Email Marketing: Your Secret Weapon

Email marketing is the most powerful tool at your disposal and not taking advantage of its unique benefits is really missing a trick. Here’s why.

I’m sure all of you know the power of having thousands of committed readers signed up to your mailing list, allowing you to send each new release into the charts. Even if you’re not there yet personally, this should be something you are aiming for. Every single author should have a mailing list and be seeking to actively grow it.

But before we fly through the basics and delve into more advanced topics, let’s be clear about something: email marketing is not about spam. It’s not about fake intimacy. It’s not about posing BS questions to create false engagement. And it’s not about bait-and-switches, contrived urgency, click-baiting subject lines, or other emotional tricks; that’s what cheesy internet marketers do.

It’s a huge mistake to look at someone doing email marketing in a slimy way and decide that email isn’t for you. There’s a right way and a wrong way to use every tool.

Example of a spammy use of email by an internet marketer sending sleazy messages every two days to a totally unengaged audience
Definitely don’t do this.

Email Marketing Basics

I recommend MailerLite (aff link) for the job, which is free for the first 1,000 subscribers and reasonably priced thereafter, has an intuitive drag-and-drop interface for creating pretty emails, enables you to slice-and-dice your lists whichever way you please, gives you a nice clean and clear interface, offers great customer service, and allows surprisingly powerful automations.

(Note: I switched to MailerLite from Mailchimp, for reasons detailed in this post – Time To Ditch Mailchimp? – which also recommends MailerLite alternatives for those with specific needs).

Also make sure to have an enticing call-to-action right at the end of all your books, pointing people towards a clean sign-up page on your website, so that you can capture as many of those readers as possible who were delighted with your story.

Okay. This is just the bare minimum reader-capturing apparatus that you should have in place, preferably with some form of welcome sequence too.

Writing good books, releasing as frequently as you can manage, and growing your list over time organically will get you going. But email marketing can do so much more for you than simply roll out launch announcements.

Reader Retention via Email

As authors, we have various techniques aimed at getting people to check out our work, whether that’s engaging in price promotions, giving our work away for free, buying a spot on various reader sites, advertising on Amazon, Facebook and BookBub, engaging in cross-promotions with other writers, beefing our review count by giving away ARCs – the list of such tactics is endless, and the amount of time and money and headspace we devote to these activities is considerable.

But you know what’s way easier than gaining a new customer? Keeping an old one.

If you have read my book Strangers to Superfans (links to all retailers here) you will know that I talk a lot about the five stages that your Ideal Reader goes through in the transformation from stranger to superfan, and the various blockages along the way that can impede that process. One of the biggest blockages is internal, which is a diplomatic way of saying one of the biggest problems is you.

Aside from assuming discoverability is our biggest challenge – and mistakenly devoting all our energy and focus into getting discovered – we also assume our job is done once the reader clicks the Buy button. Our prose will sweep them away, our rakish duke will make them swoon, our battle-scarred captain will inspire enough loyalty among our reader-crew to get them through all ten books of our tentpole series. Right? Wrong.

Like all relationships, the relationship with your readers must be nurtured, or you will lose many of them along the way. We can’t be so arrogant to assume that we will instantly become everyone’s favorite author once they read our killer opening line. We should remember that some readers get through a book a week. Retired readers can get through several!

All of those authors will be jockeying for position in the reader’s consciousness. Whose work do you think they are more likely to read again: the author who releases the next book in the series five months later and hopes that Amazon recommends it to them? Or the author who convinces the reader to sign up to their mailing list?

Even out of those already working the mailing list angle, which writer is our hypothetical reader more likely to remember: one who doesn’t contact them again until the launch of the next book five months later? Or one who stays in touch regularly, building up a relationship by emailing them something of value (i.e. of genuine interest) every month or so?

There’s no contest. You can take any of those approaches; it’s your choice. But not having a refined email marketing strategy makes it much harder for you to retain readers. Which is a shame considering all the sweat expended getting them to buy those books you labored over.

Advanced Email Marketing

It’s not just with retaining readers where email marketing really shines. Your email list has all sorts of uses from deepening engagement and relationships (creating superfans), launching books into the stratosphere by concentrating sales during launch week, driving sales of backlist books your readers may have missed, and boosting reviews by drawing from a pool of your most committed fans.

Some authors use their list to have a true back-and-forth with their readers – not the kind of fake engagement you see internet marketer types deploy. I know authors who have drawn from their subscriber list for beta readers. Others (me included!) have used their regular emails to flesh out book ideas – their list becoming a sounding board of sorts. More again rave about the having an open, direct channel with their readership, the psychological benefits of which should never be understated in what is largely a solitary profession.

