard of you before. That seems like “black hat” marketing, and something that will get your email list heavily penalized if it’s discovered (which it will be when people start unsubscribing).

          Unless I misunderstand greatly, the article talks about getting more and more people to convert from READERS to your LIST. Not ways to buy email lists (something you should never do).

        2. Okay. I’ve already gotten my answer from David, but to set the record straight: I received an e-mail with a link to this blog. I (stupidly, I guess) clicked on the link and read the post about building a list. In that light I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask how one goes about building a list from scratch, which I did. Not sure what’s so confusing about this, David certainly got the point.

        3. You know, I read through these comments again, and I’m not really sure where my head was at. David’s answer is totally on the money. Listen to him, as always.

          *retreats to special lurking corner again*

    2. My story: Almost three years ago, I started my newsletter with just friends and family from my own (personal) email contact list. Despite every indie authority telling me to build that list, I ignored the advice for a year or more, yet still managed to get a few signups a month.

      Much like a Facebook page, it stagnated around 300…about the reach of you + a friend + a friend. I started actively putting links in my books’ backmatter (and had more books out), then started getting serious around February. I ran across Nick’s blog in mid-Spring, got aggressive with links in front AND back of books, then offered a freebie short story and am now just shy of 1,000, up from about 400 around May.

      It’s not a quick process and requires your constant attention. Synergies will develop as you produce multiple books, push the newsletter during promotions, and take a few risks (like putting the first in a series perma-free as a loss leader for your other books, but also as the billboard to get the newsletter rolling).

  5. Thanks for this post, David and Nick! This morning I implemented a lot of this on my own site. I think one key factor here is something that wasn’t stressed in the article: there’s a lot of benefit to offering ONE thing for signing up. I’ve had middling success by saying, “Sign up and pick one of my books to get for free!” And that’s eight titles. By giving too many choices, people can get overwhelmed, and as soon as they start trying to decide you’re inviting them to back away. Today I’ve changed that. If they sign up, they get Rebel Yell — just that. It’s a pretty book with a nice cover, and hopefully that will be more effective than “SEE ALL THESE PRETTY THINGS WHICH ONE DO YOU WANT?”

    1. Yeah I need to get on this. I’m handing a book over to the editor on Sunday (Digital 2, for those waiting), and then next week I’m gonna revamp my author site… which is about 3 years overdue.

      1. I think your site’s pretty good! 🙂

        I have a question I wasn’t immediately able to answer by searching your site. Have you done any posts on how to find NEW traffic? In other words, ways to market people into a new funnel other than by word of mouth? Goodreads giveaways? Facebook advertising? Google PPC advertising? Or whatever method you’ve found works best? I’ve experimented with all of these methods and read many many articles about all of them, but never a big ol’ compilation from a trusted source. If you have something like that, I’d find it invaluable. And if not…consider this a request, I guess? 🙂

    2. Garrett – Just a quick FYI. I *just* (yesterday) got approved for a Goodreads giveaway, hoping to make it into a short-term newsletter funnel. I usually get just shy of 1,000 people to enter my past giveaways, so I thought this would be a nice angle on readers I’m not already reaching: back matter, Amazon page, etc.

      While they left the link to my newsletter intact, the GR staff stripped out all promotional mention of a free story/free ebook and reworded my newsletter pitch into some relatively bland copy–although I’m thankful they didn’t erase it entirely. Just a thought before you try it yourself. You can check mine at

  6. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Some great pointers here for anyone looking to build up an email list.

  7. This is Jerry and I’m an editor of Fiberead, a free translation service company. I’m wondering if you still own the Chinese right of ‘Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should; Transfection’?

  8. I have about 8500 people on my email list, and my click rates have steadily declined. I only send something when I have a new release, or if I have some free content built in.

    I love the idea of sending 99c books from other authors in my genre, and your suggestions for segmentation are fantastic.

    I’m gmail challenged right now. I’ve sent free content and people tell me they didn’t get the email, when in fact it was sitting in that %$#$ing promotions tab.

