Want to build an engaged mailing list of fans who look forward to receiving your mails? That’s what this week’s AskALLi Fiction & Nonfiction Podcast with Sacha Black and Orna Ross is all about: How to manage your mailing list to build an engaged readership.
- Why you need a mailing list
- How to capture your readers from the start with a welcome sequence
- What’s the best kind of content for you and your list
- When you should mail your list and how often
- Why feedback from your readers is so important
- How and when to use autoresponders
- How to segment your list to provide different experiences
If you want to build fans and grow a thriving reader group through effective use of your mailing list, this podcast’s for you.
Our fiction and nonfiction salon is brought to you by sponsor Izzard Ink.
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Book Recommendation: Newsletter Ninja, by Tammi Labrecque
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About the Hosts
Sacha Black is a bestselling and competition-winning author. She writes the popular YA Fantasy Eden East novels and a series of non-fiction books that are designed to help writers develop their craft. Sacha has been a long-time resident writing coach for website Writers Helping Writers. She is also a developmental editor, wife and mum.
Orna Ross launched the Alliance of Independent Authors at the London Book Fair in 2012. Her work for ALLi has seen her named as one of The Bookseller’s “100 top people in publishing”. She also publishes poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and is greatly excited by the democratising, empowering potential of author-publishing. For more information about Orna, visit her website: http://www.ornaross.com
Read the Transcript: Build an Engaged Mailing List
Orna Ross: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Alliance of Independent Authors Nonfiction and Fiction, Self-Publishing Salon. I’m here with the wonderful Sacha Black. Hi Sacha.
Sacha Black: Hello.
Orna Ross: How are you surviving lockdown?
Sacha Black: Yeah, it’s really hard, and I don’t think anybody can lie about that. I think everybody’s probably you know, you’re feeling it creatively, feeling it productively, and familywise. It is hard, but I’m trying to take every silver lining where possible. You know, the extra time to spend with family is lovely. So, you know, I wouldn’t mind a break. What about you?
Orna Ross: Yes, I think any novelty has kind of worn off at this stage. But I’m pretty lucky in that. I think anybody who’s at home with kids and elderly parents or if you’re caring for somebody, it’s far more complicated and difficult than it is for us. So yeah, feeling reasonably but, definitely will be happy when we get the all clear.
Why a mailing list is important
Sacha Black: Yeah, yeah. Anything just to have my coffee shops, where I write, back open. Anyway, so this evening we are here to talk about mailing lists. So, I think we’ll kick off just talking about why mailing lists are so important. Why we need them? Do you even still need them?
Of course, yes, you do need a mailing list, no matter where you are in your journey, but particularly if you’re at the beginning of your journey, I cannot encourage you enough to start a mailing list. Even before you publish, that’s often a question that I get asked, ‘Well, I don’t have a book out. Should I start a mailing list?’
Yes, you absolutely should. So, why should you have a mailing list? Well, first of all, you own that list. Nobody else. No Amazon, no Kobo, no nobody else. That list of people who are interested in your work is owned by you. Every time you make a sale on Amazon or Kobo or Apple or wherever else, you don’t have that customer information.
So, there’s no way for you to contact the people that have purchased your books or perhaps other products and services that you have sold. If you have no way of contacting those people, then you have no way of contacting them when you have a new book or product out that you would like to sell to them.
So that is the number one reason. Both, so that you have the ability to contact people who are interested in your products, and also because you own that list outright, nobody has the ability to take it away. If Amazon should fold, or Facebook should fold, nobody will take that list. You will still own those contacts.
So also, like I’ve said, when you have a new product or a new book out, you are then able to contact people who have a vested interest in your products and who are likely to want to buy additional books and products. So, you have an easy way to generate sales. Another reason is because it is a way of you contacting and speaking directly with your readers.
And I don’t know about you Orna, but for me, one of the best things about writing and sharing those words with people is hearing back from people who have enjoyed reading them, reading my stories, enjoyed my characters, perhaps learned things from my nonfiction. And having that one-on-one connection with readers, which I think helps to grow and build your fan base.
Orna Ross: Yeah, so it would, be great if we could hear from people, anybody who’s kind of tuned in tell us, do you have a mailing list?
Because you often hear people saying, email doesn’t work anymore. I mean, that’s something I probably hear at least once a week and have been hearing since 2012, when we started. And if you’re hearing that, so I’d like to completely reiterate what Sacha saying and say that it’s not true.
Email is still by far the most effective marketing method that an author can have for themselves. And all of the successful indie authors realize and recognize that and invest huge amounts of time and effort and so on into their mailing list.
