Congratulations! You’ve started down the road on your writing career. You’re submitting work to magazines, publishers, and agents. Or perhaps you’re going totally indie, and doing the publishing for yourself. Either way, if you expect your work to sell, the marketing is up to you. You have to learn how to sell books.

How To Sell Books by Building Your Email List

Our favorite email newsletter service is Convertkit. You can check it out and create a free account here: sign up for Convertkit.

You already know that email marketing is the number one way to go. Last week, we featured an excellent article by Sarah Gribble, explaining the importance of email marketing and giving examples of what kind of emails to send and when to send them.

Early on in my own writing career, I accepted the wisdom in this. I built my website, and plastered it with invitations to join my email list. I put my family, friends, and everyone I could think of, on my email list, and dutifully sent out my campaigns.

Not much happened.

A Thousand True Fans

See, here’s the thing: my family and friends were on my list because they care about me and want to support what I’m doing. But I write suspense fiction — thrillers, mysteries, psychological head trip stories — and the people I put on my list might read romance, literary fiction, sports stories, or nothing at all.

What I needed on my email list was readers who share my passion for suspense fiction.

Have you heard the concept of a thousand true fans? It goes something like this: cultivate a thousand readers — fans who love your work, eat up everything you put out, and clamor for more — and you can make a living supporting that fan base. What a win/win wonderful thing!

How do I get that?

Ah, there’s the rub. Where do you find these people? Or better yet, how can they find you? I’ve got three steps to help you get off the ground with that.

1. Incentive

If your questions are anything like those questions I was asking myself, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Your First 1000 Copies by Tim Grahl and studying it like a textbook. His advice was invaluable to me as I learned how to actually grow my email list (and how to sell books!).

A key concept Tim puts forth is his definition of marketing, what it really is. It’s not at all the shady, used-car salesman type of thing we often think of and avoid. Here’s what he says:

Marketing is about . . .

  1. creating lasting connections with people through
  2. a focus on being relentlessly helpful.

So I asked myself, “How do I create lasting connections with people?”

The answer was clear. By building a rapport with the people on my email list. And I can focus on being relentlessly helpful by working to provide something of value for my readers, and showing them the benefits.

In order to establish a relationship with my readers, I had to offer them something, and that gift had to (1) have value, and (2) be freely offered.

Think about your own internet behavior. Are you cautious about handing out your email address? I sure am. People hesitate to sign up for many reasons — lack of trust, fear of the hard sell, too much email coming in, and more.

In order to overcome those objections, I made a commitment to treat my readers with respect, provide value, and be honest. When I invite people to sign up for my readers’ group, I tell them it involves a simple, twice-monthly email giving them access to bonuses and updates. So they know, up front, what to expect from our relationship.

What can I offer?

I wondered what I could offer as an incentive to attract the kind of audience that reads in my genre. It would have to be worth something, yet offered for free in return for trusting me enough to begin our relationship.

For me, the answer was story. I write a blog on my website about the power and many benefits of story. So after I convince visitors of the importance of story, I offer them ways to get more story in their life. For free.

This is where you have to get creative, really think about who you are, as a writer, and what you have to offer. Do not undervalue yourself.

If you’re behaving like a professional, working to hone your craft, and finding courage to express your imagination and ideas, you have something of worth to offer the world. Or, at least a part of the world: your target audience.