But there’s more! Certain email strategies can help you gain readers too. Dangling something as a sign-up bonus is a very powerful way to drive sign-ups. Often referred to as a “cookie” or “reader magnet” it usually takes the form of a free book or story – but doesn’t need to. Writers can get very creative with this sign-up bonus and really tie it in to the universe of their books.

These books or bonuses – especially when exclusive – can be enticing enough to draw in new readers as well as existing fans, and then if you really are delivering value with your regular emails, and not just squeezing your list for sales, then you have a great chance of converting these “cold” readers into buyers and fans too.

I see it happen all the time: someone signs up to my list because they want the bonus book – you can’t get it anywhere else for all the money in the world. They hang around for a few weeks, seeing if the emails have any value to them. I make sure that any “ask” in my emails only comes after a succession of “gives” – so they might get four or five emails of genuine value before I might mention my work, often tangentially. And they then might check it out because there has been no hard sell.

Unique Advantages of Email

“But wait!” you might cry, just as I was getting up to speed, “Why does all this have to be done by email? Don’t people use Facebook to talk to fans? Isn’t it better to put all this content out on social media or a blog where it actually has a chance of going viral?”

Fair points. So, let’s look at the unique advantages of email. Why is email the best tool for the job? What does it have over blogging or Facebook or anything else? These are good questions and worth teasing out.

Ownership. That might be your name on your Facebook wall but you don’t own it – as you soon find out when you have to pay to make sure all your Likes actually see your launch announcement… or when you get thrown in Facebook jail by an errant AI.

Attention. Email converts like crazy. Nothing comes close to it. Compare the percentages on a Facebook or Amazon Ad versus an email to your list, or BookBub mailing their list (which is what those powerful Featured Deals are, lest you forget!). When you are reading an email, you are far less distractable then when you are on social media or any other web page for that matter. Email trains attention. Email converts.

Intimacy. Perhaps a by-product of the above, and maybe down to the feeling that this is two-way communication, email is far more intimate. It feels like someone talking to you, rather than broadcasting to you via a blog or social media post. (And sometimes it really is two-way communication because an actual dialogue happens between you and the sender.)

Data. I know who is opening my emails, who is clicking on the links, and who is ignoring them completely. I have no idea with my blog subscribers. I just get aggregated states on views and visits and link clicks. Facebook gives me data morsels here and there, but, again, only aggregated. I don’t know who are the solid core which see all my posts organically before I drop a dime (I don’t even know if it’s the same people, or different tranche each time). With email, I have all that data at my fingertips, well presented, and easily searchable. Digestible too – which is pretty important. I look at Google Analytics and I just want to close the window right away (and usually do). All this is important because…

Flexibility. Even if I did know who was seeing my Facebook post and who wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to do much about it. But with email I can segment out people who don’t open 5 or 10 emails in a row and try to re-engage them through various tactics, or cut them loose if they are irretrievable, keeping my costs down. But on Facebook, as I said in Strangers to Superfans, “those now-uninterested Likes keep accumulating like mercury in the body.” Not only does this drive up your costs overall, it makes your content look unengaging to Facebook’s system, making it harder for you to reach those who are still interested.

Portability. If Twitter pulls a MySpace, all those followers I’ve accrued will disappear too. But when Mailchimp jacked up its prices, I was able to take my carefully cultivated mailing lists and move over to MailerLite. (The process was pretty straightforward, as detailed in my post Moving from Mailchimp to MailerLite.) But if Facebook runs into trouble and jacks up its prices, it will be a million times messier for you because you don’t own your Facebook Page. You would have to post repeatedly and/or run ads to your own Likes, desperately trying to move them to your new social network of choice, or your blog, or your list – realistically, you might be lucky to sweep up 5-10% of them. All those other Likes you built up will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. But you most definitely do own your list. And you can export it at any time with one click.

The Right Tool for the Job

It’s important to remember that it’s not either/or. As you may have noticed, this piece of content is coming to you from a blog. I also have a Facebook Page – indeed you may have seen this post on social media first and then clicked through to my blog. And I have an email list, of course.

All these different tools can achieve different things. A really slick content marketing strategy involves knowing what type of content should go out via what channel and in which form. Because all of these channels can act in symbiosis, and cross-pollinate each other.

(BTW, if you’re interested in learning more about content marketing generally, I’m covering the topic in a series of emails to my list at the moment, and by signing up here, you get access to the Email Archive and any episodes you missed.)

All this talk of content marketing strategies might be overwhelming for some, but take it step by step. Make sure to prioritize so that you aren’t spread to thin. And you don’t have to do all of it – this really must be stressed. An involved content marketing strategy is going to be much more important for a non-fiction author, for example.

Your priority, though, should be your email list, along with a website so there is a clean and slick place for readers to sign up. If you were only going to focus on one thing in the whole world of content marketing and email marketing make it that you will regularly email your readers – once a month is perfectly fine!

