Why is My Mailing List not Growing?


Are you unhappy with your growth? Do you request newsletter swaps with other authors and have them rejected or ignored? Maybe you get accepted into group promos but nobody ever clicks to signup off of your swaps or your efforts? I may have some answers for you.

I’ve talked about my usage of Story Origin before (it’s like BookFunnel, ProlificWorks, etc.) You don’t need to have been around for very long to know that mailing lists are an author’s best friend. Many times have I said, “I wish I would have started my mailing list two years before I did, or even 6 months before my first book launched had I known the benefits.”

Maybe you’ve been working hard to acquire new members for your list and discovered the hard part: how do you get actual numeric growth? In roughly 10 months I’ve generated 3,369 new contacts via Story Origin, which is not superhuman numbers and I only sent my Newsletter once monthly, at mid-month. I also did not join more than a half dozen or so every month. After half a year I also started promoting and organizing my own group promos. In 2020 I hope to shift to 2x newsletters per month.

Below are the do’s and don’ts I’ve come to learn while being a regular SO user and group promo organizer.

First of all, if you haven’t started with an email newsletter, you really really really need to get Newsletter Ninja. It is a very easy read and talks about things like why to write one, what to talk about, and many other things. You might be thinking, I don’t have time to write a billion emails every day: you don’t have to. There are many ways to automate the system. (When someone joins my NL, they get a welcome, an email with a freebie/hook/cookie/reader-magnet. They get a few automated, timed follow-ups engineered to introduce me and my writings to them and a special offer/tripwire [an invitation to purchase boxsets or exclusives which many people snap up.] I only write my monthly newsletter, though I plan to change that, soon.)


What to do:
1. Make sure to have data organizers can see. Use the NL planner which shows CTR, subscriber count, link click rate, etc. This is handy for a couple reasons: it gives promo organizers data they can see, demonstrates your familiarity and willingness to engage with the SO systems, and also reminds you to send those newsletters on dates that you’ve already established. I know I can be forgetful and run my life by a system of reminders, phone alerts, and google calendar. The StoryOrigin system will remind you to send your NL if it’s slipped off your radar.

  1. Do pre-work to get subscribers onto your list in advance and have your NL already going. It might seem like cyclical reasoning: how do I start my newsletter when I don’t have any subs? First, make sure you have an automated NL [also called an onboarding sequence] and your first couple months of NLs written [or at least have some topics picked.] Second, go get some subs. It would be preferable to get at least 100 subscribers before you start asking to join promos. This is not a hard and fast rule, but you are asking other authors to share their network with you, and those writers have worked hard to build it—there is an expectation to reciprocate. Before I got started with StoryOrigin I was pursuing subs in other pay-to-play sources. It was comparatively expensive, but it helped me hit the ground running. Here’s what I did in my first and second attempts.

My first attempt flamed out. I added anybody who I could: friends, family, readers, people I got to sign up at book signings, etc. I only had one book back then. I got up to about 64 subscribers. Hardly anybody read my NL and virtually nobody interacted with it. I flamed out as an author and checked out for about six years and let the whole dream die when the traditional publisher was bought out and shuttered. The whole NL system was a drain on me and counter-productive because I hadn’t really figured out the what/why/who of it all. I’d also done so many things wrong that I was doomed from the start… it was like trying to take a cross country road-trip in a jeep firing on 5 cylinders, no headlights, and only 3 tires. Yeah, it only started by rolling it and popping the clutch, but the drivers’ side door sure looked nice! I learned a lot (pick up The Indie Author’s Bible to learn all about the right way to take this crazy author-journey.)