    Is there any way to wiggle around that gmail promotions tab?

    Thanks in advance!


    1. It’s a pain, but there are a couple of things you can try. I haven’t done it myself yet, but I saw another author recently put in a line or two in his email about the Promotions tab – a little tutorial showing them what to click in Gmail to make all future emails from you come into the main section. I guess you could also put that on your autoresponder after they sign up, to make sure they do that right from the start. You won’t get everyone, but every little helps I suppose. Maybe some language on your site where they sign up too might get a few more.

    2. you can try removing all links and all images (especially links embedded inside images), and avoid salesy words like “sale”, “free”, “get it now” etc etc. Go for plain text only too, and Gmail should hopefully refrain from demoting your mail to the promotions tab. Of course, you might then sacrifice other people not clicking so much (well, copying and pasting in this case)… worth experimenting, see if it works.

  9. My question is, do you think the more you push email signups, people might just sign up with an email address reserved for signing up for spammy things on the internet? I have one of those addresses myself, and I think a lot of people probably do. I get kind of annoyed when people push me to sign up via email for things a lot.

    1. Sarah does have a valid point here. Although I don’t have a dedicated email address for spammy things, I have been getting so many things on the political things I am signed up for lately that I’ve started unsubscribing to them even though I still believe in their causes.

      There is such a thing as overkill. I can’t speak as a manager of email lists, personally though. But it’s a balance personally: at the 2 per month that David recommends, I personally wouldn’t feel like it’s being spammy. Some of the email lists I’m on mail me twice a week or so, which does feel spammy. So you do have to make sure you don’t e-mail people too much, and I’d say less is actually better in a sense. But I’d be curious to hear from David about unsubscribe rates. I doubt it’s super high with only two emails a month, but I could be mistaken.

      1. I can mirror Matt’s response – keeping it “non salesy” really helps. I started off by emailing once a week, and that ended up being too often. Now, with 2 emails a month and offering people a “no thanks” option when they get the book (meaning they aren’t forced to give an email address to read it) and re-introducing myself after 24 hours with an overview of what to expect from my list has kept my unsubscribe rate down at 0.5% and my abuse reports somewhere in the <0.05% region, which is very solid.

    2. From my own experience, it’s all in how you approach the list and how you treat the readership. If you look over Nick’s post carefully, you’ll see he recommends a lot of the little things that would hopefully keep your newsletter from being bucketed as spammy: segmenting new signups into news lists that get a special welcome, offering the option of not signing up yet getting the free novella anyway, reintroducing himself, the “not more than 2 per month” rule, etc. It’s the businesses that don’t bother with these small touches that get the boot from most readers, IMHO.

      Also, reputable mail services like MailChimp offer customers (you) and recipients many tools for limiting spam, including abuse reporting (which I’ve gotten nailed on when I’ve sent out a clarification on an incorrect link or price).

      You could probably go a long way in reassuring your newsletter readership that you aren’t a hustler by pointing these features out and reminding them that they can report you or unsubscribe at any point they feel their address is being abused.

  10. Coming across and reading your blog as been helpful for me. I want to become a writer, but it seems as though becoming an author is harder than I thought. I have just started thinking of different ways to reach an audience that might be interested in my writing. I have nothing published yet; I only have stories I have written throughout the years. When thinking of promoting my writing, I think of creating a blog and even my own personal website at some point. I think the largest audience-building method for my work would be my own personal website. I would be able to describe myself and my writing to the public. On this website I would hold discussions and questions so I could interact with the public and get advice one what people are more interested in reading. I want to be able to hear what individuals like to read so that I can gain more readers by taking their suggestions. This public interaction would also allow readers to see my personality and get to know me as not only an author but a person. Doing this would bring more readers to my novels. For readers who already read my genre and do not need as much convincing, they would still be able to see the different pieces I have written and get an idea of what to read next. Do you think this method works well for aspiring authors?

