Mailing lists: the all embracing panacea or the hamster wheel of doom?

As you know, I’ve been writing books and attempting to sell the results since about 2010. I still think my books are good. I think the books I’m writing at the moment will be good too – or at least as good as I can make them and good by my standards, ie they’ll be more of the kinds of stories I’d like to read but that don’t exist.

However, for all my efforts, I’d be lying if I said I was doing well as an author, but the fact I write the books I want to read, rather than what ‘the market’ is after could be posing a problem there.

Originally, in the absence of a following to ask, my marketing strategy went like this.

‘Hey Sensible M T I’m going to write a book.’
‘Great plan Ditzy M T. What about?’
‘I’m going to write the books that I’ve always wanted to read but no-one has ever written.’
‘Is that a good idea Ditzy M T?’
‘Of course it is Sensible M T.’
‘But, if people wanted to read them, wouldn’t someone else have written them?’
‘No Sensible M T, I believe I have spotted a niche.’
‘Oh yeh?’
‘Yeh. I’m a person, I’m bog standard, so surely whatever I want to read will be something a whole group of other people like me want to read too, right?’
‘You think there are other people like you?’
‘Of course.’

Unfortunately, Sensible M T is correct. People like me are rather rarer than I anticipated so it’s taking me a bit of time to build an audience … and I think a lot of folks are getting mailing list fatigue, which is understandable, but a pity. Although at least, now, there are enough folks following my writing for me to be able to ask them what they’d like: hence the K’Barthan shorts, and there will be some, I promise once I’ve finished the K’Barthan accidentally long I’m working on – that’s hit 50k today, by the way. I have a nice properly short story brewing about how The Pan ended up jumping off the bridge (he mentions it to Ruth in the second book).

We’re on the road to nowhere!

As the Talking Heads said (blimey this is getting a bit Alan Partridge). But I do feel that I am running faster and faster to stay in the same place. Sales are a bit … well

That’s right. Pants.

Looking at my sales spreadsheet over the last umpteen years, I can’t help but notice that I am putting in more and more effort to achieve the same results. This last month, April 2017 if you’re reading this 400 years from now in a post apocalyptic world where electricity and computers have only just been reinvented, was one of the worst on record. It was the first time more than two days passed between book sales, for me, since 2013. Then came this month, gulp. There were several big blocks of four or five days when I didn’t sell a thing. The total earnings are £30. The lowest month for ages. Naturally, I thought I’d see if I could find out why.

First up, I tried a different type of mailing promo last month and it’s too early to tell if it’s worked yet. Second, the month before that, I didn’t do a promo. That’s two very compelling explanations, right there. But is there more.

Looking at onward sales I discovered these lovely factoids:

  • There are 4,247 people on my mailing list.
  • They have bought a maximum of 662 copies of the K’Barthan Series books in a combination of books 3 and 4  at $4.99 a pop (sales are about level pegging which is a good sign) or the box set at $7.99.
  • I’ve sold about 400 copies of book 2 since I started all this free book malarky – even though I give it away free to folks who join my mailing list.
  • That said, about 750 have bought Unlucky Dip, the short story, for 99c.
  • On the day of launch only 14 people bought the K’Barthan Box set.
  • Only 280 have bought Escape From B-Movie Hell.
  • If I take just one group of 1,000 mailing list members, I can see that 280 of them clicked on the links to find out more about the paid books when I emailed them about it. That’s actually not bad.
  • After three quarters of a year, or thereabouts, I survey my mailing list peps. You’d be amazed how many answer the ‘did you enjoy the books’ style question with, ‘I haven’t read them yet.’ Even after eight months or so some of them are clearly a little nettled to be even asked.
  • A couple of folks have joined my mailing list and then emailed me to say they downloaded the book two or three years ago, never got around to reading it and are really glad they have this time – there’s even a review that says that!

What do these pieces of information tell me?

