Take Your Writing to a New Level Using MailChimp, the Gorilla of the Email Marketing Jungle

It can be a rough ride building a mailing list and developing an email campaign to generating sales, but it’s worth it

Original artwork by Author

Meet the New Kids on the Block.

My friend James W Hall is an Edgar and Shamus Award-winning author and a professor of creative writing. After writing his 22nd book, he decided to enter the world of self-publishing and asked me for some help. Even though I have been in advertising and design for over twenty-five years, I’m a complete beginner when it comes to email marketing.

With this how-to primer, I’ll use the promo I created for Jim’s latest book to illustrate the process for creating an email marketing campaign.

#1. Concept & Design

According to one article on best practices for email marketing, you want to reduce clutter:

  • Use only two or three fonts
  • Put the call-to-action (CTA) above the fold
  • Keeping the message under 500–600 words
  • Plus, you may want to include a product image that gives people a reason to get excited
  • Provide a way for people to subscribe to the mailing list

I would add you need to create white space by minimizing the use of borders and boxes in your email designs.

Find the right image to help sell your product.

With my experience in design and advertising, the cover art was the easy part for me — your results may vary.

After reading the synopsis, I wrote a headline that tells you everything about the action in the book and the character of the book’s hero:

A SIMPLE FAVOR: Recover 23 stolen landmines filled with VX nerve gas and rescue a young Honduran girl, Dulce, from a band of murderous white supremacists. Most people would say no…


The top half of your email needs to be an attention-grabbing CTA.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this recently, but there seem to bes more and more buttons with CTAs that are a mini-pitch. For example, “Yes! I want to simplify my life.”

  • The main image, which I adapted from the book cover art to use as the email header (the same as the image above, but it includes the book title).
  • A tagline: “THORN is BACK… Let the fireworks begin!” (I used the same wording for the subject line, followed by the description “James W. Hall’s 15th Thorn novel, Bad Axe, is available on July 4th.”)
  • A button linked to the book on the Amazon store

The second half of the email was a short note from the author with another CTA, the publishing company logo, an opt-in link, and the address footer.

Thorn makes a living down in the Florida Keys by creating custom fly-fishing flies. The best ones can sell from $375 to $2,000, and they’ve become an icon for the Thorn books.

If people forward the email to friends, it helps to include a link where they can subscribe.

MailChimp emails have a footer which includes the following:

  • Your social media links (optional)
  • Copyright information (required)
  • Your return address (required)
  • An unsubscribe link (required)

The unsubscribe link is required by the CAN-SPAM Act. Every email service wants to stay in business and not get a reputation for spamming. To do that, they require proof that each person on the list has given their permission to receive emails.

Our entire email, including the subject line, is under 300 words. I only included two CTAs, even though the best practices article says you should have three.

With more time and a larger email list, we could A/B test different subject lines. If you can collect more data as you build your list, you can personalize your campaigns to include a person’s name, location, or the product they own.

#2. Using MailChimp’s layout software.

Design promotions and newsletters with content blocks that you stack on the page.

You can import logos and images, create text blocks, add social media icons, and link buttons to your calls to action, like the Amazon store or your website. Here’s a screengrab of the MailChimp interface. As you can see, there are several tools in the “Blocks” tab. Click on the “Style” tab and you can edit your text, choose colors, fonts, and background colors.

This interface is like a lot of the web-building programs offered by web hosting companies. Here’s a screenshot of the campaign editing window.

Screenshot by Author

As you can see above, you choose a content block, drag it over to your workspace, and then edit the block from there. When you click on one of the content blocks, it gives you the option to move up or down, edit, duplicate, or delete.

Author screenshot. Editing the type block containing the author’s message.

When you click on the “Style” tab, you can adjust the type style, size, color, alignment, and spacing. You can also customize the background color and border for any block. Most of this is obvious enough that you can click on stuff and figure out what you like through trial and error.

I kept my layout as simple as possible, dividing the ad part from the author’s message. I did this by sampling the dominant color of the image and then using to for the type and button. I made the author’s message as simple as possible, featuring black type and no border treatment.

Screenshot by Author

For this screenshot, I increased the type size to 30 pixels, so you could see the change in real-time. In the previous screenshot, the font size is 16 pixels, the standard size for most websites and emails..

#3. The email address list

Welcome to the jungle: here’s where things got tricky.

Jim gave me a mailing list that came from fans who had commented on his website in the past. While I assumed there might be some problems with the list, I was totally unprepared for what MailChimp was going to do to me.

User Experience (UX) is a misnomer.

The real users are huge online companies, and their drug of choice is to cut out all human contact. When something goes wrong, I imagine their automatic responses will include a lot of technical jargon and error codes like “SOL” and “ISTBU.”

