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Email Marketing: "What do I put in my emails?"

How to create compelling content that sells

by Nick Stephenson in Email Marketing

I’ve had a LOT of questions recently about “What do I put in my emails?”, “How do I engage people?”, “How can I appeal to XYZ people???”

So, after 2+ years of analysing 500,000+ emails a month, I decided to write this article to dispel a few myths. Note – this is NOT one of those “497 ways to write great emails!” posts (they suck) – instead, I’ve got 4 basic principles and 4 specific actions you need to incorporate into everything you send out to your list of readers.

Starting with a little mythbustin’. The truth is… there is no magic recipe for “the perfect email”.

Everyone is looking for a “secret hack” or “magic bullet” they can use to make everything work. But the real secret is:

What matters is YOU.

If you aren’t getting the responses you expect from your email marketing ask yourself:

(1) am I being myself or am I trying to be something / someone else? Guess what… trying to be something you’re not will always end badly

(2) am I being “vanilla”? By which I mean “Am I trying so hard to please everyone I am being boring?” Happens all the time. Read 99.9% of newsletters. They are boring. They don’t get read. Don’t be that. Be you. You are awesome.

(3) why am I doing this? Ok so getting a little existential here… but I write 1,500 – 2,000 word emails and spend hours sending out free content because I LOVE to see authors making progress. I try to make that shine through. What “shines through” in your emails?

(4) am I showing the real me? Ok no prizes for guessing this but people aren’t perfect. Nobody wants to hear from that person… you are flawed, you are real, you are raw. People engage with that – make it part of who you are and shout it from the rooftops

The “real me” falls asleep on airplanes (no drool, thankfully)

With that being said, there are a few “good practice” rules to bear in mind whenever you send out emails to your list.

Subject lines

Ok, so it’s really easy to get caught up in the myth that there is some kind of “magic subject line” that’s going to get opened more than others… but that’s not quite the case.

The purpose of the subject line is really just to arouse curiosity. Enough that a reader is going to want to see what else you’ve got to say.

In that respect, a “good” subject line is one that arouses interest. So if you’re ever tempted to put “my newsletter” or “buy XYZ” into a subject line of an email, immediately go take a cold shower and slap yourself around the forehead a few times.

Newsflash: people don’t care about your newsletter. They don’t care that you’re selling something. You need to make your emails about what your readers want, not what’s important to you.

Here are a few examples of subject lines that have worked well for us:

  • Asking a question: “Are you this type of person?”, “Do you know anybody like this?”, “How many times have you done this…?”
  • The “Magic Formula”: “The Crow and Jug Principle”, “Punch the Monkey Marketing”, “Starving Artist Syndrome – and other nonsense”
  • Weird and wonderful: “On mad Italians and Speedboats”, “Don’t be a (Buridian’s) Ass”, “How to grow Potatoes on Mars”

Now, you can go out and find “97 effective subject lines” articles on Google all the live-long day, but the problem is… well, those subject lines worked for THAT audience.

What works for your audience might be different. And you can’t use the same tactics every time. For example – including a “weird and wonderful” subject line might get you record-breaking open rates the first time you use it, but it might fall off a cliff the second or third time.

So you need to mix it up a little.

Stick to the principles – create a subject line that (a) arouses interest, and (b) relates to the main content of your actual email.

Most email and CRM services can give you open-rate data, so make sure you experiment and TEST.

The Power of Stories

Okay, so you’re an author. Why is it you can write a full-length novel in less time than most people go between haircuts, but you get all worked up about writing emails?

It’s one of life’s little mysteries.

The bottom line: the purpose of your email is (a) to get a specific piece of information across, and (b) to do it in a way that compels THE RIGHT people to take action.

That’s about it.

Now, you’ll see countless articles on the interwebs from “experts” who’ll tell you crap like, “Make sure you’re in your readers’ inbox every single day!” or “Keep your emails super short and ask for the sale right away!” or “Don’t be afraid to be agressive!”.

Reading stuff like that makes me want to throw up a little.

Look. Writing emails to your readers is a very personal thing. Sure, you want to make sales, but that’s a short-term view. The most successful email marketers take care to build a relationship with their audience – build trust and rapport – before asking for the sale.

That’s the different between an author who enjoys an audience of raving fans and one who just ends up annoying everyone.

So take the time to establish a connection. One easy way to do this is through stories (hey, you’re an author – you know how to do this already).

Example – which of these examples do you think would be more likely to get a response:

I’ve just published a new book – it’s a psychological thriller about a killer who leaves Scarecrows outside his murder scenes and leads the cops down a trail of deception and lies… If you like Jo Nesbo, you’ll love this – a  fast-paced thriller packed with brutal action, with lots of twists and turns. It’s available right now on Amazon! Click here to buy it – you won’t be able to put it down!



When’s the last time you were so scared you couldn’t move? When I was a kid, maybe seven or eight years old, I remember waking up in the middle of the night and feeling that something was wrong… Like always, I called out for my mom, but this time she didn’t come. I think maybe she couldn’t hear me. I remember getting out of bed to go find her, but something caught my eye as I passed the window.

I peered out into the back yard (it was dark) and there was something moving out there. Something that hadn’t been there the day before.

A car drove past and the headlights lit up the lawn. I remember my skin prickling as I saw what was staring back at me… I remember trying to scream for my parents, but no sound came out.

We all laughed about it in the morning. My dad had put up the Halloween decorations a few days early, and his pride and joy had been a life-sized scarecrow (real straw and everything).

I laughed too. But I didn’t really find it funny. And ever since then, I’d always hesitate a little before looking out that window, especially at night. And that one moment – late at night over thirty years ago – left me wondering: “What if it hadn’t been my dad?”

That “What if” became the framework for my new novel – The Scarecrow.