And, you hear a lot of talk about getting the people into the list, but far less about what to do with your readers. How to, in a sense, harness that opportunity.
It’s a huge thing that they do when they give us their email address, it’s a vote of trust and it’s about confidence and it’s really important to value it and to use it wisely and use it appropriately.
And it can take a bit of time to really understand that. So, at the beginning, and we will talk in a while about, you know, when your business moves on a bit and you have more books, but at the beginning it could be a confidence issue. You know, why would they want to hear from me? I’ve got nothing to say. I don’t know what to say. You know, what should I write about? All that sort of stuff.
And I think it’s really important to understand that if they have given you their email address, they do want to hear from you and not just when you have a book out, they want an actual relationship with you. And I think the best way to understand this is think about your own favorite authors and if they have email lists, if you’re on the lists, how much you look forward to people coming through to you and sharing with you.
It is probably the type of marketing that most closely reflects the relationship that a reader and a writer have in a book. And that’s another reason why it’s a really good marketing method, because of that. So, if you begin by understanding how you’re attracting your readers to your list and how that must connect to your books, and then you understand that the email list and email communications with the people on that list is the next big step.
That’s the big communicator in between, because books take a long time to write and some people take a lot longer than others. And so, having that sort of communication, that ability to talk to them about what you’re doing, to become a name that they remember, you know, that they associate with a particular feeling or experience.
You’re trying to do that all the time with your communications with them; give them the same feeling that they get when they read your book.
Sacha Black: You have literally blown my mind, and I’m going to have to go back and relisten to this because I have never considered the type of relationship of email and reader, and compared it to book and reader, and I think that’s so interesting. And it also immediately led me to start thinking about how I can then change the way that I communicate in my emails. Because actually, why am I not telling stories in my newsletters? You know, usually I’m exchanging, oh, you might find this useful, you might find this interesting, or, you know, lots of other things.
But actually, why shouldn’t we be weaving those stories through our newsletters as well? And I think that makes…mind blown! So, thank you for that!
Orna Ross: So, I think it is that thing of what is your uniquely ‘you’ thing that you do in your books? You know, and you’re probably including that in some way in your ads or whatever marketing you do, or your podcasting, or if you’re talking to me, you know, whatever you’re doing, you’re probably including that in some way.
But to make sure that it gets injected, so they get the same experience that they get from reading your book, as much as possible. A little mini experience.
If you can’t do that, and some people who can tell stories long, can’t tell stories short, just can’t, then ‘behind the books.’ is really good, and you do a lot of that, Sacha, don’t you? What’s going on behind the scenes, preparation of your book, the cover reveal, opening the box of books when it arrives, and the talking about what went into the book from the writer’s perspective.
That can give the same feeling and they can feel like sort of privileged insiders when they get that sort of information. The thing I think is to understand what your thing is, and then be very, kind of, disciplined around that. Because, you go as an author from asking, what on earth am I going to write to them about? To writing about all sorts of different things.
And the thing I think that’s most important is, what is your thing? What is the thing that is uniquely you? Now how do you discipline your communications so that you are keeping it fair and not kind of wandering off right and left because that can confuse people and it definitely can lead to people unfollowing.
What should I put in my newsletter?
Sacha Black: Absolutely. So, let’s perhaps go into a bit more of the content once you’ve created and got a list. So, you’ve talked a bit about knowing what’s uniquely you and doing some of the behind the scenes. I think it’s really important to reiterate that because readers, who join your list, are interested in getting a bit more, more than just your books, which means they want a little bit more of you, a piece of you. And that’s not to say, you know, the other thing that I hear quite a lot is, oh, well, I don’t really want to share personal things. Well, that’s fine, you don’t have to share about your kids or your family. You know, you can easily share photos from a walk that you’ve been on. So, on my fiction list, one of the things that I do is, I climb into derelict buildings, quite a lot. Not necessarily something I should admit to, but it’s something that I do. So, I climb into these derelict buildings and I take photos and then I share them, or I will share pictures of ruins or, I go to these abandoned underground stations in London, and these are the things that inspire my stories, and so I share them and sometimes then I’ll share snippets of writing that I’ve done around them. Or I will share books that I’ve read and loved and think that readers, who read my books, will also enjoy them. So, these are the kinds of things that you can share.
And like Orna said, unboxing videos, when you get that first book. You can share snippets of, perhaps a first chapter or a deleted scene. These are also things that readers love to get.