  1. That I should be writing more short stories. Hmm.
  2. That information pages I send them to about each book on my website need an overhaul.
  3. That the books might be too expensive.
  4. Or that people are feeling a bit, what’s the point? about brexit and our impending ecological and nuclear doom and don’t want to shell out for a book any more.
  5. It reinforces the argument that a higher rate of output comprising shorter books at a lower cost is probably the way to go – I’m thinking 50k for $2.99 and 10/20k for 99c/p maybe. At least I have to have something between 99c and $4.99 – currently there’s only the stand alone.
  6. That if I’m smart, some or all of the future books I write should be about K’Barth.
  7. That anyone on my mailing list who is interested in reading the K’Barthan Series had already done so, with knobs on, when the box set came out and that any who might be weren’t ready.
  8. That folks who are interested in reading the second K’Barthan book often buy it straight after reading the first one, they don’t wait four days to get it free. That’s great because clearly they’re into it.
  9. That, in turn, could tell me that people who are less worried about money purchase my books and perhaps this is more evidence for shorter books that I could sell at a more accessible price for folks with less disposable income.
  10. That I need to make it clearer to people that they can borrow my books from libraries – but they have to ask because the librarian won’t have bought them (I’m not famous and not a sure bet). In short, I need to make sure that they realise that they can get access to my books, even if they are cash strapped.
  11. That the average reader has a to-read list that is well over 8 months long and reads the books in order.
  12. That while I have always assumed that a fair few of the people on my mailing list won’t have read my books 7/8ths is quite a lot higher than I expected.
  13. That the read through rate is only as high as 7/8ths if every single person who has bought K’Barthan book 3 and 4 in whatever format is on my mailing list, which I doubt.
  14. That the percentage of people who are actually reading the book I give away is gob smackingly low. Nowhere near the 20% I thought it was (going on Amazon downloads of the free book and totting up subsequent copies of the next books sold in 2015.
  15. That, possibly, the people who do read the book I give away in return for their email address are the ones who read it straight after downloading it. This could explain why they zip through the first book in a couple of days and then get stuck right into the rest of them rather than waiting for the free second book.
  16. That until a couple of years have passed, I won’t really know the results of my efforts to upsell since it will be a very long time before many folks get to the first book.
  17. For the long haul tbr people, at least regular mailings from me will keep them in touch and help them not to forget about my books.

What about the risible rate of earnings?

Hmm… what about it? More factoids.

  • It was 70% down on my £100 monthly average.
  • The worst since February 2015 when I had 70 friends and family on my mailing list and hadn’t worked out about permafrees with optimised listings – which worked then.
  • It is in keeping with the time of year. The worst month for sales always seems to happen in spring: Feb, March, April or May.
  • As I mentioned, it may be down to the choice of giveaway book in April.
  • I didn’t do much in the way of promo in March.
  • There has been no uptick in sales at the beginning of May, usually at the start of a month there is.

What does this tell me?

  1. That net worth of my efforts to upsell my other books from information I give on my mailing list is currently worth £30, or thereabouts, from an average £100. Possibly. But I’ll never really know for sure.
  2. That it’s very important to have a promo planned every month.
  3. That you need to be lot more savvy these days, and do a lot more to get your books in front of people, to achieve the same results you could have done with less effort a year ago. Mwah hahaharhgh so nothing new there!
  4. That promos do drive sales.
  5. That the merit of giving folks a second book as well as the original freebie they downloaded might be debatable. Is it getting read by many folks? Difficult to tell but it looks unlikely. Then again, I won’t really know until the long haul people kick in (if they do).
  6. That if I give the short away as a second book, instead, it might get more people reading because it’s accessible, but it might people off because it’s crap.

It could be that I am gaining a lot of new mailing list followers, but very few readers. But just as easily, it could be that I will need to wait at least a year before a big proportion of the folks on my mailing list get round to reading any of my books. Only time will tell.

So? Patience young paduan?

Yeh, looks like it. It takes a lot of time and effort to sort out my mailings, find interesting things to include or fun stories to tell. But, clearly when I join the right kinds of promos folks are downloading and enjoying the first book in the K’Barthan Series, it’s just catching them while they’re still enthused in a way that doesn’t annoy the ones who don’t want to be reminded for a year or so. It’s also juggling not earning much with the cash. I’m moving my mailing list to another provider but currently it costs me £40 per month to entertain 4,250 folks. If my £30 per month earning streak continues I will need to uncover a way to monetise my list slightly or I’m going to be in certain doo-doo.

Yep. Doo doo. Scary huh?

Mailing list factoids.

  • Open rates have dropped but only a little.
  • Open rates are slower. I would have a decent idea how a mailing had gone down in two or three days a year ago, these days it’s two weeks before the percentage of opens stops creeping up.
  • Click rates are down. A lot. From a fairly reliable 20% – 40% to about 6% -13%.

What do these factoids tell us Noddy?

  1. Perhaps there is a mailing slow down. It’s clear that folks are still reading my emails but taking longer. Also, a couple of unsubscribe comments along the lines of ‘I love your emails but I am on so many authors’ lists and I just don’t have time to read them’ might bear that out.
  2. Many authors are doing giveaways now, or promos, or things where groups of similar books are offered for free to readers in return for them singing up to the authors’ mailing lists. It may simply be that a lot of readers have already heard about the promos I’m taking part in from other authors involved before I tell them.

