Apply Now

Why All Authors Need to Start Their Newsletter List NOW with Holly Darling

Sep 07, 2022

Holly Darling is the owner of Holly Darling HQ, a business that focuses on helping authors create and implement their email marketing strategies to sell more books and build their brand loyalty. 

In other words, she was the perfect person for me to interview about why you need to start your author newsletter list now—and the most effective ways to do that.

In this episode, we talked about so many things, including but not limited to: which newsletter provider is the best one to start with (hint: it's not Mailchimp), average open rates (and why open rates have been inflated lately), why to be vulnerable in your emails, how and why to split test, whether or not you should re-send emails to subscribers who don't open, where you should put your newsletter sign up in your book and finally why it's great to not have many subscribers.

In other words, actionable AF.

So dig in. And take action!




Anna David: So here we go. Thanks for being here, Holly.

Holly: Thanks for having me, Anna!

Anna David: So let us talk about newsletter list. I just had Jane Friedman on the podcast, she said it's the number one thing authors need. I would say anecdotally; it's the number one thing authors are reticent to start doing. You are an expert. What do you think?

Holly: Well, it always strikes me as funny when authors are hesitant to write newsletters until I remember the reasons that I've gathered over the years. But yeah, I think that newsletters are the single best way to build brand loyalty, create conversions, get data to drive new business-making decisions. And just to basically connect with your readers, regardless of the genre that you write, regardless of how many books you have written or are thinking of writing. Newsletters are data that you own. But also, we're storytellers, by nature, if you're writing a book, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. We can talk and we can talk with words. So why not use that medium, right?

Anna David: Yeah, I do think it's looking at it as another creative outlet, rather than oh, my God, this thing I have to do.

Holly: Yeah, it's an extension of your voice. Once I work with authors, and they kind of see the vulnerability piece like, I don't want somebody to unsubscribe. It feels icky if I'm selling or all these things. When we create strategies that just eliminate those, it really is fun and you can get right into it as an extension of who you are and what you want to teach people or entertain people with or anything like that.

Anna David: Okay, so the number one question, how do you start? How do you get those first subscribers?

Holly: The unfortunate reality of first subscribers is always is friends and family to start with before anybody really kind of knows you. As far as who do you ask - even before that, I always say there's a conscious decision. And for me it's got to be something they decide whether they're going to make social media their hub, I call it their hub, or their list their hub. And I am obviously in favor of making your list your hub. That just makes it easy for all conversations, whether marketing, or one-to-one or speaking engagements. Come to my website, join my list. If you're just moving all things in that direction, then it's not hard to remember to do that, right? Like, oh, well, I have a Facebook page and I have an Instagram page and I have a list - it gets lost. But lists are data that you own. If you think about that conversion, not just in terms of revenue, but in terms of the ability to connect with somebody with a traceable footprint, lists being the first point of entry to your brand is always a good idea. However, when you're first starting, it's completely intimidating and terrifying. There's the technical stuff and then there's the marketing piece, right? So, getting started without any followers, you have to be comfortable with having 10 people on your list for a little while and thinking of it as a marketing experiment. Like, I'm going to take these 10 people and I'm going to test a lot of theories out on them. Or I'm going to try some stuff and see what works.

Holly: But then there are different ways that you can grow those 10-20. Some ways are easier than others. They would be lead magnets so you could create something that holds value for your readers. And in fiction that can be short stories, previews, downloadables. In nonfiction, I think it's easier because it’s downloadables or educational content. But my one piece of advice is to start now, whether you're published or not. And that way you're spending some time getting data and testing things, but also building that brand loyalty. In the fiction world, they can become arc readers. So advanced reader copies and they are the ones that will be your sales team because they have grown with you. And if you're if you are brave and vulnerable and talk about that journey with them, they're rooting for you and they'll reply to you and ask you if they can help. That small little group of people that you start out with can become invaluable. So those low those small numbers that feel insignificant and feel sometimes embarrassing, like, oh, I only have 100 people on my list. Oh my gosh, those are the times that you can do so much with those 100 people as opposed to having 50,000 and you have a whole new set of problems connecting with people. So, yeah, I don't know if I answered your question.

Anna David: You did! I think that's really important. First of all, your open rates are going to be a million times better, which is really the number that that matters the most. So many people lie about their numbers because I cannot tell you how many people I talk to you and I go, “Oh, how big is your list?” And they say, “pretty small, like 10?” And I'm like, oh, they mean, 10 people? No - 10,000. I don’t believe you. People are lying. We don't know. I think they are.

