On-boarding to your subscription list

This article is primarily for indie writers building mailing lists through free and paid promotions using Instafreebie, BookFunnel and commercial companies. It’s an overview of the whole process with emphasis on what to do with the new names as they arrive.


New writers frequently ask how to handle the new people arriving on their mailing list from the various promotions they take part in. I usually respond with what I do, and I decided to write it up once so I could just link in future. I’m not saying my method is the best but this is what I do, and why.

Edit: This article is the core of a short book that I’ve written covering the whole process of giveaways, subscriptions and how to build your lists. You can find it here.

Edit 2 (May ‘19): I stopped using MailChimp, they’re policy of chastising mailing list owners for high unsubscribes is unacceptable. (It’s none of their business, explained later in the article.) I use MailerLite now, it’s cheaper, and vastly superior.

About mailing list companies

I use MailChimp, this is not necessarily the best and it’s certainly not the cheapest. MailerLite is the new kid on the block and it has a lot to commend it. I’ll try to keep this general where possible.

On MailChimp I use a lot of separate lists because that’s how my process evolved. It’s not the best way to work with MailChimp but I am cautious about changing anything. So when I say “list” you can think “segment” if you prefer (a segment being a filtered subset of a list).

Edit: I have migrated to MailerLite and saved myself £70/month. Its facilities are also far superior to MailChimp.

Free book downloads

Using Instafreebie or BookFunnel you can make a free book or sample available for download with a view to getting more people interested in your work

These companies provide you with a link to a page where people can enter their email address and download your book to read.

Instafreebie and BookFunnel are not promotional sites as such, they don’t send your book links out. Instafreebie does occasionally have featured authors but what they mainly do is announce other promotions in their own subscriber newsletter — as long as all the links on the promotional page (described in the next section) are to Instafreebie.

Instafreebie may announce a promo page but provides no help in creating them. They will only promote to their subscription list if all the links on the page go to their site.

BookFunnel provides the tools to create and manage promotions on the site itself, so you don’t have to create pages on your own website. And they don’t insist all the individual book links are to BookFunnel, though that makes it easier.

I suspect Instafreebie is working very hard on catching up with BookFunnel on the tools to create promo pages. But that’s mere supposition.

Edit: Things move fast in this world. I was right, Instafreebie has added its own method of hosting giveaways on their website, just like BookFunnel.

Anyway, back to your book link…

You can, of course, promote your own book link yourself via your social media and friends but that’s not many people (relatively) and they probably already know about your writing.

So you need to send the message wider.

Promo pages

There are many groups on Facebook where you can join up with other writers in your genre. And there you can find people organising free promotion pages, where they will put together links to books, usually with some sort of linking theme (all Fantasy with wizards, all Bad Boy romance and so on).

Sample from a promotional page by Dean Wilson

Each participating author is expected to promote to any existing subscribers and put it out on their social media channels for the duration of the promotion. That way you can reach new people. Sometimes a lot of new people.

These sorts of promotions provide a drip-feed of email addresses coming through to your mailing list so whatever emails you have set up go out one at a time.

Big giveaways

The other sort of promotion is one where the organiser (it may be a commercial activity at a price) provides some sort of contest. Maybe with a big prize, and the books being promoted will often be by well-known authors, but still in the genre you’re writing.

With these giveaways you will get the collected email addresses in a single file after the campaign closes. You will then need to upload the entire file to your mailing list service and all the intro emails go out together. And if you don’t handle this right in the email , you could get a lot of spam reports.

One thing to insist on, by the way, with these giveaways is that the emails you’re provided with have been “cleaned”. This helps to get rid of false and incorrect emails.

Let’s talk about spam next…

Mailing list providers, unsubscribes and spam

Companies like MailChimp and MailerLite send out millions of emails a week. And ISPs and email services block companies that send spam.

