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3 important email marketing truths you need to know as an author

An author I know sent a message to his newsletter subscribers with the subject line, “I’m cleaning up my list.”

It caught my attention because although I was on his list, I didn’t subscribe to his newsletter. He added me without my permission.

I wasn’t interested in his newsletter topic so I deleted his messages without reading them.

Maybe unsubscribing isn’t as easy as we think

I could have unsubscribed, right? It was certainly easy enough — all I had to do was use that option at the bottom of any newsletter.

But I didn’t unsubscribe because I was certain he would confront me if I did. (Remember, I know him.)

Who needs the drama? Certainly not me.

Was it my get out of jail free card?

This time, though, I thought that his newsletter’s “I’m cleaning up my list” subject line was my get out of jail free card.

email marketing truths 4

“I don’t like spam any more than you do, so I’m cleaning up my contact list,” the message began.

It felt like he was giving me permission to unsubscribe. So…I scrolled down to the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom, only to discover this warning just above it: “Feel free to opt out, but remember that unsubscribing works both ways: I have no desire to get email from people who don’t want to receive it from me.”


That is all kinds of wrong.

And it made me wonder if other authors shared the misperception that this was an okay thing to do.

Here’s why it isn’t, and here are two other author email marketing truths that will help you move forward, not hold you back.

Email marketing truth #1: Reciprocity isn’t the goal.

You want the right people as subscribers.

The “right” people are those in your book’s target audience. They’re the people who read the types of books you write.

And they’re probably not the people whose newsletters you subscribe to.

Take me. I don’t read science fiction, so you don’t want me on your email list. I will never buy and read your book.

And I won’t recommend your book simply because I learned about it in your newsletter because I’m not qualified to recommend it.

So don’t add me to your list.

It doesn’t matter that you receive my newsletter. You subscribed because you’re interested in what I write about — book marketing. You never want to presume that someone who writes about a topic you’re interested in will automatically be interested in what you write about.

Focusing on the right subscribers saves you money

Here’s another reason you don’t want to add people to your list just because you’re on theirs: Adding the wrong people will eventually start costing you money.

Some email marketing services give you a free account until you reach a specified number of subscribers. After that, you start paying.

In addition, even when you’ve got a paid account, your monthly fee increases as your list grows.

Don’t pay for people who aren’t your ideal readers.

Email marketing truth #2: This isn’t a loyalty test.

I took the plunge with the author who invited people to unsubscribe because I am constantly, constantly trying to decrease the amount of email I receive.

But after I unsubscribed, I watched my inbox for his response, because I knew there would be one.

It came pretty quickly.

The author told me that because I wasn’t willing to demonstrate my loyalty to him by remaining on his email list, he had unsubscribed from my Build Book Buzz newsletter and disconnected from me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.


He showed me, right?

Who pays the price?

Will I miss seeing what he shares about a topic I’m not interested in?

I will not.

Will he suffer because he won’t see the information I share that could help him sell more copies of his book or build a bigger platform for the next one?

I don’t know. Maybe he never looked at anything I wrote or shared after he subscribed.

But I don’t care. And I won’t suffer because of his actions.

People can support you in other ways

Please remember that the people in your life can support you in many ways that don’t involve receiving your newsletter.

They can announce your book to their social networks, introduce you to people who might be able to help you in a bigger way, or just listen to you talk about the joys and frustrations of publishing — and that’s just for starters.

Email marketing truth #3: You can create a newsletter your readers will look forward to.

When I ask authors why they aren’t using email marketing, most say it’s because they don’t want to be “spammy.”

email marketing truths 2

Then I ask if they subscribe to any newsletters. When they answer “yes” — and they usually do say “yes” — I ask why. More often than not, it’s because the newsletters are interesting, informative, helpful, or entertaining.

Well, then, if that marketer can send a newsletter that’s interesting, why can’t you?

So let go of this idea that all email marketing is spammy. Because it isn’t. When you create content that serves your reader rather than yourself, your subscribers will look forward to your messages.

When you focus on what the reader wants from you, you’ll attract more of the right subscribers. Your list and fan base will grow — without adding people who don’t want to be on it.

