Part V: The Ultimate Guide to Author Email Lists – Autoresponders, Funnels & Getting Your First 1,000 Fans

It’s no secret that most authors struggle to build a mailing list. I know this as well as anyone: at the start of 2016, I had 4 subscribers on my author list, despite having had one for over three years. So if any of these problems sound familiar, this guide will be very helpful:

  • Organic subscribers come in at a rate of 1 or 2 a month…or a year.
  • Even when you have a big promotion, people don’t sign-up for your mailing list.
  • You don’t want to give away your books, because you’re afraid of devaluing your work.
  • You’re tentative about contacting your list, so you never do.
  • Or you do, six months after they signed up, and everyone unsubscribes or reports you as spam.
  • You’re wondering what the hell an autoresponder is.
  • You’re starting to think this is impossible.

Yep – the struggle is real. It’s easy to give up the quest when you’re seeing zero progress. I would build my list up to maybe a hundred names, but never contact them. Then I’d delete it and try again. I’m not sure how many times I did this, or simply never contacted any of the subscribers. Twice, maybe three times.

Meanwhile, I’d tweak my autoresponder and book formatting constantly, trying to optimize when I didn’t have any traffic.

Hence the whopping 4 subscribers after years of futility.

Finally, I’d had enough. Come hell or high water, I was going to contact my list regularly – even when it was 20 people. And then I was gonna build it up to 1,000 subscribers by the end of the year.

At the time of this writing, both my pen name lists have 1,000+ subscribers (well, one has 900 or so, now, because I booted a few hundred people off). One of those started only ten months ago. All told, I have 3,500+ subscribers across my various lists/the authors I manage.

Going from 0 to 1,000 is the hardest part.

Here’s how I did it, step-by-step.

Benefits of a Mailing List

You’ve probably heard some of these before, since pretty much everyone extols the virtues of the mighty email list. Nonetheless, they’re worth reiterating, because there will be moments where you think is this really necessary or worth fighting for? In times of waning faith, return to these points, which will provide the unequivocal answer: yes.

While I talk a lot about the importance of building a newsletter/email list (I use these terms interchangeably), you should know that “email list” is really a synonym for platform. You need a direct communication conduit to readers – be that social media (Facebook/Twitter), your mailing list, a forum or some other place where you can tell fans about your books. Otherwise your career is on borrowed time.

The reason I choose the newsletter as the platform of choice out of all the available options is simple: it is 100% under your control and ownership. Engagement rates are higher than Facebook or other social media platforms. And it’s an asset that you can use for years – today or two decades from now.

Simply put, your mailing list is the most powerful book marketing tool in existence. It can jumpstart Amazon’s algos like a nuclear fuel rod, sell more books in a day than you might’ve sold this year, and skyrocket you into the full-time author ranks. Suffice to say, reports of email being replaced by social media or other “disruptive” technologies are wildly overblown.

Here are the five main benefits:

  1. You own it. Everything else can be taken away or change on a dime. Facebook, Twitter, even your Amazon account – these are all 3rd party platforms. Yes, if you abide by the TOS of these sites, you’re not going to get booted. But the landscape of 3rd party platforms shifts on a whim, without warning. Facebook has massively nerfed the organic reach of Pages, for instance, which means you now have to pay to reach those who like you. Everyone who built their platform on Facebook suddenly found it a whole lot pricier to reach their hard-won fans.
  2. Your personal customer list is better than anyone else’s. Yes, you can, and should, sell books via PPC ads, promo sites and other mechanisms. But these readers, even if they love the genre, will never respond as well as a well-maintained mailing list.
  3. You can push a massive amount of sales volume at full price (e.g visibility). When you have a large, engaged list, you can sell hundreds or even thousands of copies on launch day at full price or a slight discount (e.g. $3.99 from a $4.99 MSRP). Instead of paying lots of money to promote your book at a loss-leading $0.99 – practically giving it away – you can push more sales volume and make a sustainable income. So you juice Amazon’s algos much better and generate actual income. Win-win.
  4. You can get dozens or hundreds of reviews on launch day by setting up an ARC (Advance Review Copy) team. No more using review services or giving your book away for free in hopes of getting a few reviews. And no more launches scuttled by an ill-timed 1 star review coming on Day 1.
  5. You can interact directly with readers. By monitoring click and open rates, you can see which books readers are connecting with. You can send them surveys to ask questions. Give ’em free paperbacks or Kindle giveaways. Or just talk with them – because readers will respond to your emails.

Numbers three and four are the primary benefits: using your mailing list, you can sell enough books at full price to make a full-time living, even if you don’t use any promo sites. And even the ability to get 5 reviews on launch day solves a myriad of problems, from providing social proof to qualifying for most promo sites.

In short: if you only have time for one marketing endeavor, make sure you’re building a list.

Which Email Service Should I Use?

There are dozens of email service providers. Comparing and contrasting them can be an exercise in extreme wantrepreneurship. Each one pretty much does the same basic thing, but the interfaces, advanced features and pricing differ.

After testing a half dozen, here are my three recommendations:

  1. Mailchimp. Free up to 2,000 subscribers; $20/mo for 2,001 – 2,500 subscribers.
    1. Pluses: integrates with basically everything. Lots of documentation on the internet. Autoresponders now available for free accounts. Robust autoresponder/tagging/segmentation/testing features.
    2. Minuses: interface sucks, becomes expensive with large #s of subs. Hideous sign-up forms with few customization options.
  2. MailerLite. Free up to 1,000 subscribers; $10/mo for 1,001 – 2,500 subscribers.
    1. Pluses: intuitive and simple interface. Autoresponders available for free accounts. Continually improving, since they’re relatively new (e.g. they’re adding tagging soon, which was their most requested feature).
    2. Minuses: Hideous sign-up forms. Missing a few advanced features for super power users.
  3. ConvertKit. $29/mo for up to 1,000 subscribers. No free trial.
    1. Pluses: solid & easy to use tagging features. Beautiful sign-up forms. Has advanced/premium features usually reserved for more expensive services (e.g. InfusionSoft). Great support that responds in hours. Excellent email deliverability. Continually improving, since they’re a relatively new company. Elegantly simple emails once you deal with the irritating formatting interface.
    2. Minuses: very expensive. Terrible for multiple pen names, as you can’t have separate lists – only tags/segments. Fewer integrations, which means you might have to use Zapier. Weird glitches, like certain emails in the autoresponder randomly not sending. It ate one of my autoresponder emails once, too, and replaced it with another one. The text formatting interface sucks, regularly glitching out and either becoming unusable or stuck on certain options (e.g. bullet points). Stat reporting is fairly basic. Interface becomes unruly when you have more than a few forms/autoresponders.

I’d recommend MailerLite, especially if you just need to send out a basic autoresponder + newsletters (I haven’t used the new workflows, so I can’t comment on their efficacy). I use ConvertKit, which sounds like it sucks from the description above, but a lot of the negatives come from familiarity. Only through extensive use do you become aware of a service’s quirks/missing features. Random irritations cropped up when I used GetResponse & Aweber, too.

Needless to say, there is no perfect email provider. I’m not switching again, but I do use free MailerLite and Mailchimp accounts for various purposes, too.

