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.


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.

13 Responses to Where Do Your Readers Come From?

  1. Virginia Sue Graham May 24, 2021 at 5:30 am #

    Carla, thank you for sharing the stats of your personal research. Wow! This will help me focus on areas I’ve wanted to focus on all along in this journey of “getting published.” I’m from a sales and marketing background as well and appreciate the way you’ve reported your findings.

    • Carla Laureano May 24, 2021 at 9:19 am #

      It’s my pleasure. We marketing types like data! Ultimately, your results may vary but this could be a good starting point when you don’t have your own data from which to draw.

      Best of luck on the publishing journey!

  2. Kristen Joy Wilks May 24, 2021 at 6:07 am #

    Fascinating info, Carla! Now I’m curious about where my readers come from.

    • Carla Laureano May 24, 2021 at 9:20 am #

      You’ll be surprised how willing readers are to tell you about themselves if you just ask! (Having a fun little extra as an enticement also helps.)

  3. Barbara Harper May 24, 2021 at 6:39 am #

    Thanks for this great information. This is what I have always believed–that readers find books they like first and then subscribe to mailing list after (if at all). I believe that because that’s my practice as a reader. I’m not on many email lists. I prefer to read an author’s blog posts and keep my email for correspondence. I did a survey about newsletters on my blog a couple of years ago, and while only 31 people took the survey, most of them felt the same way.

    That’s why I get a little frustrated with the push to start an email list or newsletter if we want to get published. I probably will start an email list at some point, because it seems to be expected for authors. But I think the vast majority of book buyers aren’t subscribed to email lists.

    One choice missing from your survey is hearing about you from someone’s recommendation. The great majority of books I read come from book reviews or recommendations from fellow bloggers. Not so much from official book blogs–they tend to present every book positively because they want to keep getting free books to review. But I’ve been reading some bloggers for years and know their tastes and know which ones have similar standards to mine, so I trust their recommendations. No one I know in real life reads as much as I do, so I talk books mostly with online friends.

    • Carla Laureano May 24, 2021 at 9:24 am #

      That’s a good point, Barbara. I was really more interested in how they found my mailing list rather than my books, but if your focus is slanted the other direction that’s definitely a choice you would want to include.

      If I were to ask about how they found my books, I’d want to know where the recommendation came from (library, bookstore employee, personal friend). Lately, I’ve been hearing from readers that they found me either from a library display or the librarian hand-selling the book based on their interests. (Another reason we shouldn’t scoff at the library market.) That might be an interesting exercise for the future!

  4. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 24, 2021 at 6:57 am #

    Where do my readers come from?
    I can’t say that I know,
    and I’m not really hamstrung
    when some choose to go;
    for all things there’s a season,
    and the seasons pass,
    and in this I find the reason
    to set down the looking-glass,
    and simply write what I believe,
    of deserts and God’s grace.
    If the sole feedback I receive
    is of smile placed on a single face,
    and a wish to do as God has willed,
    then my full purpose is fulfilled.

  5. frank May 24, 2021 at 7:30 am #

    VERY INFORMATIVE. Great read

  6. Elliott Slaughter May 24, 2021 at 9:57 am #

    Thanks, this is very informative. I also find it interesting in light of the common advice to go all-in on platform for debut authors. Which is not to say that doesn’t matter, but helps to temper expectations in that area.

    • Carla Laureano May 24, 2021 at 3:11 pm #

      As I pointed out, this has more to do with what generates email sign-ups, which SEEMS to correlate to loyal, repeat readers. I wish I had more data on what actually sells books, which is what we would all like… but alas, that’s harder to come by for an author, unless you’re full indie and have all your sales and marketing data. (And even then, it can come down to best guess!)

  7. Kathleen Freeman May 24, 2021 at 12:13 pm #

    These are thoughts I’ve been mulling over for a while. Working toward the future anyway. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and expertise, Carla!

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