Avoid an uphill battle

But back to the author who invited people to unsubscribe from his list, then punished them for doing so: It’s a mean-spirited approach to book promotion.

When your marketing decisions are grounded in a “you-do-for-me-and-I’ll-do-for-you” approach, it will be an uphill battle. (Consider that another email marketing truth.)

email marketing truths 3

It doesn’t matter how beautifully you write or how much you know about your  topic. If you make people uncomfortable by approaching your tasks with an “And what will you do for me in return?” attitude, you’re going to find yourself with far fewer opportunities than your competitors.

You are who you are, but if you’re someone who…

  • Subscribes to an author friend’s newsletter and gets angry if she doesn’t add herself to your list (or removes herself after you make the mistake of adding her) or
  • Unfollows people on Twitter for no other reason than they don’t follow you back or
  • Sulk because your college roommate hasn’t reviewed your book yet

…it will be slow going for you.

When you’re always looking for trouble, you’ll find it. Why not look for opportunities, instead?

Each email marketing truth will serve you well. Embrace all of them.

And if you haven’t started building an email list yet, what are you waiting for? Get started now!

Learn more about author email marketing attitudes, content, and mechanics in Tammy Labrecque’s book, Newsletter Ninja: How to Become an Author Mailing List Expert.

What have you seen in email marketing that you liked? What works for you? 

(Editor’s note: This article was first published in November 2015. It has been updated and expanded.)

Subscribe to the free Build Book Buzz newsletter and get the free special report, “Top 5 Free Book Promotion Resources,” immediately!

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  1. I watched a video (a recording of a webinar on how to build up your e-mail list) and the advice was, if you hadn’t got a list yet, to contact everybody you knew, sent texts, etc, so that in the next 24 hours you’d get over 100 subscribers. In the comments, somebody had written: ‘And what would be the point of such a list if they are not your target audience?’. No reply to that comment, but the only one that made sense.
    I agree on the other points too.
    I had somebody (an author) query in one of the Goodread groups why people were there if they were not commenting or talking about her books. I replied saying that some people might prefer not to comment, and sometimes people signed with the intention of taking part in something and then never found the time to do it. She replied that if you don’t have the time you shouldn’t sign, and I thought she had a point. So yes, I removed myself from her group and quite a few others. (I must confess to not being a big fan of Goodreads).

    1. Olga, you are so wise. Thank you for sharing this. I wonder if the instruction to get just any 100 people on this list was so that the list builder would get some gratification. In reality, list building is a slow process, and perhaps if you don’t see results pretty quickly — even “results” with the wrong subscribers — you might get discouraged and abandon it. Regardless, that question should have been answered, for sure.

      Loved your Goodreads story! What was the purpose of the group? In addition to your explanation, some people are just lurkers — they learn by observing, not by participating.


    2. On the advice of a good friend, I have left Goodreads altogether. I picked up my toys and headed out the door and no one tried to stop me or contact me to say you are missed. Goodreads has been swallowed up by Amazon, and I don’t like the feel of that.
      Cheers, Don

      1. Don, Goodreads is a whole different animal from other social media sites but once you figure it out, it can be good for your writing career, especially if you write fiction. One of those 40 million users might be happy to discover your books there.


    1. Thank you, Patricia. It just seems like approaching book marketing — and anything else — is easier and more productive if you do it with a smile instead of a frown, eh?


  2. I love your advice , Sandra, especially the part about not expecting”tit for tat”. It’s hard to imagine someone being so bold and offensive. This is not a competition. We are all here to help each other succeed. Amen!

    1. Thank you, Kathy. I always appreciate hearing your wisdom. Unfortunately, he felt that by unsubscribing from his list, I wasn’t doing my part to help him succeed. I would think that all of this “support” must feel more personal for you than for some of us others because you’ve written a memoir. It doesn’t get much more personal than that.


  3. Sandra,

    Wise advice, and I’ll add you are better off without contact with this negative person.

    Another ‘don’t’ for authors: Don’t rant on your Facebook page using harsh language and address it to ‘you know who you are’.

    I received a post like this on my feed from a very popular author. I was not the person to whom the author meant to rant, but reading it first thing in the morning was like a slap in the face.

