OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
Your email list is the only way to consistently let fans know about your work.
If you own this list, you can always earn money from your creative work.
[Want to automate your author marketing and find your first 10,000 readers? Click here to out this free webinar with me and Nick Stephenson.]
Email is a critical part of how I connect with my audience, as well as how I make income, because once you have a list of people who have opted in to hear about your work, then you can tell them when you have books and products available.
This is how I was able to launch How to Market a Book and Business for Authors straight onto the Bestseller lists on Amazon next to some pretty big hitters.
The method for building an email list for non-fiction is well-established, and involves giving something of value for free in exchange for an email. Since you are usually providing targeted information with non-fiction work, it's easy enough to think of a useful giveaway in exchange for an email address.
My Author 2.0 Blueprint is now 92 pages of information on writing, publishing, book marketing and creative entrepreneurship, representing everything I know, for free. Lots of people sign up for it every day because it is obviously useful! (Get it here)
But growing your fiction email list is more challenging!
The principles are the same of course, and I have been been growing my J.F.Penn email list slowly over the last 18 months by offering a free short story and newsletter.
The results have not been that brilliant, to be honest!
But then Nick Stephenson, author of Supercharge your Kindle Sales, approached me with an opportunity.
He has a background in marketing and wanted to help supercharge my fiction email subscriber list by making a few changes on my site and in my books. His site, Your First 10,000 Readers, has a free video course that goes through these steps.
We all have myopia when it comes to our own work, and sometimes it just takes an outside opinion to improve things.
I'm always open to feedback and improvement, so I jumped at the chance to work with Nick. Here's what he suggested, and the results.
(1) Add a list signup in the FRONT of the books, as well as the back. Plus, use an enticing image instead of text.
I've had a list signup call-to-action in the back of my books for several years now, with the assumption that only those people who want to hear more from me will want to sign up, and those people would have finished the book.
Nick suggested I add something more enticing at the front as well as the back, particularly in my permafree book, Stone of Fire, An ARKANE Thriller Book 1. A free book is more enticing than a ‘newsletter' or a ‘free short story.' It's got to be value add.
He also suggested using an image and not just a text call-to-action. You can see the one I'm now using above right. It's definitely more enticing than a line of text with the same information. It links through to my Free Book page.
(2) Use a website squeeze page + email signup page with no distractions
Again, I have had an email subscribe box on the front page and sidebar of JFPenn.com since I began the site, but it wasn't prominent and it wasn't that enticing.
Nick's research showed that a squeeze page where people needed to click a button BEFORE they entered their email had a better conversion rate than just an email sign up box.
So we created this page so people could see what they'd be getting and a bit about me.
The only thing people can do on that page is to click the button in the middle or click away. If they click the button, then they get to enter their email, confirm the subsequent email (for anti-spam compliance) and then they get directed to a download page for the book in multiple formats.
(3) Use free content readers actually want
I used to have a free short story and newsletter as enticement for signing up to my fiction list. Nick pointed out that “no one wants a short story”! Of course, I think the stories are great and some people DO want to read short stories, but not as many people as would like an actual book.
So I decided to use Day of the Vikings as an enticing giveaway. It's a rollicking novella with lots of good reviews so it has real value. If people want this and like it, they will like my other books.
It's pretty representative of my writing style in general, plus it combines the characters from my two series: Morgan Sierra from the ARKANE series and Blake Daniel from the London Psychic series, so leads people into both of my worlds.
(4) Use permafree promotions to get traffic into your funnel
Once the signup page and the call to action is set up within the specific book you are using as a Reader Magnet, then you want to get more traffic to that book. One way is to use a permafree book at the beginning of the series. I have had Stone of Fire (previously Pentecost) as permafree on all stores for several years now, with over 100,000 downloads. I am clearly kicking myself that I didn't have all this set up earlier!
Some would say that the benefits of permafree have gone with the introduction of Kindle Unlimited and a flood of free books. But I'm still getting a few hundred to a thousand a month with Pentecost which is a good trickle as some of those go on to sign up and then may read the other books in the series – without relying on any other marketing strategy.
Ideally, you want to try to get a BookBub, Kindle Nation Daily or other promotion in order to start the flow of signups. But regardless, your daily downloads of the permafree book should start them trickling in anyway.
(5) Set up better initial email communication with auto-responders
I use auto-responders on this site if you sign up for the Blueprint. These are automatic emails that are sent at specific times after signup with no additional effort from me. It's more difficult for fiction as the aim is entertainment as opposed to education.
Nick suggested just being more open about who I am and why I write, as well as talking about what readers can expect from me. I have included an email about the types of books I like which hopefully gives the recipient and I something in common.
I know it took me several years of blogging here to become really open in my communication – so I am just early days on the fiction side. So if this kind of thing freaks you out, I totally understand!
When I implemented these changes in Nov 2014, I had 603 people on my fiction list. This had taken about 18 months to get to – not a fantastic result, but hey, I'm in this for the long term and it wasn't really worrying me.