Internet Marketing Formula, Revisited

If you’ve read the sections on the ultimate book marketing formula or optimization, you’ll be familiar with this concept. But here’s a quick refresher, as well as its application to email in particular.

Effective marketing involves just three steps, adapted from Perry Marshall’s excellent 80/20 Sales & Marketing:

  1. Traffic: you direct potential readers from your offer to your list’s sign-up form or landing page. This is covered in the “Ways to Build Your List” section below.
  2. Conversion: you convince these potential readers to actually enter their email and join your list via a well-designed funnel. This depends on a few factors: your autoresponder, the text/design of your landing page, the offer, its congruence (e.g. if you direct readers from the back of your book promising them a free copy of a novel to a sign-up page that instead offers a novella, your conversion rate will be terrible).
  3. Assessing ROI (return on investment): is your cost per subscriber (CPS) low enough to make money? If so, congrats: your process is working.
    1. If not, you need to first assess your funnel (covered in more detail in “The Basic Funnel” section) to make sure it’s well-optimized.
    2. Alternatively, if new subs aren’t purchasing your books, or are lukewarm in terms of engagement, you need to reassess where they’re coming from (traffic), the quality of the free book you’re giving them and the effectiveness of your autoresponder.

How Many Subs Do I Need, Then?

It sounds like a reasonable question, but it’s the wrong one. Engagement (click and open rates) is far more important than the actual size of your subscriber base. This is especially important to remember when you consider that each subscriber you add places you closer to the next payment tier.

Therefore, you don’t want low quality subscribers; you want each person to earn their place on the list, since you’re paying a monthly fee for their presence. Plenty of six-figure authors have lists totaling less than 1,000 subs; the key is that each of these subscribers is ultra-engaged, with 50 – 70% of the list purchasing a book at full-price at launch.

Don’t pay for big vanity numbers; focus on open and click rates, and always make sure subscribers are actually interacting with your emails.

But we still need some people on our list to even start sending emails. So let’s talk about all the ways you can build up a massive list.

Ways to Build Your List (Getting Traffic)

Building your mailing list is easier than you think. In fact, while you might have balked at the title as impossible – a thousand subs? that’s so many! – it’s actually an achievable goal in under a month if you buckle down.

Perhaps a bold promise; more on that at the end of the guide.

First, let’s talk about all the ways you can build your list.

Organic/Passive

These are slower to accumulate, even when you incentivize people to sign-up (e.g with a free novel or novella). But you’ll net a higher percentage of quality and subscribers, since they’re signing up after reading one of your books.

  1. front matter
  2. back matter
  3. Amazon bio/page
  4. website

Paid/Active

The biggest advantage you have with these sources is volume. On average, overall engagement rates will be lower – but you can find plenty of superfans via these methods.

  1. Facebook/PPC Ads
  2. InstaFreebie/BookFunnel cross promotions (can be found on KBoards or on my list of promo sites; don’t sign-up for too many of these in a month or you’ll wear your list out)
  3. Author newsletter swaps and other cross promotions (requires networking with other authors in your genre; don’t bombard your list with too many of these, either)
  4. Newsletter building services (KarmaReads, Genre Crave Superstar etc.) (not recommended; these services generally just run giveaways, which you can run yourself for a lot cheaper; some send your link to their readers/list)
  5. Giveaways (e.g. KingSumo + RaffleCopter + Gleam – where you give away a Kindle, Amazon gift card, set of books in your genre etc.)
  6. Social media (e.g. ask your FB likes/Twitter followers to sign-up)
  7. Manual outreach (e.g. asking friends/family, going on forums/Reddit/FB groups etc., becoming parts of fan communities)
  8. Guest posting, podcasts, and webinars (for non-fiction)
  9. Buying a list. Don’t do this under any circumstances, unless you want to get your email account cancelled for some reason.

That covers about everything. Much like with promotions, you likely have a lot more ideas to play with than you first thought.

I’m not going to break each of these down into step-by-step tutorials; you can find easy tutorials on how to, say, set up a Rafflecopter giveaway on plenty of blogs. Instead, I’ll give you general principles so you can decide what fits your current preferences and budget.

So let’s explore the pluses and minuses of organic vs. paid newsletter building in a little more depth.

Organic vs. Non-Organic: A Little More Detail

The debate about organic vs. non-organic sign-ups is an argument steeped in emotional vitriol (similar to writing fast vs. writing slow, or going wide or staying exclusive to Amazon). Authors tend to make their list building choices based on emotion, rather than logic.

We don’t want to do that, so I’ll lay out the key differences.

Organic sign-ups coming from your book’s front and back matter will tend to be more responsive and engaged. This is because they are “warm” leads, having already read and enjoyed one of your titles. The ones from the front matter tend to be a little cooler, as those folks might have only sampled the book.

This all occurs passively: once you include the link and set up the sign-up form, you don’t have to do any maintenance. Fans trickle into your email list, you send them updates and news and other stuff about your books when you have it – and that’s about it.

You can, of course, set up an autoresponder to increase engagement and deliver free books, but this is technically optional.

The only obvious downside of organic sign-ups is simple, but it’s huge: they take a long time to accumulate, unless you’re already selling well.

Non-organic sign-ups will be colder, since they usually won’t be familiar with your work. This relative coldness, however, is made up for in volume. Turning this raw volume into actual readers requires sending them through an onboarding sequence known as an autoresponder. To entice non-organic sign-ups, it’s mandatory to give something of value away, like a free novel or novella.

The engagement of these non-organic sign-ups is based on three factors:

  1. Their source (e.g. signups coming from Rafflecopter/KingSumo giveaways tend to be freebie seekers, rather than actual buyers)
  2. The quality of your free magnet (so give away something good)
  3. The quality of your autoresponder welcome sequence.

The biggest positive is simple: You can get thousands or tens of thousands of subscribers in the time it would take you to crack a hundred organic subscribers.

The obvious downside is that all this requires the management of additional moving parts. Not only do you have to schedule outside promotion in the form of a giveaway, newsletter swap etc., but you’ll also need to write a solid email autoresponder sequence to weed out non-buyers and those who aren’t interested in becoming fans.

Remember, our primary objective is to maintain a responsive list of readers who buy, review and like our books. Finding those readers takes a little more effort when we’re using non-organic mailing list building methods.

Okay, So Which Should I Choose?

Normally, I recommend narrowing your choices to avoid spreading your resources too thin. But since organic sign-ups are entirely passive – truly one of the only set and forget things in indie publishing – this means I recommend doing both. Further, you can reuse most of your work – e.g., if you write a good autoresponder for your organic peeps, then you can copy that over with a few minor tweaks for the non-organic folks as well.

That being said, if you’re coming at this fresh, here’s the order I recommend:

  1. Set up the organic sign-ups. I show exactly how below; just copy what I did.
  2. Once the organic side is working fine and has been tested, move all your efforts over to non-organic sign-ups.

Okay, man, but which sources of paid/non-organic traffic should I use? That’s a tricky question, because it depends on your budget. But here’s what I would recommend:

  1. Facebook Ads. Requires a decent amount of cash ($200+ a month) and time to test/tweak. But you can get insane volume here.
  2. Instafreebie cross promos. For free, or $20, you can get 500+ sign-ups that are actually of decent quality.
  3. Newsletter swaps/networking. Requires building relationships and socializing, so I don’t do this. But I’ve seen authors use these to tremendous effect – not just for building lists, but also for boosting launches (e.g. they’ll get all their author buddies to email their lists during launch).