    Not a great technique to connect with readers or colleagues.

    1. Excellent bonus advice from you, Cathryn! Thank you!

      I think part of the problem with both unprofessional situations is that some don’t consider this to be inappropriate for an author’s brand — including the 2 we’re talking about. That’s partly because clueless people are clueless that they’re clueless. Seriously. There’s research proving that. If you did a little “vaguebooking” after you saw that in your news feed and wrote on your timeline, “Some people should remember that when they use their social networks to market themselves or their product, every cranky comment they make becomes part of their brand,” the guilty party wouldn’t recognize him/herself and would probably respond with, “Yes! Why don’t people see this????”

      : )


  4. Wow. What an amazing example of someone who doesn’t understand how to get and keep real fans.

    Aside from the rudeness, his reciprocity principle is completely insane. There are numerous people I follow who I wouldn’t expect to follow me – a few financial gurus with an interesting point of view, for example. Why in the world would I assume they would have an interest in me? And I could run down a list of very good clients who follow me but I would have no reason to follow.

    There appears to be more to your story, though, than what you told. You wrote, “I know he would confront me if I unsubscribed.” That tells me that apart from his offensive email footer, he was giving off bad vibes in other ways. This is also something we want to avoid doing. Do you care to add to the story?

    Marcia Yudkin

    1. Great question, Marcia! I know this guy, although not well, so I had a sense of what to expect. More intuition than anything else, I suppose.

      I’m with you on the expectations of followers. Personally, I follow people because of what they can add to my world, not what I can add to theirs, but that’s just me.


  5. Sandra: words of wisdom from you and those commenting. We have to earn the “know,like, trust” position – not demand it. Another irritating e-mail for me are those titled “do you hate me” because I didn’t sign up for the program they were promoting. Sure, tongue-in-cheek, but to me it’s another example of poor manners and communication.

    1. Thanks, Virginia! I love that reminder about “know, like, & trust” — excellent point. And you made me laugh with the “do you hate me?” reference. Sadly, I suspect it works with certain personalities! I would just roll my eyes if I saw that, though.


  6. Thank you for sharing this story, Sandy. The more folks learn NOT to add people to their lists without permission, the better.

    This seems to happen to me constantly, and it’s my pet peeve. A person I’ve met exactly one time adds me to her email list and suddenly I’m getting emails about books and classes on fly fishing or some other random thing I’m not into. I don’t even forward the info because I don’t know the person well enough to endorse her.

    It’s awkward to have to ask acquaintances to take me off their lists. Too bad it doesn’t feel as awkward to them to add me in the first place.

    Maybe your post will discourage them. Anyway, thanks for trying.

    1. Tina, I suspect that if the information was interesting or relevant, we wouldn’t mind so much. Unfortunately, I can’t even keep up with the email that I request! It gets so overwhelming…!

      It’s always good to hear from you!


  7. Sandra,

    I simply don’t monitor my list so closely. I believe I maintain mental health by keeping an emotional distance from the unsubscribes. People have all sorts of reasons for unsubscribing and there’s no reason to take it personally.

    On the other hand, I value relevant comments inordinately.

    I see nothing wrong with unfollowing Twitter connections who aren’t following me. To me, the primary purpose of Twitter is to support connections mutually. If people aren’t interested in me, I don’t want to waste time supporting their marketing. If that makes me a bad person, so be it.


    Diana Schneidman, author, Real Skills, Real Income: A Proven Marketing System to Land Well-Paid Freelance and Consulting Work in 30 Days or Less

    1. Diana, I know one author who gets distance by opting not to receive the unsubscribe messages. It solves the problem quite nicely. I like that idea.

      Re. your Twitter strategy, you follow 11,000 people. How do you support all of them? How do the 14,000 who follow you support you? I’d like to hear more about that.

      Thanks, as always, for your wise insights.


