Why Building an Email List is Essential for Authors

by | Mar 24, 2014

As authors have flocked to the internet and social media to meet readers, get market insight, create communities of interest and, perhaps, build a robust web asset of their own, many have run into a problem.

How will all this activity translate into the income necessary to keep writing and marketing your books?

After all, most of us aren’t involved in social media, blogging, or other online activities just to change the world, to tell as many people as possible our stories, or to improve people’s lives.

These are all noble aims, and many of us hope to accomplish some of them, but there’s that one inconvenient truth: we all need to make a living somehow.

And it’s true that there’s a “missing link” in the fan-finding, Facebook-liking, blog posting process that so many authors are filling up their time with.

Your email list.

“If there’s one thing all professional platform-builders agree on, it’s the importance of building your list.”—Michael Hyatt

A Sad Truth About Author Websites

Sadly, if you surf the web looking at author websites, you’ll find that many of them lack this essential function:

They have no sign up for people to add their names to an email list.

Many of these blogs offer an opportunity to sign up for the blog articles, but all that will do in most cases is add you to a subscriber list that will be sent each blog post as it’s published.

That’s not the same thing as your own email list (although some email providers combine the two functions).

On other sites you’ll see an “opt in” box where you can enter your email address and perhaps your first and/or last name, too. In exchange, you’ll be offered a free download, or a free newsletter, or perhaps a free short course in a subject that’s related to what the author is writing about on the blog.

This opt-in box is the sign that the blogger is actively building an email list.

You might be wondering about why this is so important. And it is important. In fact, I consider it the most important element of any author’s site, if the author intends to make their writing and publishing into a sustainable business.

What Social Media is For

You might think you don’t need an email list, and I’m not suggesting it’s a good idea for every single author. For instance, if you want to become a novelist but haven’t published anything yet, it might be challenging to build a list particularly if you’re not sure yet what kind of books you want to write.

But for the vast majority of authors—published, self-published, or soon-to-be-published—an email list is the perfect complement to your other marketing activities.

Since most of those activities are likely taking place in social media, perhaps we should look at what all those connections are really good for.

Social media is for:

  • finding communities of readers
  • engaging with readers and other writers
  • determining how much interest exists for your topic
  • building a community of fans who will support your work
  • keeping up with current developments in your field
  • building “buzz” when you’re launching your book

And lots of other things, too. But notice that selling books or other related products and services isn’t really one of the best uses of social media.

No, it’s really more about being “social,” whatever that means to you.

To me that means meeting people who share my interests, finding out about new products and services, hearing about mass media events, and keeping track of breaking news.

“Building a targeted and invested email list of subscribers is hands down one of THE most important things you can do to ensure the long term growth of your writing career.”—Kimberley Grabas

The Importance of the Network

We already know that the means by which we attract people to our site is the quality, appeal, and utility of our content. Without great content, nothing else matters very much.

With a linking strategy and some idea of how to market our site, we reach out to other people who share our interests.

Once people find out about your content, you have the opportunity to take your relationship to a higher level of engagement.

When a reader signs up for your email list to download a free report, ebook, or some other piece of content, they are telling you two things.

  1. That they are part of your market, otherwise they wouldn’t be interested in your free offer.
  2. They have given you permission to talk to them about that subject in their email inbox.

Unlike social media, you can have a longer conversation by communicating through email. In social media, most interactions happen in public, and that’s part of their appeal.

But in email, you are really talking to one person at a time, since each person opens their email in the privacy of their inbox.

(This is also the secret to writing effective email that people will act on—even though you may have hundreds of people on your email list, try to write your email as if you are sitting across the table with an interested friend at a coffee shop, telling them about something exciting to both of you.)

This leads to the ability to create a longer narrative about the kinds of books you write, or about products and services related to your subject area.

These kinds of messages are much more suitable to making an offer to your list. People on your email list know you better than casual readers, they have already established a relationship where they want to hear more from you, so they are open to your communications.

Through regular communication with your email list, you can build your credibility, establish your authority in your field, and make offers to your readers that reflect your shared interests.

It’s this last option—making offers to your readers—that creates the opportunity for you to finally find a way to turn all the hard work you’ve done into financial support.

And as long as you maintain the respect and integrity that caused people to want to know and interact with you in the first place, readers will continue to value these offers.

Your offers don’t need to be books, either. Perhaps you’ve created a training program based on your expertise, or decided to take a group of writers to an exotic location to work on your books together.

Your email list is where you will make these offers to your readers, and where you’ll be able to fully explain them.

For more complicated products or services, your email may be a vehicle that convinces people to take a look at a sales page, where the item is described more richly than it can be in an email message.

“Imagine how powerful it is to have a list of 10,000 people and to send an email saying “My book is available now. Click here to buy”. This is the basis of all the Amazon bestseller campaigns”—Joanna Penn

Sustainable Business is Built on Repeated Engagement

With your email list full of people anxious to hear your stories or learn from your expertise, you have the beginning of a sustainable business.

Over time these people will get to know you better and better, and a percentage of them will become some of your best and most devoted fans.

They will help spread the word about your new books, let you know about opportunities you might have missed, and be open to offers you make them in the future.

This network of engaged and interested readers is the base upon which you can build a truly effective, long-term business as an author, a speaker, a subject-matter expert.

So start building that email list today, it’s never too soon to start.

9 Great Email List Resources

Ready to dive into email marketing? Here are some great resources and in-depth articles to help get you going.

Why I Use and Recommend AWeber for Your Email Marketing

Yes, E-mail Still Works for Book Marketing by Jane Friedman

How to Get a Ton of New Subscribers to Your Blog by Michael Hyatt

How I Use Email Newsletters to Drive Traffic and Make Money by Darren Rowse

Email List Building Series (Part 1): The Power of an Email List (And Why It’s a Must) by Kimberley Grabas

Email Marketing for the Time and Cash-strapped Self-published Author by Caimin Jones

Email Marketing: How to Push Send and Grow Your Business by Copyblogger Media (opt in required, well worth it)

How Authors And Writers Can Build An Email List For Marketing by Joanna Penn

Best Email Platforms for Small Business by Digital.com

Photo: bigstockphoto.com. Originally published is a slightly different form by CreateSpace as The Money’s In the List. Links to AWeber in this post are affiliate links.

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Buzz Tatom

    Sustainable Business is Built on Repeated Engagement

    That is a very profound statement. It is so much easier to sell to a pre existing customer than going out and finding new ones all the time.

  2. Kimberley Grabas

    100% agree with you on this, Joel. And I think you’ve made a very important point that many blogs (typically the free sites) allow you to collect email addresses for blog post updates, but you can do little else with that list.

    Several months ago, both Pat Flynn of the Smart Passive Income Blog and Jeff Goins at GoinsWriter had issues with their sites that essentially took them offline. They were able to communicate to their readers via email and mitigate what might have been significant and expensive consequences.

    And although I had been building my email list from the beginning, their “worst case scenarios” made me appreciate the need for an email list even more.

    Having direct and immediate access to your readers is vital to the growth of your writing career–and there is no better way to get that access than via an email list that you cultivate (and own).

    • Joel Friedlander

      Good point, Kimberley, and I’ve used it myself during recent hack attacks on my blog and the subsequent move we made to a more secure server.

      Being able to reach out personally to subscribers makes many things possible. Here’s a comment I just left on another article:

      “When I write an article, I’m writing for publication and for the archives into which all articles go.

      “When I write an email, I’m writing a correspondence to one person, often ephemeral, but which has virtually no lifespan.

      “The personal nature of correspondence encourages me to use email as the primary means to increase long-term engagement. People may not read the blog all the time, but they continue (through the magic of *autoresponders*) to get correspondence from me for months to come.”

  3. Frances Caballo

    When I read this post, I recalled our conversation about 8 months ago when you encouraged me to offer a free ebook to new newsletter subscribers. Adding that premium for signing up has made all the difference in growing my newsletter list. Presently, I offer a free ebook on how authors can use Pinterest. Now I’m thinking of either updating that ebook or creating a new ebook. Of course now that I’m really growing my list, I’m careful about not using it to sell my services too much. Typically, I provide the best content I can and as sidebars include information about my books. However, when a publish a new book, I do make that the main feature. But I’m really careful to not oversell in my newsletters because I don’t want to lose the base of subscribers I’ve worked so hard to accumulate. It’s definitely a balancing act.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Frances, that’s great!

      Each blogger has to find the right mix of content and promotion, and there doesn’t seem to be any better way than sensitive trial and error.

      Overselling in your email will simply condition readers to delete, instead of read, your email.

      I often think of Sonia Simone’s idea that every mail ought to contain some “cookie content.” Freebies, pointers to great resources, something that you provide solely for the good of your readers.

      Do that and you’ll condition people to open the mail to find the “goodies” inside.

  4. Nina Amir

    Great post! This is the first thing I talk to my clients about…. Do you have a way to build a list? Are you building a list? I haven’t always done a good job with my list, but I am working on it myself more and more. Thanks for this, Joel.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Sure, Nina. List building is a big focus for me as an important part of business-building.

  5. Greg Strandberg

    This can be one of the most frustrating things. I had 7 people on my email list a few months back, and now I’ve somehow gotten that up to 20. I’m nearly finished with a short story collection that will only go to email subscribers. Some say that might not attract the people you want, but I figure I’ve got nothing to lose.

    I only send out an email to my list on the first of the month (a newsletter) and if I have a title released that month. I sent one out last month for a blog tour I was on and got an unsubscribe from that. Oh well.

    I put content up too often for sending out blog post emails to be worth my time. I do need to make that newsletter a little more personal, however.

    Good links, thanks!

    • Joel Friedlander

      I don’t think you can worry about the unsubscribes, Greg, at least I don’t. It seems like more self-selection, and if it yields a more responsive list, that seems like a good thing.

    • Kimberley Grabas

      Building your list can sometimes be a slow burn, Greg, especially when you’re just starting out.

      But, it’s a great time to work the kinks out and learn about your readers’ wants and needs without a lot of people watching you make some wrong turns. ;)

      You may want to consider emailing your list more regularly, because a month may be too long for readers to remember who you are and why they signed up to your list in the first place. If you’re sharing relevant and useful info, your target readership should be happy to hear from you more often.

      And if you have a lot of posts throughout the week, consider choosing your most noteworthy and adding them to your newsletter as a digest of your top posts or must reads.

      • Greg Strandberg

        Ha, I’ve got 40+ posts this month – maybe more than once a month would be a good idea. :)



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