  11. Reblogged this on Jordan's Croft – Fiber Arts and commented:
    I’ve created a mailing list for Icy Road Publishing. You can blame David G. for it. LOL Because I’ve ‘known’ him for several years, on Authonomy and beyound, I’m willing to not only FOLLOW his advice, but to tell others about him.

    The ONLY thing I’m going to do with it is send out announcements for

  12. This advice is very good–but it assumes I have plenty of traffic to my website. I haven’t figured that one out, so I can’t act on your advice.

      1. Nick–This is good to know. But I have a follow-up question: how did you go about getting the word out about a permafree book available to those who visited your website? This may seem bone-headed to you (and may in fact BE bone-headed), but it seems like Catch 22 to me. Say I’m prepared to offer a freebie–how do I get the word out?

      2. Hey Barry – once you put a permafree out, especially when its new, you’ll get a load more downloads compared to paid books. Sure, you’re potentially losing money on the free book itself, but you’ll be getting email signups, which will pay off in the long run.

        Once the permafree book is out on Amazon, you can promote it on websites like Ereader News Today, Pixel of Ink, Booksends, Bookbooster, Bookbub, and a ton of others. With the right cover / genre / keywords / etc you can potentially gets hundreds of downloads per day, some of whom will go to your site and sign up. That’s been the best traffic source I’ve been able to find. Let the advertisers and Amazon do the promoting for you – you just make sure you’ve got a slick signup process and a big button on your website home page. There are plenty of free wordpress etc themes that do this, so it’s just a case of experimenting!

        You don’t have to offer a second free book on your website (although, I’ve found sales of my email signup giveaway book remain steady despite having it free on my site), you can offer other incentives – like bonus chapters, sneak previews, etc. Whatever you feel happiest with 🙂

  13. Do I understand correctly that Nick advises not to prominently link the newsletter signup page from the author site or blog, but only from specific traffic funnels? His author site seems to have only one indirect link (a radio button) to the signup page buried in the About // Contact page.

    1. Paolo – the big button on my home page takes readers through the signup process, then sends them a free book. I also put links on all the other pages, but go look at the home page again – it’s the “find out more” button. Have a click around 🙂

  14. Okay, so I have lots of questions for Nick myself, but I’ll start off with these.

    1. Can you talk a little more about the segmentation and analysis that you do? I think you drill deeper on that stuff than most writers and it would be interesting to hear your approach.

    2. Do you use Mailchimp’s paid service now? I’m just about hitting the limit for the free service for my New Release list and I’m wondering what you think the value is like on the paid side.

    3. How do you handle/account for opens/clicks not tracked by Mailchimp? As I’m sure you know, all these services use things like pixel tracking to gather user behavior. But if their mail client/work server blocks HTML emails and shows the text version instead, blocks images by default etc. then Mailchimp won’t be able to track their opens. So in your stats it would look like Reader X doesn’t open your emails whereas in fact they could do so every time… just in work. (Note to authors: this is a key reason why you shouldn’t cut such “non-performing” subscribers from your list arbitrarily.)

    4. How does the communication with new subscribers go? I think I’ve been lazy about this and don’t send them anything at all. I presume the free book is automated, so does that get attached to a welcome message? Is there any other communication with new subscribers before they get the next New Release email? Do you only email when you have a new release, or do you let them know about sales/free runs/bundles etc.?

    5. Finally, who designed your covers and your (reader-facing) site? The branding across all of it is really great.

    1. 1. Can you talk a little more about the segmentation and analysis that you do? I think you drill deeper on that stuff than most writers and it would be interesting to hear your approach.