    1. Joy, you probably know from experience that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, right? ; )


  8. I just recently subscribed to your blog. I am a hobby writer who would love to buckle down and get serious about my dreams of writing my 1st book and I was hoping your blog and newsletters could give me some tips on getting started. I have to day that I have done direct sales in the past and belong to most of the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. I found it so annoying when people on my friend’s list add me to their “groups” (basically sales pages that are only plastered with post about how great their products are and buy it now) especially without my permission. This kind of seems like the same thing. I am a coach with a health and fitness company and I would never market myself that way. It’s tacky and rude. I see a lot of this type of so called marketing on Facebook. Why do people not understand that is beyond me. I quickly take myself out of the group I didn’t sign myself up for Iin the first place. Marketing is not about seeing how many people you can force into your group or email lists and it’s not about I’ll do for you if you do for me.

    Great article. I really enjoyed reading it. Looking forward to the next newsletter. 🙂

    1. Welcome, Sonya! I’m glad you’re here. Your Facebook groups analogy is a good one. I made that mistake when I started the Build Book Buzz group on Facebook, thinking that people would get an invitation to join, not that they would automatically be added. Live and learn — and I learned! I guess I’m more fortunate than you — people rarely add me to groups on FB. When they do, it’s usually for something so out in left field for me — like the Miami Salsa Dancing group when I’m in Western NY (and everybody knows I like to polka…) — that nobody can take offense when I leave the group.

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts here — it’s helpful!


      1. Thanks for responding to my post Sandy. Facebook has become a breeding ground for people who will just add anyone they can. I’ve also started seeing this on YouTube. In the comments under videos a good majority of the will say something to the effect of….subscribe to my channel and I will subscribe back to yours. It’s totally just a numbers thing to them. They don’t understand marketing. If they did they would realize just because they have 1000 FB friends or 100,000 subscribers on YouTube that it won’t automatically mean more sales of their products or more views on their videos. I would rather have 10 people who are there for a reason and enjoy my content than 100 people who have no idea who I am or who don’t like me or my products.


        1. One thought on YouTube: A high number of subscribers can attract advertisers that will help a content creator make money off the YouTube channel rather than off their own products. Just a thought.

          A member of the Build Book Buzz Facebook group noted that she has a friend who keeps her email list small on purpose — she regularly deletes those who don’t open her newsletter, for example — so she can tell her business partners that she has a very engaged list that’s interested in what she shares. Sounds like you, right? Smart!


  9. When you started off by saying this guy added you to his list without your permission, I already knew he didn’t know about or respect permission marketing.

    Unless list owners are paying by the subscriber, what’s the urgency to drop people from their lists. I’ve occasionally gotten a sale or comment from a subscriber I haven’t heard from in a long time.

    As a courtesy to subscribers, at the beginning of every mailing I encourage them to unsubscribe if they are no longer interested in my content and let them know that we’ll part as friends. I partly do this because long-time subscribers sometimes forget they subscribed and report a mailing as spam rather than just take the simple step to unsubscribe.

    This guy evidently doesn’t care or believe what Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” His warped “tit for tat” attitude has damaged not only your feelings about him, but ours as well. You can bet he has left a trail of bad feelings with others as well.

    1. Thanks, Flora. I like that you remind people at the top of your newsletter that they did actually subscribe.I did that, too, until I changed formats to the more simpler one that I’m using now. Even with that, every once in awhile I’d get a note from some outraged individual telling me that I committed a crime by adding her to my list and the email cops would surely handcuff me by the next dawn. Of course I’ve never added anyone to my list — it has always been 100% opt-in only. It’s nice to be able to respond with that statement with confidence!

      FYI, Canadian law states that you can’t add a Canadian resident to your list — they must opt-in. I manage my list according to Canadian law because it’s easier that way, and really, I think it’s the right way to do it, too.

      The other requirement that many authors ignore is the unsubscribe option. U.S. law says if you’re mailing to people regularly, you have to provide an easy way for them to unsubscribe. I get lots of “newsletters” (that I didn’t request) where that’s missing.

      I love that Maya Angelou quote — and it’s so appropriate for this situation. I think you’re absolutely right about that trail. He would probably respond by saying that he doesn’t care. If he’s OK with that, then so be it. I just can’t work that way because, just between us, I have never been good with numbers, so keeping score with the “tit for tat” model would be too much of a challenge for my words-based brain.


  10. Like you, my mailings are opt-in, double opt-in actually. In spite of that, I occasionally get an email from an angry subscriber, even though I also have a note at the top telling them they are receiving this email because they subscribed on such and such date.