The Basic Conversion Funnel (Converting That Traffic Into Subscribers)

Before we get into the mechanics of growing and using our list, we need to talk about the three basic building blocks that will turn casual readers/cold traffic into fans.

  1. The offer: what you’re giving the prospective subscriber in exchange for an email address. This is the most important piece of list building. The text (known as the call-to-action – CTA) & image are also critical. You get reader eyeballs on your offer by using the organic/non-organic list-building methods already discussed.
  2. The landing page: the page on your website you send the reader to actually collect their email address. Can be just a form, or a fancy, custom designed page. Technically you don’t need a website; you can send them directly, say, to a Mailchimp form. Certain services like Instafreebie don’t require you to provide an external landing page; you just setup a page for your free book on their site, and then readers sign-up there.
  3. The autoresponder: this will automatically deliver their free book (if you give them one), as well as a series of emails introducing you & your work to new readers.

We could break this out into a million smaller parts, but if you focus on optimizing these three core things, you can get your ROI into the black easily.

The Offer: What Should I Give Them?

Since the offer is the most important part of this whole mailing list thing, it pays to give it a little thought.

I tested various offers extensively in the front and back matter of my sci-fi/adventure book The Emerald Elephant. All of the data below (except the UF novella, which was tied to the urban fantasy book Demon Rogue) comes from that one book. Further, the book was free during the entirety of this time, so those downloads aren’t corrupted by mixing paid/KU reads/freeloads (the ones related to the UF book, however, include all three of those).

This makes the data below more reliable, since I isolated the offer as the only variable that changed.

Nonetheless, I’d like to point out three problems: the traffic sources weren’t all the same (I used different promo sites), the lengths of time I tested each offer weren’t identical, and the sample sizes (e.g. # of downloads) differ. In addition, I fixed the broken formatting between testing “nothing (updates)” and the 2 exclusive novellas, which could skew the results.

In other words, I’m not presenting this as scientific gospel.

But it should be enlightening.

By the way, the click data comes from the front/back matter only.

Offer # Clicks Free Downloads Click Rate (%)
Book 2 137 1746 7.85%
Starter Library (3 novels, including Book 2) 69 1211 5.70%
Nothing (updates) 29 4573 0.63%
2 Exclusive Novellas 44 1327 3.32%
Novella (UF) 143 (signups) 9171 1.56% (subscription rate)

The front matter sign-up beat the back matter by 2 – 5x. Both were text only; I only recently started including images.

I also offered the free book in other places for the first two offers, including at the top of the Amazon blurb. The click rate (based on downloads) for that location was 6.11% for Book 2 and 5.7% for the Starter Library. Putting a link to a mailing list sign-up form at the top of the Amazon description makes me nervous, though – I don’t know if it’s explicitly against the TOS, but it strikes me as a definite gray area.

So, despite its efficacy, I haven’t tested that tactic again and wouldn’t recommend it.

I also tested places like the Amazon Bio (0.14% click rate) and the About the Author section on The Emerald Elephant’s page (0.57% click rate). Worth throwing a mailing list link there, I suppose, but don’t expect miracles.

Note that the novellas (including the UF one) were all directly tied in with the book/series. The Emerald Elephant stars Kip Keene, a grounded space pirate from the past. One of the novellas explains how his partner joined the FBI; another explains some of his backstory. So they were pertinent to people who enjoyed The Emerald Elephant.

Also worth mentioning: clicks aren’t the same as sign-ups. My landing pages converted at between 40 – 50%, so the actual click rate on the UF novella was likely similar to the Keene novellas.

So, what are my recommendations?

  1. Book 2 is the best, if you have a long series out of Kindle Unlimited (for exclusivity reasons). Will attract more freebie seekers, however.
  2. A starter library is appealing, but it performed worse than just giving away Book 2 alone. Plus, it overwhelms readers with content/too much choice. I’ve noticed that when I send out multiple download links in the same email, engagement seems to dip a little. More a gut feeling based on human psychology than any hard and fast data.
  3. Exclusive prequel/side-story novellas will primarily attract fans, rather than freebie seekers. The downside is you gotta write it, and it doesn’t convert as well as the starter library or Book 2. That being said, you can use a novella for Instafreebie, Facebook Ads and so forth, so it makes for a really nice long-term asset if you plan on using it in multiple ways. Don’t put it up for sale on Amazon. A big part of its appeal is the exclusivity; in addition, you lose the ability to use it for list building if you enroll it into KU.
  4. Do not use short stories. I have a couple of these as offers for other authors, and they convert extremely poorly. Most people aren’t interested in short stories.
  5. Do not use updates. The #s for this are atrocious.
  6. $0.99 books: something like “VIP members get my newest novels for $0.99 during the first 24 hours of release – sign-up here to join.” This is a discount offer, with scarcity – e.g., they’re likely to miss the deal if they don’t sign-up, since they’re unlikely to see the book in its first 24 hours of release otherwise. If you have no story/novel etc. to give away, this can be effective. The subscribers also tend to be highly responsive, since only those interested in your work will bother to sign-up.

Ultimately, you’re going to have to give away a free book to maximize your list building efforts. The exclusive tie-in novella gives the most flexibility; a free novel (Book 2 or otherwise) is also an excellent offer.

Which leads us to the age-old debate: doesn’t giving away a book kill our bottom line?

Short answer: no. But let’s talk about it a little further.

But What About Devaluing My Work?

Free is a marketing tactic, not a commentary on the value/quality of your book.

Almost every industry uses free samples for a very simple reason: humans like free stuff. Hell, television – a multi-billion dollar industry – is built on a free model. It works pretty much everywhere, yet authors seem to suffer from special snowflake syndrome. This despite the fact that libraries have offered unlimited free books for centuries.

Look, I get it: you spent a long time on your book. You value it.

But when you have no fan base or sales, the value of that book is exactly zero. Check your Amazon KDP report if you don’t believe me; I can wait. And even when you do have a fan base, the value of a mailing list subscriber massively outstrips the value of a single $3.99 sale, provided you have a decent sized backlist.

If your free book is good, people will buy your other work – tons of it. If it’s not, they won’t.

Yes, you will get freebie seekers and tire kickers. But that won’t make up the bulk of your sign-ups, provided you follow the tenets of this guide.

In short, focusing on the free price tag is short-sighted. This is a long-term game; that free book can generate $20, $30, or $100+ in lifetime sales over the coming years.

And that’s a lot of value.

The Offer: How Should I Present It?

The text (and image, if you have one) matters, but not nearly as much as the offer itself. The offer is the most important part of the funnel. I’m repeating this because, if you have a big problem with your funnel, that’s where you should look first. If you don’t have something good to give potential readers, interest drops.

I now include an image in the front matter, although I still use text-only in the back matter. It’s easier to explain this with the actual images, so here they are, starting with the front matter for my Ruby Callaway series:

The reason you use an image in the front is simple: it stands out if you’ve got other front matter (copyright, table of contents, also by). For a reader skimming through, this will catch their eye. There’s no reason it wouldn’t work in the back; I just didn’t include it both places since it does increase the file size (and, thus, your book’s delivery cost).

