Marketing is a touchy subject for a lot of authors. Some have the mad skills of a marketing-savvy guru. Some wonder if it’s enough to be on ‘the Facebook.’ Most fall somewhere in the middle. But regardless of where you are on the spectrum, there are strategies you can use to keep the marketing machine moving. This week we dig into the first in a three-week series on Author Marketing 101.

Yes, you need a mailing list

It doesn’t get much more ‘101’ than this. Building a mailing list is the first and most repeated advice you’ll get from anyone who has had any sort of success in marketing their work. What you don’t often get, though, are a few specifics.

Why you need a list

Sometimes you hear “build a mailing list,” but no one bothers to break down the ‘why’ of it. There can actually be a lot of answers to the question, honestly. Here are a few reasons that will make a direct difference in your marketing strategy:

  • A mailing list gives you a built-in audience, often called a ‘platform,’ that you can talk to directly. No intermediaries or permissions required. This is a big deal, because it means you are not dependent on someone else to reach out to your readers.
  • Having a list removes a barrier between you and potential sales—which happens to be one of the tenants of marketing. Your goal is to eliminate as many steps between your call to action and your customer’s clicking “buy” as you possibly can.
  • A list helps you understand your audience better. Marketing is a process of understanding the needs of a customer base (your readers, in this case), and crafting a product (your books) to meet those needs. With a mailing list you can learn a great deal of demographic information about your readers. You can learn whether your audience is mostly female, for example, as well as their age range. You’ll know the region of the world they call home, and the types of offers they like to click on. Craft an email right and you can learn a great deal about who is interested in what you’re doing, and that can come in very handy later (put a tack in that).
  • A list is a way to keep score. You’re not out to win a contest or anything, and you should avoid comparing the size of your list to that of anyone else. That never ends well. But you can certainly (and should) keep track of how many registrations you’re getting. That tells you that your marketing efforts are either working or not working, which gives you the ability to shift gears as needed.

Those are just four examples, but the list of reasons to have a list could go on practically forever. Email is still the most productive and efficient way to market your work, and that alone is reason enough to build a list.

How to build a list

This is one you almost never see answered directly. And with good reason—it’s so personal.

Building a mailing list is a function of attracting your readers enough that they want to hear more about you, more often. How you attract readers is as individualized as you are, so bulking up your list is a matter of personal preference, style, and drive.

The best that any ‘how to’ guide could do is point you to a few examples of what has worked for others. Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Use an EMS—An email management system allows you to create your mailing list, build templates for your newsletter and other emails, and then schedule emails to be sent the list. A good EMS helps you manage unsubscribes, automate certain emails (also known as ‘autoresponders’), and manage list segmentation (breaking subscribers into groups by specific interests, as an example). Mailchimp is a popular EMS, largely because it’s free up to a specified number of subscribers, and it’s easy to use. More advanced alternatives can include ActiveCampaign, Aweber, and Constant Contact.
  • Reach out to friends and family first—Now that you have an EMS, you can set up a list and start populating it. The place to begin is with the communities you already belong to. Reach out to friends and family, and ask if they’d be willing to sign up to your mailing list and hear about your work. Ask, also, if they’d be willing to contact the people in their own circles, and encourage them to sign up. If you belong to any groups or organizations, politely ask the organizer if you can approach the group about signing up. Do any or all of these, but keep one firm rule in mind: Never sign someone up without their knowledge. It’s just bad form, and can lead to headaches (possibly even legal issues).
  • Offer something for free—In marketing circles this is known as a ‘top of funnel’ offer, or sometimes an ‘ethical bribe,’ or a ‘lead magnet.’ Offer potential readers a little somethin’-somethin’ to join your mailing list. This can be a free eBook, a chapter, a short story, or some kind of practical user guide or reference. For example, you could offer a dossier on the protagonist of your novel, complete with an artist’s rendering of his or her face. Or offer a quick reference guide that ties in with your non-fiction book. Make sure it’s an attractive offer, and one that won’t bankrupt you (obviously). But offering a freebie is a time-honored way to get people interested enough to hand over their email address.
  • Use a service—There are a lot of services out there that can help bring people to your mailing list. One of our favorites is Instafreebie. This site lets you upload a copy of your book, along with its cover, so that potential readers can download and read it for free. In exchange, the readers agree to allow you to have their email address, and they agree to terms that allow you to email them later. The concept of giving your book away for free can be a little off-putting, so reframe it this way: You are accepting the reader’s attention, and future access to that reader, in lieu of cash. That reader may end up buying more of your books later, so it’s a fair trade.