So what can I do?

Sit tight and keep doing what I do.

Once again, on this one, I am, dangerously, doing what works for me. This does not mean it’s what works, generally or even that it’s what other people like. After all, if I wanted to sell books to the normals I’d have a really attractive thin woman on the covers and they’d be that shade of green, taupe, blue, brown or red.

For the record, what I want to discover, from mailing lists I join is whether I find the author interesting, as well as the stuff they offer. I like to hear about their books, their progress on new work and about any books they’ve read and enjoyed. I also like it if the emails, themselves, are amusing, or chatty, like a letter to a friend rather than a ‘professional’ offering. Furthermore, as my readers will undoubtedly be getting loads of emails from other authors as well as me, I want to make mine stand out, in a good way. I want them to get enough enjoyment and value from the things I send them to make time for them.

So far, the feedback is good. I think it is weeding out the kinds of people who are going to like and enjoy my books from those who’ve downloaded them free but will probably never read them. Hopefully it will. I’d much rather have an engaged list of 500 people, than a list of 4,500 who aren’t interested.

These days, twenty or thirty folks unsubscribe from my list in a month. That would have come as a big surprise a year ago. But people still write back and interact so I must be doing something right.

I have come up with some practical answers for improving the usefulness of my emails and, therefore, open and click rates but when it comes to onward sales, or library borrows, I’m kind of scratching my head. Maybe my books are shite, except if they were, why are the reviews mostly good? And the bad reviews, with a few exceptions, tend to say things that suggest the reader was the complete antithesis of the book’s target market anyway.

Any other cunning plans?

Well … I need to ask folks questions, find out a bit more about what they are after and then give them what they are interested in. If I set this up right, I can send free books to the people who want free, paid books to the people who want paid and can avoid sending amazon offers to readers who use only Kobo or vice versa.

But while that might help me make the information more pertinent and useful, I’m not sure what I can do about the ten thousand free books they need to read before it’s the ‘turn’ of mine. I also wonder about the 19,000 folks who downloaded Few Are Chosen while it was permafree. Six hundred onward sales from those isn’t a very good track record.

But for what it’s worth, here’s my plan.

I have two weapons and two weapons only. I’m weird and sometimes I’m funny. This pertains to everything: my books, who I am and what I do. In all, the weird and the funny are key. Some people find that hard work, others really like it. So hopefully, if I can carry on being the way I am, I will, eventually, build up a group of follows who appreciate the weird and funny of me, at least, even if they haven’t read the damn books. And maybe, eventually, they will find one of my newsletters leaves them wanting more … enough to dig out the K’Barthan Series, Book 1 and start reading.

It’s my only answer. So I’ll just have to cross my fingers and hope. I’ll let you know how I get on.

On a final note …

If you’re one of the 3,500 out of 4,247 on my mailing list who hasn’t read my book, I am absolutely agog to know two thing:

  1. What on earth you’re doing there?
  2. What on earth you’re getting from it?
  3. Your reasons for not reading the book yet – i.e. your to read list is too long, the book is too long, you’re a book blogger/reviewer and haven’t got round to it, you’re never going to read the book in a month of Sundays but you love the reviews and special offers on other people’s books etc.


Filed under General Wittering, Good Advice, Marketing Ideas, Other Creatives

4 responses to “Mailing lists: the all embracing panacea or the hamster wheel of doom?

  1. 1) Lots of authors would kill to have 4000 people on their mailing list, of whom 660 have bought books
    2) every time I sell one of my ebooks on Amazon it rises over 2 million places in the ranking list. Million.
    3) there are a huge number of books out there and you’re doing well. Bring a new book out but don’t beat yourself up on it.

    Just a reality check in the overburdened world of books for us readers to wade through (my to-read list now stands at 530, and I’ve read yours!).

    • Bless you thanks and yes that is quite reassuring to hear about your thr list. At least I know that there is some possible merit in the idea that it’ll take some of them several months to get round to it. Or longer … 🙂

  2. Diana

    I don’t do the e-reading thing. I like sitting cosy and warm with a book I can mark my place in with a piece of scrap paper…. And I am hesitant about Amazon… So two questions for you:

    1. Are your books only available digitally, or do you sell hard copies, too?
    2. If you only do digital, can one (meaning me) access your novels via the computer, or does one need to have an ereader?