The elements are pretty simple:

  1. The offer: an exclusive prequel novella. The only way to read this is to sign-up for my list; it’s not for sale.
  2. Hook/tagline: Born in Blood. Forged in Bone. This has a good rhythm + communicates the genre (urban fantasy); it’s one of the best taglines I’ve come up with.
  3. Image of the book cover: This is one of the best covers I have. The eyes are striking, the wisps at the corner of the cheek hint at the magic, and the darkness in the background hints at a mystery. Nails the urban fantasy genre while standing out as unique.
  4. Call to action: I have the sign-up link at the bottom, as well as a little info about the offer (“exclusive prequel”). This could be stronger, I think, but the link is prominent and easy to see. More emphasis on the free aspect would be good; I went with the exclusive angle, which might lead some people to think it’s a paid book. Note: you’ll also want to hyperlink the image in the EPUB/MOBI file, so if someone taps the picture, they’re immediately taken to the landing page.

Overall, I’m extremely pleased with this image and the copy.

Obviously this type of design requires two things: that you have a cover for your free book (this one was $150), and that you have this image made ($30 – $50). The investment is worth it – it screams professional. I also had the free book proofread (another $150), despite writing clean to begin with. You want this to be as good as any of your paid products – or better.

I understand that many internet marketers provide crappy bonuses for subscribing to their newsletters – weak, sloppily thrown together lead magnets are the norm, in fact. Yes, that works; but I think if you overdeliver with your free/exclusive content, you’re much more likely to turn that person into a fan. Particularly when we’re talking about colder leads, like you’ll get from non-organic sources.

As for a standard text offer, here’s the one for the Kip Keene novellas:

Short, and right to the point.

Feel free to swipe the copy word-for-word. It works fine, although you can probably do better with some tweaking. I sometimes include the word “get” or “receive” instead of download (e.g. “To instantly get two free Kip Keene novellas…”). In the back, I’ll include a short one or two line synopsis, tying it into some event from the book (e.g. “Want to know how Kip Keene became the #1 most wanted outlaw in the galaxy? Visit…”).

Play around with the wording and structure to see what suits you best.

One potential problem with using “download” is that some people will assume that they can just grab it (although the image states you’ll have to sign-up for the newsletter). I’m looking at the conversion rates for Bone Realm and the Kip Keene novellas, and they’re pretty bad for organic sign-ups (32% and 37%). The pages can only be reached through the books, unlike the public page for Storm Pale, which has a 42% conversion rate.

The only difference I can see is the offer text.

Something to bear in mind in terms of congruence (called “message match” by marketers) and setting expectations.

Note on formatting: it would be optimal if your sign-up offer could be the first thing that people see when opening the book. Alas, that’s not possible. While you can set the start point manually in the EPUB/MOBI, Amazon overwrites this automatically – usually with Chapter 1. After a few futile attempts, I gave up and moved on to other things.

Conversion: Landing Pages (Form)

After you have your offer, you need some place to actually send the reader to enter their email address. That’s where the landing page comes in. Most of us won’t be using a true landing page; instead, we’ll just be placing a sign-up form on our site.

An example of that is below, taken from this very site:

Unfortunately, this method is mediocre at best. The page above converts at 34.5%, which would be solid for non-organic traffic. However, that’s the page I link to in the back and front matter of my non-series novels. Additionally, it’s linked on my website menu under “Free Novel,” so those browsing the site (presumably fans) can grab it.

Some of those #s have been corrupted by the fact that I run this marketing blog, ergo authors presumably click over to the sign-up page to scope out what I’m doing (always a good practice). Nonetheless, I’d like it to convert at around 45 – 50%; it was hovering around 40% before an influx of traffic brought that down.

However, despite it not being ultra-effective, the basic structure is sound, and there’s plenty we can learn. Steal the elements that work, and fix the ones that don’t.

A breakdown of pluses:

  1. Clear and catchy offer: get my best novel is bold and aggressive. A full-length novel is a compelling offer.
  2. Compelling image. Always get a professional cover for your lead magnets. Biting the bullet for $200+ might seem extravagant, but it’s one of the best investments you can make. Remember, this will be an introduction to your work for many people; you want it to represent your best work. Readers have emailed me with surprise about how good the free books were, or how they were professionally formatted/proofread. Don’t skimp on this. I already had the cover/proofreading, since it’s a novel I sell on Amazon; the 3D mockup cost $30. Money well spent.
  3. Best email address. I don’t want a crappy email address. I’d like to split-test this text more to see how it affects conversions, as it is a slightly unusual request. You can also use the phrasing “primary email address,” which sounds a little more natural.
  4. Get My Book. Change the default text for the subscribe button (which is usually subscribe or sign-up) to something more friendly/compelling. Also note how it’s green, and the rest of the site is white/the image is blue. This makes it pop. The color itself doesn’t matter (don’t listen to conversion BS about how red or maroon or turquoise converts best); what matters is the contrast. Red might work even better here, given the color palette.

The neither good nor bad:

  1. Only requesting the email address. I’d actually prefer to grab the first name, too, but I’ve been stunningly lazy and haven’t figured out how to add the option in ConvertKit. Including the name in the emails/autoresponders increases engagement. Probably worth the dip in conversion on the landing page that typically ensues. Just don’t ask for stupid stuff, like an address or phone number.
  2. No spam, no BS. It’s cut off in the screen grab, but below the sign-up box there’s a small line of text that promises not to spam the reader. It’s fairly typical, but there is an argument to be made that simply omitting it (and not putting the thought of spam in the reader’s mind at all) could improve conversions. Something to test.

And the negatives:

  1. Mediocre copy. I don’t think you should go on and on, but it could be more compelling and hype up the book a little more.
  2. Menu links at the top. You really don’t want to give the reader any other options, even if it’s your own site. There should be two choices: sign-up, or leave. Might be a little aggressive for an organic sign-up form, so I’d probably leave it in this instance; but sending traffic here from Facebook or a paid source would necessitate stripping those links out.
  3. The sign-up box is visible when you hit the page. Counter-intuitively, if you send a reader to a landing page that doesn’t have the sign-up box immediately visible, but instead has a description of the offer + a button (e.g. like the Get My Book one) that triggers a pop-up form to sign-up, you generally get better conversions.
  4. Not mobile optimized. This is absolutely critical. If you’re running Facebook Ads, 80 – 90%+ of your traffic comes via mobile. Most eReaders are actually iPads, Android devices or Kindle Fires – as such, back & front matter clicks are largely coming from mobile devices. Visit your landing page on a mobile device to make sure it displays properly.

Conversion: Landing Pages (Actual)

Here’s a landing page I’ve set up to capture email addresses using Bone Realm as a lead magnet:

This converts at 39.7%. An important note on that – this varies depending on what traffic is coming to the page. Different types of Facebook traffic will convert differently. What campaign goal you choose on Facebook heavily impacts the conversion rate. Thus, when testing a page, make sure the traffic source remains consistent. Otherwise, your #s will be thrown off.