Here are a few ideas to fire up your creativity:

  • Book or story
  • Audiobook or story
  • Podcast
  • Interview excerpt or transcript
  • Bonus material, like on a DVD, with deleted scenes, alternate endings, inside scoop on your characters, etc.
  • Virtual tour of the setting for your book: Take a video camera around the town and do a voiceover to go with it, pointing out places of import
  • Game or puzzle you create around your story world
  • Exclusive or advance material no one else gets (audiences love this!)
  • Chance to enter a contest
  • Resource list: For instance, a list of research resources you used for the book, full of fascinating material you had to leave out of the book, but worth reading
  • A suggested reading order list for your books
  • A “best of” list for your genre: For me, I might compile a list, with summaries, of the best suspense novels of the twentieth century
  • A quiz: About your settings, characters, trivia from the world you created
  • A time-saver cheat sheet: For instance, if you write cookbooks, a list of substitutes for missing ingredients
  • A template relative to your audience: If you write books about how to run a fundraiser, provide a template for a pledge letter or phone call
  • Case study, digital or audio, on a relevant subject for your audience
  • Create an infographic: If you haven’t discovered Canva yet, go check it out. Another option I recently came across is Visme. I haven't had a chance to use it yet, but it looks pretty promising.
  • Grant access to a webinar or special class
  • Offer a one-on-one coaching session or video course

It might sound strange that in order to figure out how to sell books, you first have to give away your writing for free. But this free content is really a long-term investment: give something away for free now, and you'll gather readers who will follow you, share your writing, and even buy your books.

2. Email Subject Line

Great! So people are signing up for your email list. Now what?

You send them emails.

Sarah shared tips and techniques about how to do this in her article on email marketing. But I’d like to focus on the subject line of your email for a moment.

You have a lot of barriers to overcome in order for your email to be effective. You want your reader to:

  1. Open the email
  2. Read the email
  3. Click through to one or more of your links
  4. Respond to your CTA — call to action — by following through to a desired goal (purchase a book, complete a survey, comment, share, leave a review, etc.)

So, it’s important to get them through the door. If they don’t open the email, none of the other steps will follow.

A good subject line goes a long way to making that happen. You typically will get only one shot at this as your potential reader skims through her inbox, slapping away at the delete key like a kid playing Whack-a-Mole.

Here’s my five-step plan:

  1. Make it short. This is usually the most effective, but you might want to run a split test with a short version and a long version. Some audiences respond well to something lengthier. If in doubt, however, be concise.
  2. Keep it on topic. Don’t mislead your audience. Don’t bait and switch. Don’t get too cute, at the expense of clarity.
  3. Rouse curiosity. I like to use questions often in my subject lines, or make an intriguing statement that strongly invites further investigation.
  4. Show the benefit. We all want to know — what’s in it for me? Point it out.
  5. Create a sense of urgency. It’s all too easy to pass over and say we’ll get around to it later. Give readers a reason to open it now.

Dig a little. Don’t settle for the first thing that comes to mind. Brainstorm. Be creative.

Appreciate your audience, express your gratitude. Don’t be afraid to get personal. Consider using merge tags to personalize with your reader’s first name.

And use emojis judiciously.

3. Quality Content

And that’s where Sarah really has me covered. If you haven’t read her article yet, go do it now!

If you’ve put in what it takes to get your readers this far, you certainly don’t want to let them down now.

This is where you build that relationship, the rapport that leads down the road to regular readership. This is how you get those thousand true fans.

Steady Growth

Building your email list is a slow process. You won't reach your thousand true fans, or even a thousand vaguely interested website visitors, for weeks or months.

The key is to be relentlessly helpful. Share your writing generously, for free.

When readers see the value of what you're freely giving them, they'll be happy to join your email list, share your writing with their friends, and keep in contact — and ultimately buy from you. That's how to sell books.

Don't have an email list setup yet? Our favorite email newsletter service is Convertkit. Check it out and create a free account here: sign up for Convertkit.

How about you? Do you have an idea for a sign-up incentive that I didn’t mention? Share it with us in the comments section.


Let’s work on email subject lines. What would you use for your introductory email to welcome a reader into your list? How about when you have a new book coming out?

If these events are in your future, imagine they are now imminent, and brainstorm subject lines that follow the points I set out for you. Remember to dig down a couple of levels. Don’t stop with what’s at the top of your head.

Practice for fifteen minutes, then make your top picks and post them in the comments section. And if you post, please leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at

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