Attempt number two:
a. automate my onboarding sequence (I copied Mark Dawson’s method after taking his class) and jot down a list of interesting things to write about for my first few months.
b. get some initial subscribers by targeting readers for sign-ups via Facebook Ads and running ads consistently for at least 3 months. I generated close to 300 subs (plus another 200 or so that never clicked a single link and would up soon culled from subscriber base due to inactivity.) I tried to average around .30-.65 per new sub. After culling the subs who turned out to be duds I spent about a buck per user.
c. I also tried some other services such as Voracious Readers to build followers (VR readers had good responsiveness, FB subs had poor responsiveness, and other services such as SFF Newsletter Swaps, Book Bonanza sub builders, etc. had responses somewhere in the middle—it’s not just about getting numbers, but getting quality readers: 25 readers with a 75% open rate and a 20% click rate is better than 75 readers with a 15% open rate and 5% click rate.)
d. When I joined SO I had about 400 readers to begin with. I had something to offer in return: I had a system in place. Think of it as an initial buy-in at a poker game.
–I want to point out here that while I came with a few hundred readers, regularly culling your newsletter subs list is important to trim the fat (in the above point C. I mention effectiveness… after about 6 months I hit my max sub list for free services via Mailchimp and so I spent 2 months playing with culling my list to keep my readership effective since I knew I’d soon start having to pay for every email I sent. I discovered that I wound up cutting about 80% of those hard-fought and paid for FB subscribers and many of the others from other services, too. Why use a service like Story Origin? Because to become exposed to them, they already prove themselves be interacting with authors’ email systems: they come pre-vetted (they sign themselves up after seeing you from a shared collab promo or on a Swapped Newsletter. By their nature they have already proven themselves to be a higher quality user.)

  1. Connect with other writers who you have things in common with or are where you want to be. Remember: we are not just connecting with other authors’ platforms, we are connecting with those authors.
    “Please sir, may I trade you for a slice of your cake?”
    “What do you have to offer?”
    “You can lick my cheese wrapper.”
    It doesn’t have to be an equal trade, but don’t offer garbage/nothing in return for a slice of someone else’s labor. I often get requests for direct NL swaps (not a promo join, but a direct book mention rather than a group landing page) from people with 6-350 subs. I usually say no. if you are asking an author to share their much larger platform with you, connect with him or her first. I have done swaps with authors who have only a few hundred subs compared to my several thousand. However, I have only ever done that when I’ve gotten to know those authors through social media, private emails, etc. If I like your stuff (has a solid cover, reviews, ranks, cover copy, etc.) and I have a short conversation with you (it especially helps if you stroke my ego… heck, I’m human, too,) I am much more likely to share your book with my platform.
  2. USE THE PROVIDED TRACKING LINK! Do not forget this. You can always click back into a promo to retrieve it in SO in case you’ve forgotten or lost it. (SO will also email it to you when you’ve been accepted into a group promo or been granted a swap request.) If a promo ends and you had 0 tracked link clicks, it’s going to look suspicious. As an organizer, when I see 0 clicks received from a promo partner I’m not saying that they didn’t share the link to the promo… but I’m pretty certain of it. That will make me reluctant to accept them into a future promo and if it happens more than once I’m definitely ignoring all future requests. This is a business and we are all professionals
  3. Get honest feedback on your covers. When I started the above “attempt #2,” I had just come off of a series of major changes to my books. I have several series that I write and I paid two different artists to re-do all of my covers (each took a different series). One was a trilogy (plus story magnet), the other was a SF series with 6 books in series (1 unreleased until a year out.) It cost some money, but I got discounts for multiple covers and an added benefit of having them all appear well branded with similar themes and elements. I also picked up a book on writing cover copy and had revised all my book descriptions so that they were hooks/sticky and engaging. Here’s why you’re here, you wonder why you’re not getting new subs or having promo adds or swap requests ignored: your covers suck. I’m not an asshole (ok. Maybe I am,) but I’m a realist. And I tell you that your covers are awful because 1) I’ve seen them and they make me cringe, and 2) my covers also used to suck and I’ve seen how much benefit there is to be gained by revising covers, ad copy, and admitting that while I think I’m a great author, I’m only a mediocre artist at best.
    A nonprofessional cover is easy to spot. When I tell promo peeps that I want professional covers only, I mean it (for reasons I’ll discuss below). Discount premade covers by actual pros are fine, so are a million designs from hustlers on fiverr… but pulling in a stock photo and slapping a cover on it in MS Paint isn’t going to cut it.
    Here’s the rub—in the time that I’ve grown my list by well over 3,000 new subs, I’ve seen many of the same old covers from a few repeat offenders. Because the lists display subscriber count to promoters I have watched some of those numbers and seen them only grow very minimally (most have hovered around a couple hundred and barely grown in the same amount of time.) I’m not saying that I’m some kind of newsletter building guru (again… kindof an asshole) but I took some early criticism to heart and decided to invest my very small author budget in the right things and ask for honest feedback so that I can improve rather than stagnate. I was not happy where I was and I think I can do better than where I am… to that effort I am constantly honing my craft. I don’t want to be just, “that guy who wrote a few books,” I want to be, “that well-known author.” I can’t do that if I settle for half-assed covers. (also my physical sales have improved by like 300% after cover revisions, which means they’ve definitely paid for themselves already.)