What’s going right here:

  1. Headline: extraordinarily clear.
  2. Brevity: the synopsis is pertinent to urban fantasy readers, but not boring.
  3. Button: prominent and obvious, with sharp contrast due to the red coloring.
  4. CTA: says “Get My Book,” which clearly tells the browser what they’ll receive. You’ll also note that the text above says “hit” instead of “click” – that’s intentional, since the traffic is coming from Facebook. Most of it’s from mobile users.
  5. Cover: excellent and professional. I’ve tested 2D vs. 3D images, and it’s made no difference in conversion rates.
  6. 2 Step Opt-in: you’re not hit with a sign-up form right when you get to the page.

What could be better:

  1. Brevity: synopsis might be too brief to entice readers.
  2. Mobile: CTA button requires scrolling to see. Could be a positive, as you don’t necessarily want to hit them with “sign-up for my shit!” as soon as they hit the page. Worth testing.
  3. Scarcity: there isn’t any. I tested a variant with a countdown timer, but that negatively impacted conversion rates. But introducing a reason for the browser to sign-up now, if possible, can increase conversions.
  4. Formatting: I’d clean up a couple of the orphans (lines with single words of text) on the mobile version. Unfortunately, OptimizePress’s flexibility is somewhat lacking, and doing so would likely require annoying CSS/HTML edits.

Ideas to test:

  1. Button: try variants. Download My Book. Get My Book. Get Bone Realm Now.
  2. Colors: could match the highlighting/button to the book cover.

Overall, I’m hard-pressed to identify clear improvements. I’m sure they exist, but the overall design is solid, with no glaring flaws. A good template for your own efforts.

Here’s another good one from thriller author Mark Dawson. Note that he still has links at the top, which I would strip out if you’re sending FB traffic. The version he uses for his FB ads has them removed.

Mark’s is custom. But there are plenty of plug-ins and services that can build attractive, high-converting landing pages.

  1. WordPress plugins: OptimizePress and Thrive Leads (the above Bone Realm page was built with OptimizePress)
  2. Services: LeadPages and Unbounce (have used), InstaPage (haven’t used)

It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole of list building services. Suffice to say, there are hundreds. Most of them are not useful for our purposes. In fact, you can get along just fine without ever using them at all.

I had a LeadPages subscription and was buying plug-ins when I had like four visitors a day. I was A/B split-testing something stupid, like six variants of a page. It would be comical if it wasn’t such a giant waste of time and money.

So here’s what I recommend: if you don’t have a lot of money, just embed the form on a page, like I did in the first example. Do your best to make it look good by including an attractive image and solid copy/button. If you don’t even have a website yet, link to the sign-up form directly (use a smartURL so you can change this link easily later on without updating every book).

Once you start pushing some real traffic to the landing page – e.g. you’re using Facebook Ads, or you’re getting a lot of organic sign-ups – then you should consider upgrading to one of the landing page options.

Landing Page: Best Practices

Okay, so we’ve broken down a couple landing page variants – the good and the bad. What are the key takeaways?

  1. Killer offer. This isn’t just important to increase your conversion rate. It’s critical because, for many people, this free book will be their first contact with your work. If it’s good, they’ll buy more and become a fan. If it sucks, they’ll never buy anything from you.
  2. One action. If you’re trying to sell a book, sell a book. If you want a reader to sign up for your list, have a form. Don’t try to do ten things – or two things with a single page. One page, one goal. Your visitor should have two options: do what you ask, or leave.
  3. No menus or external links. This dovetails with #2. You don’t want the visitor to get distracted.
  4. Clarity over cleverness. The page should be elegant, clean and clearly indicate what the reader will receive – and how they can get it.
  5. Make it mobile friendly. This is called “responsive” web design. Make sure your landing page displays nicely on mobile. If you’re running Facebook ads, 90%+ of your traffic will likely be from mobile.
  6. Change the default button text. “Submit” or “sign-up” is unacceptable. Change it to something benefit driven, like “get my book now” or “download my free book.”
  7. Make the CTA button prominent. More important than any one color or shape is the principle of contrast. The CTA button needs to stand out clearly and not get lost in the background.
  8. Don’t get bogged down in premature optimization. When you have three visitors, tweaking the color of your CTA button and the headline sixty-five times isn’t going to do anything.
  9. Test. Not necessary when you have a small amount of traffic, but when you’re running Facebook Ads or other high volume traffic campaigns to a page, you’ll need to test multiple variants.

Pre-Testing Your Landing Page

This is called the ten foot test.

Load up the landing page.

Back up ten feet.

Can you clearly see what action you should take (this is normally a button or a form)? It should be 100% obvious and clearly visible, even ten feet away.

If not, your page needs to be adjusted – the CTA isn’t clear enough.

Important Reminder About Rabbit Holes

There are thousands of plugins, stock photo sites, formatting guides, code snippets and other tools – paid and free – that you can use on your landing pages. Many add neat touches.

But your time and resources are limited. You must settle for good enough: clean and functional. That will take you a half hour. You do not need a 100 hour monstrosity of exquisite complexity to convince a reader to download a free book. Nor do you need to polish up your CSS and HTML5 to increase your conversion rates to respectable levels.

The goal is not to create a landing page (or website) that challenges Apple’s elegance. This is impossible.

Settle for good enough and move on.

Building a Basic Autoresponder

We’ve covered the first two aspects of the funnel in the offer and landing page, but we still have one piece left.

Autoresponders can be remarkably complex beasts when you get into tagging, segmentation and other automated behaviors. We’re not going to do that; to be honest, while that stuff looks sophisticated on the outside, most of it is low leverage BS for solopreneurs.

If you have a large catalog or genre hop, you might find it helpful to segment/tag based on series (I do some very basic stuff in this regard, which is why I use ConvertKit). And if you have multiple pen names, be sure to use a separate list for each one; don’t just dump everyone into the same one. I have seven lists – one for each pen/author name I manage (5 in total), then two for non-fiction.

These don’t mix. And I don’t email my sci-fi people about my fantasy pen name, or vice versa.

That’s pretty much commonsense.

By the way, each email service provider has their own terminology for various features. ConvertKit calls autoresponders “sequences”; MailerLite calls them “workflows.” This is a branding thing, but it’s kind of annoying for communication purposes.

Before I say anything else, here’s a critical point: do not use double opt-in. 25 – 30% of your subscribers will never click the confirmation link. Yes, every email service on the planet recommends double opt-in, and regales you with (fictional) stories about how they increase engagement and decrease SPAM reports. This is all bogus; I’ve received SPAM complaints for the confirmation email (yes, for real). Unless you’re getting a proliferation of fake/bot-driven/spam sign-ups that you have to weed out, single opt-in is fine.

But for now, here’s a basic five part autoresponder. This doesn’t include the confirmation email that automatically sends out if you’re using double opt-in.

  1. Immediate: Welcome (e.g. what to expect) + Your Free Book (give them a link to the free book)
  2. Day 3: Free Book #2 (if you have another – don’t send them all at once) or Ask Them if They Got Book #1 Okay/How They Like It
  3. Day 10: Free Book #3 or Ask Them About Their Favorite Books in the Genre/Recommend Them One
  4. Day 17: The Next Paid Book in the Series (or Box Set), with retailer link/cover + small backstory/blurb
  5. Day 25: Ask Them to Join Your ARC Review Team or Ask Them to Review the Free Book

The dates aren’t set in stone; experiment. You can swap out elements at will; if you have more series, you can plug that in for Day 10’s email instead of a book recommendation.

