Why You Need an Email List as a Smarter Artist

shutterstock_127894817You’ve probably heard that you need an email list if you want to be an author, but maybe it’s become a task that you plan to get to “someday.”

You might think, “My website has no traffic,” or, “I haven’t published my book yet, who would even want to sign up?”

But building an email list is a lot more important than you think. It’s a critical part of your marketing plan for several reasons:

  • Readers want an intimate, personal, and private way to communicate with authors, which email provides.
  • People are more receptive and responsive via email than any social medium, including your blog, your website, your Facebook account, or your Twitter feed.
  • Most readers who sign up for your email list are past customers (people who have bought your books already), which means your list is basically a mainline to cash. Other industries would kill for a dynamic like this!

There are three major reasons I see authors holding off on building a list. I’m going to tell you why you shouldn’t:

#1 – You Don’t Have A Website

I’ve personally spoken with NYT and USA Today bestselling romance authors who don’t have a website, but DO have an email list. Why? Because the main reason readers sign up for an email list is to receive new release notifications, which usually means they’ve already read one or more books and enjoyed them. Bestseller status comes primarily from sales in a short time period. You’ll get the most sales from your past customers, or people who have already bought and paid for your book. It’s no wonder that the top in the field focus on this list!

To me, this shows that setting up your email list is more important to success than a website. (It’s also significantly easier to set up—more on that in a minute). Of course, if you’re able to manage both a website and an email list, you should, because content will attract new potential readers in addition to current readers. If you are limited on time, however, choose the email list; your customers care a lot less about blog posts, cover reveals, and other “extras” than they do about getting their hands on the next book in your series.

#2 – You Don’t Have A Book

While an email list will be primarily comprised of your readers, or people who have already read some of your work, that isn’t always the case. You can use the same strategy as the bestsellers by providing snippets of your book on a website and asking website visitors to sign up to receive notification about the release!

Remember, the primary reason that readers sign up is to get new release notifications. This is true even for your first book.

Something first-time authors don’t realize is how large of a difference even a small list can make during a launch. Even a fifty person list may account for ten to twenty sales on launch day, which can drive your Amazon rankings up and help you achieve visibility in its digital store for your category. Because the email list is going to be such a crucial part of your launch strategy, you want to start it sooner rather than later—today, preferably, since it only takes a few minutes to sign up!

#3 – It’s Easier To Capture Information On Social Accounts

While it’s true that you can get a “Like” or a “Follow” much easier than you can get an email address, there are significant downsides to building your following online rather than via an email list. A lot of authors fell into this trap with Facebook pages, which allowed them to build followings quickly, through social shares. As Facebook tweaked its algorithm from 2013-2014 to bolster its advertising revenue (pushing Page managers to “boost” their posts for better visibility among their fans), authors quickly saw their reach plummet.

Multiple authors with 50,000+ fans have claimed that each of their posts are only being seen by 1000 fans, total, and that Facebook is asking them for $200+ per post to “boost” it to another percentage of their fans.

With email, you pay a small monthly fee for the service provider, but you can then send unlimited emails and be sure that they reach ~95% of your entire fan base. Imagine if some of those authors on Facebook had instead captured only 20% of their fans via email. They’d have a much larger reach than they do now because the contact data would be theirs to use, not held hostage by Facebook.

It’s crucial that your business maintains its own records of contact information for your customers, and the best way to do so is through an email list. Social accounts simply won’t cut it.

Now that you know why you need an email list, we’re going to help you answer the question of which service provider to go with.

The Great Debate: Aweber vs. Mailchimp

There are dozens of email providers that serve different marketplaces, but most authors don’t need all the bells and whistles that come with the software offered by these other companies. Often, smarter artists are choosing between Aweber and Mailchimp to start building their lists. Sterling & Stone uses Aweber and we couldn’t be happier. We also know from experience that most authors should start out on Aweber as well. Why?

#1: Aweber Has Better Form Templates, Which Gets You Set Up Faster

Mailchimp has come a long way with its interface an email templates, but its form templates are still bare, unnattractive, and simplistic. Aweber has more out-of-the-box functionality, which will help you get your form set up on your website right away.