And also, if you ever commission, this is perhaps more for a younger audience, but character art or artwork for your cover, perhaps there were earlier revisions, you can also include things like that.
Now in terms of frequency, length, these kinds of things. The frequency is, I think, a very personal thing.
So, some writers struggled to do this and therefore I’d encourage you to do at least once a month. What tends to happen is, if you don’t email at least once a month, your authority as an emailer tends to drop and that then leads to your emails going into junk mailboxes or promotions mailboxes, whatever they call them with the different providers.
Some people email once a week. That might seem terrifying to some of you. That’s okay, nobody’s saying you have to do that. What I would encourage you not to do is to only email when you have something for sale. That sends quite a negative message that you are only emailing your readers and interested subscribers when you want something from them.
So, I always like to use the Pareto principle, the 80/20 law. I try to give 80% of the time and then just do those asks or the sale emails 20% of the time. And I think that’s a good ratio and you can apply that to however many times you’re emailing and there isn’t a fixed, you must email this many times, you can apply that 80/20 rule to all of your emails. So, I don’t know if you want to add anything else there?
Orna Ross: Another option there is to have a sales possibility in your email list without making it actually part of the communication, or there could be a click button, so it’s there and clearly they’re invited to click on that and purchase if they want to, but you’re talking to them about other things. And maybe it’s always there, maybe it’s in the template. And particularly if you’ve got one book, I think that works. If you’ve a whole row of books, not so good. Anytime with your email list, giving them too much choice is a very bad thing. So, just having one call to action, if you are going to call them to do something, just do one thing in each communication, at most.
And as Sacha says, actually, don’t do it every time. Don’t ask them to be doing things every time. It’s about continuing your author mission, which is to give them words, give them great words and you know, excite and delight them and see your email communication as the opportunity to do that.
Maybe to get across points that you didn’t want to make as a fiction writer because there were two, you didn’t want to hit them over the head with a point, but maybe you could do a short personal story or a mini essay or you know, some kind of story about that point and actually reiterate it or develop it. There are just so many things that you can do, that can fit into your thing and have fun exploring what they can be.
And you know, while I said earlier, to discipline yourself to stay in the zone of whatever is your unique thing, that doesn’t mean you can’t do lots and lots of different ways of approaching that thing. So, you don’t do the same kind of email over and over unless you’re doing a very informational type of thing.
So, one of our newsletters is quite simply a blog roundup. It is, you know, the seven or six posts that were posted in the last week, sent out weekly on a Thursday. It’s been the same for years. It’s got a very high engagement. People like it, it gets lots of clicks.
And there’s, you know, there’s no great communication in that. That works too for nonfiction. It doesn’t work though for fiction or poetry where the experience needs to be a lot more intimate.
Why feedback from your readers is important
Sacha Black: Regina Clark asked a really interesting question, what would you say is the key way to make readers respond to newsletters or should feedback be left with Facebook pages?
So, I think this is a fascinating question and I absolutely encourage my readers to respond, and I do that in a range of ways. So, I do try to ask a question in every single email that I send. And that question could be absolutely anything from, what have you read this week? To something that is related to, perhaps I’ve shared an article on how to improve your craft, and I might ask readers how they would use that or another tip that they have. Another thing that I do is I put polls in my emails, so I might say, oh, I’ve got this book and this book, which one should I read next? Or, I’ve got this cover and this cover, I can’t choose between the two. Which one do you guys like best?
I have, for my fiction readers, put in two excerpts from two books that are in unrelated series, both of which that I want to write next. And I actually asked my readers to vote on which one they would like me to write next, which is super for helping guide you to know where perhaps your readers would be interested.
What’s not so helpful is when there is only one point between them, but that tells me, you know, actually either would go down well, but obviously, not so helpful when you’re feeling indecisive yourself.
So, any question, feedback, lots of authors I know send annual surveys. So, those surveys might be trying to understand more about who their readers are, their demographics. It might be trying to find out what type of content, so you can even ask them, what content would you like to see in my newsletter? So, I know that Joanna Penn, for example, runs one of every year for her nonfiction list. So yeah, that is another way to encourage feedback.
In terms of the comparison between Facebook and newsletter, I mean, you know, it’s up to you as an author, you can get feedback whichever way you want.
I personally prefer it in my inbox because, as Orna was alluding to earlier, it’s slightly more intimate and it gives me then a reason to reply directly to that reader. One thing I would say, is if you are encouraging feedback via your newsletters, then you absolutely must respond to each and every person who emails you.