      I’m still experimenting with this. I have a few hard and fast rules that I use when segmenting:

      – don’t send anyone more than 2 emails per month
      – don’t send anyone an email within 1 week of signing up (apart from the welcome email)
      – for those who didn’t open several campaigns in a row, send them a nice email asking if they still want to be subscribed
      – anyone not opening 6 email campaigns or more (including the email described above) gets deleted
      – use mailchimp’s built-in system to work out the best time of day to send out a campaign, based on historical click rates
      – for time-based promotions, use mailchimps built in “time warp” to send mail at the same time of day based on the subscriber’s own time zone

      and I’m toying with:

      – those who have a great click-rate, reward them with giveaways, promos, etc
      – those who open a lot of emails but don’t click them, ask whether there’s anything they’d like to see in future emails
      – reader polls – find out what my readers respond best to, and use that to help with future books

      It’s quite fluid at the moment. I did used to just send out the same mail to everyone, but I found even simple segmenting like this helps keep people happy and improves engagement

      2. Do you use Mailchimp’s paid service now? I’m just about hitting the limit for the free service for my New Release list and I’m wondering what you think the value is like on the paid side.

      Yes – it’s currently $50 per month for up to 5,000 subscribers. The affiliate earnings mostly pays for that, so I’m not in the red by too much – and when I have a new release, it’s not even an issue (the last one netted me around $200 on day 1). The best thing about the paid service is the automated scheduling (see above) but, other than that, it’s not much different to the free version. I did toy with the idea of using mailchimp to store and segment emails, then using a cheaper service to send the mails out, but the pricing is reasonable enough that I don’t think it’s worth the extra effort and I don’t think I’d feel too good morally doing that anyway!

      3. How do you handle/account for opens/clicks not tracked by Mailchimp? As I’m sure you know, all these services use things like pixel tracking to gather user behavior. But if their mail client/work server blocks HTML emails and shows the text version instead, blocks images by default etc. then Mailchimp won’t be able to track their opens. So in your stats it would look like Reader X doesn’t open your emails whereas in fact they could do so every time… just in work. (Note to authors: this is a key reason why you shouldn’t cut such “non-performing” subscribers from your list arbitrarily.)

      Yes, this is an issue – not all email providers will register an “open”. In which case, I’m pretty stuck! Mailchimp can still track clicks though – and if a subscriber hasn’t opened my last 6 emails and also hasn’t clicked, it’s pretty likely they’re not engaged.

      4. How does the communication with new subscribers go? I think I’ve been lazy about this and don’t send them anything at all. I presume the free book is automated, so does that get attached to a welcome message? Is there any other communication with new subscribers before they get the next New Release email? Do you only email when you have a new release, or do you let them know about sales/free runs/bundles etc.?

      I send a welcome email with a download link, then another “thank you” email 24 hours later, asking readers to recommend books they’ve enjoyed. That’s an automated function also, using the “autoresponder” feature. I also ask for readers’ own recommendations with any recommendation emails I send out myself – and I will always get a handful of people come back to me with their favourite reads. It’s been great building up a dialogue, and I’ve actually found quite a few super-fans this way.

      I sometimes let people know about promotions, etc, but only if they’ve not had the maximum number of emails from me that month. I try to keep it as informal as possible, along the lines of “hey, you might like this” and try not to sell. I’ve found that works much better.

      So, I’ll email book recommendations, my own promotions, and new releases – but keep it down to 2 emails a month. Any more than that, people tend to get annoyed.

      5. Finally, who designed your covers and your (reader-facing) site? The branding across all of it is really great.

      Thanks Dave! My cover designer doesn’t want his name on public sites, but people can email me for his details. I did both my sites myself, using WordPress and several hours of sweat and tears in Photoshop 🙂

  15. I loved this post for selfish reasons because it gives me an easy way to get better at something I suck at. I think I’m pretty good at driving mailing list sign-ups in an active way (cover reveals, posts/guest posts/interviews about upcoming books etc.) but my passive systems are mediocre. I have okay calls-to-action at the back of my books to get people to sign up to my list, but my author website is awful and I think I last updated it when querying agents.

    So my plan is to:

    (1) Revamp my author website. This has been on the cards for a while but this post has given me fresh impetus.