#2: Aweber Has the Best Delivery Rate of All Email Providers

Sending emails will always come with a small percentage of non-deliveries, in the same way that some of your Facebook fans or Twitter followers are probably bots and shell accounts. Aweber has long boasted a 98% or more guaranteed delivery rate, which no other company has yet been able to match.

#3: Mailchimp Starts Free, But Aweber is Cheaper as You Grow

As Johnny has said on the Self-Publishing Podcast, “Never plan for failure!” Mailchimp is a free service if your list is 2000 members or fewer and you only send a limited number of emails a month. (It starts at ~$10 to send unlimited emails and unlock several key features to 500 subscribers or fewer—slightly cheaper than the $19/month at Aweber.)

But you’re in this game to win it, right?

You may not have more than 2000 subscribers yet, but that doesn’t mean you won’t in the future. As your list grows, Aweber is actually cheaper than Mailchimp.

#4: Aweber is Easy To Switch Away From, But Hard To Switch To

You may be thinking, “I’ll use the free account at Mailchimp for now, and when my list is the right size I’ll switch.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way.

Because Aweber has the best delivery rates in the biz, they also have strict import rules on any contact lists you already have. When you import a new list to Aweber, they want to get the double opt-in from all your contacts so that they have on record that this isn’t a purchased list. Because only a percentage of your list will re-opt-in, you will lose some hard-earned contacts when you switch.

Other providers don’t have strict rules, which means it’s easier to switch away from Aweber than it is to switch to it.

#5: You Can Call Aweber’s Support Team If Needed

Mailchimp does not have phone support and Aweber does, so if you like the hands-on approach of being able to talk to a real person, you will only get that experience from Aweber.

#6: Mailchimp Doesn’t (Officially) Allow Affliliate Links

Aweber has always been set up for affiliate marketing and is the most popular email service provider among bloggers and Internet marketers, who are the top users of affiliate links. Mailchimp had an explicit policy against sending emails with affiliate links in them—and while it doesn’t happen often, every once in awhile a user’s account gets shut down.

Most authors use affiliate links from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other book vendors so they can make a little extra money when someone buys their book via an email link. Are you willing to risk your business on this policy? We certainly don’t advise it!

#7: Aweber Still Tops Mailchimp in Advanced Features

There are many minor features that Aweber still does better than Mailchimp, but the one we care about most at Sterling and Stone is how each service handles list management.

Aweber allows you to condense your lists for mass emailing without doing cohort acrobatics to make sure people subscribed to multiple lists don’t get a barrage of emails. This has been essential for Sterling & Stone because many of our fans are subscribed to multiple lists. A lot of our Platinum subscribers are also Repeaters, Outlaws, and Goners, which means we don’t want them to get the same email multiple times.

Unfortunately, all lists in Mailchimp are independent. That means you CAN’T do simple tasks, like check for duplicates between lists, unless you set up all your contacts in one list with segmentation using the “Groups” feature. Of course, there’s no easy way to merge these lists after the fact …

This would have been a major and ongoing headache for us as we build our business, so we’re happy that we started out on Aweber.


We’ve now shared why it’s important to have an email list as a smarter artist and why we recommend Aweber as an email service provider. If you want to learn more about building your email list, we’ve shared some of our favorite resources below:


About Monica Leonelle

Monica Leonelle was born in Germany and spent her childhood jet-setting around the world with her American parents. Her travels include most of the United States and Europe, as well as Guam, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines.

She started publishing independently in 2009 and has since published over half a million words of fiction spread across four series, Socialpunk, Waters Dark and Deep, Emma + Elsie, and Stars and Shadows. In 2014, she published 8 books and one short story.

She writes about indie publishing at ProseOnFire.com. Her most recent non-fiction book, Write Better, Faster, has earned raving reviews from the independent publishing community for going deeper than anyone else into the topic of writing speed. She currently averages around 3,000 words per hour and writes 25,000+ words per week (most weeks).


  1. Ryan Whiteside says:

    Nothing beats SiteSell.com in terms of value for what you get. $300/year gets you 5,000 emails/month which rollover if unused. Also included is domain name, unlimited hosting, form building, site templates, step-by-step process, etc. etc. Literally everything you’d ever need to start an author business.

