Building an email list is a crucial element of sustaining a writing career. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, publishing traditionally or independently, you can develop friendships with readers through your email list.

But how do you begin, and once you have a group of subscribers, how do you keep them interested?

To find out, we interviewed Susan May Warren, known by her friends as Susie. Susie is a USA Today bestselling, multi-award-winning novelist of more than 65 books. She’s an outstanding teacher, speaker, wife, mother, scuba diver, dancer, and skydiver. She is a fantastic person, and Jim and I are happy to call her our friend. 

We interviewed Susie to find out how she grew her email list and how she corresponds with her subscribers.

How did you become a novelist?

James L. Rubart (Jim): I always love hearing stories about how people started writing. When did you start writing?

Susan May Warren (Susie): I wrote my first book when I was 14 years old. It was about a horse and a boy and girl and sunsets. I published it for myself and two friends, so I guess I was an indie author before it was hip.

Later, I got a degree in journalism and wrote for newspapers and magazines.

When my husband and I became missionaries in Siberia, I discovered that communication was a big part of our job. Every month I wrote a newsletter to our supporters telling stories about our work. I honed my storytelling skills in those newsletters.

While we were in Siberia, I had a lot of alone time when my husband was gone, and my kids were in bed. So I started writing. I wrote mostly for myself, but I started wondering about publishing a novel.

In the first four years, I wrote a 400,000-word novel which we used as a high chair for the kids. It wasn’t publishable, but I had finished a book, and that was important. Wherever you are as an aspiring novelist, you have to finish your first book.

I sent that tome to Bethany House. They said it was too long, and they asked me to write something else. Over the next four years, I wrote novels in the historical, suspense, and romance genres.

But it wasn’t until I was trapped in an elevator in Siberia and rescued by a babushka who opened the elevator door with an ax that I realized I had the material for a great story.

I wrote a story about a woman stuck in an elevator. When the doors opened, her long-lost love was on the other side of the door.

I submitted that story to a contest hosted by Tyndale, and I won. They published it then paired me with a well-known author, and that’s how they helped build my readership. Then they asked me what else I had that they could publish.

Since I had those other books, I was able to prepare a proposal, and they bought all three of those books.

Tips for aspiring authors:

  1. Finish your first book.
  2. Don’t write the sequel of the first book as your second book. You don’t know if the first book will sell. Instead, write a new book in a different series. That might be the series that ends up selling. It’s better to have four first novels for a series than four novels in the same series no one will publish.

After eight years on the mission field, we came home. Soon, I published all those books in the proposal, but I never published that 400,000-word tome.

Since 2002, I’ve published 65 novels. It’s been fun to finally do what I enjoy.

What book should readers start with if they’re just now learning about you?

Jim: If someone is just learning about your books, what series would you recommend starting with?

Susie: I write mostly epic romantic adventures, and my recent series is called Montana Rescue. It’s about a group of search and rescue personnel who rescue people in Glacier National Park. It’s a fun series about relationships. It’s like Chicago Fire puts on cowboy boots and moves to Montana.

How did you build your email list of over 30,000 subscribers?

Jim: To have a career, you need an audience. How did you build your email list of over 30,000 subscribers?

Susie: I learned a lot from my missionary years. Your email list is your partnership. It’s not your customer base or your supporters. They’re your friends, and you’re developing a relationship with them. They want to know who you are, what you’re working on, and what’s going on in your life.

They like you because of the product you present, and they want to know more. As a missionary, evangelization and humanitarian work was my product. As a novelist, mu product is my writing. People like the product, but they also want to know the person behind the story.

I share certain aspects of my life with my readers, and they feel like they know me. It’s how we connect. Your email list is all about building relationships.

I use some tactics such as giving away a free story so they can sample my writing. Once they’ve sampled my story, I send my “friend-making letters” (a.k.a. an onboarding sequence) to introduce myself. Through those letters, I build a relationship. I ask what they like, and I receive a lot of replies from those emails. I respond to every reply.

When you get a letter from someone you’ve been reading about, it makes a difference in how you feel about that person. If you reach out to people, they will reach back.