    I also follow Canadian law and make it easy for folks to unsubscribe. Unfortunately, many people don’t read carefully and therefore miss all the ways we try to make things easy for them.

    My favorite newsletters are the ones that offer an unsubscribe option, but don’t really unsubscribe you from their lists. Do they think I won’t remember that I unsubscribed? For those folks I set up a filter that sends their email directly to the trash. I could report them as spam, but I don’t if I originally subscribed.

    Since I’m not good with tracking even the things I should, I’m definitely not going to spend an ounce of energy on the “tit for tat” approach. Besides, I believe in karma, so they’ll get what they deserve from a higher power.

    1. Flora, don’t get me started on unsubscribing that doesn’t actually unsubscribe you! And how about those messages that make it extra hard to find the unsubscribe link, or that force you to enter your email address to unsubscribe? I have more than one, so I have to then go back to the message to see what address it was sent to, etc. It shouldn’t require so much effort.


  11. It’s always disappointing when someone decides to unsubscribe from your an email list (I don’t have an author one — yet, but I do have a business list), but ultimately you really only want the people who are interested in reading your newsletter to subscribe.

    Raw numbers of subscribers are meaningless if some of the subscribers just bin your stuff.

    Thus it amazes me that people would put such a petulant message in their “unsubscribe” notice. Do they not consider the possibility that the remaining subscribers might read that “nugget” and be put off? That they might decide to unsub as well because of that?

    Such an petulant message would, to my mind, work directly against the marketing effort.

    My two cents


    1. [Such an petulant message would, to my mind, work directly against the marketing effort. ]

      You’d think, right, Brant? I can’t see how it could help. I wonder if anyone else said to him, “Are you sure this is in your best interest?”

      Thanks for weighing in — you offered far more than two cents.


  12. You could not be more right Sandra!
    I have been receiving so much advice from you, for free, since I was fortunate to get across you. Your character has thus been revealed to me!
    Such defiance attitudes is harmful at any level or front, and I am certain it will harm the other party while you will only recruit more support.
    Though I have not widened my spectrum as an author yet, in the end I am a career woman- a pediatrician- and a mother, and I have learnt much about tolerance, and adopted it!
    Maria Jasmine Freeman

    1. Thank you for such kind words, Maria! I suspect there are many more like him out there, which is unfortunate, for sure.


  13. Why, why, why would someone react the way this author did? I truly believe that now more than ever authors need to be incredibly careful with how we interact with and react to people. Digital footprints will come back to kick us in the backsides harder than ever. Clearly this author was upset and didn’t take the mandatory deep breath before replying to you. Whenever someone sends me an email or other electronic communication that hurts/upsets me, I purposely wait to respond. An hour or two of it’s pressing. A day if I can. That way my head is clear.

    1. Ekta, I agree about digital footprints, for sure. But props to this dude for being authentic — he is who he is. As for whether he was upset, I think it was more a matter of principle for him rather than “hurt.” When he responded to the notification that I unsubscribed by informing me that he had completely disconnected from me and would no longer recommend my site to authors needing help, I asked him if he was sure that this was the best way to support his own business. His response that he refused to support anyone who didn’t support him gave me the impression that his decision was based on his principles. While I can respect him standing by his principles, I wonder if they should be re-evaluated in this case.



  14. This is excellent. With all the encouragement for authors to start up targeted email lists and newsletters, it’s really helpful to know a few simple basics about the professionalism and courtesy that goes along with it. I’m sharing this link to the WiDo Facebook page for our authors to see.

    1. I’m so glad it was helpful, Karen. Thanks for letting me know! I’ll add one tip not overtly stated here: You don’t want to add people to your list w/out their permission. You want an opt-in list, meaning, they opt to be on it. You can use a newsletter sign up sheet at events etc., you can require email addresses for a door prize/drawing and tell people that everyone who enters will be added to your list, and you should have an opt-in form on your website. But just adding them because you know them is counter to accepted best practices.

      Thank you for sharing this with your Facebook network, too. I appreciate it!


  15. If you have time to look at individual unsubscribes and then go to social media to find out where you’re following the person so you can completely disconnect and then write an email letting the person know you’ve done so…well, you’re probably not spending much time writing.