Holly: We don’t know but it's against like that vanity metric, right? That people are like, well, if I say I only have 1000, they will think I'm less of an author or less of a speaker. But I mean, I've had 10,000, reduced that list to 2000 and then regrown again and then gone back to that because it's all about the quality of your list, not the quantity of the list.

Anna David: 100%. So what would you say is a good open rate? I know it depends on the number of people on your list. But what do you say?

Holly: So, it does depend on a whole bunch of things. But if you're looking at across the board averages, I would say, averages are somewhere between 20 and 22. Now they feel like more like 30 to 45 with somewhat inflated open rates due to the Apple privacy policy. But different industries have higher rates. The entertainment industry has a higher open rate. Food and accommodation has a higher open rate. It just really depends on the audience that you're reaching. But most people that I work with land realistically - and I say that because of the inflation that is  being seen now since September - somewhere between 25 and 35 is kind of where most people sit. But again, thinking about the click rate that goes along with it. So the open rate is the first point of entry important metric to kind of keep an eye on. Then, once you start to have something to kind of offer them or you have a call to action, that click rate becomes very important as well. So where did they both kind of average out? But yeah, people get upset. I had an open rate of 15%. I'm like, okay, let's figure out why and what happened. Maybe you've sent an email to everybody on your list. Typically, if you have larger lists, that will give you a lower open rate but it's not the end of the world. It's just data.

Anna David: Exactly. This is what it's what I've sort of observed in the last couple years: it feels like people got burned out on lead magnets. And a lot of times, I can also say anecdotally myself, I'm more likely to sign up because they describe what's in the newsletter and that looks interesting to me. Where do you stand on that?

Holly: I think the lead magnet has to solve a problem. It has to be communicated clearly. But just assuming that having the word “free” in there is going to convert into a registration is a recipe for not getting a great conversion. I think clarity is what sells. I mean, especially in the nonfiction space, it just kind of goes right by their eyes, like that word free either feels like spam or it feels like yeah, whatever. They really need to connect with you and that's what it's all about. Inside of the newsletter, I think needs to follow up with that connection but also needs to deliver that more importantly than the downloadables. Because I can count maybe on one hand how many times have actually used the downloadable that I've gone somewhere to get. But I've thought that that downloadable would solve a problem but in reality, it's the person delivering it and the value that they send in the newsletter. To follow up with that really has no bearing on whether I continue to subscribe or unsubscribe. So lead magnets I think are due a bit of a change you as far as what they are and how they work. But again, it's all about testing, right? If you see that you're not getting those conversions, then try something different. Lead magnets don't always equal people signing up for your list.

Anna David: One thing I'm doing now is, I have one page, that's just this is what is in this bestselling book bulletin and one that is, here is how you do an elevator pitch - you'll get this download. Just to have one actionable and one just to promote. They both attract people but I found with a lead magnet, it’s actionable. Give somebody something so they can get a quick win that you want the dopamine rise from.

Holly: Yeah, exactly. I like video. I like something where they can see your face, where they can make that trust decision. Or something they don't have to print out because it's like, a lot of people don't have printers. But yeah, what can you give them that actually moves them forward in the journey and the reason why they came to you in the first place? Don't make them do more work, make it easy but also make it clear.

Anna David: So nurture sequence is another thing that I have somewhat abandoned because I got so sick of them from other people. 6 things that all follow the same format. I do like two or one. Where do you stand on the nurture sequence and explain what a nurture sequence is?

Holly: Yeah, so a nurture sequence is just a follow up email or series of emails that come to your subscriber after they have joined your list. I love a nurture sequence but I don't love a random nurture sequence that just pushes things down like, buy this, buy this, buy this, buy this in the author space. You know, in fiction, it's like, “buy my book, buy my book, buy my book.” In nonfiction it's, “you need to do this and buy my course, you need to do this and buy my course, and do this and buy my program” or what have you. It feels inauthentic. It also doesn't have to be more than one email and it can be a lot of emails, it really depends. I think one mistake a lot of people make when they do add a nurture sequence into their newsletter system is that they're sending that sequence and it has a decent amount of emails in there and they're set 24 hours apart or something. Then they're also sending weekly newsletters or maybe twice a week newsletters to people, This happens a lot in the nonfiction space, where you're trying to help somebody with the regular newsletter and they're going through your nurture sequence. And then they're getting two or three emails a week and they're like, woah, too much. Sometimes they're landing boom, boom, right after each other. It’s not conducive to getting anything opened because people get overwhelmed.