A mailing list is a tool, just like a hammer or a screwdriver or that little hook thing on Swiss Army knives. Like any tool, you have to have it in your belt before you can use it. And you have to learn how to use it before you can get the most out of it. We’ll talk about that next.

Talk With, Not At (engage your audience)

Ok, you’ve got the makings of a solid marketing (author) platform. You have a mailing list, which is foundational. Chances are you have a social media presence, and that’s good. The more warm bodies you bring to the party, the easier it will be to get the cash flowing.

Having an audience is good, but unless you engage with them—interact with them—there’s nowhere for that relationship to go.

As authors we tend to talk at people. It’s an occupational hazard. We spend an awful lot of time alone, with nothing but the clacking of our keyboards for company. Our voice—the one in our heads—is the only voice we hear for long stretches.

That’s more or less fine for writing a novel or non-fiction book (‘fine’ is subjective). But when it comes to marketing we have to shift gears.

Marketing is a conversation with your customer. That’s another tenant of the craft. Your goal, as the marketing author, is to engage with your audience on a level that makes them feel that you care about what they want and need, and you’re going out of your way to help.

Some authors find this ridiculously easy. Some find it terrifying. Either way, it’s necessary. But there are ways to make it easier:

  • Go where the people are—The thing about marketing is that it’s useless if you’re talking into a vacuum. That’s one of the reasons why having a mailing list is so important—it gives you a place to communicate and interact with the people who matter most in terms of your work. But it’s not the last bastion of marketing hope. Your readers may be found in such exotic locales as Facebook or Twitter, or in more three-dimensional terms you may find them at conferences and speaking events. Take the time to figure out where your readers will spend most of their days (on a playground in West Philadelphia, shooting B-ball outside of the school, perhaps?) and go there. Talk. Smile. Be friendly.
  • Go where you feel most comfortable—Hopefully there’s some overlap with this and the item above, but it helps a great deal if you are spending your marketing time in a place where you feel comfortable and energized. In other words, don’t use Facebook as your primary means of interacting with an audience if you despise Facebook. Find an arena that will give you a psychological boost—particularly one you already frequent, and where you have allies who can help support you and your efforts.
  • Prepare in advance—It’s easy to get so involved in the environment and the goings-on of wherever you’re doing your marketing, and flat-out forget to actually market. You’re having so much fun at that convention, you forgot to mention you’re an author, with a real book and everything. It happens. And the best way to avoid it is to prepare some things in advance. Have some business cards handy (with Universal Book Links, obvs). Pre-write a few things you might say or post. Keep a couple of copies of your book handy, as well as a pen for signing them (this is a thing—people love this thing). In general, whether you’re marketing digitally or in person, try to think ahead enough to anticipate what would work best for telling people about your work.

Another thing to keep in mind while engaging with your audience—not every conversation is a good place to insert ‘buy my book.’

A great piece of advice is to think of marketing as a cocktail party. Aside from all the drinking (all marketers drink), a party is a place where lots of spontaneous conversations happen. There’s an ebb and flow. There’s a rhythm to it.

The second you ignore all of that and hastily interject, “By the way, I’m an author, and I have this book for sale,” it crashes. People nod, and smile, and sip their fruity cocktail. And then beg off to go talk to ‘so-and-so’ in a far corner of the room.

The key to engaging your audience is to, you know, actually engage them. Talk to them about their interests. Ask how they’re doing. Show them something cool you found online.

Do this regularly and you’ll build trust with your audience. And because of that trust, you can periodically say, “I have a book. Would you like to see it?” Most of the time it will feel like a natural part of the conversation—if you’ve spent the time to talk to everyone like they’re a human first and a customer second.

