From Zero to 35,000: How I Built A Big Email List Exclusively About Books I Liked

Building an email list is the single best way to communicate with your audience, period. Because you own it.

­In May 2009, I sent an email to a friend. I’d been posting book recommendations on my website for the last couple years, but what did he think of the idea of doing it as a monthly email instead? It was a bad idea, he said–because people wouldn’t be able to share the blog posts anymore. People are protective of their emails, so who would want to sign up for that?

I considered his advice and decide to ignore it. In the five years since, that list, known as the Reading List Email, has grown from 50 friends to roughly 35,000 people with a 50% open rate (which is crazy compared to most lists). It has readers from all over the world, ranging from high school students to Fortune 500 CEOs, NFL coaches, bestselling authors, publishers and entrepreneurs. I’ve sent close to 100 emails to a “total” audience of 400,000+ over the years and sold a few hundred thousand dollars worth of books for retailers over the years.

Ryan 1

After having a great deal of fun writing two big posts for the New York Observer on the ins-and-outs of book marketing, I thought I would do a similar breakdown on how to build an email list.

But first, why build one at all? I love recommending books but deep down I have to admit there was another motivation for creating the list. In 2009, I dreamed of one day writing my own book. How would I tell people about it? I thought if I spend every month for the next several years recommending amazing books to other people, maybe those readers would give me a shot when it was my turn. And they did!

Building an email list is the single best way to communicate with your audience, period. Better than Facebook, better than Twitter, better than ads. Because you own it. Because it is a relationship of mutual trust and opt-ins. That is why you need to build one.

So here’s what I learned building mine:

-When I started, I knew so little about email marketing that I just put up a post on my blog and told people to email me if they wanted to sign up. I figured I could just email them all directly.

-So the first year of the Reading List was me copy and pasting the emails into Gmail. I found out the hard way that Gmail only lets you email 250 people a day (or did at the time). Sometimes I had to batch it over a couple days.

Ryan 2

-Eventually, I turned to Mailchimp–that made my life way easier. But more on that later.

-One of the best books I’ve ever read on marketing taught me a lot about emails. Check out Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing. It will change how you approach your customers.

-It’s critical that you pick an angle for your mailing list. I see so many authors and brands just put up a form that says: “Sign up for my newsletter.” What newsletter? Why would I want a random newsletter from a random person? I decided on book recommendations because no one else was doing it and it was something I was good at. What are you good at? What can only you offer via email?

-I decided to go no frills with the reading list email too. No images, no formatting, all text–partly because it’s easier but also because it is better for mobile. Before you waste too much time designing some fancy template realize that there are marketers out there making millions of dollars on great copywriting alone. Maybe you don’t need frills.

-Though I don’t use a template, I do have a very standardized format that I follow, including the same conclusion I paste onto each email. Keep it simple and you’ll find the list less of a burden.

-I also decided that I wanted my email to be a conversation. I “send” all the emails from my personal address and encourage subscribers to reply. Every month I have all sorts of great conversations about books. Sometimes I even get recommendations that I end up reading and using myself later.

-I said I decided to go with Mailchimp for my backend. Why? I only send one email a month and most plans are designed for people who send lots of emails. Using Mailchimp was cheap and easy. Also they allow bulk imports of emails, which was important because my list already existed. If you use this link to sign up, MailChimp will give you like $30 in bonus credits.

-There are a lot of other good programs out there such as SendGrid, AWeber and ConstantContact.

-Mailchimp also allowed me to put a little form on my website for entries.

-But I’ve also always encouraged people to just email me directly with the words “Reading List” in the subject line. It’s a little bit of a pain but over the years I have manually entered hundreds of addresses this way. Would those people have signed up the other way? Maybe, but I didn’t want to take the risk that they wouldn’t.

-The list chugged along by word of mouth for about two years. Every month I did an email and sold a couple books via Amazon’s affiliate program. The first real bump in subscribers came from Tim Ferriss–I wrote a post for his blog in 2011 and asked if I could link to the list at the bottom. Almost 1,000 subscribers came to the list just from that post.

-Speaking of which, you have to give yourself time. I knew that I wouldn’t need to deploy my email list for years so I was able to develop it over time and treat it right. If you have a product you’re releasing next week, that’s just not enough runway to build a proper list.

-Also because I am thinking long term and know that I have no plans to abandon this list, I was able to buy Mailchimp credits in bulk (a few thousand dollars at a time) and save a lot of money on the cost-per-send.

Ryan 3

Charlie Hoehn suggested a couple years ago that I do a yearly round up. His point was that most people follow along but don’t have time to read all the books. Could I recommend 3-5 BEST for the year, as well? So I do that in December or January and I post it online too. It actually drives leads. Here are the ones from 2011, 2012 and 2013.

-I’ve tried multiple different toolbars at the top of my site to drive signups. First I used HelloBar. Then I moved to the ViperBar, which was great because it offered A/B testing. Recently I moved to Noah Kagan’s SmartBar which is absolutely killer.