It’s really important to build that trust and your integrity. If you’re asking questions and then not replying to the answers, it doesn’t leave a great message. I don’t know if you want to add anything.
Orna Ross: Just specifically Regina, and it’s a great question and thank you for asking it because it gave us the opportunity to say all those important things, that question that you’re asking about, though you’ll probably get a hung jury like Sacha’s but, you know, how do we discern what they want to get in the newsletter? Ask them. Actually, ask them what they would most like to get from you? Ask them, do they prefer to hear from you on Facebook or email?
You will get a variety of answers there, some people prefer one or the other and you can have slightly different strategies for each. You’re not going to be emailing, generally speaking, as often as you’re going to be responding on Facebook, so the email should feel special. I think that’s the thing.
There should be a bit of effort in it. It isn’t just a, you know, oh God, I have to do an emails and kind of just sending it off. A bit of thought, and if you send one once a month, that gives you plenty of time to mull over it, draft it, do a self-edit, you know, treat it as a piece of writing.
Autoresponders – why and how to use them
Sacha Black: And there is a book recommendation. I read a book, I think it was last year, it may have been the year before, I can’t remember now, called Newsletter Ninja by Tammi L. Labrecque, and it is absolutely fantastic and it has a whole heap of ideas for how you can generate content ideas. It has ideas for different types of content, themes for content. It is fantastic. So, I highly, highly, highly recommend that.
Should we talk a little bit about autoresponders, what they are and how important they are? Okay. So, for anybody who doesn’t know what an autoresponder is, it is a sequence of emails that you have prewritten and that gets sent out automatically in a set order to anybody who joins your mailing list.
So how many, how often, and what kind of stuff do you need to put in them?
So, this could range, I have been on mailing lists where people have emailed me once a week, literally for a year, and I’ve been on mailing lists where people have just emailed me the once. So, for me, my personal mailing list, I believe I have five emails, something like that. And I send one the moment that somebody joins my list and then I send them about every five days, I think. So, it lasts just under a month, about three weeks. Now the reason I do this, is that I want to be able to send information and the key messages that I want my readers to know about me and to try and build that relationship as they join, in in a way that I don’t have to be sending those individually.
So, the types of things that I do, the first and most important thing I do is to welcome them, thank them for joining my list, and in that welcome email, I make sure that they are getting my reader magnet. My reader magnet is essentially a small freebie just to say thank you. For my nonfiction, it’s a cheat sheet to help people improve their villains and on my fiction, lots of people do like short stories or novellas or, if you have a big back catalog, you might be able to give a whole book away.
The second most important thing is to tell people to whitelist you. Now that means to mark you as either a VIP, add you to their contact list, whatever they need to do in order to stop you going into their junk mail. This is really important because lots and lots of our emails do end up in junk mail. And I also put that reminder in, I think maybe three or four out of my five autoresponders.
Other information I include, in my nonfiction, I include links to where they can ask me questions or find me on social media, my Facebook group where I have accountability. Things like this where they can join in and participate and be part of my community. So, for me, it’s all about building that community.
And then of course, later in that sequence, I will then introduce them, once they know a bit more about me and I’ve given them some more freebies, I then introduced them to my books, which they can then purchase. On the fiction side, it’s much more, I don’t want to say the word woolly but, you know, it’s much more about theme and content.
So, I introduce them to my characters. I share playlists that I listen to when I’m writing. I share images that have inspired my stories. I even share a tiny snippet from the book. I write for young adults, so I share a quiz, essentially a comparison would be like the Harry Potter houses, and so they can take a quiz to see which house they would fall into, essentially.
So, lots of things that then draw them, not necessarily into my community, but into the world of my characters and my books and my stories. What about yours? Because obviously you do poetry, so you again have a different genre.
How to segment your list to provide different experiences
Orna Ross: Yeah, that was one of the things that I wanted to kind of make sure to talk about on this show, because, with something like email lists, you know, we could talk for an hour and a half and we still wouldn’t have covered all the different options.
I have four key groups of people that I email, and, for a very long time, I made the very stupid mistake of mixing them all up. So, basically people got roughly similar, you know, here’s a bit of ALLI stuff, and here’s a bit of, you know, creative stuff, and here’s a bit of poetry and, oh yeah, there’s a story as well, and blah, blah. And, it took me far longer than it should have for me to actually properly segment my list.