Join a Community

Writing is lonely work, a lot of the time. But it’s also like every other business in the world. Regardless of how diligent, organized, and skilled you are, you can’t do this stuff alone.

There’s something to be said for being a part of a community just for the sake of camaraderie. Having a group of like minds to vent to, brainstorm with, and generally just hang with is hugely beneficial for the writer’s soul.

Communities can also be a great resource to help you hone your skills, test ideas, and gain a little insight.

As a marketing tool, being a part of an author community is invaluable. From these helpful and supportive people, you will learn and gain resources to vastly improve your marketing savvy. Learn new techniques, discover new marketing venues, join group promotions—the list goes on.

Some suggestions for communities that might be helpful:

  • Facebook groups—There is no end to the number of writer’s groups on Facebook, so the problem is going to be less about finding a group and more about finding the right group. You might start by looking at some of the groups your friends and fellow authors have joined. Or, if you have no author friends, look at some of the groups favored by authors you admire. If an author has an active presence on Facebook, he’s very likely to be a member of at least one online community. See if you can get in there as well. And once you’re in, join the conversation. Learn and grow. This isn’t the place to pitch your book for sale, by the way—it’s the place to connect with like-minded people who can help you figure out your own marketing strategy. Sales will come later, after you’ve learned how best to market your work.
  • Real-world writer’s groups—Through sites like you can find writer’s groups that get together out in the three-dimensional world, and often in your area. Spending face time with actual humans in an actual location has its advantages—such as coffee. But these meetups are also a great opportunity to bring up questions you have about marketing your work, and receive the wisdom of the herd. Try to find a group that has authors who have actually published and are marketing their work—there are plenty of “will be someday” author groups, but there’s not much marketing talk happening there. Your goal is to connect with people who can share what works and what doesn’t, as well as how well it all comes together.
  • Conferences—These events can often be a gold mine for meeting and greeting fellow authors, as well as movers and shakers in the publishing industry. Go to these with a single objective: To connect with authors and influencers in a meaningful way. Read that as “don’t go to pitch your book, don’t go hoping to land a publishing contract, and don’t go hoping someone famous will read your book.” For sure, you can definitely do some direct marketing at these events. You can rent a booth, have stacks of your books at the ready, and introduce yourself to passersby. That even works, to a degree. But the real gold of a conference is in who you meet, and how well you connect with them. Make that your goal and you’ll soon have a growing community of people who can help you figure out your marketing strategy.
  • Podcasts—There’s a ridiculous number of author podcasts out there. Self Publishing Podcast, Rocking Self Publishing Podcast, Creative Penn, Wordslinger Podcast (cough, cough). These are rich treasure troves of not only up-to-the-minute information about writing and pubishing, but also the experiences and wisdom of the authors who run them. There’s something incalculably valuable about getting advice from someone who’s been there and done that, and who is willing to share all of it. Subscribe and listen to as many podcasts as you can. But beyond that, go out and find the places where the audiences of these podcasts are hanging out and talking. That’s the community you’re looking for, and you’ll all be brought together by your common love of the podcast. It’s an easy icebreaker.
  • Blogs & forums—Like podcasts, there are a million of these. One highly useful forum is the Kboards Writers Café. This is a community of authors who are actively discussing the industry, latest trends, difficulties and issues and, of course, marketing. Join in these discussions in a natural and conversational way and you’ll soon find yourself making all sorts of connections and gaining all sorts of insight. And likewise, look for other blogs and forums that give you a space to connect with other authors, and join that flow of conversation. The benefits are amazing.

So a community isn’t quite meant to be a place to market your work, but is instead a place where you can learn more about marketing and improve on the skills you have. This is where you’ll make allies, discover new promotions and services, and generally amp up your marketing savvy.

Go in with this mindset: “I am here to contribute and be a part of this community.” Do that, and you’ll maximize the benefit of being there.

That’s it for the basics. Next time we’ll look at some more advanced approaches to marketing your work.