-Don’t obsess over unsubscribes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs–you can’t email lots of people without pissing off a couple. Provided that you’re adding a lot more than you’re losing, you’re good. A couple months ago, some kook got very upset about something I said about Adam Smith–so I unsubscribed him myself. No reason to bother with it.

-I deliberately have zero monetization plans for this list. It has made a decent amount of money from Amazon affiliate links over the years but in all honesty, it probably barely covers my time and definitely doesn’t cover how much I’ve spent on books myself. The benefit of the list is meaningful, direct access to 35,000 avid readers. The value of that is essentially priceless.

Ryan 4

-In fact, in seven years I have sent a total of two emails to the list that were not exclusively book recommendations. Even my short book, Growth Hacker Marketing, did not get its own dedicated blast–that’s how protective I am of not abusing the privilege of communicating with these readers. This has paid off. For the announcement of my first book, the email list alone was enough to send it sub 100 on Amazon two months before release…and the list was less than 5,000 people then.

-Be ok mailing to very few people for a long time. I was. I knew that I had a long-term strategy. I also knew that recommending some life-changing books even to a small number of people was a beneficial activity in itself. Look at my chart–the size is basically unchanged for over a year. In reality I was excited each time 2-3 people signed up and I also knew that it takes time for word of mouth to spread.

-Obsess about quality. There are some months when I was so-so on the books I read. I debated whether to include them in the list (because that is lost affiliate revenue). I always decide no. The trust and respect of the readers has to trump all. I would rather recommend nothing than recommend a book that ends up letting people down.

-According to Amazon over 30,000 books/products have been ordered via my affiliate link since creating the list.

Ryan 5

-As you can imagine, this was a convincing bit of information to include in my book proposals. I wasn’t just saying that I had some fans who would buy my stuff, I had proof that I had a list of people who bought tons of books on my recommendation (that I didn’t even write!). Having a platform is one of the biggest things that agents and publishers look for.

-Oh yeah, during the launch of Trust Me I’m Lying, I found out that my Brazilian publisher actually found out about my book because they’d been a subscriber for a few years and were willing to take a chance on me.

-One thing I’ve never done well is proofing or editing my emails. I know I should spend more time and I get this criticism a lot. Learn from my bad example here.

-I saw my friend Ben Casnocha speak at UC Riverside a few years ago and was impressed with how he sent around an email signup sheet at the end of the talk. I didn’t want to do that, so I decided I would put a slide in all my presentations that gave away some bonuses if people emailed a certain email address. I’ve probably snagged 1,000 email addresses this way over the last two years.

-The list added 32 people yesterday. I didn’t do anything. Not bad for a day’s work.

Ryan 6

-My publisher Portfolio was nice enough to let me put a page in the back of my first book pushing the newsletter under the title “Further Reading.” As you can see from the graph at the top of the post, this correlates nicely with the growth of the list. It also worked out that they’ve continued to publish my other books–and have benefited from its sizeable growth.

Ryan 7

-That’s something to remember: Lists help promote launches. But launches, if done right, also help grow lists.

-I use MailChimp’sEmail Beamer” to draft almost all the emails. Basically, I type up the email in Gmail, send it to a special unique address and bam, the campaign is ready to go in my account.

-Another unexpected benefit of the list. Authors and publishers send me free copies of their books all the time. It’s also been a great way to connect with authors I admire. Amazon added me to “Amazon Vine” and other cool stuff like that. When the list was small, nobody cared that I recommended a book to 100 friends. But now when I say, “Hey Joe Author, I loved your book and just told 35,000 people to buy it,” they tend to be pretty friendly.

-For the launch of The Obstacle Is The Way I did a Bittorrent bundle. Their email gate (to get the content you have to provide an email) was responsible for over 5,000 emails I got to add to my list. It was the single largest driver for me to date (other than word of mouth).

-I’ve also been a long-time Slideshare Pro user–a program that they inexplicably discontinued recently. Last year, I paid $200 to have this Slideshare made to promote my list. It has done 152,000 views and driven substantial numbers of new emails to the list. Before that, it was a successful blog post. The point is, create content in multiple mediums to inform people about what you do.

-Another thing about protecting your list? Through MailChimp I use AlterEgo to require double authentication for login. I don’t want to mess around with security or privacy with these emails.

-The best way to drive people to your list is to have a list that people enjoy being on. I put a little line at the bottom that encourages readers to forward the email to friends. A lot of them do so because they genuinely do recommend it. Like all things, word of mouth is the best marketing there is.

-Sometimes friends will ask me to recommend their books to my list. I have to be super choosy–honestly, I won’t even recommend books by clients who pay me to consult on promoting their books unless I love love love the book.

-There are a couple of high-profile subscribers like Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing and the author Austin Kleon. Their occasional mentions of the list has been hugely helpful.

-In 2012 I got my act together after talking to my friend Derek Halpern. I redid my sign-up page for the list with a clear explanation of what the list was, why people should sign up and what they’d get out of it. It has done wonders for the number of new subscribers. Who’d have guessed?

