The secret successful authors won’t admit: You need an author email list

14 min read
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I know, I know. You’ve spent all this time writing 40,000 words or more into something that (at least somewhat) resembles a book.

Maybe you’ve landed an agent or a big-five publisher or are flying solo with self-publishing.

Writing a book may be the culmination of a lifelong dream—so why do you need an email list?

To be able to sell books today, you need to have an author platform. Readers aren’t content just to pick up a book, especially if you’re writing nonfiction. They want to know who you are and what you care about.

Your email list is the center of that author platform.

Author and freelance journalist Jen A. Miller (Hachette) never thought of herself as a marketer, but she launched her newsletter Notes from the Hired Pen to help aspiring journalists a few years ago and hasn’t looked back. “I’ve written three books. Two of them were travel guides to the southern half of the Jersey Shore, and the third was a running memoir,” she says. “I’m a veteran freelance writer, and I’ve been doing it full time for more than 16 years.”


author email list
For authors Jen A. Miller (left) and Kate McKean (right), an email list is a natural part of their author platform.

Literary agent and author Kate McKean started her email list Agents and Books after seeing a gap in the literary community. Agents can often feel inaccessible, and she hopes to demystify the process as a longtime industry veteran. “I've been with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency since 2006, where I've built a diverse client list from New York Times best-selling internet sensations like I Can Has Cheezburger to beloved humorist and short story writer Daniel M. Lavery to New York Times best-selling YA horror writer Madeleine Roux. I am also a writer myself,” she says.

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Both Miller and McKean have grown their email list to the thousands, with Agents and Books topping 7,500 total subscribers and 550 paid subscribers. Here’s how they’ve grown their email list:

author email list

#1: Find your “why” with your email list

Successful newsletters have a clear purpose of service. What can you offer to your community that doesn’t currently exist?

For McKean, it was all about demystifying the publishing process. As a literary agent, she’s had a front-row seat to how the industry has changed dramatically in the last ten years, especially for debut authors. “I wanted to get more publishing information out in the world because I have encountered so many people who say they don't understand how getting a book published works,” she says. “My goal is to get the nuts and bolts of publishing and literary agent-related information out there for free, and I put specialized and detailed information behind the paywall. I want this newsletter to be truly useful.”

author email list
Agent and Books comes out twice a week, free for all subscribers on Tuesdays and a paid-subscriber-only email on Thursdays.

Miller felt a similar call for nonfiction journalism and all of the myths that surround the industry. “I like writing about the business of freelancing and helping other freelancers. There’s this myth that we don't have to pay them a lot because nobody does and they don't make any money, and they don't expect any money, and that's bull****.”

Don’t do this because everybody does it. It’s evident that Miller and McKean are both super passionate about their respective email lists—and since they both send emails every single week, they have to be. If you don’t know why you’re building an email list, you’re setting false expectations—both for your prospective audience when they sign up and for your current list if you don’t know what to talk about.

Adds McKean, “Email can be a great way to market a book because it is less passive than social media. Everyone checks their email, likely more than once a day. But it is not a good marketing tool if the reader hasn't specifically agreed to receive your message. Then it's just spam.”

If you don’t know where to start, think about what you’re passionate about. It doesn’t have to be writing-related. We live in the era of niche, well-written newsletters as diverse as there are topics. Do you love to hula hoop? Respond to letters asking for advice on love life or astrology? Argue the finer points of grammar? Write about what matters to you and what matters to your readers.

“Make the content relevant,” says McKean. “Writers should NOT write the, ‘Wow, it's been sooooooooooo long since I posted!!!’ missive. It's ok. Just keep going and write.”

Do you love to hula hoop? Respond to letters asking for advice on love life or astrology? Argue the finer points of grammar? Write about what matters to you and what matters to your readers.

— Kate McKean

You never know what it can turn into. As you write your email list, it can turn into your next book. “I started running, and I decided that I should write about this [in my blog and emails] because I had no idea what I was doing,” says Miller. “I started getting clips from Runner’s World, from the New York Times, and I started a weekly running column in my hometown newspaper. That ended up being enough to sell a memoir about my running life.”

#2: Think community first

You don’t want an email list to be sell, sell, sell right out the gate.

Who would want to read that?

Instead, go back to your why from #1 and find ways to engage with your subscribers. “I think word of mouth has been my most successful marketing tool, and that only comes when you do something other people want to talk about,” says McKean.

If you’re offering something they want to read, then they’ll naturally keep coming back to your emails, opening them, replying, or clicking on links. Then, when it comes time to launch your next book (or however else you’re making money), they’ll already know and love you.

Word of mouth isn’t an easy channel to lean into. It’s not easily measurable. It’s online and offline at the same time. But when it comes to growing your email list or selling books, it’s often word of mouth that leads to more book sales and more work outside of your books.

“My books have been well-received, but they're not best-sellers,” says Miller. “They've always been attached to whatever else I was doing, so it always makes sense. There were pieces of the running memoir that didn't fit, but once I was recognized as an expert, it brought in work that I never would have found otherwise.”

author email list
Miller’s third book, RUNNING: A LOVE STORY, is her brutally honest account of her 10-year relationship with running and the ups and downs that come with it.

To tap into this channel, you have to do something worth talking about. (And it might not be your book right away—that’s ok! That’s why you have an email list.)

Become someone people have to hear from.

A community-first way of building an email list starts with people you admire. Think about newsletter swaps or podcast interviews that can grow your readership, especially among the same niche topics. You don’t need to land a tell-all Oprah interview—think about the places you like to read, watch, and listen, and start there.

#3: Use your other marketing channels to your advantage

Email is the centerpiece of your author platform because you own it. That’s what makes it so powerful.

