How to Build an Email List

post thumbnail
September 2013
by Joanna Penn

« Back to Independent Articles

Building your own email list from your own Website and also from a sign-up message at the back of your book will give you a way to contact fans over time when you have a new book out, and give you more control over sales.

It will also help you build up a relationship with people over time, so they get to know who you are. In short, email is a great way to communicate and much more direct, targeted, and relational than social media.

Think about the reality of selling a book. People need to know when it is ready for them to buy, and you can’t rely on anyone else to send a targeted email to people who want to buy your book.

Having an email list puts the power into your hands.

I think this is a nonnegotiable marketing recommendation for publishers and authors, because we never know what will happen with all these sites we depend upon for sales. If Amazon should fall, or a distributor should fold, you will still have the ability to sell books. That’s powerful stuff.

Ideally, you will start a list with book 1; then you will have at least a couple of people to tell about book 2. From that start, you can grow the list over time.

Permission Marketing

Plenty of people use email lists badly and in a way that makes others uncomfortable. But there’s a way to use lists and email marketing with integrity.

The phrase permission marketing was coined by marketing guru Seth Godin in his book of the same name to define “the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.”

Its main aspects are:

  • People choose to give you their email addresses, either in exchange for something specific, like a story or a free e-book, or just because they want updates from you or want to know when your next book will come out. This means that they actively sign up for your list.
  • You respect the information they provide. You keep the details private and you don’t sell your list.
  • You never put people on your list if you just think they will be interested. I get spam emails every day from people who have signed me up for their lists, which I delete immediately. Because I use a specific email address for lists that I personally sign up to, I always know who is being dishonest.

The email system I use, Aweber, has double-opt-in, an antispam mechanism that helps ensure permission. When a person is added to a list, the person has to confirm wanting to be on it, even after signing up. I also have a personal rule that I will never add people to my list myself. People have to sign themselves up, so I know that everyone on my list should really be there.

  • You send only information relating to what people signed up for. So I couldn’t start sending emails about weight-loss products to people on the list at The Creative Penn. I only email to that list about topics relating to writing, publishing, and book marketing. And from my JFPenn.com site, I only email about my fiction, or about other thrillers, and other things that particular audience is interested in.

Remember to send emails regularly enough so it is not a surprise when you do send one. Don’t just email when you have something to sell. Build a relationship over time. Fans want to know what you’re up to, and they will be interested in what you have to share with them.

  • You make it easy for people to unsubscribe. All good email services that comply with antispam laws include a way to unsubscribe easily. You must have this, and you want people to unsubscribe if they are unhappy with what they are getting from you. Remember that your books are not for everyone.

The Mechanics

So, how do you build a list? In four steps.

1. Sign up for a list management service. There are lots of options, but I recommend Aweber as one of the best and most highly reputable services. The company makes it very simple to set up forms and paste them into your site, so there’s no programming needed, and it offers a lot of help information.

Aweber has a scalable monthly fee, depending on how many names you store, but it does cost from day 1. If you sign up for my Author 2.0 Blueprint (thecreativepenn.com/blueprint), you will see how the service works from a user point of view.

Mailchimp is another popular option and doesn’t start costing you anything until you have 1,000 subscribers. Its functions are similar to Aweber’s, but Aweber has more detailed analytic functions and embraces affiliate marketing.

If you’re going to be selling other people’s books and products or even including an Amazon affiliate link, then Aweber might be best. But check the terms of service and Google for the latest comparisons between any services.

2. Set up a web form. A web form is a place where a customer can enter name, email address, and anything else you want to capture. You can see an example on my Author 2.0 Blueprint sign-up page, and you can also see a smaller, more basic sign-up form on my blog sidebar.

3. Set up the emails. You need to set up a welcome email that people get straight away, and you can also set up a series of emails to be sent automatically at specific intervals. For my Author 2.0 Blueprint list, I have a series of messages describing basic marketing principles that go out once a week.

This system is great especially if you publish and/or write nonfiction since it can give people more useful information about niche expertise, and if they continue to read your emails, they will get to know, like, and trust you.

You can also use your service provider’s broadcast mechanism to send sporadic email newsletters and/or notifications of sales, events, or book launches.

Test the form signup and emails by signing up yourself and sending yourself a newsletter, just to make sure that everything is OK, and then you’re ready to go.

4. Make sure that the list can be found on your site in a specified place. It’s great to have your list sign-up form “above the fold,” where people can see it without having to scroll down.

After you have set up the mechanisms for sign-up, create a great free offer, and then drive people to your list using the usual traffic-building activities such as blogging, social networking, and more.

The most important thing to remember as you do all this is that you want to be a valuable resource for people, providing information and/or entertainment.

You do not ever want to be seen as a spammer. So give away great information, offer great entertainment, provide quality on a regular basis for free, and people will be happy to buy from you when you have something they are interested in. Don’t send unrelated offers. Don’t abuse the list, or they will unsubscribe. It’s all about respect.


Joanna Penn is the author of How to Market a Book, a new title, an Amazon #1 bestseller, and the source of this article. She is also the author of Career Change and, under the name J.F. Penn, of the ARKANE thrillers. Her site for writers, TheCreativePenn.com, which was voted one of the Top 10 Blogs for writers for three years running, offers articles and audio and video on writing, publishing, and book marketing.

« Back to Independent Articles

How to Get Involved!
Marketing Opportunities

From mailings to exhibits, see how IBPA's marketing programs help you grow your sales.

Educational Opportunities

Attend a seminar, ask an expert, and get more free advice with our educational programs.

Become a member

Access exclusive members-only benefits starting at just $10.