  2. Anma Natsu says:

    I’m currently using Mailchimp. I’ve been pretty happy with the design options other than them being fixed width. I made a custom template rather than using one of the premade ones and use that as the design base for all my emails. 🙂 I took a peek at Aweber, since my list only has 9 people so far (and I love them all!), so switching services would be easy to do. That said, not sure it offers enough improvement over what I’ve gotten from MailChimp so far to justify spending $19/mth now when I’ve yet to release that first book (1-2 more months!) and my indie business is already very much in the red.

    I am curious though, as it’s stated that MailChimp is only free for 500 subscribers, but on their site it says free for 2,000 subscribers, so was curious where the 500 number comes from? They also claim a 96% to 99% delivery rate (http://mailchimp.com/about/deliverability/?_ga=1.20349176.1302941132.1420811893), which seems on par with Aweber?

    • Monica Leonelle says:


      Sorry about this! I updated the bit about Mailchimp’s pricing. I was going off of memory and should have fact-checked again before posting.

      Mailchimp is pretty close to Aweber on deliverability, but Aweber is currently boasting over 98%. The reason has a lot to do with opt-in and how Aweber’s policy for opt-in is way stricter than Mailchimp’s. They don’t exactly require double opt-in, but it’s the standard and they work hard to educate their users about requiring it. That helps their deliverability a lot.

      That’s also why Aweber’s affiliate link policy is looser than Mailchimp’s—if I remember correctly and nothing has changed in recent months, Mailchimp still allows you to import your email list unchecked, while I believe Aweber continues to check each imported list by hand—an actual person talks to you about it.

      I think your point about Aweber not being enough of an upgrade from Mailchimp early on is fair, and one that a lot of authors agree with. You’re balancing long-term vs. short-term and it’s fine. If you’re happy with Mailchimp, you should stay! If you want to try Aweber, I personally believe it is the better option long-term for authors—but would tell any author to do what’s best for him or her.

  3. I don’t know whether Aweber is better than MailChimp, but at least get your facts straight. You can use affiliate links with MailChimp, but not if they’re blacklisted: http://kb.mailchimp.com/accounts/compliance-tips/about-affiliate-links-in-mailchimp

    Also, I find the templates versatile and easy to use, and if you’re not happy with what they have to offer, you can make your own.

    It’s good that you’re happy with Aweber, but it doesn’t suit you very well, to be so happy, that you have to badmouth MailChimp to make us believe that Aweber is the better choice. Their magnificent service should speak for itself, if it’s that amazing. It would suffer to say: We use Aweber, and here’s why: bim, bam, badaboom – awesomesauce.

    With that said, I agree that a mailing list is a good idea 😉

    • Anita, I totally respect your opinion, and if you like Mailchimp, keep using them!

      We disagree on a lot of things, obviously.

      For the affiliate links—Mailchimp *says* they allow affiliate links, but there are numerous cases where they’ve shut down accounts for using them. It happens swiftly and you lose access to your stuff. Furthermore, their list of unacceptable link types (that you linked to) includes:

      – sexually explicit emails (a link to your erotic romance on Amazon may violate that)
      – work from home, make money online offers (who the hell knows what counts—we all make money online and work from home)

      They also specifically say they don’t allow affiliate marketers. How exactly do you allow affiliate links, but not affiliate marketers (people who market affiliate links a.k.a. anyone who uses an affiliate link)? They then try to redefine affiliate marketer’ on the page you linked to (the page I originally looked at literally said they didn’t allow affiliate marketers and that was it). To me, that page is written so they can easily kick anyone off their service if they are linking to products or services that Mailchimp doesn’t like.

      So, I don’t find their current affiliate policy ideal (and I believe it’s maybe changed in more recent months due to all the complaints?). If I was setting up an email list with any affiliate links, I would not use them. The bottom line for me is that they are WAY stricter on affiliate links than Aweber is. They blacklist a lot of products and services. If you do affiliate marketing, Mailchimp is absolutely not the place to be and that’s been widely discussed on the internet for years.