    Also, super creepy.

  16. Wow, what a shortsighted attitude the author had. If I received the email you describe above, the little note (i.e. “Feel free to opt out…”) would have made me want to opt out.

    Sadly, his reaction proves you did the right thing.

    1. Thanks, Mike. Glad I’m not the only one. I think I was the most stunned by the indirect “…but you’ll be sorry!” message.


  17. Reading this piece and the comments tends to confirm my gut feeling: too many folk are wasting time and effort messaging, emailing, etc. etc., in the hope that somehow this is going to sell their books. And websites like this one encourage them to think that exploiting social media is going to work some sort of magic. Maybe a larger portion of their time should be invested in simply learning to write better books…

    1. [And websites like this one encourage them to think that exploiting social media is going to work some sort of magic ]

      Just so ya know, this isn’t true. I’m not as dumb as I look.

      As for this:

      [Maybe a larger portion of their time should be invested in simply learning to write better books]

      Please read this post: http://buildbookbuzz.com/why-quality-counts/

      Finally, writing “better books” isn’t enough. People have to know about or discover them before they read and recommend them.


  18. I had a similar incident to this when I suddenly had someone’s newsletter appear in my inbox. It claimed we’d met on social media, yet I had no idea who he was or how he added me to his newsletter.

    His glaring typos were an immediate turn off too.

  19. Thanks for this. I am so, so tired of the unsolicited newsletters. Authors are putting all their energy into stuff that only makes enemies of every other author in the blogosphere.

    I got one this morning that was from an obviously beginning writer sending her unpolished short stories to every well-known blogger she could find. Her “unsubscribe” was so passive aggressive, I didn’t even bother. I just sent the email to spam and I will continue to do so. This means gmail will register her as a spammer and her newsletter will routinely go into everybody’s spam folder.

    I hope she learns to write some day, but she will also have to learn how NOT to make enemies of the entire writing world before she tries to publish.

  20. One of my pet peeves is seeing email arrive from someone who has just subscribed to my publicity tips. They think that if they subscribe to my list, they have a right to put me on theirs. No so. That’s spamming. Thanks, Sandra, for pointing out this common problem and others.

  21. I am a new author (my first book is coming out in October, 2022) and I am still trying to figure this email newsletter thing out.

    For one, I write children’s books that teach kids chess strategies by telling anthropomorphic stories about the pieces on the board. So, what I might write in a newsletter, like monthly chess puzzles, for example, is likely to be more geared to the kids of the recipients than the recipients themselves.

    But on the topic of this post, is it considered acceptable to send a one-time email to your contacts to offer them a chance to opt-in to your email newsletter list, perhaps with an example of what such a newsletter might entail?

    1. It is totally acceptable and a great idea, Jon. Be sure to include the link where they can subscribe, and tell them that this is the only message they’ll receive about it.

      You might want to add yourself to children’s book author Jylene Morgan’s list to see how she handles her email newsletter. And her opt-in gift — her “lead magnet” — is outstanding!


  22. One more question, does it ever make sense to only use the email subscriber list to just send out updates when there is something to announce, like a new book, and not use it to send out a monthly newsletter which subscribers may tire of receiving?

    1. That’s the approach some authors use, but it’s harder to build relationships with your audience on a random, occasional schedule. For me, the absolute best part of my email newsletter is the conversations I end up having with my subscribers. Such wonderful people! I wouldn’t want you to miss out on that! And people won’t tire of a once-a-month message. If you send less often than that — say, quarterly — they’ll forget about you.


  23. Brilliant How-Not-To when it comes to email marketing!

    I cannot believe how this person acted in the first place – simply adding people to your list without their consent will get you into serious legal trouble for non-compliance with GDPR (Germany), plus it will obviously annoy people who never wanted to be on that list anyway. But then this guy even has the cheek to complain to people unsubscribing from his unwelcome present! Something is very wrong in this person’s head. Should we hope that he figures it out before word of mouth spreads about how he treats people he knows and unsubscribers in particular? I do not think so.

    1. You almost have to feel sorry for him, right? Attitude is everything — in marketing and in life!


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