At this point, I’ve found relatively straightforward subject lines work best. An example from the first email in my autoresponder:

  • “Your Free Novels & Novellas” has a 79.2% open rate.
  • “so, I heard you like science fiction…”  had an open rate of 62.2%.

The content of the emails was the same; only the subject line differed.

Note that email subject lines with the word “Free” in them can be chomp-chomped by aggressive spam filters. So deliverability will likely vary depending on your email service provider (that one was sent in ConvertKit).

As always, test what works with your readers. My initial inclination was that being “clever” was the way to go, but thus far relatively obvious headlines and simply formatted emails have outperformed anything else.

What Tone Should I Use?

You have two options: your natural email “voice” or whatever matches the tone of your target market.

I use the former, which happens to fit the sarcastic/laid-back tone of one of my target markets (urban fantasy). It’s less of a fit for sci-fi, I think, but it’s effective enough that I don’t care to adopt some sort of different persona.

On the other hand, if you curse a lot but write sweet romance, then you’ll have to eschew the natural option and tweak your tone to that market.

How Often Should I Contact My Readers?

This depends on your preferences and the response of your list. I probably do it once or twice a month. That’s not a recommendation. Some of those are unnecessary emails (e.g. I miss a deadline and have to explain why a book doesn’t exist on Amazon yet). Unnecessary emails don’t make readers happy, since they waste time and clog their inbox.

Thus, I’d be better off with once a month delivery, max. Going forward, what I’m aiming for is this kind of mailing schedule:

  1. Launches
  2. Occasional cool stuff (e.g. a free story, novella, offer to join the review team or giveaway/contest)

That’s about it. Your list/preference might be different. Remember that it does take time to craft each email, and you need to double-check every one to make sure the links are functioning correctly. The more often you send messages, the more time that takes away from writing and so forth.

Just monitor the click rates and engagement of your readers. If you’re getting a ton of unsubscribes (more than 1% per email) or lots of complaints (more than 0.25% per email), then you might be sending too many (or you might have gotten the subs from low quality sources).

And a reminder for the shy, like me: people signed up to hear about your books. By not emailing them about exciting stuff or new releases, you’re actually being a dick. The more emails you send, the less “problems” like unsubscribes/glitches/poor open rates affect you.

Like anything, inoculation against fear/the unknown just takes practice.

Engagement Tips

This has been touched on, but list engagement deserves its own sub-section. Most people judge this based on open rates and click rates. Then they work on increasing those numbers. Those don’t give you a complete snapshot of your engagement/list quality – ultimately the best metric is sales. If your list isn’t generating sales, then engagement is poor.

But open rates and click rates are the best proxy we have, since Amazon’s reporting isn’t super detailed. Thus, here are a few things you can do to increase your email metrics:

  1. Resend your emails to non-opens. You can get an additional +6 – 8% (e.g. from 38% > 44 – 46%) increase in opens. Most ESPs can do this automatically.
    • Resend the second email at a different time. E.g. if you sent the first one at 7 AM, send the second one at 5 PM.
    • Choose the resend date strategically. If it’s a launch, send it on the last day with a “last chance!” type of headline. If it’s a general announcement, maybe a week later (or not at all).
    • Resend the second email with a much different subject line.
  2. A/B test your subject lines. A good subject line can generate an additional + 5 – 7% (e.g. from 30% > 35 – 37%) increase in opens. Again, most ESPs can do this with one click.
  3. Double-check the first 50 – 100 characters of the email. Basically the first two sentences. This is what pops up in the “preview” section of their email client. If, in conjunction with the headline, it’s not compelling, then they’re probably not opening the email.
  4. Train subscribers to click. Always have something to click in your autoresponder and broadcast emails.
  5. Train subscribers to buy. Don’t give away only free stuff – or too much of it. Your unsubscribe rates will spike when you do ask them to purchase, and your click rates will be low. I’d say 50 – 50 free/paid is a good starting split.
  6. Set expectations via your autoresponder. If you’re going to run a friendly newsletter that emails them every month, then do that. If you’re going to run giveaways, do that. If you’re going to only send sales emails, do that. The format is less important than setting expectations early on during the welcome sequence and then being consistent. The people who naturally respond to your type of newsletter will stick around.
  7. Don’t be boring. If you’re not a good copywriter, then it’s unlikely your emails are gonna be compelling/interesting. Particularly the sales emails. Get to the point and don’t waste people’s time. Be honest about your own abilities in the format, and tweak the length accordingly.
  8. Don’t try to please everyone. Whatever format/tone you decide on will inevitably alienate other people. Trying to cater to everyone is a surefire way to crater your engagement.
  9. Use your list for retargeting via Facebook. If you don’t know what this means, then don’t worry about it. This is different than the other tactics listed, as it’s exclusively used for selling books, not influencing open/click rates. You can reach subscribers who don’t open your emails (or don’t see them) via Facebook by uploading your list for use as a custom audience.

As always, this comes down to testing. Experiment and find what works – and where your strengths lie. Then double down.

Book Delivery

Use BookFunnel to automagically get your free books on to any reader device. Otherwise you’re going to be fielding tons of support questions about not being able to read the books.

This is one of the best services available to indies. Easily worth $50/year.

What Should My Conversion & Open Rates Look Like?

The industry average open rates for music/musicians is 23%; media + publishing 22.8% (according to MailChimp). These are sad sack averages that we can trounce, however, with a little optimization and basic attention to detail.

  1. Landing page: if you’re sending non-organic traffic, aim for 35%+. Organic traffic should convert at 45%+.
  2. Autoresponder: aim for a 70%+ open rate for the first email. Click rate should be 45%+ (if you’re giving away a free novella). These will both drop substantially over the next emails in the sequence.

For a basic broadcast email (not an autoresponder) to your list, target an open rate of 35 – 40% from non-organic subs who have bothered to actually download your initial freebie (e.g. the free novella); a 50 – 60% open rate for organic subs. Click rates will vary with book pricing and what news you’re sharing.

All of this data is supplied automatically by your email service provider. You can have separate lists or segments for your organic/non-organic subs to compare the relative states.

As for measuring your landing page conversion…

Make sure you send organic/non-organic traffic to different landing pages. You can use the same design (if you have on that works), just make sure the URLs are different so the conversion data doesn’t get mixed together.

Similarly, you want to make sure you have different landing pages for different offers. If you’re offering a free novella, but send readers to a page offering them a free novel, sign-ups will drop. Even if the autoresponder delivers both books, the reader will have no way of telling from the landing page. Thus, they will leave.

You can go take this further, and set up different versions of the same autoresponder to compare the engagement of organic vs. non-organic subs. Or for each series.

I don’t do this, because at some point, you have like sixty things to monitor, and I don’t need to squeeze out an extra 2% lift.

Which brings us to a very important note on optimization: your open/conversion rates will typically be bad at the beginning as you find your feet. Don’t worry – get things up and running, make sure the emails/books are delivering properly, then start tweaking parts of the funnel one piece at a time. Also, make sure you’re actually getting enough traffic through the funnel before optimizing it. Stats get heavily skewed when you have 7 subs – like 100% of people are reading your emails, or 0%. Open/conversion/click rate data is largely useless until you have 50 – 100+ readers into the funnel.