Being blocked could destroy the business of a mailing list provider — particularly if the ISP/email service was a big one, like GMail — because every single user of that mailing service would be affected, not just the culprit who generated the spam.

As a result the ML providers tend to be quite touchy on the subject of spam reports.

A spam report is lodged when a person receives an email and hits the spam button.

Normally this just goes to the ISP/email service but there is a feedback service from the bigger email delivery companies and the mailing list companies. This is how the ML companies know how many and who reported the email as spam. It also allows them to warn users that their mailing is getting a bad response, which might mean the source of the emails was bad. But you will only get this when you send out emails in bulk.

Edit: MailChimp has started reporting this on drip-feeds as well, and also gets upset with unsubscribes. Another reason not to use them.

Now some email recipients think that hitting the spam button is a way to unsubscribe or delete. So a certain level of spam reports on a mailing are acceptable. But not too many.

Why is this important? Well, this is where we get down to the nitty-gritty of onboarding because if you do it wrong your unsubscribes and spam reports will be high.

What do you mean “onboarding”?

This is the process by which you educate incoming subscribers about who you are, what you do and what they can expect. And it needs to be tailored to the different types of names you have coming in.


In the page promo you’re getting people who have already chosen to download your book — they won’t have read it by the time you send your first email but they know about it.

In the second, bulk, group it’s people who have been warned they’ll be getting emails from authors (they should have been anyway) but they know nothing of you. Offering them a free download is a friendly gesture.

If you word this right you can minimise spam reports and even unsubscribes but it’s important to understand that you don’t want people on your list who aren’t interested. Mere numbers are not enough.

How I do the onboarding emails

I have six reader magnets (those things on Instafreebie or BookFunnel) and they feed into six different mailing lists that have different sets of onboarding emails but they have certain things in common:

I send four onboarding emails, each one two days apart. This frequency is not too fast to annoy, and not too slow for them to forget. And gets them through the whole sequence in a week.

Originally I had it set to one week gaps. It was driving me nuts it was so slow. When I reduced the time there was no increase in unsubscribes.

1st Email (from promo page): Welcome them, acknowledge that they won’t have read the story yet. If they came from Instafreebie give them a BookFunnel link to download the same book (I explain why below in the appendix).

The four email sequence from promo pages for my KYMIERA series

Then explain to them that they will be receiving four emails with special subscriber-only information and after those are finished they will be transferred to the main list to get the newsletter.

Give them a link to unsubscribe. If they don’t want to get your emails, don’t force them, and by providing an unsubscribe link right there, it stops them clicking the spam button. If they have to search for the unsubscribe link, somewhere down the bottom, they’re more likely to hit “spam”.

I usually provide a link to my Amazon page as well, but I don’t push it hard. I just put “Other books by Steve Turnbull: <link>” and that’s it.

1st email (for bulk import): Right up front I say “You are receiving this email because you took part in XXXX last month (or whenever). It was mentioned that your email would be given to the sponsoring authors, and I’m one. If you really don’t want to be here click to unsubscribe <link>” and I make that big and bold.

But I also tell them they can get a free book and I give them a link to download it — I usually use BookFunnel for that (I explain why below).

One thing with this type of giveaway (with many sponsoring authors) is the organiser should specify a date for you to mail the list. This is to avoid the situation where everyone on the list gets 20+ authors mailing on the same day.

Arguably that might have a negative effect for those authors later in the cycle, but as I often am one of the later ones (alphabetically my surname comes late in a list) I’ve not found it to be a problem.

2nd and 3rd emails: I write about stuff related to the book they’ve downloaded. No spoilers of course :-)

The most important thing here is to provide things that the readers can click. And if you make it interesting enough it might encourage the readers to bring your book to the front of their queue. This is a thing because a lot of the people who sign up will have downloaded a lot of books, how can you make them read yours next?

There are no guarantees, of course.