And now, what not to do:
A. Don’t join every single promo that you see. There is a certain kind of broad-net-casting logic to joining every promotion, whether or not you fit the genre or abide by the promotion creator’s rules. Hoping to catch a few morsels with the wrong kind of bait isn’t going to ever be effective. Yes, you might catch a few random fish, but you will never learn how to fish or what makes them bite… also, you might get chased out of a number of lakes for using illegal, unwise, or over-fishing practices.

  1. DO NOT fail to share. I mention this in point #4 above. Sharing with the tracking link is literally the only obligation you commit to when you swap/join a promo. Everything else boils down to best practices and good advice. I cannot stress this enough. If you forget to share and fess up I’m likely to forgive it once, but this is a matter be professional and taking this business serious. Some of these promotions are about generating sales and KU reads (that means they are meant to directly generate money) and when those participants don’t share they have actively reduced the effectiveness and dollars generated. Seriously, it’s the only thing you MUST do out of all the rest.
  2. Please actually read the promotion rules. I have been getting creative with promos meant to generate money rather than subscribers (this includes links to books in KU series to generate page reads [$$based$on$readthru$$] and boxsets. I’ve had double digit numbers of applicants for my “First in series KU promo” where authors have no series, the series page is not setup on amazon, or in my “Boxset/omnibus in KU promo” (which is functionally the same) the authors will submit 5 individual books. Maybe they think I’m going to setup their boxset for them? If you are confused by a promo, feel free to ask… but usually a quick look at the actual promo participants or an online search for verbiage common to the author scene will yield much information.

B. Don’t come into a promo with barely any subscribers and then be upset when people don’t want to swap with you. Granted, this is a system to promote growth and I have often included folks in promos who have only 1-15 subscribers, but you can’t forget that there is a sharing nature to it all. If this was a potluck for strangers to meet each other and you show up empty handed, it’s not unreasonable if the host asks you to go pick up a bucket of chicken from KFC. See No. 2 above.

  1. Failing to read the promo-rules will get you in trouble. For example, I don’t want rippling abs and romance covers on my promos. Those are not the sort of books I write and it’s not a good fit for any of my promos. It’s fine if you have the bodice-ripper, but the majority of readers are not going to cross over from one genre to the next. It looks like wasted effort for the promoter to add titles outside of expectations for his or her readers, or worse, it alienates some of them and actually loses subscribers. Those rules are in place for a reason. Remember that there is a thread of commonality within group promos and an even more specific kind of requirements are likely for NL swaps. If your book is beyond the requirements, they might actually do harm rather than good if the promoter includes your book. I have turned down 10,000 sub applications because they were the wrong cover type or wrong genre for a promo. I’ve worked too hard to build my list to begin putting the wrong sort of person or book or author in the mix.
  2. Speaking of covers, don’t fail to obey genre norms. I know sexy-covers sell, but make them artistic sexy and not NSFW unless they are erotica or romance. I hate getting promo submissions that have ripped abs or suggestive/sexy-time covers and then I read the blurb/copy and it’s a fantasy or space opera. If the cover screams romance/erotica and it turns into a bait & switch high fantasy, reviewers will blast you with 1-star reviews (and savvy promoters like myself will remember you and your book and be sure to ignore future requests—breaking this rule hurts all the books in a promo because it alienates readers. A group promo is like a block of nice houses in the suburbs… a single meth-house in the middle of the block is going to affect property values on the whole subdivision. Don’t let your book be a crackhouse; get a new cover and obey the readers’ expectations. I promise, your sales will improve and your NL subs will increase.)
  3. Finally, don’t put up a crappy graphic for the promo banner if you are hosting a promotion—and don’t fail to share the graphic by opting for a text-only link when you share. We are a graphically stimulated society: make the artwork good and make sure you use it push clicks (statistics prove that people will click a banner link more often than they will click a text link).

I know this has been a very long post, but I hope it helps you work some kinks out of your current systems or get your feet under you if you are starting out. Story Origin has been the primary way I have been driving traffic and subscribers to my list. It has also been a close second in driving dollars for sales.

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