Through writing newsletters, growing subscriber lists, and looking at data I discovered I’ve gone through multiple stages and seen many shady characters out there trying to build massive newsletter lists at unprecedented rates, but this game is about consistent, manageable growth while building relationships with actual, interested readers.
It is very possible to do this with some speed, but as you do so, beware of list leeches and newsletter stuffers. Below are three distinct stages I saw while growing a newsletter list with both Storyorigin and Bookfunnel.
I’m assuming a list at this stage is around 500ish. Prior to that, you simply need to get people on your list, a stage 0 if you will. In that period, learn to build your automation tweak your reader magnet(s,) write effective emails, find your voice, etc. Once you’re above 300 (I have a few articles at the bottom of this with some tips and resources to get there,) your goals should aim for fast growth. Don’t “list stuff” by adding 30 swaps and joining every promo you can! Make smart choices: run your newsletter at least twice per month and join up to 6 group promo efforts and aim for two swaps in each NL with authors around 1000-1500 if possible. Focus on reader magnet swaps and not UBL/sales swaps… play the long game and get readers on your list/sales later rather than UBLs and sales now.
Pay attention to data. Similar/larger list sizes are nice, but all the better if they have click rates beyond single digits. Also, make sure your partners are in the right genre. Don’t compromise for false-similarity! UF and paranormal are fine swap partners for the Academy genre but do not place faith in swaps for any books that have obvious romance elements: those lists tend to have lots of subs but their lists will yield garbage rates for a straight UF/P or academy book. Those lists are typically built around romance subs who won’t often click on straight UF/P unless they feature ripped abs or blatant T&A on a cover (I found that out the hard way with my own UF). Understanding these dynamics is a key to effective growth.
I do understand that PNR, Shifter Romances, and the like are valid genres with many readers. But after doing this for a few years, I have discovered that PNR, Shifter Romance, and pretty much any kind of Romance/Genre hybrid authors are email send sluts. I may trademark that word. But here’s the gist: they tend swap with anybody. Okay… not all of them are send-sluts, but of all the list stuffers and mis-genred swap requests I’ve had, at least 75% of them are Shifters, Erotica, or PNR. Just be aware that this will leave you feeling taken advantage of once you see the resulting data.
SO now has the option to view a list’s past performance. Don’t swap with anyone who has a NL that produced 0 clicks: it means they didn’t send the NL and are a list leech (they get their book shared by others and do not reciprocate). I look for proof of sharing when I consider a swap and even when I choose to accept a user in a group promo: I look to make sure the author is not a list stuffer… I had a request for a swap last week with a PNR author who has 16,000 followers. That’s triple my list; exciting, right? I clicked her stats and saw that last week she stuffed with 65 shares. One or two books had like 20-30 clicks (they were romance/erotica books) and the rest had paltry single digits, 4-8 clicks. More than a dozen had 0 clicks… I didn’t even bother counting the multiple group shares she was in with lackluster results. The data indicates her list is really only relevant to readers who want dirty books. Those books run by different rules (some are easier; some are harder… turgid even. (That’s an erotica joke, mom.)
Over all, try to keep your total sharing threshold (combination of swaps and group promos) at or below 10 at this stage.
Anyway, if you are at less than 1000 readers you might consider finding a paid “list builder” and/or giveaway promo (like the kind that gives away a kindle with the promo group’s books preloaded.) Both will cost you some money (about $50-100) and should be genre specific. Both will prove worth it early in the game since it will get you 300-1000 new subs in a few weeks’ time and in the NL swap game, subscribers are a form of currency and will open the door to better swaps.
Once you get to about 2,000 subs you should start worrying about list health and actively trimming the nonopeners, etc. to get click rates up and then start aiming for more organic/quality growth and get more choosy about group promos you join in order to keep it at 2-4 until you feel the need to throttle it down even more. At this stage, the single biggest things I look for in group promos are:
1) The right genre—a hundred partners in the wrong genre will net me single digit clicks.
2) The right purpose—a promo for sales when I need subscribers is always a concern.