Final email: Remind them they were told that they would receive the four emails and that this is the last one. And remind them that they will now be moved to the main list where they will get the newsletter. Tell them it’s totally okay to unsubscribe if they want to. And it is: you don’t want people who are not interested. They cost money and give you nothing back.

Interaction, clicks and opens

Here’s something important to understand: Your mailing list provider does not know whether any recipient has opened an email unless they have graphics turned on in their email reader. Or if the person clicks a link from the email. (Some people think it’s related to the “preview” pane, it is but only because images are usually switched off by default. The only way to tell if a person read it is if graphics are downloaded, or links are clicked.)

A non-open doesn’t mean it hasn’t been opened, it means the mailing list provider does not know.

This is why I like to provide lots of clickable stuff, because even if the person has images switched off they might click a link. And then we’ll know.

Another trick is to invite subscribers to respond with information: “What’s your best ever movie quote?” MailChimp and MailerLite allow subscribers to simply reply to the email, I don’t know what other systems do.

Culling your email list is a tricky thing because you might be getting rid of people who actually are interested. Although, to be fair, if you get rid of anyone who has failed to interact in over a year (especially if you’ve released new stuff or done cover reveals) it’s probably safe to assume they aren’t seeing it.

Anyway when it comes to your on-boarding sequence, you want to get interaction and by the end of the emails what I do is split people into two lists: Those who interacted in some way get put on the main mailing list and receive the newsletter.

The others get put in another list and I only send them emails with other book promotions in them. (Ones that I’m in usually.)

I have to do this manually on MailChimp because they don’t have an automatic move (or copy) function. I create segments of each list, one for interactors and one for the rest, display the segment then move the people on it, and unsubscribe them from the current list. (Because MailChimp charges per list-name.)

It’s not ideal but it’s not very time-consuming.

Edit: Having moved to MailerLite this is now automatic.

Newsletter frequency

Some authors don’t want to “bother” their subscribers so never send anything except when they have something new to sell.

Newsletters are about marketing. So you need your marketing head on, not your author head.

Sending infrequently has two disadvantages: People will forget who you are and are more likely to click “spam”. And if all you ever do is try to sell when you do email, again, they won’t like you and will click “spam” or “unsubscribe”.

I send a regular newsletter, once per month, and I fill it with interesting stuff that’s not about me. I was a magazine editor in another life so I treat it like a magazine. I do include a section on what writing-related things I’m doing and links to my books. At the bottom.

Your mileage may vary.

That’s all, folks!

So that’s what I do. It seems to be successful. In October 2016 I had 160 subscribers on my list. As of Jun 2017, I have a combined total of 15K.

And by Oct 2017 I had 25K.

I hope this was useful to you.

If you might be interested in a piece of software I’m working on to help produce social media posts in bulk (it doesn’t post them, you need HootSuite or similar for that). Then just “like” this article and follow me so you’re notified when it’s ready.

Thanks for reading.

Appendix: Free books

Some people are appalled at the idea of giving their writing away free.

It isn’t free. They have to pay by giving you their email address and that’s more valuable than money.

You could also, if that doesn’t convince you, consider it to be a loss-leader which has been a staple of the marketing world for as long as marketing has existed.

And if you are still appalled — don’t do it. Nobody is forcing you.

Appendix: BookFunnel Whys

BookFunnel provides much better advice and facilities for downloading ebooks into the various devices. Its help is vastly superior to Instafreebie and it’s possible the person got their book from Instafreebie and has no clue what to do next.

When setting up BookFunnel’s book pages they recently added an option which means you can restrict downloading to someone who is already on a mailing list. So you can specify the bulk giveaway list specifically and if someone else gets hold of the link they won’t be able to download the book.

But, clever BookFunnel, there’s also the option to redirect that person to a page where they can enter their details and get the book — and become part of your on-boarding sequence on another list. So. No freeloaders.

So I wrote a book…

Not a long one, covering the whole process of giveaways, subscriptions and how to build your lists. You can find it here.