So, each of these channels now gets a completely different kind of reading experience, just as the books are quite different reading experiences. So, I think one of the things that’s really important at the beginning is, because we’re all so used to email lists, and because we are the type of people who kind of get them a lot because we’re writers and we learned through them and all the rest of it, we’re terribly familiar with them. But your readers may not be, they may have signed up for this and not quite know what’s going on or what to expect. So, I think it’s really important in that welcome sequence that Sacha was talking about to set the scene and say, you’re receiving this because you did such and such, you can expect this to happen, here’s what I’ll be doing and talking about. And, we won’t have time to go into the different email providers, but all of the good ones now will allow you to tag different parts of each audience so that, for example, if they don’t like the bit where you poll them, for example, they can opt out of different parts. You can further segment your list, in other words. And segmentation is really the key to having that good relationship, you know, to doing that one single thing and developing that and deepening. So, what you’re looking for really with email, you want your email to jump out of their email box, to be a shining light in a sea of gray, so when it arrives, they go, yay, I’ve got this email and I’m either looking forward to it and I’ll read it later over my lunch break, or you know, I can’t wait to open it and read it. And that’s the sort of impression that you want to be giving them. And therefore, you need to really have a clear idea, and it’s back to things that we’ve talked about on this show and other shows before, it’s back to that right reader concept. When you know who that reader is and what they need and what they’re looking for and what they value, then you can make sure that the values you’re incorporating in your email speaks to them.
So, there’s absolutely no point in me sending poetry to somebody who had signed up to get self-publishing news. Now, I don’t think I was quite that bad, but yeah, poetry is actually one of the easiest lists because you can share snippets. It’s one of the easiest, well, maybe I find it easiest because the type of person who reads the type of poetry I like, I kind of know them very well and I know the kinds of things that they like to receive. The one I find most challenging is fiction, and I think that’s to do with the kind of fiction that I write. And so, I’m trying to get better at the whole ‘behind the book’ thing, but I find that with fiction it can kind of interfere with my own process a little bit, my own research and stuff. I think I still haven’t quite got that one a hundred percent right.
And that’s the thing, I think that’s really important to say as well, this is something that grows with you. It helps to develop you as a writer, thinking about what your reader wants to receive from you and your emails is only going to feed back in positively into what they want to receive from you in your books. And it’s always that balance of course, you’re trying to get inside their head and colonize them and to fill their head full of imagery and ideas that you want to get across. So, this is what you want to say, but then there’s what they want to receive, and then the email can be the place for that meeting of minds takes place.
But it takes a bit of thought and it takes a bit of trouble. Like everything in publishing, it’s not that easy at first. You have to really think your way through it and understand what you’re doing. But the wonderful thing about email and the great tools that we have now is that, once you’ve got it right, you can set it and leave it off to do its thing. So, if you’ve got your auto responder in place that would go on working for you again and again and again.
And you know, it’s not just about welcome sequences. You can do little mini courses, you can tell a story over 10 episodes, a completely different story. You can take one of your old books and break it down into an email sequence if you want, you know, and you can go so far and even cut off. I’ve known people to do that and get, oh, that’s terrible. But they get the sales, so they don’t mind. So, there are just so many things you can do and to think imaginatively and creatively about the different ways you can do what you do within the confines that you’ve set yourself.
Sacha Black: Okay. So, that brings us to the top of the hour. Should we just say thank you to our sponsor?
Orna Ross: Yes, indeed. And so, the ALLi Fiction and Nonfiction podcast is sponsored by Izzard Ink publishing and their logo is, where self-publishing is not publishing on your own.
So we encourage you to check them out if you are in the market for a full service provider who kind of holds your hand through the process and gives you a very personal one to one service and very concerned with high quality product. So, thank you to Izzard for their support.
What are you up to the rest of the week?
Sacha Black: So, I have a workbook I’ve got to launch. The Anatomy of Prose is coming at the end of May, so I am spending most of this week doing a launch prep, trying to get the workbook ready, ordering my proof of my hardback, my very first ever hardback. I’m so excited.
Orna Ross: That’s super exciting, that’s amazing. I still remember holding that first hardback, and they’re really beautiful. They do a lovely job, Ingram Spark on the hardbacks. Yeah, that will be exciting. I look forward to seeing that on Instagram.
Sacha Black: What about you?
Orna Ross: Yeah, well, I’m kind of in recovery mode. So, I have been a bit on unwell. So, I’m not really putting too much on myself at the moment.
Poetry keeps me going because it’s short. So, I will be writing poems. Beyond that, I’m not entirely sure but just slowly kind of getting back into things.
Sacha Black: Well thank you everybody and we will see you next time.
Orna Ross: Yes, happy writing and happy publishing. In the meantime, take care now.