If you’ve been putting off starting your mailing list, or are struggling with where to start (or restart), you’re not alone.

It’s too technical and I’m not that good with computers. I don’t have a website. What do I talk about? Do I really need a mailing list if I’m writing just one book?

I’m not going to try to convince you a mailing list is important, because you’ve probably heard that before. Instead, I want to clarify some misconceptions about starting, how it can be used, and provide 4 baby steps anyone can take to get started.

No website, not tech-savvy? No problem

This article is light on technology instruction. Instead, I explain how and why you can get started even if you don’t have a website.

It usually comes down to one of these 3 reasons why we find it so hard to get started:

  1. Fear of technology. You don’t need special computer skills or training. I have some tips for phasing in your email list plan.
  2. Limited time. I’ll tell you how to get a return on your time investment even if you are publishing just one book.
  3. Where to start. Sometimes we put off trying new things because we aren’t confident we are going about it the right way. The number of ways to accomplish something can also be overwhelming.

If you have been at all reluctant to get started, this guide is for you. If you want to get started, and are concerned about doing things the right way, this guide is for you.

Quick links to sections of this guide

  1. 12 Frequently Asked Questions
  2. 3 misconceptions that may be holding you back
  3. Baby steps anyone can take
  4. Your next steps

I remember my reluctance years ago about my need to join the Delta frequently flyer program—I was already a member of 3 others. My company was discussing an investment from an Atlanta company and it was my first trip on Delta. Not long after, I was on a second trip. It was at the end of that trip that I decided to join. A good thing too, because they invested in our company and I was soon making the journey nearly every month, for two years.

I learned it was never too late to start. I didn’t need to use the miles, but at least I was accumulating them.

“Every writer needs an email list. It’s just that simple. If you aspire to publish a book and actually sell copies someday, you need people paying attention to your work. And the best way to do that is with an email list.” —Jeff Goins, author of The Art of Work, shares his experience in this blog post on the topic.

12 FAQs

What is a mailing list?

A mailing list is an organized list of emails of people who have given you permission to contact them. They might be your family in an address book, a collection of business cards, or contacts you’ve collected and stored in a spreadsheet like Excel.

The more modern definition I’m using in this article is that they are stored online with an email marketing service

What’s the difference between using regular email (like Outlook or Gmail) to send email, vs. using an email marketing service (like Mailchimp or Constant Contact)?

Both can send emails. Using an email marketing service makes makes managing emails easier, especially when you have hundreds or thousands.

Adding people to the list, allowing them to remove themselves (a legal requirement), sending emails, categorizing them (family vs. total stranger).

This is hard to do manually, a little easier with a spreadsheet, but far simpler using an email marketing service.

It’s also far safer. Have you ever received an email where your email address is one of scores listed in the TO: field? Anyone that receives an email like this can send unwanted emails (spam) to everyone on that list.

Why can’t I just use regular email?

Since your objective is to build relationships and sell books, managing a list is easier than sitting down and sending individual or group emails by adding emails in the TO: or BCC: field. The more emails you have, the greater the opportunity to sell books or keep people engaged with you, the author.

Do I need a mailing list if I’m writing just one book?

Not necessarily, but publishing and marketing will be easier if you organize your emails into a mailing list. See How might I use a mailing list?

How might I use a mailing list?

Here are a few ways a one-book-author can use their list:

  1. To ask for opinions about a book cover design.
  2. To solicit volunteer (beta) readers.
  3. To solicit blurbs.
  4. To solicit pre-orders.
  5. To announce the book launch.
  6. To tell people about an event like a launch party, or signing.
  7. To invite people to visit your website, to read a blog post, to like your Facebook page.
Can’t I use social media like Facebook/Twitter/etc. instead?

It should never be either/or—you want to use a mailing list AND social media. The reason why a social media-only method of communicating doesn’t work is because you have little control over your messages.

  • Not everyone will see the message. Your message may not even be shown to a recipient (although you may be able to pay for that privilege).
  • What you say is constrained. Length in the case of Twitter, for example.
  • Your contact list, and your ability to interact with it, is owned and controlled by the social media company, not you. Remember when Facebook stopped showing all your posts to your followers?
What is an email marketing service?