Small things make people want to be a part of your work. Even if they don’t love my book, they still like me and are willing to give me a second chance.

I work hard to find out what my readers want. I cater to them. I don’t write a bestseller that will please 80% of readers. I want to please the 5% of readers on my email list. Even though that’s a small percentage, it’s still a large slice of the reading population. If I can please that 5%, I’ve done my job.

How do you get those subscribers?

Jim: How do you get those people to be open to a relationship and join your email list?

Susie: you meet people in many ways. We meet people in real life, on social media, and in groups. As a traditionally published author who is now also independently published, people often “meet” me through a bookstore when they pick up one of my books. In the back matter of all my books, I invite readers to come to my website to check out more books.

Once they’re on my website, I have a popup that offers them a free book. It’s a personal message that slides across my whole website and tempts web visitors to sign up to receive that free book via email.

Once they sign up, I automatically send my friend-making emails through my email service provider.

Wherever you interact with potential readers, offline or online, you must always direct them to one central place, such as your website. You can send people to your Facebook page, but it’s harder to connect and interact. I recommend using your website as your central hub.

What do you write in your letters and post on your Facebook page?

Susie: I post things about my life. I’m a huge football fan, so every time I go to a game, I post a picture of myself at the game. Even if I’m watching at home, I post a picture. People interact with me on my page on Sundays when the Vikings play because they know I love the Vikings.

I post pictures of my family and my granddaughter. My husband and I love to do adventure traveling, so I’ll post photos of us scuba diving or hiking.

People like to know what’s happening in your personal life, so I post those pictures on my social media channels. You don’t have to write a ton. You just have to write something interesting or entertaining.

I recently posted a picture of me cleaning out my spice cupboard, and I had eight containers of thyme. My caption for the pictures said, “I have too much thyme on my hands,” and people started riffing off that in the comments. There ended up being 700 comments. It was fun.

Now and then, I throw in a screenshot of what I’m writing or mention something about one of my books.

In every post, I link to my website so they can connect with me via email when they get there. Mondays and Thursdays are my business workdays, so that’s when I post on Facebook. Otherwise, I’m not on social media much.  

Authenticity is the key. For example, I’ve sent emails with typos. Instead of freaking out, I send a follow-up email saying, “Hey, I hadn’t finished my coffee when I sent that email with the typo.”

Writers and marketers can get super uptight, but people are willing to give you grace if you are authentic.

Jim: I can vouch for your authenticity. You’re the same in real life as you are in your emails. You are Susie.

Does calling yourself Susie confuse people since your author name is Susan May Warren?

Susie: I do run into that, but most people know me as Susie. When I started writing, I wanted to be authentic. I didn’t want to use a pen name. May was my grandmother’s name, and it’s special to me, so I use my full name as my author name. People who don’t know me sometimes call me Susan, and that’s okay.

Since my friends call me Susie, I always sign my friend-making letters as Susie May because those people are my friends.

Jim: My author name is James L. Rubart, but my friends know me as Jim. Sometimes that confuses readers because they don’t make the connection. They wonder if Jim Rubart is related to James L. Rubart. Thomas suggested I start introducing myself as James L. Rubart, as I do at the top of the podcast, but then I add, “but you can call me Jim.”

What are you working on now?

Jim: Susie and I are writing a series of books together. Rembrandt Stone is a time-traveling detective who travels back in time to solve cold cases.

Susie: I have found the process of cowriting completely rewarding. I think it produces a better book. We actually have a third person working with us as well. We call him the time doctor because he keeps the time-travel timeline straight. Our collaboration makes the book better because we have three minds working on the same story.

How can people find out more about you and your books?

To learn about my novels, visit  SusanMayWarren.com.

For my nonfiction books about writing, visit LearnHowToWriteANovel.com. We have over 1,000 articles on brainstorming, character building, plotting, scene building, editing, and publishing. It’s all free.

If you want advanced teaching, visit Novel.Academy. We have a monthly membership group, and we teach about writing and publishing every Thursday night. Last week we had a launch blueprint session. We talked about what you should do for 90 days to launch your book. People can listen live and ask questions, but it’s also recorded. We have over 300 classes recorded on various topics.

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