    If you are only available on Amazon, but do have a hard copy version, I’ll head over there to make a purchase. And I’ll try to make it soon-ish.

    Otherwise I might keep your novels on my “to read some time in the future” list, and perhaps borrow an ereader from someone to see if I could enjoy using one………

    One of my colleagues wrote a book, and got it accepted to a publishing house (which involved an editor or two) but it was published only as an ebook — and because of the lack of publishing house promotion, she sold only 26 copies while with that house. She was unimpressed — although she learned a whole lot while working with the editor.

    I have another friend who self-published, and has been promoting on her own, too. She has yet to cover costs but loves what she is doing. — and she’s sold way more than 26 copies. If you’ve sold multiple hundreds, I’d say this is a good start. Can you cut back on any more of your costs, do you think? Could you set up a different blog post, and get your mail contacts to follow that instead? There seem to be some good free blog sites around, and if your contacts ask to be notified when a new post is available, you won’t have to pay for the monthly mail service, perhaps?

    In any case, weird and funny is a good mix. Have you ever read Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things? I had no idea what to expect from it, but it had a deranged stuffed racoon on the cover, which appealed to me. It turned out to be very very funny, but also eye-opening and weird. Your books are fiction and hers are not, but you may very well enjoy her style.

    I am expecting to enjoy yours.


    • Thanks Diana, this is exactly the kind of insight I’m looking for. You are not the only one who is hesitant about Amazon! I am too so I do have my books ‘wide’ with all the retailers. In answer to your questions.

      1. Yes! 😉 My books are all available as paperbacks. They are print on demand, which, unfortunately, makes them a bit more expensive but it does mean that they are available world wide and you can either ask your local book store to order them in for you, OR you can get them from the Book Depository with free postage (rather than have me spend about £30 sending them to you from the UK). Strangely the book depository is unable to do a search for all books by me, it gives you 33 results because it can’t differentiate between initials and a lot of McGuire’s have popped up on the indie scene since 2010.

      So, the K’Barthan series is here:

      And Escape From B-Movie Hell is here:

      You can also buy print copies from Amazon, I think it defaults to the ebook but you can click on the print version button just under the listing title and stars bit:

      You can find my books on Amazon on my author pages here:

      It’s also important to note that you can get them from the library, although you have to ask your librarian to order them in, but I’m pretty sure they can. My books are included in the major library catalogues that serve North America, Australasia, the UK and a little of South America in paperback format as well as electronic format.

      2. You can download the kindle app or adobe Digital editions to read from other retailers but you don’t need to, because you can get the print versions.

      I feel for your friend, I have a humour book on the go at the moment which I would prefer to get trad published, because it won’t really have legs as an ebook, I need to get it into shops, but the first publisher I approached said that I clearly knew everything she could bring to the table and why pay her to do it when I could earn a lot more doing it myself. In addition, trad moves slower and I think I need to be quick off the mark with this one.

      When it comes to the blog, this one is free, and I have a website which costs me about £100 a year to run which has a mirror version.
      However, the outgoing is with the email addresses. There is a lot of legal about that and I can’t just send them out from my own email account. If I copy in more than five people the server will query delivery and may well decide not to deliver some. I have to go through a dedicated email delivery company. Also legally, keeping those addresses safe and complying to data protection is way better left to someone else. So it’s the company that keeps my mailing list addresses safe and sends out mailings for me that is costing me £40 a month. Others provide the service but the best of them only reports half its deliveries, if my test emails are anything to go on.

      On top of that, there’s £8 a month to another site to track sales and downloads and £19 to be able to ask people for their mailing list when I give my book away and another £3.50 to list my books on the server that folks on my list download them from. I can bin the email address collecting site but at the moment it scores me more subscribers than advertising does for less cash and they seem to be more interested in what I have to say, even if fewer of them are on for reading my books.

      However, from what you have posted, there are probably several things I can take away from this.

      1. I’ve only recently started explaining about print copies being available – and the availability of all formats through libraries – this could make a difference going forward and I should, maybe, announce it to my list as it stands.
      2. A friend of mine recently published a series of his blog posts as a book and it’s been selling very well. I am wondering if I should just do the same thing. There’s a potential how to book in my blog posts for authors, and a potential volume of humorous Maureen Lipman style wittering columns for other folks.
      3. It may well be that the other humour book I’m working on, which is just photos, will ring a chord with a lot more folks than the sci-fi does. And I haven’t yet pitched that to my mailing list.

      Thank you so much for commenting, your words are both encouraging and extremely helpful!



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