Anna David: With Kajabi and Drip, they don't get your weekly until they're through the nurture. So that is something.

Holly: That’s good! But it takes remembering to manually exclude people, put them in a group and then exclude them or tag them or whatever. It's totally doable. But 9 times out of 10 it’s not done. So back to how long that could be, it depends. If you are an author with a back list, you can make it a bit longer. But I say spread the time out between those emails and make it intentional. My word for 2022 for emails is: customization. That doesn't mean that everybody gets their own email but based on their actions, so things they've clicked or done, send them something that really means something to them, that's valuable to them. In the fiction space, maybe it's a trope or a theme that comes along. Like they said, “oh, yeah, I really love political thrillers.” Then you can set a sequence up to deliver them your political thrillers. If you have nothing to offer them, like you're just kind of new and you're starting out, a welcome sequence can be one email, like, “thanks for signing up.” I would love a video at least so they can kind of get to know you and tell them what to expect. Like, “I send weekly emails,” or “I send them every month” or whatever, so that they're not like, “what the heck is happening, who is this person?” Remind them how they got there, why they're there, and what they're going to get from that point forward. Then, stick to that. Don't slide into one way or the other - never emailing them or emailing them a couple of times.

Anna David: I'm taking notes because you're giving me so many great ideas like a video as part of that sequence. I just signed up for Bonjoro and I have this this day where I'm like, I'm going to send a personalized video to everyone who subscribes. Then I realized that's absolutely impossible, but it would be cool. If you're new and you don't have that many people subscribing every day, that seems like a good service.

Holly: Exactly. That's something again that you can do with a small list! Or you can just film a blanket general video and say, “Hey, I'm Holly, thanks for joining - whatever, whatever.” And it's pretty generalized. Again, that custom piece, you can fool around with that and see, did you get any response? People will typically reply to that so if you get nothing, then that's not worth it to continue on. Maybe I’ll try something else. Thinking again that people are reading these on mobiles, they're in a hurry. What are your own feelings about emails in your inbox? Typically, you can start with the smallest, assuming that the people joining have similar feelings, maybe not the exact same, but they might be overwhelmed or reading in a hurry, only want short emails, don't want something that goes on and on and on forever. Or they don't have the time to upload a video so you got to make sure that that upload time is good. All these things you have to think about when you're trying to make a decision. I always say, head to your own inbox and see what's happening there. What do you like and what don’t you like? Try to use that for inspiration.

Anna David: Yeah. Except something like, I hate emojis in newsletters. I don't know why. I think it's some weird OCD thing. I see it and it gets upsetting to me on the subject line. However, I hear emojis are great in the subject line. What about little tricks like that?

Holly: Yeah, I don't use emojis very often. But same thing, funny enough, when I see when it stops me. So it depends. Overuse of anything tends to not be a great idea. So, you could split test it. You have one subject line for part of your list and another use the same email and give them a different subject line. It's easy sometimes as one subject line with an emoji and one without and see if one of them gets opened more often than the other. Then, you have your answer, whether you disliked them or not. Then I would say use them sporadically, right? Only for emails that are super important that you can get a call to action going that equals revenue typically is when I will pull out some of the big stops. But subject lines are a whole workshop in and of themselves. Thinking along the lines of there are things that you shouldn't put in subject lines that will have you flagged as spam right away, such as the word “free,” lots of exclamation marks, really, really, really long subject lines, things that use the word “you.” Like, “Hey you,” those kinds of things. And the words change all the time. It's really impossible to keep track of them. But there are those are some of the key things that typically will get you sent right into the spam folder, especially as a new author who hasn't really got their deliverability rates up and running.

Holly: My but my biggest thing was subject lines is keeping a subject line file of those that you like inside your inbox. Oh, that was cool, I like that. File it for inspiration. Try to figure out a way to use it that works for your brand. Don't overuse emojis, punctuation, capitalization, but try things that aren't really being done. President Obama once sent an email that just said, “Hey,” and I'm like, well, that was weird. But I opened it and so then I started experimenting with “Hey,” and if it works. But again, not overusing it and thinking about if I was sending an email to a friend, what would my subject line be? I struggle with subject lines to friends all the time, especially I don't want to say like, open this up or whatever. But then sometimes maybe I'll use that for my newsletter: “open this up.” Or if you can ask them a leading question like, I can't believe this happened. Or, did you see the news? Anything that is the question that leaves them hanging like, well I want to know what that is. Those are often really good as a plain sentence structure. Some people like to use all lowercase, it feels very friendly like if I'm sending something to a friend, I tend not to capitalize and punctuate and that feels friendly. You can use personalization. I don't often use it but some experts swear by it where you insert their first name into the email. But again, all of these things are things you can try. I highly recommend most email service providers offer you the ability to AB test your subject line. So you can put a couple in, let it run for a couple hours and see what happens.