These are companies like Constant Contact, MailChimp, ConvertKit, and so on. They help you automate the management of your mailing list: storing, organizing, sending, processing subscribes and unsubscribes, and writing emails. Equally important, they collect and report vital stats like who is opening and reading your emails.

Why is an email marketing service important?

It helps you automate and manage your mailing list. If your mailing list is small, let’s say fewer than 100 emails, and you don’t send many emails, you could copy/paste email addresses and send emails like you normally do.

But this is a lot of work and the objective is to have far more than 100 emails. You probably want a way to let people add and remove themselves as they please. (I’m sure you appreciate that option when you join, or unsubscribe from, a mailing list.)

The alternative is called spam—when you send unsolicited emails and make it difficult or impossible for people to stop receiving them, called opting-out.

Do I have to use an email marketing service?

No, but it makes life easier, as noted under why an email marketing service is important.

And this is where reluctance sets in for most authors. Just know that implementing and using an email marketing service can be broken down into phases. It’s up to you how fast, or even whether you move from phase to phase. See Baby steps below.

How do I get people onto my mailing list?
  1. Manually type their information into the email marketing service.
  2. Import their information from a spreadsheet like Excel, or copy/paste from a list.
  3. Setup an automated sign-up form on a website or Facebook.
Strangers vs. family: What if I have different groups of people?

Ideally you should note this in your mailing list, whether that list is saved in Word, maintained in a spreadsheet like Excel, or stored online with an email marketing service. This way you can write custom messages relevant for specific audiences. This is a best practice because it will improve all sorts of things like how many people open your email, and how many respond to it.

What if I don’t have a website? And if I do, do I have to add a sign-up form?

You don’t need a website, and you don’t need to use forms—this can be phased in later. Instead, you can manually add contacts to your email marketing service, or paste in their name, or upload a file. Think of it as Excel in the cloud with email capabilities. Btw, you can do this for free.

“…the very first thing I did was start building an email list… even before I had my first web site. And that leads to my First Law of Internet Business Success: It’s All About The List (And Your Relationship To That List).” —Jeff Walker is the author of Launch, and was one of the earliest proponents of email list building.

The 3 most common misconceptions holding authors back

I think the primary causes of author reluctance are the 3 T’s:

  1. Time: All that writing, and management of emails.
  2. Talk: As in, what to talk about in your emails.
  3. Technology: How to setup and use email marketing automation software.

Let’s look at each individually.

1. Time

The time you choose to spend on this is entirely up to you. More time=more results. Minimal time=what you’re doing now. Those are the extremes and you can pivot between them and increase time incrementally, at your own pace.

You don’t need to blog, or “do” social media, or write a newsletter, or write guest articles.

You do need to send emails to your list, at least occasionally. But it doesn’t have to look fancy, in fact, it’s better if it isn’t. The more personal and conversational, the better.

You do need to be mindful about increasing the numbers of people on your list. After all, that’s the point. Whether you do this manually, or via automated means, your success as an author will correlate directly with the size of your list. That’s a fact.

2. Talk

The second most common protest I hear from reluctant authors is what will I talk about?

In many ways, this goes hand-in-hand with Time because all authors hear the same advice: you need to write books, you need to engage on social media, you need to blog.

Here’s the email sign-up pitch from Indie/hybrid author Michael Sullivan:

“Sign up for my newsletter to get announcements about recent book releases, register for book and Tshirt giveaways, and to be informed about where I’ll be traveling to.”

That’s low volume, low effort talking.

The point is that you can choose what you want to talk about, and how frequently.

My 3-step advice for developing a plan:

  1. Visit your book’s category on Amazon and find the top 20 or so best-selling books.
  2. Now research those authors to see if they have a mailing list, and join it. Personally, I’d aim for a range of authors to learn from. The emerging author is probably doing everything herself while someone like Stephen King has staff helping him. Both are instructive for our purposes.
  3. Now wait to see what shows up, and how frequently.