    (2) Implement a squeeze page there and/or make the mailing list sign-up the center of the landing page (depending on how the design goes).

    (3) Write a novella that I could make permafree and/or give to all subscribers.

    (4) Start getting into segmentation of my list and analyzing the performance of same a little closer. But I need to pick Nick’s brains about that.

  16. Really interesting and informative, thanks! Still have to pull my thumb out and create a mailing list. Nick’s blog/site, by way of example, was fantastically well done, particularly the free ebook signup process. Very slick, and worth emulating… now all we need is a ‘how to’ guide… :0)

  17. Also I very rarely reblog as I am not sure what the etiquette on that is, but I think this is an article that will be helpful to many. So I am reblogging.

    1. Note for everyone: I’ve no problem with anyone reblogging my posts, or quoting extensively from same, as long as common-sense rules apply (i.e. link back here, don’t quote the entire post, don’t amend the text etc.).

  18. Reblogged this on Welcome to Writers Town and commented:
    Also I very rarely reblog as I am not sure what the etiquette on that is, but I think this is an article that will be helpful to many. So I am reblogging.

  19. I found this so helpful. These are questions developing writers have to tackle these days and you provide a comforting answer to the questions that plague. Thank you so much for providing this information.

  20. Reblogged this on I Read Encyclopedias for Fun and commented:
    I think I’ll be reblogging a few posts that provide advice and tips today. Here’s the second. This time, some tips from author Nick Stephenson on David Gaughran’s blog for building a great email list. This can be a great way to inform fans and readers of your updates and new books directly. I think I should start doing this, too.

  21. Nick was kind enough to share his newsletter strategy with me a few weeks ago and I can attest to its effectiveness. While I don’t have quite Nick’s amazing sign-up numbers, my numbers *are* 8-10 times what they were previously and increasing steadily.

    I can also state I haven’t met many others authors who are as generous with sharing their experiences and tips for success. If you want to increase your self-pub IQ by several points, follow his blog!

  22. I always enjoy your posts David, but this guest post has really made me think about how little I market, and how badly I do what little I do,do. -grin- Some great ideas here. Thanks to both of you.

  23. A lot of great ideas here! I’ve been thinking about giving away a free short story with email subscribers so I’m definitely going to implement this soon.

    Just one note, it’s against the Amazon Affiliates TOS to send affiliate links via email. I’m not sure what other affiliates allow this so be careful! 🙂

    1. Hey SJ – Amazon are a little cloak and dagger about affiliate links in emails. It might be worth sending people to a custom product page, which then links to Amazon via an affiliate link. It’s an extra click, but it should avoid any issues.

      Makes me wonder how bookbub get round that…

    2. Hey SJ, Are you absolutely sure this is against the ToS? Could you quote the relevant section? I ask because I’ve pored over (what I thought was) the relevant section regarding restrictions checking both this and whether affiliate links were allowed at the back of our books.

      It was a while ago, and things may have changed, but the last time I checked it seemed that it was unclear about the books, and putting affiliate links in email seemed permissible. Email marketing and affiliate marketing go hand-in-hand. The major reader sites like POI, ENT, KBT, BookSends, and BookBub all use Amazon affiliate links in their emails. They are sending out hundreds of thousands of emails a day, and Amazon watches them (esp. the bigger guys) very closely, so I’d imagine they would be stopped if it wasn’t permitted.

      Regarding links in the back of books, that something I definitely avoid. While the ToS wasn’t definitive, and while I’ve heard conflicting answers from KDP Support, the one time I heard from Amazon Affiliate support they were pretty adamant on that front. So I avoid that.

      But I’m pretty sure affiliate codes in emails is fine.

      1. Dave – I went and checked this after SJ posted, and it looks like she’s spot on. Section 6 of the code of practice (or whatever it’s called) says no “offline” promotion of links. It counts emails as “offline” in this section, for some reason, but the wording is very very vague.