Anna David: That's great. Do you recommend resending to people who don't open a couple days later?

Holly: It depends. I'll do that only for what I call revenue generating emails. So if there's a call to action in there that I really want things to happen, like your book launch, you've got to preorder or you're appearing somewhere where there's ticket sales. Or there's something happening that you can visibly track an ROI on the click that happens there. I'll resend on opens with the knowledge that 20% of open rates is often non reliable because it's come from an iOS user, where they're flagged as open no matter what. So it's hard to know if they really have opened it. Then sometimes they'll get duplicates if they haven't opened it. But again, a way around that is just make sure it's a completely different subject line. Even go so far as to change like the top entry line, the salutation or something inside the email. Then if they do happen to open both, there's a bit of a different feel there. And they're not seeing them stack up in their inbox, I know some authors that consistently do this with every single email, and now they've trained me to not open the first email because I know it’ll come again and you don't want to do that. So, yeah, I think they're important, but don't think they’re ‘use it every email’ important.

Anna David: In terms of deliverability, do you think on the original email, the first one saying, hey, write me back with blah, so that you're training their inbox to not ever recognize it as spam. Do you think that's important?

Holly: It is important but it's really hard to get that call to action to happen. So the response and then your response again closing the loop is ultimately kind of a gold star in deliverability. However, it's hard to happen. So sometimes I'll put a block, or sorry, a button. Instead of a link behind the button, I'll use the code, “mailto:” and then my email address. And then if they click that button, it automatically brings up their email sending out box and autofills your email address in there. You can even write some more code if you wanted to, that has a subject line ready for them and all that. So making it really easy but also kind of leading them right to that button that you put, it works well.

Anna David: I love it. So, you said early on to sort of pick your lane. Are you going to do social media? Are you going to do newsletters? What if you want to do both?

Holly: Yeah, I do both. But everybody that knows me over on my social channels knows that if they want to get more information, they need to be on the list. So it's a constant conversation that's being had over on social media. Let's say like, for instance, on Facebook, it would be you know, the button goes to my landing page that to join the list. The lead magnet offer is there. If it's on tick tock, the link is heading to a landing page where they can join. Those are intentional pathways that I've set up and every so many social media posts is, “are you on the list? Today they got this lesson.” I'm also a fictional author. So in that it's, join my list to get this book free. It’s in the rotation and it's not every day, but it is there. On pinned posts there's: join the list, click this link, get the lead magnet, blah, blah, blah.

Anna David: Instagram now allows pins posts.

Holly: Yes! So, it’s part of the conversation. My LinkedIn bio is definitely to a landing page to get a  downloadable. It's just part of my intention. I don't think you need to do one or the other. I think they can complement each other. However, I think lists are much more effective at selling and socials are much more effective or can be as effective at educating.

Anna David: Oh god, I had an important question but then I got distracted with this. Here's my important question: do you think if you're going to do one link, it's more important to get them on your list or to get them to your book?

Holly: List because you can continue to sell to them as your back list grows, as you write more things, as you make appearances. I'm a big fan of getting them on the list. The first email in a welcome sequence can do some work like, if you want to purchase the book, here it is, blah, blah, blah. Conversion rates on lists are in the 20 to 30% range, on average, but conversion rates on social media, when you want to sell them something are typically less than 1%, with the outliers that that have kind of gone there. It's just such a more reliable space where you own the process, you own the visibility, and you own what happens after.

Anna David: In terms of live appearances, do you recommend having a place where they can physically write down their names and email addresses? Or is there a better way to do that?

Holly: It definitely works. Or you can use technology and you can have something pre-planned. When I do speaking events, they have their own little landing page. It depends on how the conference is set up. If you're at a conference then usually the organizers have some sort of tech deliver going on during speaking events like, here's the slides, here is a coupon code, here is how to join their list. When I'm doing like book signings or things like that live, I usually would have an iPad there with the landing page. Then I know it’s legal. I’ve got everything kind of working. But you can do a very standard pen and paper, as long as you get the right pieces of information and the consent that you need. I don't think you should be without an ask to a list, regardless of where you're at.

