All authors should ask themselves the following question the second they plan on publishing a book:

“If I had to, right now, at this very moment, how many books could I sell on my own without help from anybody else?”

In other words, how many people can you reach, for free, to tell them about your new project? And how many do you think would buy it?

To be clear, we’re not talking about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or anything else. Those platforms can be fantastic when it comes to marketing your book, but the truth is that unless you have a highly engaged audience (if you do, terrific!), organic reach typically hovers in the ‘low’ to ‘very low’ to ‘laughable’ range.

(If you don’t know what organic reach is, the simple definition is this: the number of people who see your post on a social media platform without you paying to have it “boosted” or “promoted.”)

On Facebook, organic reach for professional pages is famously terrible. For example, say you have 100 friends on your professional author Facebook page, and you post to everyone, “Buy my new book!” Somewhere around 2 percent to 4 percent or less of your “followers” will see it…unless, of course, you want to “boost” the post—that is, spend money for more people to see it.

Boosting the post for, say, $50 might allow a full third of your followers to see the post. Is that worth it to you? Maybe, maybe not… But now you’re out of pocket on ad expenses and you’re dangling your book out there on a virtual fishhook hoping someone buys it.

It’s the same strategy you can employ on Twitter or Instagram. Again, if you have an engaged audience—meaning people who like, comment, or react to your posts on a regular basis—this should be a huge part of your strategy. BUT you still don’t control the algorithm or the number of people who see the post, and you have only a few rudimentary tools to track whether your post resulted in a sale unless you have a social media marketing team, which, again, negates the original question:

How many books could you sell on your own right now for free?

If you have no idea, you’re likely sweating and wondering how in the world an author can know this.

However, if you’ve nurtured and grown a newsletter over the years, then you’re probably sitting there calmly thinking about your open rates and past sales. In this case, you can generally calculate a ballpark number of how many books you can move by hitting “send” on an email to your subscribers.

That is the power of an email list…and that is why you need one.

“Email has an ability most channels don’t: creating valuable, personal touches—at scale.” –David Newman, author of the bestseller Do It Marketing

If you have an email list that you send to readers regularly (weekly, biweekly, monthly, whatever), then you know exactly how many people open your email each week and how many people click on the links you provide. Plus, if you’ve promoted past books before, you have a rough idea of how many people bought via your newsletter.

You can build your newsletter for free on Substack or Revue or use a paid service like Mailer Lite, ConvertKit, or Constant Contact. Which email provider you use is up to you, but what’s most important is that you start and grow a list ASAP.

When you have an email list, you can build long, well-thought-out pre-order campaigns loaded with incentives for your best fans to buy. You can send sneak previews of the cover or the first chapter to your loyal readers. You can even incentivize your readers to share your email about the book with their networks.

Email also helps build long-term, trusted relationships with your readers who have, by virtue of signing up, expressed a desire to hear from you and to learn more about you and your author brand.

“If social media is the cocktail party, then email marketing is the ‘meet up for coffee.’ The original one-to-one channel.” –Erik Harbison, president of The Marketing Help

But the single most important reason for you to have an email list is that YOU OWN IT. It’s yours, and you can reach 100 percent of your audience at any time. If you have 500 followers and you send an email, you know all 500 will get it (although you can’t control whether they open it). Over time, you will know your open rate, you’ll cut subscribers who never open, and you will build a highly engaged audience of fans who you know will open, read, and click on what you send. It takes a long time, but it’s worth it.

So, get started on building your email list today.

By Jon Finkel Jon is the director of publishing for Ballast Books and its children’s book imprint, Blue Balloon Books. He’s navigated the publishing landscape as the author of Hoops Heist, 1996: A Biography, and Jocks in Chief.

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