By Mark Dawson
I can still remember it, even three years later. I had published my first indie novel, The Black Mile, and had arranged a weekend’s worth of promotion to mark it going free for a few days. It was August, and I was out for a ride on my bike to watch the local farmer bringing in his harvest. I hadn’t expected much from the promotion, but, as I took out my phone and checked how many copies had been downloaded, I almost fell off my bike. Five figures. Thousands of new readers. I couldn’t believe it. My celebrations were tempered, though, by the swift realisation that I’d made a dreadful mistake. All of those readers, some of whom might even enjoy the book, they had nowhere to go afterwards. There was no second book. Worse than that, I had neglected to set up a mailing list where these potential new fans could register so that I could tell them about the second book (which I was, by then, frantically writing). Big fail.
So what is the first thing I should have done after publishing the book? New writers ask me the question regularly, and my answer is always the same. You must, must, must start to build your mailing list.
What is a mailing list?
It’s very simple. A mailing list is a collection of email addresses provided by readers who like your writing enough to consent to you contacting them. It’ll typically be hosted by a company like MailChimp or Aweber (other options are available) and, depending on your own preference and the expectations that you’ve set for your readers, you’ll communicate with them frequently or infrequently to tell them your news, new releases, promotions, etc.
But why should you have one? I can think of three very good reasons (and there are plenty of others).
Own your audience
The retail platforms will sell your books, but they are not going to give you the contact details of your readers. To do so would very likely be a breach of data protection laws in many jurisdictions, and customer lists are as valuable to the retailers as they are to writers. So you should start to build one for yourself.
Apart from the benefits noted below, it’ll also start to build some security into your future. If, say, one of the larger retailers slashed the royalty rates from 70% to 35% across the board—or stopped selling eBooks altogether—you would be able to contact your readers to tell them where they could go instead to find your books. The alternative is what I call ‘digital sharecropping’: growing your crops on someone else’s land.
Build a support network
Many of the most successful self-published authors in the world share this in common: they have street teams. These collections of readers are also referred to as launch teams or beta readers, but they can make the difference between a solid career and something special.
I was interviewing a writer last night who followed my example and used cheap Facebook ads to add readers to his mailing list. He started with 27, but, in less than a year (and for less money than you’d imagine), has now clocked up 13,000. Of those, several dozen had been recruited to his street team. He explained how he had opened a closed Facebook group where those readers gathered and said that he visited every day to interact with them. He saw them more as friends now and told me of the time where he posted a particularly negative review that had him questioning his writing chops; he was immediately flooded by messages from his readers who told him – quite rightly, of course – to ignore the review and get back to his work in progress.
I have a similar relationship with my own team. Beyond helping me to launch books (see below), they give me invaluable support. After my new books have been professionally edited, I’ll let them have the manuscript for a free read. I don’t ask for anything in return, but I am always blown away by their generosity. They will pick up errors that have slipped through the edit, correct inaccurate details (my character, John Milton, is very proficient with weapons; I am not. They make sure I don’t make foolish mistakes when describing gunplay); and highlight inconsistencies from book to book that I might otherwise have overlooked. They are unbelievably helpful.
Launch your books successfully
You have a book to launch; your email list will be the best strategy available to ensure that your new release is visible to new readers who might be tempted to read it. If you can get early reviews and sales, your book will stand a better chance of being noticed, either because it attracts the attention of merchandisers at platforms like Kobo and Apple or the Amazon algorithm. Every time I release a new book, the launch ranking is better and better; it is no coincidence that this has corresponded with the growth in my mailing list.
How can I find readers for my list?
I hope I’ve demonstrated why you should have a list. The next question is obvious: how do you get one?
There are several effective ways to get people to join your list. It is generally accepted that you need to offer them something of value in order for them to part with their email address; gone are the days when promising news of your new releases would be enough. I give away a novel and a novella to those who sign up, but I have seen authors offer all sorts of inventive content. A sample of work in progress. An audiobook. A PDF with character notes. A video interview. It doesn’t have to be one particular thing, but you will need something.
Once you have your incentive in place, you need to make some noise about it. All the usual email service providers (MailChimp, Aweber, etc) will provide you with a URL where readers can provide their details. I would recommend that you make that destination obvious in these places (at a minimum):
- Your website (it should be the first thing that visitors see – check out how I do it at www.markjdawson.com);
- Your social media pages (for example, you can add a tab on a Facebook page that can be connected directly to MailChimp); and
- The front and back of your book (because if a reader has either bought and/or finished the book, they’ll likely be most receptive to signing up – the longer between reading your book and seeing your offer, the less likely it will be that they’ll sign up).
I also recommend running a cheap (around $5 a day) Facebook ad campaign where you can serve your ad to the fans of other authors in your genre. The detail on running a campaign is beyond the scope of this post, but you can get a free video course that will show you how to do this by following the link at the end of this article.
Don’t make the mistake that I made. I lost a little momentum because I didn’t have this very simple and easy set-up in place when I first self-published. I probably missed out on a few hundred sign-ups because I was late to the party. You don’t need to be technically adept (and believe me, I’m not) to get it up and running. I promise that it’ll be worth its weight in gold.
Mark Dawson is the author of the John Milton and Beatrix Rose series. His marketing advice and a well received podcast can all be found at www.selfpublishingformula.com.