When I uploaded the email list, I kept getting vague error messages that told me I needed to type UNDO in caps to delete the import. After trying a couple of different ways to import, an error message stated there were 71 duplicate addresses and 5 syntax errors. Not only were the types of errors listed, but ever address that had been flagged.

MailChimp has a sophisticated database that can detect every address error but refuses to give users the option to delete the offending data. WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?

I removed syntax errors and most of the duplicates, submitted again, and got the original error message. This time, it didn’t list the details. I tried other importing methods and file formats. Finally, I broke up the list into smaller parts, and used a copy and paste method and succeeded. What a waste of time.

It’s not who you know, but how you know them.

Question: when is an email list not an email list? Answer: when MailChimp hasn’t vetted the addresses.

When I tried to send the teaser email, a warning said none of the addresses were verified and the email could not be sent. At first, I thought MailChimp had deleted my list, but after mashing a few buttons, I found a page that asked me to send a reconfirmation email to ensure that the people had given their permission. After clicking on the prompt, I designed a simple reconfirmation email that included a logo, short message, and buttons to either opt-in or to unsubscribe.

Screenshot by Author

In the world of online giants, you are guilty until proven innocent, but there is no judge, jury, or counsel.

A couple of hours later, I saw the results of the reconfirmation email:

13.8% Subscribed; 23% Cleaned; and 58.6% Unsubscribed.

I found out that “Cleaned” addresses generated a soft or hard bounce back. In either case, undeliverable addresses were removed from the list.

The real problem was the Unsubscribed category. Was it possible that everyone clicked on the unsubscribe button, including the author? No, but it sure came as a shock to realize that MailChimp assumes a non-response is the same thing as an unsubscribe.

MailChimp Best Practices outlines a strict permission-based list policy to avoid sending out spam and to protect their brand and consumers. But if you can’t build your list by sending out large email blasts and you can’t buy a mailing list to generate new leads, how the hell do you play the game?

With patience and a smile?

We didn’t have an time, and it was frustrating to have to wait for people to subscribe. By the next morning, the number of subscribers had risen to 24% of our usable email addresses.

#4. The campaign

For most people, the task of researching, writing, and editing a book is so overwhelming that marketing is an afterthought.

For a well-known author, submitting the final manuscript to a publisher is the end of the job. All they need to do is show up at book signings planned and organized by a dedicated marketing department.

That all changes when writers self-publish.

Always look at your product launch milestones and work backward.

When I worked in the print world, deadlines were set in stone because it takes time to create a physical object.

As digital tools revolutionized the publishing world, deadlines shortened and clients became lazier. Designers started to hear more and more clients ask us to, “just push a button” and make last-second changes. In the online world, people expect us to turn water into wine.

Jim wanted to publish on July 4th because independence had a special significance for him and it was a way to celebrate his first foray into self-publishing.

In an ideal world, he would have built and vetted his email list when his last book came out. We could have planned out the elements we would need to design the book cover, create an identity for his publishing company, and then create a series of email newsletters over a few months to keep him in the front of his fans’ minds. Finally, we would send out the teaser campaign at least a month in advance.

At the very least, our timeline should have begun a full month earlier. That way, we could have sent out the teaser on June 4th, the pre-order email blast a week or two later, and then the book launching announcement on the Fourth. Given our limited time, we may have been pushing too much and too soon on our small audience.

Learn from the “King of Self-Publishing”

My research into email marketing for authors started with reading a 2015 series of Forbes articles about author Mark Dawson. He has achieved massive success through his marketing efforts which include:

  • Creating marketing courses for authors
  • Co-hosting an informative video podcast series for self-publishing
  • Investing in a well-designed website
  • Maintaining a constant presence on social media,
  • Investing large amounts of money to buy Facebook ads that target his reader demographics

But the key to all of this, and the machine the drives his book sales is his email list and weekly newsletters to engage with fans, inform people about his latest books, and offer people various incentives.

Here are the key points from the article:

  • Dawson has sold over 300,000 copies of his series of novels featuring John Milton
  • His first book bombed because the publisher failed to promote his work and generate any interest
  • His first self-published book also bombed
  • Out of desperation, he was an early adopter of giving away his book for free, and he struck gold, “selling” 50,000 copies
  • Besides building a rapport with his fans, he holds seminars to give other writers advice and guidance
  • Through these activities, he has built a mailing list of 20,000 people and each one will buy five of his books on average
  • He invests $370 per day in targeted Amazon ads to build his mailing list and receives double that in return on investment

Dawson is a pioneer in the field of self-publishing and a marketing genius. His podcast shares vital information about the process with other writers, and acts as a marketing tool to sell his courses. On his December 2018 Self Publishing Show, Dawson announced he passed $1,000,000 in Kindle sales, which does not include all his other income streams.