But to grow your email list, you need to feed it from other channels you don’t own—like plugging into your social media communities. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok…go where your readers are and where you want to be.

“I have almost exclusively marketed my newsletter on Twitter because that's where I have lots of publishing conversations,” says McKean. “I have just over 30k followers, which I grew from just being on there and talking about books.”

Miller also hangs out on Twitter (but ends up preferring LinkedIn) because she’s in the right place at the right time. “LinkedIn has actually been doing better for me,” she says. “I'm just better about posting what I write there, and it’s where I can find the clients that best fit me.”

Social media can feel overwhelming, especially when it comes to choosing the right channel. But you can’t go wrong with focusing on your audience and your purpose rather than the algorithm. Similar to #1 and #2, think about your community and why you’re doing this.

Yes, it’s about selling more books. But what’s relevant to your reader? Why should they care about your books? What else do they talk about, and where do they hang out? Join the conversation.

Says McKean, “Go where your readers are. There's no reason to be on Facebook if your reader is not an average Facebook user. You don't have to do everything. Just do what's relevant to your reader.”

#4: Capture leads—and have a plan for what to do with them

Once you’re attracting attention on social media, you need to give potential subscribers one place to go.

Often, that hub is on your website, though you should still include links to subscribe in your social media platforms.

author email list
McKean adds her newsletter information to the top of her Twitter profile so it’s easy to find.

On your website, you can include links to subscribe throughout your pages, but you want to create a dedicated landing page to capture leads. That way the page isn’t competing with any other priorities—if you put too many links to click on (Read this blog! Follow me on Twitter! Come to this event!) you’ll just overwhelm the reader.

Think of your newsletter like a product. You wouldn’t click “purchase” on a new pair of shoes or the perfect notebook without looking at specifications like size, color, and description. You need to do the same thing with your email list by explaining the value that they’ll get out of subscribing and setting expectations up front.

author email list

author email list
Both McKean and Miller keep it short and simple when it comes to signing up for their email lists.

ConvertKit users can make landing pages quickly and easily dedicated just to their email lists (or anything else they’re looking to market). We offer a library of fully customized templates ready to use that don’t need any code. Add opt-in forms that create a seamless path to turn website visitors into subscribers and better connect with your audience.

Once you capture leads, you need to have a plan with what to do with them. Send a dedicated welcome email that summarizes past newsletters or gives them a taste of what to expect. Or keep it short and sweet and let them know when they’re receiving their first official email. Either way, you want to make sure every subscriber that comes in feels like they’re connecting directly with you.

#5: Create an incentive for your audience to sign up

Another way to capture leads and build your platform is to offer additional services and sign- up incentives.

Miller often flexes the relationship between her books and her freelance journalism by offering 1:1 business consultations and providing written resources to aspiring and current journalists. Her most successful is an ebook Miller sells for $10. “I’ve made more money on that self-published ebook than on either of my published books,” she says. “It’s a niche product that pairs well with my newsletter, which is a niche topic, but that’s exactly the type of content that my newsletter audience is interested in.”

author email list
Miller’s ebook provides a comprehensive overview of how to make six figures as a freelancer, a milestone that many aspire to.

She pairs this ebook with other articles and topics on her website, so it’s a natural lead into her books. And so the flywheel moves forward. For example, she says, “Business Insider got a hold of my ebook, and asked me to write about freelancing for them. That, in turn, promotes the ebook and leads to more sales.”

It’s a niche product that pairs well with my newsletter, which is a niche topic, but that’s exactly the type of content that my newsletter audience is interested in.

— Jen A. Miller

Other incentives look like exclusive content, services, previews of upcoming books, or live events. McKean offers a service called “Fifty Queries Club,” where subscribers can send in a query letter they’ve sent to more than fifty agents without a positive response. She strips out any identifying information and workshops it with constructive feedback and plenty of encouragement in the next newsletter. “I do a Q&A Thursday, where those subscribers can ask me direct questions, in addition to the Fifty Queries Club. Having that second post of the week be a regular format is really helpful to me.”

author email list
ConvertKit offers a series of features that make landing pages work harder for authors like you.

No one gives their email address away for free these days. You’ve got to give them something irresistible to make that exchange happen. With ConvertKit, it’s easy to add lead magnets like this to your landing pages that entice more subscribers.

The best time to start an email list? Today

The biggest mistake that McKean and Miller see when they mentor other writers is waiting to get started.

“Start your platform as soon as you can, not six months before the book comes out,” says McKean. “The platform needs to come before the book if you really want it to be an effective marketing tool.”

Building an author platform takes time—and doesn’t magically appear once you have a book published. The best time to start an email list is today.

You don’t have to be a fancy big-time author published by a major house to have an author platform, either. Your publisher or agent or location or book genre are no guarantee of success.

“There is no single, absolute, right way to market a book,” says McKean. “Every book is different, so what works for you might not work for someone else. Everyone feels overwhelmed and there's no secret list of things other people know that you don't that will guarantee success. Keep at it over time, and don’t be shy to tell others about your work.”

Building an author platform—held together by your email list—is an essential part of selling your book once it’s published. But to make that work, you’ll need to grow your email list first. ConvertKit can help. ConvertKit’s features are designed with creators and authors in mind so you can focus on what matters: Writing.

Build a loyal community with newsletters

With a ConvertKit Free account you can share what you love on a consistent basis with your newsletter to connect with your followers and grow your business.

Create your free newsletter

Kayla Voigt

Always in search of adventure, Kayla hails from Hopkinton, MA, the start of the Boston Marathon. When she's not using words to help businesses grow, she's probably summiting a mountain or digging into a big bowl of pasta. Like what you're reading? Come say hi:

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