        It sounds like Amazon are trying to cut down on the number of spammy emails affiliates send out, which would, in turn, get their bona fide emails blocked. I guess they leave it vague so they can bend the rules when needed.

        bookbub, for example, link straight to Amazon – and I’m guessing they’re using affiliate codes. Perhaps they have a special agreement in place. It’s an odd one!

        1. Huh. That is odd. Maybe it’s one of those classic Amazon ToS fudges to cover their ass – so that if someone is being spammy and scammy they can easily boot them. Kind of like the “restrictions” WordPress has on using sites for a commercial basis. Some writers think they can’t advertise their own books etc., or use affiliate links, but the language is only there to give WP the freedom to boot people who just put up crappy content-less affiliate stores. Really odd that email is considered offline. But if sites like BookBub think it’s an acceptable risk, with millions at stake, then I’m totally fine with doing the same.

        2. Hi! Morning! I went to bed before I saw these replies. Yes, it’s in the TOS section 6 like you mentioned and I saw a blog article on this very topic about 3-4 months ago which is when I stopped using this feature. NOW, I also recently looked up link cloaking in regards to Affiliate links as well, and my understanding (I could be wrong) was that, as long as Amazon can tell what domain the link originally came from and you state on that domain that you’re an amazon affiliate, then the link is good. I believe this is how Bookbub gets away from it. Try it out… When you get your Bookbub email today, click on a link and watch the address bar. I have seen that the link in the email goes to Bookbub’s server’s FIRST and then to the affiliate link. This way, it hits their domain and then can be tracked to the particular email they send out. Link cloak and dagger 🙂 And it’s what I would do in this case (and am planning on doing with Pretty Links in my WordPress installation). I was a web programmer in an earlier life so puzzling these things out is fun for me.

      2. SJ – thanks for that. I guess you’d need something set up on your own domain, rather than using something like (bad example). So users would click then that would redirect to the amazon affiliate link – if I understand you correctly!

        1. For email links that go to associates links, my guess was yes, you need to direct them through your domain that’s listed on the affiliates account. If you’re running WordPress, there’s a great plugin called Pretty Links you can get for it to make short links like I learned about them from the book Write. Publish. Repeat. I use this to make trackable links for all my back matter in my books and now for affiliate linking too 🙂

        2. Thanks SJ (and Nick) for the further info. I definitely want to keep on the right side of the rules, so I’ll look into Pretty Links when revamping my author site. I definitely want an alternative to SmartURL. I was using them to redirect people based on location, but they insert their own affiliate link if you don’t insert yours – which could lead to trouble when using them in books. I don’t know how Amazon Associates would feel about it, they aren’t great at responding to emails. I guess if I get in trouble for it, I can point to the fact it was auto-inserted, and it’s not my affiliate code, but the best approach would be to use my own shortener/redirector which won’t insert any affiliate link for those in-book links.

        3. Yes, Pretty Links is like having your very own Buy the Pro version and you get all types of extra tracking and import/export features which are great when you’re setting up links for a new book or whatever. Then you can do it in Excel and just import. Best of luck!

      3. I’ve been putting affiliate links to my other books in the back of books for quite a while now, as I had no idea it might be a problem. I have yet to hear from Amazon that it is a problem, and it seems to be something easily caught in the verification process. Guess I ought to have a closer look at the affiliate agreement to make sure I’m not asking for trouble down the road.

  24. Thank you very much for these tips that are so easy (and free) to apply. I’ve just recently published and I’m trying to focus on the important parts of marketing and promoting. This is a straight forward message that email lists should be a top priority. I’ve just now created the sign up page to my site, and I plan on using the other tips shortly.

  25. So, what do you do if you make it super easy to sign up for the mailing list (including in front and back matter of a free book) and all that, and still aren’t getting many sign-ups? I even have a series book readers are waiting for and made it clear that news will be in the newsletter, but the list is still really small. After doing any incentives I can think of, I’m boggled.