“One night, just a week before Halloween, Joe wakes up to find his mother missing. Only one trace of her remains – a green jacket she always wore once the evenings started turning chilly – now worn by a scarecrow in the back yard that wasn’t there the other day…”

If you ever get a chill on a dark night, if you ever feel like someone might be watching, if you’ve ever wondered how much evil there is in the world, then you already know how this ends…

Find out more about The Scarecrow and buy your copy right here…

Ok, so the second example is longer. There’s no call to action until the end. But which one makes you more interested in finding out more?

Which one feels less “salesy”? Which one is more likely to build a connection with your readers?

Telling stories is one of the oldest ways people build connections with one another. We are, in fact, wired for story. While we struggle to remember a shopping list or a relative’s birthday, a good story sticks with us.

And incorporating stories into your emails is one of the most effective ways to stand out from the crowd and get noticed (and remembered).

So use them. You already know how.

Your Call to Action

Of course, all of this is for nothing if your readers don’t click your links. You’ve spent all that time coming up with compelling subject lines, crafting the perfect email copy, and formatting everything (then testing, testing, testing)… so don’t fall at the last hurdle.

You see, an individual person is smart. An individual person acts like a sentient being. A very clever one.

But people (as a group) are almost the exact opposite. Case in point – an individual person knows how to walk through a door. A crowd of 1,500 people trying to leave a shopping mall at the same time get all turned around and get stuck, confused, and frustrated. Chaos ensues.

Yes, a large group of people need clear instructions and an easy path to follow. And the same is true of your email list.

It’s not enough to hint at something. Or to give a subtle flavour of what’s expected…

You need to spell it out. In the simplest language possible. This also means you can’t be shy about asking for something.

If you want someone to buy something, say “Click here to buy now”. Don’t say “My book is available here if you think you might like a look (although you totally don’t have to)”…

If you want someone to leave a review, say “Click here to leave a review – I read every single one”, not “It’s important for authors to get reviews, here’s a link if you’d like to leave one”

Remember – if you’ve written an awesome book, it’s your duty to tell people about it. Otherwise you’re doing your readers a disservice. So now is not the time to be shy.


Why am I sending this?

Not all emails are promotional. Not all emails need to ask for a sale (in fact, over half of ours don’t mention sales or “buying stuff” at all).

The end result of your email marketing is, of course, getting more people to buy your books. But that doesn’t mean every email needs to be asking for a sale.

So, what’s the point of your email?

Building trust – the more people who trust you (and like you) the more people will buy from you. If you’re not running a promotion, it’s still important to be in your readers’ inboxes – at least once every 2 weeks.

Before you ask for a sale, and in-between promotions, it’s important to keep your audience engaged, interested, and – yes – actually enjoying hearing from you.

An easy way to do this is… just start a conversation.

As above, use stories to draw readers in. Something as simple as “Here’s what I’ve been up to this month” coupled with a question like “What’s the #1 thing you’ve done this month that you’re proud of? Reply to this email and let me know. I read every message.” is enough to get people thinking (and replying to you).

Or, talk about the work you’re doing on your next book. Share behind-the-scenes photos and videos. Start a private book community on Facebook to share your favourite titles. Offer book recommendations of your own. Ask for replies, comments, and feedback.

It’s entirely up to you. Use your imagination. But remember – it’s important to keep your readers happy. And that means taking the time to get to know them, start a conversation. And when the time is right, the sales will come much easier.

The Prelaunch: got a book launch or promotion coming up? It’s important to build buzz and anticipation first.

We tested this approach – and found that our sales more than doubled when we took the time to run a “prelaunch” series of emails before launching a book (or promoting an old book).

Some things you can include during a pre-launch (usually the week before you ask for the sale) could be: cover reveals, sample chapters, character histories, excerpts of reviews, videos, behind-the-scenes photos, deleted scenes… pretty much anything you can think of.

The purpose of this pre-launch phase is to get people excited. You need to pre-emptively break down your readers’ barriers (those pesky things that stop people reaching for their credit cards) and get them all wound up and eager to buy.

That means – share your “trust markers” (reviews, pro covers, press mentions, chart history, bestseller status), give sneak previews and samples, and, most importantly, give readers a reason to buy NOW – instead of letting them procrastinate (launch bonuses, limited time price discounts, you name it).

The good news = you’re not selling a $2,000 coaching package. You’re likely selling a book that costs less than $10. So you don’t need to go overboard with weeks of content and complicated funnels.

All you need is a few emails (2 or 3) to lead up to your launch or promotion to remind readers who you are, why you’re awesome, and the benefits of buying NOW – rather than waiting around (and eventually forgetting).

The launch: Okay, so this is where you ask for the sale. But the good news is – you’ve already done all the hard work during the “building trust” and “pre-launch” phases.

Now all you need to do is (a) repeat what you’ve already said, and (b) ask for the sale in a clear and concise manner.

That means – repeat why readers will love your book. Repeat your launch or promotion offer. Repeat the deadline.

Then say: “buy [insert name of book] now at these stores: [links]”

All the hard work is already done by this point – so make sure you don’t fall at the last hurdle.

Other types of emails: in addition to “building trust”, running pre-launch or launch emails, you might also:

  • Ask for reviews
  • Run cross promotions with other authors (to build an email list or get sales)
  • Send out Advance Review Copies (ARCs) to Launch Team reviewers
  • Run competitions, giveaways, or contests (eg Viral contests that get shared = grow your email list)

And a whole host of others (these are the main ones). But, above all, remember the principles: find your “voice”, be authentic, tell stories, create intriguing subject lines, include a strong call to action, and – perhaps most importantly – remember why you’re emailing in the first place.

Now it’s your turn… What do you struggle with most when you send emails to your list? Leave a comment below – I read every single one.

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