Book Review

Where Do Your Readers Come From?

Today’s guest writer is Carla Laureano. She is a two-time RITA® award-winning author of over a dozen books, spanning the genres of contemporary romance and Celtic fantasy. A graduate of Pepperdine University, she worked in sales and marketing for more than a decade before leaving corporate life behind to write full-time. She currently lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband, two sons, and an opinionated, tortoiseshell cat named Willow. You can find out more at www.carlalaureano.com.

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After attending an email marketing seminar at a conference in 2017, I launched a new onboarding campaign for my mailing list. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it’s a way of acclimating new subscribers to your mailing list through a series of email contacts over a period of days and weeks. Besides being a useful way to remind subscribers that they did, in fact, sign up willingly for your mailing list, it can also be the source of useful demographic and behavioral data on your readers.

My onboarding campaign includes four messages, the first of which delivers a free romance e-book (my “lead magnet”) and concludes with an invitation to join my reader room on Facebook. For the last three and a half years, an intermediate email invited subscribers to complete a short survey in return for downloadable desktop and phone wallpaper. While my open rate for this email was only about 63% (which is still pretty good compared to industry averages), a full 70% of those openers clicked through to take the survey. If I did my math right, these responses represent about 44% of my subscribers.

Before I talk about my specific findings, I have a few caveats. First, my readers represent a very specific segment of the Christian fiction reading market—primarily fans of romance and women’s fiction. Second, because a whopping 56% of my subscribers didn’t respond, the self-selecting nature of the survey may have skewed the responses toward a certain type of reader. Still, the results were illuminating. To keep things simple and make the survey likely to be completed, I asked only two questions.

The answer to the first one was a shock.

How did you first hear about me?
42% – I’ve read your previous books.
25% – I entered a giveaway.
5% – I clicked an ad for a free book.
5% – I follow you on social media.
4% – I read your blog/article on somebody else’s site.
1% – I know you in real life.
18% – I don’t remember/Other/No response

It’s important to note that of those who signed up because of a free-book ad or a giveaway, only about 60% of them remain on my list over the long term. That’s either because they unsubscribe themselves or because I remove them after six months of inactivity. (I don’t believe in paying for contacts who aren’t interested in buying my books or interacting with me.)

These results seem to indicate that my readers found my books first and my mailing list after. Rather than followers driving book sales, book sales are driving followers! While that might feel a little frustrating, considering the emphasis we put on building mailing lists to sell books, it should also be encouraging to beginning authors who have very few subscribers. Write the book and subscribers will come.

What shocked me most is how little social media and guest posts drive newsletter signups! That doesn’t mean that those things don’t drive book sales; that’s a metric that I didn’t design for. But it does mean that for the sole purpose of building a mailing list, untargeted social-media posts and guest posts are among the least important activities we can engage in. I should note, however, that the social-media segment represents ongoing and consistent social-media activity over years, whereas I only ran free book ads for a brief and finite period of time. This tells me that were I to invest in Facebook and Instagram ads on a consistent basis, that number might be much higher and consistent, targeted ad spends may be a more effective tactic than simply maintaining a social-media presence.

What conclusions do I draw from this information as a marketer? One, that to some extent, the indie crowd has it right: The more books you write, the more followers you get, and the more sales you make. But take heart, newly traditionally published folks: After ten years and twelve titles, I’m only just starting to build name recognition. And two, mailing lists are useful for maintaining reader interest after they discover you. I have far less attrition from subscribers who found my books and then signed up than those who came to my list from other sources.

Now for the second question. The results of this one are less surprising:

Where do you primarily shop for books?
72% – Amazon
7% – Barnes & Noble
7% – ChristianBook.com
6% – local Christian bookstore
3% – local indie bookstore
1% – Apple/iTunes

I think we all know by now that Amazon is driving most of our book sales. But look at those numbers for ChristianBook.com and indie bookstores of both Christian and general varieties—16% when combined! That’s far higher than I expected.

So should writers (particularly indies) focus exclusively on Amazon? I don’t think so. What this tells me is that while Amazon still holds the lion’s share of the market, they don’t yet have it locked. And 30%, depending on unit sales, can generate some serious revenue.

Also, this information highlights another point about the self-selecting nature of respondents: These are the habits of people who buy books. I’ve noticed for my indie sales that the 70% figure holds true for Amazon, but all those other retailers perhaps account for 5% of my total revenue. Where does the other 25% come from? Subscription services, such as Overdrive and Scribd. Because I set a higher retail price with subscription services and therefore net more per sale, some months those two platforms combined nearly equal my Amazon sales.

To me, this means that the smart move is to go wide and focus on all the possible outlets for selling books, not just Amazon. As we learned in the early months of the pandemic when the retail behemoth declared books “nonessential,” that spigot can turn off at any time. Even if I lost my Amazon sales, I’d still have 30% from other sources to fall back on.

I’ve since replaced this email in my onboarding series with another offer, but my initial three-and-a-half year experiment served its purpose by showing me the general buying patterns of my audience and how different aspects of my marketing efforts interact with others. In the future, I can be more strategic in my efforts and, more importantly, understand the standard by which I should gauge my success.

If you’d like to do something similar but don’t want to or know how to set up an onboarding campaign, I recommend sending out a short poll to your email subscribers and posting it on your social-media pages and groups. Offering something like a free-story download or pretty digital wallpaper is a good way to overcome readers’ reluctance to click. On the other hand, if you’d like to see firsthand how I run my onboarding campaign, feel free to join up at carlalaureano.com. You’ll get a free book in the bargain–and join the 4% of my subscribers who found me through a guest blog.

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