Here’s the funnel picture again, since all of this talk of optimization and conversion makes things sound really complicated:

Just get those three things up and running. Even a poorly optimized email funnel will collect fans, grow your platform and produce valuable data.

Get it working. Then make it better by testing.

An Important Note on Conversion Rates

Different plugins, analytics services and email providers calculate conversion rate differently.

I know. This is super f’in annoying.

But it’s critical to understand how that rate is being calculated – otherwise, comparisons might not be valid.

The two basic ways it’s calculated are this:

  • Total visitors/subscribers. If a visitor comes back to the sign-up page four times, but only subscribes once, they’ll be counted as having visited four times. Calculating conversion rate this way is basically useless, as one indecisive subscriber can skew massively skew your statistics. Not what I’m basing that 35 – 40% number on.
  • Total unique visitors/subscribers. Each visitor is only counted once. This is what I’m using to calculate the 35 – 40% conversion rate you should be aiming for.

Check your service’s documentation for how it’s calculated. If you can’t find it, just email support.

What Should I Do About Non-Opens?

First of all, we should talk about how open rate is calculated. Basically, your email provider knows if an email is opened under two circumstances:

  1. Someone clicks a link in the email.
  2. Someone has images enabled. Your email provider embeds a transparent 1px image in every email (even the ones with only text) to track opens. If a user doesn’t click “display images” in their email program, and doesn’t click any links, then this won’t register as an open.

To increase the accuracy of your open rate stat, include images like book covers that will appear as red X’s or outlines – thus forcing more people to click “display images.” But not everyone will do that.

Thus, I clean my list in these ways (the first two require knowledge of tagging):

  1. In my autoresponder, I actually send a variant of the welcome email three times. Once a user clicks a download link inside one of these emails, they’re tagged and they won’t receive another of the welcome emails – they just receive the next email in the autoresponder a few days later (e.g. the next free book). But if they don’t click on the free book download link in the first welcome email, they get another email a day later, then another 2 days after that, checking what’s up. If they never click on any of the three emails, I remove them. After all, if they can’t be bothered to redeem a free book, there’s little hope of them doing anything else.
  2. Most email service providers allow you to sort your list by “cold” subscribers. The definition differs, but these are people who haven’t opened, say, your last 5 emails or haven’t opened any emails in 90 days. You can then send an email to just these folks asking them if they want to stick around – include a link for them to click that will tag them as engaged. Delete the ones that don’t. Note: if you don’t send emails that often, or have only sent a couple in the last year, a lot of subs will appear as “cold” who have, in the past, opened your emails.
  3. Alternatively, if tagging people gives you the willies, you can go through your subs one by one and cull them based on whether they’ve opened your recent emails or not. Someone who has received 7+ emails without opening one is probably a safe candidate for deletion.

Very important: no one will open every email. Even your biggest fans will occasionally miss an email. So don’t boot people off for missing a couple emails. We only want to remove people who clearly aren’t interested, not engaged fans who weren’t interested in specific offers.

ROI

Okay – so we’ve covered how to get people to our offers (traffic) and how to optimize our funnel to maximize our subscribers (conversion). But after all that work, how can we be sure that these shiny new subscribers are bolstering our bottom line?

Return on investment (ROI) requires comparing our expenses with our revenues. Expenses include:

  1. Service costs (e.g. Instafreebie, LeadPages, BookFunnel your email service provider) associated with building/maintaining your list.
  2. Traffic generation costs (e.g. Facebook Ads, promotion costs, giveaway costs)
  3. Production costs (e.g. covers/proofreading/formatting for lead magnets)

There might be other costs associated with list building, too.

Then we want to look at the revenues directly generated by our list building efforts. Since many of the benefits are intangible (launch reviews, reader feedback, rank boosts), this is difficult to get an exact #. But we can make a rough estimate by:

  1. Seeing how many people clicked our paid books in the autoresponder. You can’t use affiliate links in emails, so getting exact numbers of sales is impossible; but we can estimate that somewhere between 10 – 25% of these clicks turn into sales.
  2. Lifetime value. If you know your readthrough rate, you can then estimate how many of your other books each of those clicks above will purchase lifetime.
  3. Comparing launches. E.g. if we launched a book with 2,000 subs last time and made $2,000, and this time launched one to 5,000 people and made $6,000, we can attribute $1 in value to each new subscriber.
  4. Summarizing what comparative services would have cost. E.g. if we don’t have to book review services/promo sites any more, then you might include this.

After that, ROI is a simple calculation: (Revenues – Expenses)/Expenses

Let’s say we spent $20 for InstaFreebie and $250 on Facebook ads. Our latest launch generated $565 in revenue, whereas our last launch did only $100. Further, we got 12 reviews from our ARC team, which saved us $100 in review matching services.

Thus, our revenue = $465 (the difference between the two launches) + $100 for the ARC team value

Expenses = $270

ROI = $565 – $270/$270 = 109%

This can be fun, but the math is inexact when it comes to mailing list signups, despite looking authoritative. I’m not a huge fan of business school style fuzzy math (yes, a shocking amount of “official” business accounting is simply rough estimates). There are just too many assumptions here to make a solid ROI calculation.

Instead, I keep a much closer eye on my bank account and overall sales trends. Are more people buying the books from launch to launch? Is the cash coming in outstripping that going out?

By eyeballing it over a few months – and comparing month to month royalty numbers – you should have an intuitive sense of whether your list building methods are influencing your bottom line.

What About Pop-Ups and Other Stuff?

There’s no shortage of software, services and plugins you can use to build your list. Most of these are designed for bloggers/non-creative businesses.

Can you use them to build your fiction list?

Yes.

Should you?

Probably not. Most of the pop-ups, exit intent pop-ups, welcome mats/gates, content locking and other stuff you encounter on the web are for capturing leads via content marketing. E.g., on articles like this one – you cover a non-fiction topic in depth, then try to get the reader’s email or upsell them to a product.

Clearly I am doing this wrong, since I don’t have any flashing BS or timers ticking down to alert you of all the great deals you’re missing.

Anyway.

Collecting emails via these methods is highly dependent on website traffic. As authors, it’s unlikely we’ll get much more than a trickle of website traffic. The few people visiting our website will not arrive via SEO or Google, but instead because they already have an interest in our work.

Using hard-sell tactics like pop-ups is the wrong way of capturing these people. Yes, you will increase your sign-ups (barely). But the administrative time isn’t worth it unless you’re getting tons of traffic. That’s unlikely. Most of the 50 – 150 people who visit this site daily come to read the marketing blog. The rest are visiting to subscribe to the newsletter or buy my books – I don’t have to give them a hard-sell. They’re already interested in my work and 95% of them have already read one of my books.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t waste my time or money with these aggressive methods unless you have 5,000+ people coming to your author site on a monthly basis. If you’re a #1 NYT Bestseller or traditionally published author getting print press, then it’s possible – even likely – that people have heard your name through an outlet other than your book. Turning these “cold” leads into fans requires more aggressive marketing tactics.

But for indies? Not really necessary or beneficial. Save your time.

But There is One Optimization You Should Do: The Home “Landing” Page

You can replicate 80% of the results that more aggressive pop-up methods get you without being annoying/taking up a lot of time. In fact, this is how your home page should be set up – without exception.