    1. Hey CK – the percentage of permafree downloads to email signups is only around 1 – 2%, so, assuming you’ve got an obvious link and an incentive to sign up, the best way to boost numbers is to run a freebie promotion on your funnel book and boost your downloads.

      – Nick

      1. Yep, the link is obvious – in all my titles, actually (6 of them), plus a sign-up page on my website and my FB Page.

      2. CK – to mirror David’s reply, it’s all about traffic. a 1% conversion rate on a book that sells even 50 copies a day is going to be low. But even a modestly performing permafree can get a few hundred downloads a day, and that shoots up massively when you promote, and can stay in the thousands for quite a while. That would be my number one tip – use a permafree to drive good traffic.

      3. Nick, re: your comment below, I wish I still had a few hundred downloads/day on the permafree title. It’s been free since 2/12/14 on Amazon. In the romance genre (and coming of age/New Adult to boot), it’s too flooded to keep those kinds of numbers going without ads like every week. Just too much competition that I’m not healthy enough to have the energy to fight. Then I don’t know what happened mid-July on Amazon, but free downloads plummeted to half the steady average I’d had for 2.5 months. Visibility algorithms or something. It’s painful. Since my downloads dropped, sales on the rest of the series does, too.

    2. Hi CK.

      There are two parts to the puzzle. Mailing list sign-ups will be a function of the traffic you are driving to places where you have a link to your mailing list sign-up. So even if you have all the right things in place, if you aren’t pushing any traffic to those links, you won’t see an uptick.

      For the links in your books (I need to start putting them in the front too, along with a short blurb – I see more readers asking for this), those will obviously be a function of sales, and increasing traffic to those links will involve all the usual advice for increasing sales.

      This can be frustrating at the start – it seems like a chicken/egg situation, i.e. you need a bigger list to increase sales, but you need increased sales to get a bigger list. But you have to persevere. Make sure the text around the sign-up link is enticing. If possible, try and tailor it to the book in question. This is particularly easy to do if you have a series, but it’s possible in any situation. With a series, you can say something like “The next Buster Grogan adventure will be released shortly. Sign up here [clickable link] to get an automatic email when it is released.” etc. But you can do it with standalones too. E.g. “I’ll be releasing another novella about star-crossed rocket scientists in the next few months, sign up here…” etc.

      Each time you have a sales spike – from a 99c sale, or an ad, or a big review site/guest spot etc. – you should see a corresponding uptick in mailing list sign-ups. Then the next time you release a book, you should be able to throw it a little higher in the rankings, and grab a few more names. It takes a while to build, but keep at it and you’ll soon see a difference.

      For a permafree book, you have to keep throwing exposure at it, and the best way is through ads on that book. But make sure you are cross-promoting that freebie wherever you can – on your site/blog, and in the blurbs of your other books. The latter is especially important to catch any spill-over for when those books get any exposure/ads/sales spikes etc.

      Finally, for mailing list sign-up links that are not in your books, and are on your site etc., try and push whatever traffic to them you can. So if you are doing an interview somewhere, make sure to mention that readers can try your work for free, and including the (clickable) link to the page where they can download your book and sign-up to your list. Make sure to mention it anywhere else you can think of that readers might see, in your bios, about pages, Amazon author pages etc. Some places won’t allow hotlinks, so skirt around that by telling readers to go to your site. And so forth.

      1. Currently, each book in the series has a list of the series titles in front and in back and at the end of the list is the direction to sign-up to be alerted when Book 5 releases. Book 5 is still a WIP, so I don’t have a firm date to share yet, but I’ve talked about progress and posted teasers since I know readers are waiting for it.

        One problem I have is that I’ve never had a talkative audience. All those things that normally work to get readers conversing with an author haven’t moved my readers at all and I know that’s part of the difficulty. If some of them hadn’t come and left reviews on my site or on Facebook to let me know they’re passionate about the characters, I’d be completely in the dark.