So has it worked?
As I write this in mid Jan 2015, I have 2255 subscribers on my fiction list, a (very) significant increase in a short amount of time. I have some advertising booked on my permafree book coming up soon, so I will expect to see some more increases then too.
But basically, the changes are likely to work for the long term as they provide more value add for readers and are more obvious.
Why have I “failed” at this before?
I've been thinking hard about this. Why was I successful in growing a non-fiction list and not a fiction one? The mechanism is much the same. For me, it has come down to:
Lack of confidence.
Feeling that I didn't really want to advertise my fiction that much, just in case people didn't like it or me. I've talked about fear of judgement before and it still bites me on every release.
It's taken me a long time to become more confident in my fiction writing, and I have generally kept that on the back burner whilst writing more books. But with the publication of Desecration, I began to feel I was ready to share more about my fiction. I'm damn proud of that book – of all my books, yes, but that one in particular because I stopped self-censoring.
This switch in email marketing is just the latest in a series of changes as I move into the next phase of being a more successful fiction author.
There's something else that will stop you: Not enough product.
If you only have one book, you won't want to make it permafree, even if that could get you a list of readers for the next book. If you only have two books, it will still be hard. Three … you'll be almost ready.
So yes, as usual with fiction, writing more books will help you with everything – with your craft, with building an audience and with your confidence.
If you haven't started an email list at all yet, definitely put it on your list for 2015. I use Aweber, and Mailchimp is another alternative option.
If you want to automate your author marketing and find your first 10,000 readers, Click here or on the image below to join this free webinar with me and Nick Stephenson.
Do you have any questions or comments about growing a fiction email list for Nick or for me? Please leave them in the comments below and join the conversation.
Success image: Flickr Creative Commons by Bernard Goldbach
Hi Joanna, I’ve been following your blog and viewing your YT video sessions for months now and this post couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve also only added my site to the back of my own book. I’m also working towards trying to build an email list using Mail Chimp. But my problem, for now, is that I don’t have enough books to do a free sign up giveaway. All I can do is continue working writing more poetry books.
Joanna Penn says
Hi Lidy – I would say that poetry is never going to be a big seller, sorry. I think poetry is for the love of language, more than sales – and Nick’s methods are more focused on genre fiction.
Tara Crescent says
I too bought, read and loved Nick’s book and followed (a part of) his advice. It’s worked great.
I still need to implement the customized squeeze page but I’m on blogger, not wordpress. Slightly more complicated, but definitely on my to-do list. I’m a fan!
P.D. Workman says
One of my goals for 2015 is to pump up my e-mail list(s), and I am getting ready to implement these strategies as well. I have watched the first two of Nick’s training videos, and am waiting for the link to the third. I am so grateful to authors like the two of you for sharing your knowledge and experience. You rock!
Travis Ward says
Thanks for sharing, Joanna. Great article and great ideas as usual!
S. J. Pajonas says
I was wondering if you’d mind sharing your open rate? Did it change when you added on subscribers with this method? I get a 50-60% open rate now, and I wonder if it would go down once people subscribed for something free. Thanks!
Nick Stephenson says
I’ve tested this out using (a) a list signup with no incentive, and (b) a list signup with a free book incentive.
The open rates and click rates are within a few % of each other…. but the list with the free incentive is 100x bigger.
In reality, the best metric is total number of clicks (and purchases). So even if your engagement drops slightly, if you’ve got 100x more people, you’ll have a net increase in sales.
Eg, I’d rather have 14.5% of 10,000 than 16% of 100 clicking and buying.
Made up numbers, but you get the idea 😀
daryl rothman says
Thanks for the great post…going to really study up…I get decent # of pageviews, particularly after a post, but very few subscribers. My novel will be published this year–plus I want to make some short fiction available–so mastering this will be crucial. Thanks again.
Lee Mountford says
Very informative post, thanks so much for sharing it!
I am aiming to get my first novel ready for release by the end of 2015 (gives me enough time to write it and also save up for the editing and cover design etc.), so would you say it’s a bit early to start a mail list yet?
At the moment I wouldn’t have much to update readers on other than weekly blog posts, where as if i start the push closer to the time I may have a bit of a following already on my blog and Twitter.
Any advice would be appreciated.
Alice Degan says
Very cool! It’s nice to see some concrete advice about growing a list for fiction.
If you write fiction in multiple genres, do you think it’s worth trying to segment your list in any way?
Victoria Goddard says
Thank you for this–especially for the discussion of fiction vs nonfiction.
I have a couple of questions: One, do you make the incentive book exclusively available to subscribers?
Two, I suppose that if you’re planning on using a permafree start-of-series, this means you need to have more than one book you’re willing to set free, because you can’t really entice people with a free copy of the book they’ve just downloaded … (I suppose that’s not really a question, more a thought …)
Joanna Penn says
My free signup book is also for sale, Day of the Vikings – and yes, you need more than one you’re willing to set for free! All the best.