Ryan 8

-But what really made a difference was the auto-responder I set up. For more than five years, new subscribers were simply added to this list but received nothing from me until the next monthly email went out. That meant that sometimes readers might go 45 days before they heard from me, meaning that some forgot that they’d even signed up (and then promptly unsubscribed). So I added a short, clear email that you now automatically get when you sign up. It hits you with 5 book recommendations to start you off and provides links to some popular articles I have written about reading and writing.

-Of the 20,000-plus people who have gotten this initial note, more than 80% have opened it. It’s sold many, many copies of the books I’ve written, driven great traffic to my articles and of course, made the list more active and engaged. For more on this, I would check out these resources: Start with The Art of the Welcome Email and 13 ‘Welcome’ Email Ideas. You should also look into Really Good Emails, which has a category dedicated to great welcome emails. Tim Ferriss’ introductory email is a great example to follow–it provides exclusive content and highlights some of his best posts.

-In the future I might create a track for users so that there are more automated emails. For instance, a 1-year anniversary email or a bump after three months with some thoughts about reading. Onboarding is incredibly important and I want to get better at it.

-My list doesn’t currently offer sign-up bonuses but I have worked with plenty of clients to develop some. Look at what we set up for Robert Greene. In less than three months he has nearly doubled the size of his email list simply by offering this cool little document we created to anyone who signed up.

-The regularity of the list is important. Some people let their lists lie fallow for a long time. I don’t get that. On the other hand, look at Groupon, which could have been this hotly anticipated, exclusive email once a day but instead became forgettable by oversending. For a list like mine, once a month has been a great middle ground. Enough to keep people active, not too much to lead to burnout.

Ryan 9

-The list has an open rate of nearly 50%. That’s crazy for a list of this size. And guess what? I do basically no subject line testing, no clickbait, no trickery. In fact, for like a year I forgot whether I called it the “Reading List Email” or “Reading Recommendation Email. One might be better than the other but what really matters is having a solid email that people actually want to open.

-I’ve never done affiliate mailings to my list, but I have worked on them with clients. Essentially, it’s when someone mails to their list on your behalf for a cut of the revenue. This can be a great way to expand your reach for a product launch or particular push. Here are some resources: Look into this post on Indiemark, MarketingSherpa’s 10 rules of thumb and Mailchimp’s post on the pitfalls of email list rental.

-Oh yeah, when you have a list, people will come to you all the time to ask “if you’ll send to your list for them.” They ask like it is some tiny favor. See the affiliate point above, but also be very cautious about this. Protect your list. Don’t give yours away. The whole value is that the readers believe that you carefully curate this and that its content reflects your actual values and sensibilities. Don’t trade trust today that you might need down the road. (One nice lesson I learned with my list is that by having a very defined and clear format, I can easily say no because their request just doesn’t fit with what I do.)

-I also worked to develop a popup. I generally hate popups and don’t think they are effective–but a clear, non-intrusive call-to-action can really work. I had it coded so the popup came only after your second visit to the site and only after you’d been reading for something like 30 seconds. This did well for me at first. Recently, I switched over to Noah Kagan’s popup, which is more automated and looks better. It shows up after a reader has seen 80% of a given page and can be easily x’d out of.

-One question I’ve gotten a lot over the years was access to the Reading List Email archive. I’ve deliberately declined to make that available to most people because I want the list to be forward focused. I want them to sign up and look out for the email each month, not go back through what I recommended in 2010. But the archive did make for a really good PDF bonus when I did a pre-order campaign for The Obstacle Is The Way.

-Last month I tried out a KingSumo contest that encouraged people to sign up for the list. I offered a free copy of every book in the October list to one winner. But the benefit of a KingSumo contest is that it incentivizes entrants to invite their friends to participate (by offering them a better chance of winning). My contest wasn’t as huge as some people’s but I did snag around 700 new names to the list.

-I also have two other smaller lists. I’ve collected more than 3,000 emails for my launch of Growth Hacker Marketing (detailed here) and it made for a great asset for the launch. I also collected about 500 random emails during the launch of The Obstacle Is The Way (though almost all went directly to the Reading List Email).

-Think about it: Facebook just announced they were going to be deliberately throttling marketing messages (what a scam). Most Twitter messages get lost in the stream. Email is the best way to reach your people because no one can get in the way.

* * *

I hope this case study was helpful and of course, I hope you sign up for the Reading List Email. More than that, I hope you start creating your own list. You’ll thank me later.

I’ve built a lot of different assets in my career, from marketing campaigns to books to businesses. Honestly, building this list ranks among my proudest achievements. It’s something that no one else has replicated and has succeeded with an incredibly discerning audience. I take some extra satisfaction that it succeeded despite some doubters.

Where it will go in the future, I have no idea. I know it will continue trucking along–in fact, I’m typing up this month’s blast right now.

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumphs and two other books. He is editor-at-large at Betabeat and his monthly reading recommendations are found here.