      Regarding the templates, I’m not sure if you’re talking about email templates or form templates, but I was referring specifically to form templates. I know css and html and do not personally find Mailchimp’s easy to use in the slightest. Again, if they’ve changed it in the last few months since I wrote this article, so be it—I’m wrong. What you’re describing is not my experience. (Unfortunately, I did write it like, last December I think, so these things can and do change quickly and I may be out of date already.) Also, if you’re not happy you can make your own… most authors do not have the skills to do that. They’re looking for a more out-of-the-box solution.

      The rest of it is opinion and I don’t think a comparison/contrast + use Aweber means badmouthing. It would be different if I hadn’t used both services for 3+ years each, but I did.

      I wrote what I wrote because I *d0* think Aweber is simply the better choice for authors. I’ve used Aweber for years and then Mailchimp for years, so I have a lot of experience with both. I’m on Ontraport now for other reasons, but if I had to pick again, knowing that an author’s business grows in odd and surprising ways that I don’t believe Mailchimp handles well, I’d probably go back to Aweber.

      • Hey Monica, looking through this post two things are happening:
        1.) Its an explanation of why we should get an email list.
        2.) Why Aweber is better than MailChimp.

        If you look at the titles, number 2 comes out of nowhere like a bat out of REDACTED. Generally debates have two opposing sides, this post has a mighty Aweber and, well, a MailChimp that whines in the corner. While that may be true – I have no idea – this post doesn’t read like genuine advice, it reads more like a lead up to CLICK OUR AFFILIATE LINK! Which I don’t think was your intention. This is what I think Anita was commenting on as well.

        Perhaps #2 would work better as its own post about why Aweber kicks ass? Just a thought.

        • You said that so much better than my long ramblings 😉
          Thank you.

        • Monica Leonelle says:

          Thanks, Joe.

          Sterling and Stone uses Aweber and the recommendation is genuine. We could easily get a Mailchimp affiliate link too, but there isn’t one here because that’s not the recommendation.

          If people want to debate the merits of Mailchimp, they can do it in the comments (and it seems like they are). To your point, a debate is also typically between two opposing sides, which is not possible in a blog post written by one person. The rebuttals are happening in the comments, as they should, IMO.

      • I’m not especially fond of MailChimp, and I know nothing about Aweber. Aweber might be a lot better, I have no idea. You have not convinced me here, simply because some of the things you say about MailChimp isn’t facts (anymore – perhaps it was in December).

        If you had told me in the post, that you had actually tried both for longer periods, it would have helped a lot, because without that knowledge, it sounds very much like people saying that they don’t like Macs, when they’ve never actually tried to use one. Actual experience with both gives a totally different perspective, which doesn’t come through in the post at all.

        I totally agree on the fact that the page about affiliate marketing is worded so they can kick out anyone at anytime, and I’m not a fan of that at all. It’s extremely vague, and I have read about some of the cases where people have had their accounts shut down, which is rather harsh. I have also read, that some of them got access again, and could export their lists if they wanted to leave. Anyway – I don’t like how MailChimp sort of covered all bases, and can point to this site and say “Hey, we told you so”, when it’s hard to know what will fly and what won’t. That’s just bullshit.

        And you’re right, I was talking about the templates for the emails, but there’s a wide range of form setups too, so it makes no difference. You can setup a form very easily, choose layout, colors, fields etc. It can be a traditional form, and embedded form, a popup form, a form for Facebook etc. Actually, I can’t think of a form I could use that is NOT covered between all those possibilities, although I’m sure there are some.

        Also, you can decide to pay as you go, and not pay a monthly fee. That way, you get all the features unlocked from day one, but only pay for what you use. I find that more flexible than $19/month out of the gate. I don’t know why Aweber haven’t picked up on that. It’s a funnel. Be clever.

        Anyway – now that I know that you have actually tried MailChimp, the post reads better to me. But still get the facts right, when you compare. Otherwise it comes off as badmouthing.

        I respect you a lot, and you’re very smart. That alone would let me take that affiliate link in the bottom, if I felt that Aweber offered enough to make a difference to me, but I don’t.

        #5, #6 & #7 are the things on the list that are the most real factors in the comparison. If you’re a romance author, the safe bet would be Aweber, since MailChimp insists on being so vague, that you’ll never know if you step on any toes. You can merge lists in MailChimp, and setup segments within an existing list, but if you have as many lists as S&S, it sounds like Aweber is the better choice. If you like to hangout on the phone, then Aweber is clearly also the right choice.