Rich Amooi says
Hi Joanna! Hi Nick!
I LOVE this approach, but I only have one book published so far! Ahhhhh! LOL.
Since I published my debut novel a few months ago, I have accumulated 125 people on my email list so far. Still pretty small. However, I do have four books releasing this year.
Would you recommend me taking one of those four and giving it away? Is there anything I can I do RIGHT NOW with my one lonely book besides writing more books?
Thanks so much for your help. 🙂
Joanna Penn says
No rush for you, Rich! I wouldn’t do anything yet – that’s a good start with one book – and definitely use one of the others for a freebie. Permafree as the entry to the funnel is still a good evergreen tactic.
Rich Amooi says
But, but, but, but….I don’t have patience! Do you know where I could get some?
Joanna Penn says
None here, I’m afraid 🙂
Antara Man says
Great post Joanna, you nailed it. From other indie authors like Steve Scott or Nick Looper and many more of course, I have seen and read their advice to offer on the first page a free product with a picture that leads to a special lending page or blog page. I use Optin Monster but recently found out that it offers only opt-in not landing pages. Yours look great, what services did you use?
I definitely agree with you about the quantity of books. My blog is a mixture between yoga/self-help and writing/reading (I should emphasizes more on that)offering links to fiction and non-fiction books. I wrote a free report called 50 Shades of a Healthier Life which I use as a funnel to my newsletter. I recently published my first fiction novella and at the very first page I offer the above report in exchange for the customer’s email. I thought a lot about whether it’s correctly targeted or not. The report is self-help and my readers want fiction… But hey, doesn’t everybody wants to be healthier and happier?
Kudos for your email list! I will try boosting my email subscribers by boosting posts on Facebook.
By the way, why are all your emails coming into my spam box? I just watched this video where the author explains why he switched from Aweber to Mailchimp: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opiIe6URya4&feature=youtu.be
Joanna Penn says
I’m just using standard WordPress pages with an Aweber form – nothing special 🙂
and on the spam thing, please whitelist my address 🙂
Antara Man says
How was that – I mean white-listing one’s email?
I have a question for Nick. He said either a free book or something related to your fiction – does this mean for each series you write you need to create a freebie that aligns with that specific series? I have 1 freebie that relates to my specific book; and am working on books right now that are in slightly different genres from each other. Or would you recommend creating a more general freebie that covers my fiction in a more broad way?
Also, “Nick’s research showed that a squeeze page where people needed to click a button BEFORE they entered their email had a better conversion rate than just an email sign up box.” -In Nick’s research, did the email signup box have the freebie shown above the email signup button, or was it just the ‘sign up for my newsletter’ type of email optin box? I don’t have a squeeze page set up but my email signup box has the freebie prominently displayed above the email button. In that case, would a squeeze page be needed in addition to that?
Jean Marie Bauhaus says
Thanks so much for sharing this. Growing my mailing list is high on my list of New Year’s goals, too, and I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out an effective way to do it.
Shane Hall says
Boy, am I glad to have found this post, and on a grander scale, your site. It’s gotten me really thinking that I can put my work out there without bothering with traditional publishing, which has been a massive, dehumanizing headache for me. It’s tough to stop dragging my feet, because until recently I never, ever imagined myself getting into self publishing, so I still haven’t put anything up, designed covers, nothing. I only have edited, rewritten manuscripts.
I have four books finished right now, and three of them are in a trilogy, which I’ll just call the QS trilogy. All of the books have the commonality of being character-focused thrillers. Based on what you’ve described, I’m thinking I could take the non-QS novel (a standalone with no sequel potential), and make that permafree on my site.
Then QS1 could be the mailing list incentive. Once people read QS1 and are on my mailing list, they’d hopefully be interested in QS2 and QS3, and would pay for those.
I feel pretty confident about this, but I’d love to hear your comments, Joanna and Nick. All the best and thank you again for this tremendously insightful stuff.
Joanna Penn says
With 4 books already, and writing in a popular genre, you have a great start 🙂
Time to get away from the dehumanizing headache!
Prasenjeet Kumar says
Great article! I have taken detailed notes of what you did to increase your subscription rate. I am facing the exact same problem growing my e-mail list. I offer an advertisement (both text and the image of my cover) at the front and the back of my perma free book of an excerpt of another book. I guess an excerpt is of the same value as a free short story. Nobody wants either of the two. The problem with me is that my other books are enrolled in KDP Select and I cannot give it away for FREE from my blog in exchange for people’s e-mail. I still get a trickle of sign ups every now and then but nothing substantial. However, going by your experience, I am thinking of now pulling out some of my books from KDP Select and offering it to my readers for FREE in exchange for their emails. I will also try to create a landing page.
Joanna Penn says
All sounds like some good steps, Prasenjeet – I think testing stuff is also important. I have resisted that for so long but am now getting into it!