Anna David: Yeah, even at the grocery store and Starbucks.

Holly: Yeah.

Anna David: Well, fantastic. Is there anything I haven't asked you about email lists that you'd love to share? Oh, what about putting a sign up in your book? Always? And do you want it in the front?

Holly: Oh, I have it in both front and back. Not everybody does. So, I have it in the front with a different offer, different landing page. And I'm like, oh, wow, you love my book so much you signed up for my list before you even read it. That’s just in case they never get back to the rest of the book. Then I have it right after the end. I know that sometimes there's previous chapters, sometimes there's this, that and the other thing, but again, thinking that this is my hub, that's where I want everybody to go. I will move them onto my list right away at the end in the back matter. I also track that in the list and I track their behaviors but they also get a little special something for having read the whole book and then joining the list so I can see where they came in as well. It's important.

Anna David: I love it. And of course with nonfiction, it can definitely be get the glossary, get the cheat sheets, whatever it is that will enhance their experience of having read the book.

Holly: Yeah, as long as it connects to what they've just read, there's typically a really great pick up on that bonus content.

Anna David: In terms of platforms, do you think MailChimp is the easiest one to start with?

Holly: MailChimp feels like it's the easiest one to start with because they've done a really great job at marketing and making that name synonymous with email marketing. However, in the past few years, there have been some changes that MailChimp that I think don't make them the best choice for brand new authors. I know that MailerLite has a free service under 1000 subscribers. The big difference between them, especially for those new to email lists, is the service. With MailChimp, when you're at the free space, you don't get any customer service or assistance with something. With a program like MailerLite, they do offer all the customer service you need with their free program under 1000 and all full automations, full everything, with the exception of a few templates, but you get to use them for a couple of weeks. With MailChimp, you have to really start to upgrade if you want to talk to anybody and get more than the basic stuff that's there. As far as integrations go, like how they integrate nicely with websites, MailChimp typically integrates with a lot of those templated websites easily. But all email service providers can do that, it just takes a few extra steps.

Anna David: If I can say anything useful today, it's avoid Drip at all costs. I nearly had 17 breakdowns during the brief time I was using Drip. I don't know if you have experience with that.

Holly: I've used them once for a client work that I was doing. But I've never personally used them.

Anna David: Sorry, one more thing I just remembered. You sort of touched on this but while working on a book, do you think absolutely share? You know, like, “hey, guys, I just started on my new book” or, “hey, I'm on chapter three,” really bringing them into the process so that they're invested?

Holly: 100%, I haven't released a book in like a year and a half, which is abnormal but the pandemic, all those kinds of things. But I have not stopped sending these letters and I just typed the end on one and sent a book off to the editor and wrote a newsletter. I've been getting replies already like, “oh, my gosh, you're back, yay, congratulations.” It doesn't have to be weekly updates but I think it should be consistent updates, like, here's where I'm at. You're getting them excited, you're getting them invested in your success. And again, when you're ready to tell them go buy the book, they are ready to buy the book, as opposed to trying to build that list and those critical times when a book comes out is when you can get the most organic lift from anything. You want to have your list start to push that a little bit.

Anna David: Okay, I love it. Now, is there anything that I've neglected to ask you that would be useful for listeners?

Holly: I don't think so. I think the biggest thing that I could say is just do it now. Don't wait, do it now. And stay consistent. You know, if you choose to write a newsletter, and you pick Tuesdays or first Tuesday of every month for a monthly newsletter, great. Stay consistent because all of these changes that you make like, oh, I have nothing to write about. But you probably always do have something you just aren't sure if it's going to work or not - just do it. But it messes with your deliverability if you keep changing things, so stay consistent. But do it. Just start doing it.

Anna David: And we should mention you help authors do this. So what if someone listening wants to find out more information about that?

Holly: Sure, you can hang out with me, my website is There's lots of free stuff there. Free little mini courses, a blog and you can join my Facebook group where we talk emails every single day. We do lots of that or you can take a course, they're very non-genre specific. There are specific courses and then there are general email courses. Or you can just ask me to help you with your email strategy, which I do quite a bit.

Anna David: I love it. I'll put those links in the show notes. So thank you so much, Holly. This was so informative, so many action steps I know I'm going to take so I imagine you all will too. Thanks so much for being here.

Holly: Thanks for having me.

Anna David: And you guys, thanks for listening. Bye!