The unique advantages of email mean this is a tool you really shouldn’t ignore. Yes, you could use Facebook for customer retention. Yes, you could rely solely on advertising to get you new customers and to tell existing ones about new releases. But email is just so much better at customer retention and can save you so much money in advertising… if you do it right.

Authenticity or Bust

Doing it right starts with respecting your readers, making sure that you stay in touch with them regularly but only emailing them with something that has genuine value. Make sure that any “ask” – i.e. any time you want something from them, whether that’s a sale or a share or a review – is surrounded by a string of “gives.”

You might think you are doing readers a favor by not bothering them unless you have a new book but what you are really doing is only turning up at their door when you want money from them. I made this mistake for years. It was only when I tried a different approach, that I could see the benefits of regular contact.

If you want help with any of this stuff, if you want to do email right, check out Newsletter Ninja – the best book out there on the topic. It changed my whole approach.

And whatever your approach to email is, don’t listen to anyone who tells you that email marketing doesn’t work just because spammers are a thing. That’s an incredibly limited view, one that could end up limiting your own potential.

One last thing…

I hope you enjoyed this post! I just wanted to let you know that I send out exclusive content every Friday to my mailing list subscribers.

I talk about the latest tricks with Facebook Ads or BookBub Ads, I also get into topics like content marketing, reader targeting, and everything else under the sun that pertains to building audience and reaching readers.

By signing up to my list, you get access to the all the old emails too, as well as sneak previews of upcoming books (meaning you get the jump on the latest tricks strategies of everyone else), and exclusive discounts too.

You also get a FREE copy of Following – a book that you can’t get anywhere else! I strongly recommend that you join over ten thousand authors and sign up today because there are all sorts of bonuses you will enjoy.

Download Following for Free
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.

25 Replies to “Email Marketing: Your Secret Weapon”

  1. Thank you Guru David! Following diligently along with Starting from Zero, finished Digital and almost done with Following. Quick questions about mailing list subscribers who don’t open: I built my list from a BookSweeps promo last month and have a MailerLite automation flow going. The welcome email had a 38% open rate, the next two had 26% and 30% open rates, respectively. Do you suggest re-sending that same welcome email to those who didn’t open the first time or creating a new one? Would I start a new subscriber list for that group? If not, do they enter the original automation flow? Thanks for your help!

  2. Excellent blog post! It’s information like this that help beginner authors the most. I agree that building an email list will definitely help authors to get one started on the right track. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I’m so glad you included Alinka’s emails – they do my head in!

    I genuinely enjoy emailing my readers. I don’t have a lot to offer in terms of regular books for sale because I can’t bring out a book every five months, so I send a free, exclusive short story they can’t get anywhere else. They’re like lunchtime reads to keep people familiar with my writing (and hopefully entertained!).

    But I always write my emails from a point of view of, ‘would my target reader like this?’ And my target reader is drawn from my existing subscribers who always reply 🙂

  4. Hi David

    I’ve enjoyed reading your emails and save them to go back to from time to time. What I have t seen is any suggestions for us writers who are starting from zero readers, not just a few, none. I could hold a meeting of my fans on a unicycle with me as the key note speaker and president of the william the writer appreciation club.

    Part of this is because my book, which is going to be a best seller, out performing the bible and Harry Potter, is not quite ready to release to the world yet. My adoring fans will have to wait a few more weeks while I finish the edits and get a cover designed. But in the mean time I’d like to spread the good news that the book they’ve all been waiting for is nearly here and I’m not sure where to start.

    Any advice would be gratefully received. I mean obviously it’s going to go viral without any help from anyone, the pope will be photographed reading a copy on the balcony before his Christmas Day address, but I thought I’d give you the chance to say “I knew him before he was famous” or “I taught him everything he knows.”



    1. Hi William, I cover this topic regularly, especially on my weekly marketing newsletter. Here’s an example:

      I actually did a whole series of emails called “Starting Fresh” – looking specifically at how an author would launch a new series depending on whether they were a big author starting a new series, an existing author launching a new pen name or working in a new genre, or a brand new author with no following, and so on. If you sign up to my mailing list you’ll get access to all those old emails. You can do that here:

  5. Hey David, have been getting hooked to your blog lately. Although I am not an author this is pretty helpful even for someone like me (I am an email marketing consultant). Btw – How is Mailerlite working for you so far. Anything that you didn’t like while moving away from Mailchimp?

    1. Thanks! I have sent 10-12 big campaigns via Mailerlite now with zero issues, and my automations have been running via Mailerlite now for 3 months without any problems. My open rates are up, and I’ve noticed via some test addresses that I’m signed up with that I’m far more likely to go into Inbox than Promotions now, even when I have a few images and links in the message. Which is wonderful obviously. So, hugely positive. Trying to think of a downside to balance this comment out a little, but haven’t hit one yet that I can think of. Customer service has been great for any minor wrinkles which popped up during and after the move too.