I’ll show you a visual of my D.N. Erikson site’s home page:

This is the first thing you see when you type in dnerikson.com into your browser. It takes up the entirety of the screen (on both mobile and desktop).

The idea is simple: you advertise your lead magnet on the home page. The majority of your traffic hits your home page at some point, ergo this maximizes exposure to your sign-up offer. The layout is simple: We have the cover on the left, a tagline/sign-up button on the right.

If people are intrigued by the cover + offer, they click.

Nothing flashy. It’s not super aggressive. I don’t make it so you have to sign-up, or so that the navigation at the top is disabled (you can do both of these). You can scroll down.

If I changed these things (yes, it’s possible with a plugin), yeah, I’d get more sign-ups. But it would make my site less functional – and I’m fine if people come to my author site, browse, and then buy books instead of signing-up. Again, most visitors will be fans already, since the #1 form of marketing indies have is our own books.

This guide focuses on email, but there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned.

It’s important to recognize that fans come in different forms. In fact, I’m only on a few people’s email lists (less than 5). I don’t join them, even if I really like the artist. Not my thing, which might sound funny since this guide is almost 10,000 words long. But I buy a lot of books and courses – in fact, I like searching through sites to see if something new has come out.

Thus, I’ve designed this home page as a compromise between people like me (e.g. fans who aren’t interested in connecting via email) and those who do like email. Notice how there’s only one core action to take, clearly drawing the visitor’s attention with a contrasting blue button.

A couple other things:

  1. Don’t use sliders on your home page. Yes, I understand that I have a slider on this site (Nicholas Erik). They’re stupid, and click data indicates people don’t interact with them. They’re also glitchy when it comes to device compatibility. The above design on the D.N. Erikson site is a static image.
  2. Use a button that triggers a pop-up instead of a subscribe form. You can test this. But generally a two-step opt-in process converts better. You don’t have to bother with fancy plugins – that button doesn’t trigger a pop-up. It just takes them to a page with the form. The two-step process is the most important thing (this goes for all your landing pages).

Key Takeaways

  • The mailing list is the most critical part of an indie author’s marketing arsenal.
  • Don’t waste a lot of time debating which service to try; they all have their quirks once you use them. MailerLite is the best option for 99% of indie authors.
  • Maintaining a well-engaged email list is far more important than having a huge mailing list.
  • A well-engaged list can help you get reviews, sell books at full price during launch and give you valuable feedback on your work.
  • Mailing list building follows the same internet marketing principles as book marketing: generate traffic, optimize conversion, and evaluate the ROI.
  • You must send traffic to your sign-up offer via organic methods (e.g. the book’s front + back matter) or non-organic/outside sources.
    • All authors must have a link to their mailing list in their front and back matter.
    • An attractive image can help draw attention to your offer inside the book.
    • The three top recommended non-organic list-building methods are: Facebook Ads, Instafreebie cross promos, and author newsletter swaps/cross promos.
  • The basic email funnel is: offer > landing page > autoresponder.
    • The most critical part of your funnel is a good offer. Book 2 converts best; a starter library second best; a free novella third. Calling a novella a “book” can increase conversion. A novella is also an excellent offer to use in Instafreebie cross promos and with Facebook Ads.
    • Make sure the book you’re offering is professionally formatted and proofread. An excellent cover is also recommended to maximize its effectiveness.
    • You should aim for your sign-up landing page to convert at 35%+ for non-organic traffic; 45%+ for organic traffic.
    • Push your organic/non-organic traffic sources to different landing pages, so the conversion data doesn’t cross-contaminate.
    • Creating an effective funnel is all about iteration; the first version will almost always be bad. Get it done, then tweak as you get data on the three core pieces.
    • Troubleshooting: the offer is bad (#1 problem) or not enough traffic to make a diagnosis (#2 problem); the offer CTA (call-to-action) is unclear; the landing page is poorly designed/has too many links; the first email subject line is bad or unclear
  • A simple five part autoresponder can be remarkably effective.
    • Immediate: Welcome (e.g. what to expect) + Your Free Book (give them a link to the free book)
    • Day 3: Free Book #2 (if you have another – don’t send them all at once) or Ask Them if They Got Book #1 Okay/How They Like It
    • Day 10: Free Book #3 or Ask Them About Their Favorite Books in the Genre/Recommend Them One
    • Day 15: The Next Paid Book in the Series (or Box Set), with retailer link/cover + small backstory/blurb
    • Day 25: Ask Them to Join Your ARC Review Team or Ask Them to Review the Free Book
    • Aim for an open rate of 70%+ and click rate of 45%+ with your first email. This will decline with ensuing emails.
  • You can clean up non-openers/non-engaged subscribers to keep your email subscription costs down and click/open rates high.
  • Calculating a strict ROI is often difficult; instead, closely monitor your bank account, month-to-month sales trends, and launches. If you’re not seeing an upward trend, then review your funnel and traffic sources for problems.

Action Exercise : Building to 1,000 Subs

You can get 1,000 subscribers in a month. I’m not kidding.

After years of floundering, I jumped from 485 to 1400 subs in December 2016. I used primarily Instafreebie and organic sign-ups during that month, but we’re pouring accelerant on our list building efforts in the form of Facebook Ads. Conceivably, you could surge past 1,000 subs and get over 1,500 or even 2,000 in 30 days.

But we’ll keep our aims modest and attainable.

  1. Create your basic funnel. That means you need an offer (a novel, novella or starter library), a landing page and autoresponder.
  2. Test it. E.g. sign-up yourself and make sure an email comes. You’d be surprised how often it does not. Obviously you can’t wait 25+ days for the entire sequence to play out, but if the first email comes and you can download the book, then all of that should be fine.
  3. Start pushing traffic through the funnel and analyze the response. Tweak the parts that are converting poorly, fix anything that’s broken and keep monitoring it. Continually iterate as you get more data.
    1. Make sure you have a link to your mailing list in the front and back matter of all your books. You can steal my image copy/layout (obviously not the image itself, but then, that would be useless to you) or plain text copy. Run a free or $0.99 promo. That can generate 5 – 25 organic subs, depending on downloads/read-through.
    2. Sign-up for an Instafreebie cross author promo. A few can be found here. More can be found on Kboards. Instafreebie is free for the first month. This will be good for 500+ subs.
    3. Run a few Facebook Ads for $5/day. If you’re not familiar with Facebook, use Mark Dawson’s free 3 video course to set up the ads. Once you have a working ad, scale it up slowly. For $250, we can get another 500 subs.
  4. Great is the enemy of done. Your funnel will not be great at first, but having a working, crappy funnel is 100x better than a fictional “amazing” funnel. You can quickly refine the three core pieces of the funnel – the offer, landing page and autoresponder – to make it much better once you have readers running through it. Get traffic, look at the numbers, plug the biggest leak and then move down the line.

But…what if I don’t have anything to give away? Simple. Your task for the next 30 days is to write a 12,000 – 25,000 word novella, get a professional cover, and get the landing page designed/autoresponder written. Join an InstaFreebie promo for next month to hold yourself accountable. Don’t make the autoresponder/landing page live (keep them as drafts). Then, next month, you’ll have all three pieces of your mailing list funnel in place for your 30 day push.