What's the Best Way to Build Your Email List?

By Sue Campbell

The single best way to build your email list is to offer something of value to your potential subscribers. They sign up, they get a special gift from you that somehow makes their day (or even their life) a little bit better.

It sounds simple. But as a writer, how the heck do you decide what that sign-up incentive should be? That question right there is such a frustrating one, I’m sure it explains why even writers who know they should offer a “bribe to subscribe” don’t.

The key to finding the right freebie to offer is this magical word: EMPATHY.

You must put yourself in the heart and mind of your reader and decide what would truly be of value to them. (Notice the stark contract to a self-promotional approach: Sign up for my newsletter because I’m so great!)

So let’s look at how to get inside the head of the type of person you want on your list. Let’s look at nonfiction writers first, since it’s a bit more straightforward in their case.

finding the right non-fiction Sign-up Incentive

Here are the questions you need to ask yourself to decide on the best gift for new subscribers:

Who’s my potential audience?

What challenges do they have around my topic?

How can I make life a little bit easier for them?

The answers to these questions may lead you to choose something from the following list:

  • An email course to teach something important (yet narrow) about your topic

  • A workbook

  • A checklist

  • A discussion guide

  • Supplemental research from your book such as full interview transcripts with experts

finding the right fiction Sign-up Incentive

It’s a little trickier for fiction writers, for a variety of reasons. First of all, if you’re traditionally published, your publisher may have some restrictions about what content you’re allowed to give away for free. Second, what used to work doesn’t work anymore. It used to be enough to giveaway the first few chapters of your book. Unless you’re a big name with an existing following on social media that you’re trying to convert to your email list, this is unlikely to work well for you.

Remember your empathic approach. What do fiction readers want? They want to be entertained. To be lost in another world and another life for awhile.

Here are some things that work well these days:

  • A digital copy of the first book in a series for free

  • A short story or a collection of short stories

  • A chapter a day of your entire novel

  • A bundle of materials related to your book: character sketches, back stories, deleted scenes, etc.

  • A series of audio files of you reading your book a chapter at a time

  • Content closely related to your book; for example, if your book features a character who cooks, put together a recipe book of your character’s favorite recipes

  • A mega-list of books in your genre that have inspired you that your readers might enjoy

a word about framing + examples

So, when you post about your freebie on your site, what should you say? Again, use empathy. What’s the benefit to your audience? As soon as you ask that question, you can see that it’s pretty lame to say “get a free book.” There are millions of books in the world and frankly, despite being a book lover, I have no interest in reading most of them. Use language that will help your reader decide if you’re truly a good fit for them.

My client, KJ Dell’Antonia, is the author of the book How to Be a Happier Parent. She offers a quiz to find your personalized parenting mantra and once you sign up, you also get access to other short guides for happier parenting.

The Chip and Dan Heath write nonfiction books on a range of topics on human behavior and offer an amazing resource library with materials to complement each of their books.

Anne Hawley, an editor here at Pages & Platforms, is also a novelist and offers a chapter a day of her historical fiction novel Restraint. She uses a brilliant tagline so readers can assess if they’re interested: “Pride and Prejudice meets Brokeback Mountain in this sweeping, dramatic story of two men whose deep bond defies society...”

My client, John Bray, writes picture books for children. When he wanted to jump-start his list building, we decided he should offer free print copies of his first book, Maggie and the Sprinkle Tree. He even paid for shipping. Not only did he get almost 200 sign-ups within a few days, he also got some great online buzz and more people he could tap to leave Amazon reviews. He now offers a free epub version of the book instead.

Those are just a few examples to spur your imagination. Get started on your sign-up incentive today and know that if what you make doesn’t connect, you can always try again. The important thing is to think like the audience you want to attract and give them something they can’t resist.


Want some extra help building your author platform? Our next group coaching cohort starts January 12. Learn more.

Sue Campbell