      Also seems more… consistent overall. Open rates would bounce around wildly with Mailchimp but seem much more predictable with Mailerlite. Also seems like I can find the thresholds – in terms of how many images to include in an email – which will trigger (likely) going into Spam/Promotions/Inbox with much more accuracy. Which is just so useful.

  6. I’m late to the article, but I think I’ll move my email lists to MailerLite asap, for various reasons. The biggest one, however, is that it’ll save me a bunch of money.

    And that alone is perfectly awesome.

  7. Speaking of mailing lists, committed readers, and repeated traffic, why did blogger give up RSS? It was possibly the closest thing they had to the power of mailing lists.

    The tech press effectively bashed RSS out of existence as it was supposedly difficult for ordinary users. Bloggers embraced social media and let RSS be forgotten and rot. Now many authors and creators are stuck with ephemeral, unfocused social traffic and running the treadmill of continually sharing posts and boosting them with paid ads.

    Time to dust off RSS?

    1. I know RSS has its (very passionate!) fans, but I think techy types overestimate its popularity outside their circles. From my perspective on this side of the fence, it has always been a tiny portion of the action, and, while I like to be as flexible as possible for my readers, there are a lot of disadvantages for bloggers when it comes to RSS.

      1. I agree, I’m sure the popularity of RSS is close to nonexistent these days. My point is both the tech press and bloggers contributed to its decline despite some key advantages, and they’re now facing the consequences.

      2. RSS isn’t dead and has its place, particularly for the reader, though is very difficult to manage in anyway as the producer of content. I use Feedly to watch for new blog posts from David, for example. It’s a great tool for me, as a reader, to read blog posts on my schedule as opposed to an email or social media post which has a greater sense of urgency.

        The bad news for the producer of content is that they have no way of knowing who their subscribers are, what tools they use, or anything else useful about them.

        P.S. – Most website software produces an RSS feed by default. Basically, that translates to dont worry too much about it because you can’t see the readers and you can’t control (much) the output. In my case, I make sure the featured image is visible and submit only the excerpt to my RSS feed. Thus, anyonw who follows me via RSS must come to my website to read anything, giving me a slight chance of capturing them on my email list.

  8. Several years have passed since I’ve used an email client. I won’t name it here since don’t think it comparable to Mail Chip or the alternatives I read about on your post. All this to say I am grateful for the timely information as I begin the process again.

  9. I read the first half of Newsletter Ninja, applied it and saw my list both grow and become so much more engaged. Then I got busy doing other stuff (writing my next book). You’ve inspired me to read the second half of the book!

  10. David,
    have you considered writing an article on creating more appealing fiction? Or discussing the market in terms of what sub-genres are selling better this year than last? Or even what zone Indies perform best in? Seriously, writing the right thing and doing it well has moved millions of copies for me, and I never do any advertising. I’ve taken seven college writing courses, and zero in marketing. I don’t even do much with email lists. I’m not saying marketing tools aren’t workable and important, just that there are other concerns that will have more impact on a new writer’s success.
    Just a thought,

    1. Ah, the thorniest problem of all: writing a good book which truly resonates.

      If you ever write an article like that, I’ll read the hell out of it.

  11. Just and FYI from someone who gets your posts via email.

    For some reason, the emails I get have no margins, so I can’t open the email and read it. I have to transfer the text into Word so the lines wrap properly. The text in the email is spread out and I have to scroll each line to read it.

    Not sure what causes this, but it renders the original email illegible.

    1. Oh that’s not good. I haven’t heard of this issue before (anyone else?) but if you could please forward me one of the emails and/or screenshot it, and let me know what email client you use and send that to mail AT davidgaughran DOT com I’d greatly appreciate it.

    1. Hmmm, I’m loath to say because other channels are set up better for image sharing and have native audiences who are so responsive to strong visuals (Instagram especially, which I know little about, then Facebook and the rest). I wouldn’t boot email from the pecking order in such a case even if, say, Instagram was your main channel for deepening engagement as it has so many of those unique benefits, but you would really need to ask someone who knows more about that, or look at what some other guys are doing in that space. Not my area! That said, one of the obvious drawbacks with Instagram is that none of those perfectly presented pictures link anywhere, which is a huge drawback for driving sales or traffic to Amazon or whatever. But I’m sure there are smart ways to combine the two.

      1. Austin is a great example of someone who offers lots of value in his newsletters. They usually contain several links that readers/creators might find interesting.

    2. Look up Andrew Tischler on YouTube. He does a podcast and email newsletter as well and seems to have found a way to apply all this stuff to painting

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