        #4 About switching: You can import a list to Aweber, you’ll just need people to confirm the move. If they don’t, then they’re not a valuable part of your list anyway. I have been asked to confirm again from a couple of the lists I’m on, when they have switched providers, and I have done so, because I want to be on those lists. If Sean sent me links from all the lists I’m on, to confirm that I still want to be part of them, I would. So unless you insist on moving the trash to your new appartment, I don’t see that as a problem.

        #3: Between 5,000 – 10,000 subscribers, Aweber is clearly cheaper. Otherwise, not a big difference. Cheaper at some points. So I think it evens out.

        Delivery rates differences are so insignificant, that I don’t see that as a valid point. And as for the forms, that must be a matter of opinion, but you could be right. Aweber seems to have more pre-made layouts, where you have to make your own in MailChimp, so if that rocks your world, Aweber would be the one to choose.

        To sum it up: If you had clearly said, that you had real experience with both, and had listed only facts about them both it would have been a better post.

        • Monica Leonelle says:

          Anita, I have no problem with you disagreeing with the article except for that you keep saying I haven’t “stated the facts.”

          Saying that I haven’t stated the facts vs. saying that you believe only the last three points matter in an author’s business are two different things.

          The first seems to imply that I’ve lied or purposely misled the reader. I have not.

          The second seems to correspond more with your actual comment and opinions. To that, I would say that I believe the other four points *do* matter to a lot of authors and are relevant, which is why I originally included them.

          I will again defend my points below:

          #4 – For importing your list, yes, you have to ask for the double opt-in again—and no, people don’t click on that. It’s something like 10-30% of your list. Think about it—the average open rate per email is between 15-30%. The average action taken (clicking a link) is between 5-10%. It’s laughable that you’re going to get your whole list or even a good portion to opt-in again by sending the opt-in email once.

          Maybe if you sent your request multiple times (which idk if Aweber would even let you do—seems spammy to me) you could re-capture more. However, it’s a lot more than just bringing the trash to your next apartment. You want to bring the furniture and the paintings, too, no?

          #3 – This is what I said. Mailchimp Starts Free, But Aweber is Cheaper as You Grow. It is not out of reach for a new author doing very well in sales to accumulating 10k readers in their first year. And even if that happens for an author five years after they start, paired with #4 above I would *still* choose Aweber because you really can’t easily bring your list with you.

          The larger point here is that if your list is at 10,000 on any service provider, it’s going to be tough to move. So the decision is actually really, really important to get right even from the beginning—you are stuck with your provider for years and years.

          I didn’t include the rest of Mailchimp’s pricing because frankly, it’s complicated and obviously shifting on a regular basis. Like I said, I’m well-versed in building email lists and I don’t understand why Mailchimp even bothers with pay-as-you-go vs. unlimited. At $0.03 per email, you could only send 333 emails total? If you even send one email per month, it’s cheaper to get the unlimited plan from 0-500 people.

          There may be a very valid reason they have it, but it’s probably not relevant to an author who’s just starting out, and they can also just look up and compare pricing on their own. My recommendation? Get the unlimited emails plan wherever you are, Aweber or Mailchimp, and send at least an email to your list every month (preferably two). Don’t fuss with the free plan on Mailchimp at all. Definitely don’t sign up for pay-as-you-go just to unlock the better features—it’s much more expensive for the list size an author has or will have (unless I’m missing something).

          #2 – Delivery rates matter to people who want their content delivered, and Aweber is still the best in the biz. My comment to Anma clarifies this a bit.

          #1 – Last time I checked, Aweber has significantly more out-of-the-box form options. Mailchimp has basically a bare template, a simple form, and a big ugly form hosted on a Mailchimp server (which many authors link directly to, I assume because it’s seriously not easy to get that same form to look good on a website page). If you’ve ever tried to drop a Mailchimp form into your blog sidebar… ugh. You need to know HTML to get it to look right. Aweber is a completely different experience.