        Anyway, I always promote the mailing list at the end of blog posts and stuff, but my desk time is limited due to chronic health issues, so I’m a slow writer. I think I started my mailing list last Sept., and I’m recently up to 66 subscribers. It would technically be more, but I had several that never opened one e-mail, so I ended up deleting them from the list. Currently have a 54.8% open rate and 9.5% click rate.

      2. CK, in terms of getting more free downloads, I have found the free ebook submission tool at to be invaluable. You have to pay $15.00 every time you use it, but it garners me TONS of downloads. They access more sites than, say AMC’s free book submission page (though that’s great, too). Just a recommendation to get even more people to your free book and hopefully onto your email list!

    3. CK – Just to add my 2 cents here: I think Nick’s most powerful strategy is the free novella. I was following Nick’s advice on this a few weeks/months ago and didn’t see any uptick in my subscriptions until I put the offer of a free short story (involving the book’s series character, of course, and not a “trunk” story) in the front and back of each book, complete with a graphic of the story’s cover.

      I was also lucky enough to get a Bookbub ad on my perma-free title that had this info in the front which put booster rockets on the strategy, but that ad was almost exactly a month ago and sign ups are still holding steady at between 3-6 per day…and I think it’s the free story that’s pulling them in.

      P.s. Don’t forget putting the link and cover in the front matter will ensure that it shows in the Look Inside link of your book, so casual browsers might be tempted right there.

  26. Thank you David, what great info! I am a new aspiring fictional christian author, just working on my 1st book. Sadly being christian, my sales will probably be lower, but it is a genre I refuse to give up. My hope is that my books will grab readers of both christian and non-christian alike. It was suggested to me, by my mother actually, to try and get my name out there before I was ready to publish. I thought that was great advice. So I set up a web page on wordpress where I post inspirational blogs, poems, and short stories. I also went to twitter, for audience.

    The advice you give here has been very helpful. It’s a scary thought but I am considering through your advice removing all of my widget buttons and leaving just the email sign up. Your advice is wonderful and greatly appreciated (-:
    ~Heather Ann~

  27. I’m finally off to the UPS store right now so I can set up a Mailchimp account. Thanks Nick.

    Is it possible to automate the giving away of a free novella or do you simply send it out to each new subscriber automatically?

    1. It’s all automated – I host the file and send a link out with an automatic “welcome” email. I also use a plugin called “optinlinks” that directs people to the download page once they’ve either entered their email or clicked “no thanks”. All hands free 🙂

  28. Great tips, thanks so much for sharing. I haven’t been focusing as much on building my email list as I should, but I did make some changes to my website today that I hope will help. These are some great tips, too.

  29. This is great advice for building an email list, Nick! The people you attract from your permafree books already have an account with a retailer, so they’re much more likely to actually buy your books once they become a fan through reading your free stuff.

    “I decided I wanted to take control over my writing career, and figure out a way to build up a following without having to rely on other people.”

    I’m going back to the approach I took when I wrote my first novel in 2006: posting entire books online for people to read for free. I did that for several books, then I pulled them off my site. Now I have gone back to my roots, writing each book as an online serial novel, posting each chapter as I write it. I now have nine complete novels and novellas on my website, free to read online. The people who want to convenience of an ebook can purchase one at a low price from Amazon and the other online stores. Some will even want the paperbacks.

    There are many millions of people in the world who have access to the web, but cannot possibly afford to buy books. I offer my books to them–free to read online. Of course, people who can afford to buy the books can also read for free.

    I’m counting on those who want the convenience of an ebook or paperback to support my work. Hopefully many of those who enjoy (and have money for books) will gladly support my work. If not, then maybe I just haven’t turned them into fans yet. 😉

  30. Thank you! This a fantastic article with some really great advice. It’s use goes far beyond book sales, it can literally be used to contact with clients regardless of the sales vehicle. Thanks again for taking the time to write this piece.

  31. Thanks, Nick, for your generosity in sharing these list-building tips. They’re some of the best and most doable I’ve ever read. And thanks to David for hosting. Now I’m off to build my email list!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *