Promotion begins during the preorder period, or, if you haven’t used preorders, on launch day.
In the lead-up to launch, and after it, I recommend telling people about things as they happen. When self-publishing, not everything happens at once. Your book may become available in different stores at different times. Print may be ready on a different day to your e-books. Your website might not be ready for launch—or it might be ready two weeks after your book became available for preorder.
Here are some examples of things you might be able to tell people about by email and on social media.
- you finished your final draft
- you uploaded your book and set a release date
- your book is available for preorder (this is potentially multiple messages, if it becomes available on, say, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo on different days)
- your new author website is live
- you made a Facebook author page
- your book is now on sale, at a promotional price for the first 3 days
- print copies of your book is available
- your first batch of great reviews is in, and here’s what people had to say
Don’t overdo it: there’s no less than eight separate events listed up there, and if you message people eight times about the one book in the space of six weeks, they’d reasonably be a little annoyed at you. If you want to use all those ideas in a short space of time, batch them up into two or three emails to send out in the pre-launch and immediate post-release period.
An absolute beginner’s guide to email lists
There is a growing consensus among commentators on self-publishing that email newsletters are a key means of promotion for self-publishing authors, and that every author should have an email list, and aim to grow it.
You have two free and easy options you can use to maintain your list and send your newsletters. In order of preference, they are:
AWeber is also highly regarded, but does not have a free option. If you do not already use an email newsletter service, I recommend you start with either TinyLetter or Mailchimp.
Why TinyLetter first?
As you’ll see below, I recommend uploading every email contact in your address book to get things started. Mailchimp doesn’t look favorably on this.
The first time I opened a Mailchimp account on my own behalf (I had used the service before in my job at a magazine publisher), I got myself banned almost instantly.
How? I uploaded my contact list, just as I’ve advised you to do, but without cleaning it of old email addresses. I had addresses in there that were more than ten years old, and many of them were no longer active.
The result? The first campaign I sent had a bounce rate of over 20%. This means, effectively, that 20% of my messages were marked “return to sender” and sent back to the point of origin. My account got flagged for review, and if you end up in trouble like this, Mailchimp will not accept your email address book as a valid source of contacts. You’ll have your account banned if you end up in this position, and won’t be able to open it again unless you can demonstrate that you collected your addresses from a sign-up form on your website.
Let me tell you a secret—practically no-one in business got their email addresses in a “legitimate” fashion. Magazine publishers’ lists, for instance, are full of email addresses from subscribers who never opted in to start out with, databases from membership organizations, and so on. So getting banned from Mailchimp for using a few hundred addresses from your Gmail account might seem unjust.
Never mind: you can use TinyLetter.
TinyLetter does allow you to upload your email contact list. Please don’t do that without cleaning it up a little. I’ll explain that in a section further down. But you can import almost any address you have on you, if you want to, and sending emails from TinyLetter is simple.
TinyLetter does have some shortcomings: I’ve found myself less than entirely pleased with the consistency with which their formatting is reproduced in various email clients. It also doesn’t seem to be developed actively since Mailchimp bought it in August 2011.
Despite those shortcomings, it’s still the best starting point for sending email campaigns.
Mailchimp is arguably the biggest brand in email newsletter services. And if you have less than 2,000 addresses in your list, it’s free to use.
Mailchimp subscriptions can get pretty expensive later on. Fifty thousand subscribers, for instance, will cost you USD 250 a month even if you don’t send a single email.
Since you won’t have a new book to sell every month, Mailchimp may not necessarily be economical for you if you fall outside the free tier.
So why is it here?
Mailchimp will do several things that TinyLetter won’t do:
- allow you to keep multiple lists
- divide those lists into segments
- see detailed reports on what people did with your newslettter
- use a range of attractive HTML message templates
- integrate easily with sites built on WordPress and other content management systems (CMSes), and a host of online services
You might not need these features now, but if your writing (or some other online venture) ever turns into a serious money-making concern, you will do well to master them. For that reason, keep Mailchimp, and its competitor AWeber, on your radar.
For experts only, Sendy (sendy.co) is a relative newcomer to the email newsletter space that requires you to install it on your own web server and have an account with Amazon’s Simple Email Service (SES).
Sendy claims to be up to 100 times cheaper than hosted services like Mailchip and AWeber, and will be worth looking into if you have a large list. I’m currently conducting my own experiments.
Clean and upload your list
Even though you can put practically anything you like into TinyLetter to get started, that doesn’t mean you should.
To upload your list at all, you will need to download it as a CSV or Excel file, from whatever email service or address book software you use. You can then open it in your spreadsheet software, to delete unwanted entries.
Who do you want to delete?
First, just to play it safe, you want to delete any addresses that might bounce:
- addresses from your old school, university, or workplace, if they are more than a year old—unless you know for sure they still work
- emails that begin with
noreply@, or that are customer service or support emails for businesses you deal with (e.g.
Next, you want to delete addresses of people to whom a personal message would be irrelevant or annoying:
- Mark Coker and anyone @smashwords.com. Though I can’t recall the reference at the time of writing, I’ve read Mark Coker specifically say that authors should not include him on their email lists without an invitation to do so, and that this will jeopardize their eligibility for promotion on Smashwords
- customer service addresses like the ones mentioned above—though they may accept inbound messages and not give you a bounce, support staff won’t remember you and don’t want a message about your novel or any aspect of your private life
- people who you do business with, e.g. clients of your employer, in a context where a personal message would not be appropriate
Finally, depending on what you write about, and the part it plays in your life, you may not want to be promoting your work to everyone. So, you may want to clear out:
- your boss
- your colleagues
- your exes
- your current spouse or paramour
- your family
This will depend greatly on how ready you feel to share your work with the people who are closest to you.
For some authors—e.g. writers of fiction for young children, or of general-interest non-fiction—it’ll be relatively safe to share the news about your writing with everyone. Those who write material that is autobiographical, religious, sexually explicit, or politically controversial may find they’d simply prefer not to discuss it with certain people—and that’s totally fine.
Even if you want to keep your work a (semi-)secret from some of the people you know, though, you will want to keep those excluded to a minimum. Getting your start as an author is hard, and you will need to enlist the support and interest of the people you know to get you off the ground. You may be surprised by who is the most supportive: releasing a book and building your platform as an author can be a great way to strengthen existing friendships and build new ones.
Once your list is clean, you’ll be able to upload it, again as a CSV or Excel file, to the service you’ve chosen to use. Please consult that service’s documentation for further detail on the process.
How to write your emails
I kind of hate email newsletters—I get so many. Most of the stuff that comes in I don’t really want, but I stay on out of fear that I’ll miss an important announcement. There’s a little part of me that feels sick when I recommend to people to use them. Yet the fact remains, email newsletters are one of the most effective and durable ways of reaching people who may buy your books, including, eventually, your most dedicated fans.
So if you’re going to use email to market your books (and you are), you want to make your emails the best they can be.
The best way to do that is to write them like letters. My favorite email newsletter is called “Be a Man”, and it’s by the cartoonist and animator Dave Blumenstein, who’s been a friend of mine since 1998. Every month, Dave writes a plain-text email that tells his readers what he’s been working on and doing in the past month. I know Dave isn’t just writing to me, but it still feels like I got a personal letter just letting me know what he’s been up to, and I love that.
Here’s the first part of the introductory email I wrote to my own list, explaining why everyone I know was getting a bulk email for the first time:
First things first. Most of you are getting this because you’re my friends and contacts from over the years, and since a lot of things have changed for me recently, I’ve decided to stay in better touch.
Others will have gotten this because they signed up on my website to find out when my first book, Kiss Me, Genius Boy became available again. Good news! It’s back, and most places, it’s FREE. The sequel, My Generation’s Lament, is also out now.
Yes, this is an email newsletter of sorts, sent using a wonderful, simple service called TinyLetter. More details on that below. If you prefer, you can always unsubscribe, but first, know that these emails will always be infrequent and written out like personal letters, and that I’ll try to keep them short … ish. Since you know me, you’ll know that I can write at length.
And—last among the preliminaries—Happy Christmas for yesterday! I hope you’re all having a wonderful holiday season.
All of this is really up to you. The crucial thing is that your emails be in your own voice, and about more than simply selling your work. By all means, put links to places where people can buy your work in those emails, and don’t be ever be shy about telling them about the work you are doing. But first, let your emails be about sharing your life, and the creative work that is a crucial part of that life, with your readers and potential readers.
Sign off with your own name, just as you would when you’re writing a plain old everyday email.
P.S. Make sure you check the spelling, grammar, and style. Your readers will expect good writing from you.