It’s good to be king.

#5. Sales conversions

Given our late starting date and small mailing list, I don’t have any expectations for the campaign at this point. We’ll have to continue building interest through social media. I’ve suggested that he try to schedule a zoom chat session, or maybe an online reading, and he’ll have to try using targeted FaceBook ads.

One of the funny things about the book marketing game is how many authors want to compare their protagonists to Lee Childs’ famous character, Jack Reacher.

Mark Dawson’s book covers contain a circular starburst proclaiming “A John Milton Novel,” but for the limited edition hardback of his first John Milton book, The Cleaner, the circular starburst now proclaims simply “For Fans of Jack Reacher.” That’s a pretty cheeky claim. I found the quote after some research:

“It’s impossible not to think of Lee Child’s super-selling Jack Reacher. ” — The Times

It’s there in an article that trumpets “17 Books to Read If You Love the ‘Jack Reacher’ Series.” Almost every superstar author is listed: James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Michael Connelly, David Baldacci, Vince Flynn, Daniel Silva, etc.

Guess who else is a Jack Reacher-style character?

Thorn, the man who “may remind you of John D. MacDonald’s immortal Travis McGee…or perhaps Lee Child’s Jack Reacher” (The Washington Post Book World)

The real point is that readers have no idea which character is most like Jack Reacher (a super popular franchise brought to life in movies starring Tom Cruise), but marketing is everything. And everything we’ve done up to now is to get our subscribers to click on that button (hopefully the one to the Amazon book store, but any fan engagement is a good thing).

The average Click-Through Rate (CTR), according to Campaign Monitor:

Click-through rates, depending on the industry, can range from 1% to almost 5%. Expect a click-through rate of 2.5%, but shoot for at least 4% as a goal (unless it’s just not feasible for your industry).

That’s why Mark Dawson has built a reliable mailing list of 20,000+ people. At 2.5% to 4% CTR, that would be 500–800 book sales every time he sends out an email. For a skilled and prolific marketer like Dawson, who knows what kind of response rate he gets?

No wonder some book agents tell writers to spend 50% of their time on marketing.

I sent out the opening day campaign and the results were encouraging.

I thought I was going to finish this article before July 4th and wouldn’t have the results of the campaigns, but I’m glad I waited. Because of MailChimp’s requirement to send out a reconfirmation email, I can share the data from three email blasts in eight days, and try to make some sense out of it.

Reconfirmation: 24.8% Bounce Backs; 44.6% Opens; and 26.0% Opt-ins

The initial email showed the importance of building a mailing list the right way. Since I had no idea about the origins of the mailing list, the high percentage of bounce backs wasn’t surprising. The real problem is we don’t know how many people just ignored the email versus how many people hit the unsubscribe link. Between Friday night up to the point I sent out the next email early Tuesday morning, our subscribers increase by 26%. There was even one person who subscribed after the Teaser had been sent out.

Teaser: 84.5% Opens; 2.4% Clicks

I thought I was being clever in the way I designed the Teaser, but I have to wonder if email marketing requires a more direct approach. Basically, everybody opened the email and nobody clicked. And the only clicks went to Jim’s Facebook page. The response rate was so bad I almost gave up, as I hadn’t heard anything from Jim for days.

Opening Day: 71.3% Opens; 19.5% Clicks

MailChimp allows you to define your business by category, the number of workers in your company, and the number of years you’ve been in business. When you review your campaign report, you can see how it compares to your peers using MailChimp. Jim’s campaign was over 81% higher in open rate, and almost triple the percentage in click rate.

For context, let’s look back at the email marketing article again. Here are the top four average open rates by industry: Government (28.77%); Hobbies (27.74%); Religion (27.62%); and Arts and Artists (26.27%).

It just goes to show that you’ll never know unless you try. Of the people who opened the email, 27.4% of them clicked, and 84% of those clicks went to Amazon! I know it’s a tiny sample size. There’s no way to know if I stumbled on to an effective email design or Jim has some passionate fans, but it’s nice when something goes terribly right for once.

There is one piece still missing from the puzzle.

While I’m happy to report the high percentage of clicks going to Jim’s Amazon book store, I don’t know how many of those people ended up buying a copy of the book. The last piece to the email marketing puzzle is to connect your store or website to MailChimp. By doing so, you can connect who clicked through to who bought your product.

So that’s it, a concise 3,000-plus-word essay telling you almost everything you need to start your own email marketing campaign. You’ll still need to build your mailing list, and support your book with other marketing materials like this book trailer.

My first book trailer!

Written by

Ad agency creative director, writer & designer at https://guttmanshapiro.com. Former pro tennis player and peak performance coach for professional athletes.