After a month or two you’ll have a better idea about what you could talk about, and how often you should be emailing.

3. Technology

Okay, I know that technology can be daunting for some people. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life for self-publishers. Our success is tied to our use of the Internet, computers and software programs.

Technology amplifies our marketing efforts.

However! We don’t have to be geeks. The worst thing you can do is compare yourself to an accomplished, “out there” author you admire. They no doubt have been at it for a longer time and may even have help.

The key is to start, and build your confidence and skills over time through practice.

“When it comes to online marketing, most people are overlooking their number-one biggest asset. Social media activity, off-site ads, and all other tricks are a drop in the bucket compared to the power of the email list.” —Amy Porterfield, author of Facebook Marketing for Dummies, from a post titled Three Strategies to Rapid List Building.

Baby steps: 4 steps to getting started

Follow this greatly simplified process to getting started. Remember, your goal is to have as many emails as possible.

  1. Creating a mailing list. Everyone starts here.
    • Minimum: Open a spreadsheet like Excel or Google Docs and enter the email address and first name for every email you have. If you have lots of emails stored someplace like an address book, try to export those (or find someone to help you to this).
    • Better: Categorize each person. For example, you might start with 3 such as Family, Friends, and a third category left blank to indicate the person was simply a “signup.”
    • Best: Upload these into your email marketing service, or if a small number, just type or paste the information into your account.
  2. Writing/sending an email. You are going to send emails one of two ways. You can skip including graphics in your emails for now (logos, book covers). Plain text is fine.
    • Manual, using regular email such as Outlook, Gmail, etc.: Go back to your spreadsheet and copy/paste the email addresses into the BCC field (this way no one sees anyone else’s email—don’t use the TO field which exposes everyone’s email address). You won’t be able to personalize each one unless you send each email individually. This method becomes difficult to manage when you have more than 50 or so emails to send.
    • Using an email marketing service: Write your email (or copy/paste the text) directly into the email marketing service. Forget fancy designs; just use text for now. The software merges the text with each email and sends it for you. People can easily remove themselves from your list, which is what you want.
  3. Adding people.
    • Manual: Add emails manually to your spreadsheet if people give you permission (what’s permission? Put yourself in their shoes.)
    • Email marketing service: Assuming your list is stored with an email marketing service, you simply add people manually (typing, pasting, or upload a file).
    • Note: As I said earlier, you don’t need a website and you don’t need to connect your mailing list to a website. This can come later or you can hire someone to connect it for you. Once you do, people can add themselves.
  4. Removing people.
    • Manual: Delete emails manually in your spreadsheet when people ask you to (it’s the law!).
    • Email marketing service: If your list is stored with an email marketing service, you no doubt used it to send the email. At the bottom of every email is a link to unsubscribe so readers can do this themselves. (Legitimate email marketing services are legally required to include an unsubscribe link, and honor it.)

Your next steps

  1. If you haven’t already done so, join the mailing lists of authors with books similar to yours. (Re-review my 3-step approach to monitoring other authors under Talk)
  2. Spend an hour or three browsing the capabilities of Constant Contact, MailChimp and ConvertKit. Read their blogs. Get familiar with terminology and capabilities, and don’t feel you need to aspire to use all the features. (You do not need to sign-up for this step. Wait until you are ready.)
  3. Take inventory of the emails you have access to. Ask yourself if that person would mind getting an unsolicited email from you. Depending on your relationship, you might need to ask their permission before you begin to email them on a regular basis.

“I have 185,000 Twitter followers. A tweet of content will get me around 20 clicks. Twenty bucks on a boosted Facebook post of the same content to 5,165 people who like the page gets even less. But a link in my newsletter? More than 2,000 clicks from an email list of less than 7,500.” —Brian Clark, founder of Copyblogger.

Like my frequent flyer example, you must start somewhere and the sooner you start, the sooner you begin growing your list.

Have you started, but stopped? Why? What was that roadblock? Drop your experience in the comments below.