3) An amazing/attractive banner graphic. Frankly, the banner is the only thing that will motivate a subscriber to click and then potentially see your book and click again. It’s a multi-step funnel. If there are 100 sharers on the cumulative lists and they each send 10 folks to the promo you’ve got 1000 eyes on 100-300 books. You may get something like 20-60 clicks and about 2/3 of them will be freebie seekers who downloaded every book in the promo and will likely never open an email from you (you’ll have to cull them later) leaving you with 8-12 actual subscribers. Now imagine that same promo but with a bad graphic that averages 2 clicks per sub (which may be optimistic since I’ve seen many bad banners pull 0 clicks.) Now you have 200 eyes on 100-300 books and you’re lucky to get 4 valid new subscribers. I try not to join something with a banner I am not excited about unless it’s run by a quality promoter I know or includes an author I know (or unless I’m desperate to fill a slot. It happens, but desperate additions tend to be a coin flip in the next stage since they can drag down CTRs.)
Smaller lists tend to run with any promo they can get into at first and rely on a broad, scatter-shot mentality which can get a sub count up quickly, but once you’re close to 2,000 subscribers, other swap partners will start paying greater attention to your data. And I know if I had a choice between a swap partner with 2,000 subs with a 40% open rate and a 19% CTR vs. a list that is 10,000, 8% open rate, and 3% CTR, I’m picking the smaller list every time. You don’t just want eyes on you at this stage in the game, you want qualified eyes.
Hot Tip: improve your Open and Click Rates by resending your newsletter a few days after the first send, but targeting only nonopeners so genuine readers don’t get a double send. This improved my total open rate to about 175% of its original numbers.
Once you break past that level (I’m not sure there’s a solid metric—for me it was roughly based on the next payment rate vs. subscriber count for my mailing list provider—it may be different user to user) you will want to make other decisions and zero in on what your list is all about. I ‘m currently around 5k users and typically only run 2 group promos in any given newsletter (1 in Bookfunnel & 1 in Storyorigin) and book swap with only 1 or 2 partners because I am aiming for list health and slow growth. If I run more than that, my readers will feel I’m too much like a catalogue or ad-heavy and I’ll see unsubcribes or reduced click rates.
Because I wanted to have higher quality swaps, I joined Nick Stephenson’s Dream Team Network. One indicator that showed me I needed to change some of my tactics and target higher quality (more focused) swaps was when I realized my list was still growing at about the normal rate (a little over 350 new readers per month,) but 0-1 new opt-ins for my ARC team (an invitation is auto sent to new subs after 45 days or so). That revealed to me that my list quality had been suffering, and it had been that way for at least 6 months. Ask any cancer patient: not all growth is desireable.
When I was at 2500 subs I also joined Bookfunnel because I was seeing a lot of repeat traffic in my promos and wanted to broaden my base while also keying in on quality (FYI, both platforms have their pros and cons, but SO allows you to add affiliate IDs to your tracking links meaning I will also lean to SO for a sales promo vs. Bookfunnel… I make more money per sale that way.) Feel free to broaden your reach with other services, but understand that you have different goals at different levels.
Constantly red-lining your list at 3000 rpm and staying in massive-growth-mode at all times will yield you that 16,000 subscriber list, but it’ll have garbage results and will alienate your peers and only ever get the small list partners to swap with you; you’ll be a big fish in a small pond, sure… but those big fish tend to always remain on the brink of starvation. You also won’t connect with readers, and that means you’ll suffer with read-through and your base will suffer. If you’re not trying to connect with readers through actual newsletters, then you’re just an advertising list. Trust me, you’re not going to dethrone bookbub, and I wouldn’t even pay the $5 on Fiverr that some of those ad-lists for books want. Fiverr is amazing for many services, but IMO, those services are typically garbage and never bring me a return—especially since you typically only see Stage-1 books advertised on them (and they usually have covers built by DIYers who didn’t even use Fiverr to have a decent cover created.)
Hopefully this helps you.
In the first year of using SO I added over 3k new subscribers and through culling, unsubs, etc. I hung around at the 6000 mark for quite some time and had to cull below 5000 regularly to keep from paying higher newsletter send rates by deleting 0-click users. Finally I did a massive sweep and wound up at around 3500 actual readers (which made me realize the timing would reflect slow growth at about 2500+ but continuing the stage 1 rapid growth model bloated my list with freebie-seekers and tanked my open rates… I’m still recovering from that.)
Every author will need to decide where their thresholds for change are and what their metrics will be for each level. I’m still growing and expect to make more decisions regularly. It’s an ongoing process, so track data and read much on the topic… but always, always, always, avoid list leeches and newsletter stuffers. Anyone who’s ever seen me give my seminar “Sharks & Turds in the Swimming Pool” will understand those partners are turds. They’ll either make you suspicious by proximity/association or will get crap all over you.
For more on NL list growth and NL swap best practices, check out