          To your other points, the article wasn’t written to win a hardcore debate over Aweber or Mailchimp. It was written for a new author. The main points are:

          – you NEED an email list
          – we use Aweber over Mailchimp
          – even if you’re just getting started, here’s a simple-to-understand list of why you should consider Aweber from the get-go, even though the industry standard for authors is Mailchimp’s free plan. (Which I wouldn’t personally go with even if I chose Mailchimp.)

          I feel that the article basically goes this route point by point. Could it be better? Maybe. Perhaps I’ve just been in the game too long, have too many assumptions about what authors know and don’t know, and that hurt my explanations. Hopefully these comments clarify.

  4. I’ve never used Mailchimp and for authors who want to grow their business (as pretty much everyone reading this knows, I’m always thinking long term) I don’t even see it as a close comparison.

    I know enough people who make their living off of email who would never use Mailchimp, and a lot of people who really wish they never started. And exporting your lists isn’t really an option. If you had a really devoted list, you would be lucky to export 10% of that list. That’s just the way it works.

    Now, is Mailchimp the WRONG choice? Absolutely not. Nick Stephenson is probably the best email marketer I’ve seen for fiction (better than us at the time I’m writing this comment) and he uses — and heartily recommends — Mailchimp.

    But we don’t. And when we ask Monica to write a post about email list from the S&S perspective, of course it’s going to court Aweber, because that’s what we’ve always used (and what I’ve personally always seen the most success with, across dozens of campaigns with virtually every possible service).

    Just like on the podcast, everything you read here is going to be filtered through our perspective, and from our perspective (authors who want consistent rules from a marketing friendly company) it’s an easy choice.

  5. Blaine Moore says:

    I’ve used MailChimp for clients, and still use Aweber for some clients, but personally I’ve moved away from them (as well as Constant Contact.)

    I have a little bit of a technical background, so setting up what I use (and what my largest clients use) was pretty simple, but even if you aren’t technical you could get it setup relatively cheaply from an outsourcer.

    The software I use to manage my email lists is called Sendy. It’s designed to work out of the box with Amazon’s SES (simple email service), and behind the scenes I’ve got it setup to use SPF and DKIM (which are two technologies that help with deliverability by proving that my emails are from me.) One of my client’s can’t use SES so for him we are using CritSend to send the emails behind the scenes, again with SPF and DKIM setup.

    For cost and deliverability, this setup is hard to beat. Sendy cost me I think $35 or 45 when I got, plus another $25 for the last update (the first one I had to pay for in a few years) and I think new licenses now are $59. That’s a 1-time fee and includes support and updates until the next major release. Updates happen regularly with security and bug fixes and new features, and since I began using them there has only been one new major release. (It’s on 2.0.1 as I write this.)

    Amazon SES charges per email you send. If you have a new Amazon Web Services account, then you can probably send your emails for free for the first year unless you already have a massive list, but even paying full price it only costs $1 for every 10,000 emails.

    In my experience, I’ve had better deliverability than against any of the other services, and for my client that uses both Aweber and Sendy+Critsend deliverability is usually on par with each other; some weeks aweber seems to perform better, other weeks the self-hosted approach works better. (For cost, Critsend is a little more expensive than Aweber, but still much cheaper than Aweber.)

  6. I think things are much closer than they seem.

    Most pricing is $4-5 different per month once you’ve got a decent list

    The Mailchimp templates are really good and were responsive long before Aweber’s were

    Mailchimp let put everyone in one list, and you have a fields for what lists and interests they have. With Aweber a subscriber could be on 4-5 lists, but with Mailchimp you only pay for that guy once, but can send to 4-5 different topics, based on those fields.

    Mailchimp does allow affiliate links, but they will stop your campaign if you send using a link to a blacklisted site. kb.mailchimp.com/accounts/compliance-tips/about-affiliate-links-in-mailchimp

    It’s very possible that Aweber is better for a publishing company, but for an author I think either will work equally well.

    • Monica Leonelle says:

      It’s a fair point, but to Anita’s point, you’re also talking about the paid version of Mailchimp, which is not what most new authors are using (from what I can tell).

      Mailchimp does have nice email templates and had that long before Aweber. (And also kind of “pioneered” the Tumblr/Instagram-esque design style in email.)

      • You can also choose to go ‘paid’ at any point. You don’t have to wait until you have 2k on your list. There’s even a $10 a month option for small lists with paid features.

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