The Business of Writing – You’ve Got Mail
What makes a good author email newsletter? Two authors tell Simon Whaley how they keep in regular touch with their readers.
Mailing lists. Every author should have one. Why? Because once we have our readers’ email addresses, we control how and when we communicate directly with them. We’re not reliant upon a traditional publisher’s marketing strategy, or another company’s platform, like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Having a database of readers’ email addresses makes great business sense. Being able to contact readers who’ve bought our previous books to tell them that our next book comes out in two days’ time can be extremely powerful. Some authors manage this so successfully that they’re able to concentrate a lot of sales into a short time period, increasing their chances of getting on the bestseller lists.
But in the same way that we’re advised to avoid filling our social media channels with Buy My Book! posts, newsletters shouldn’t just ask our readers to buy our latest offering. So what else should we be writing to them about, and how frequently should we be doing this?
David Gaughran (https://davidgaughran.com) writes historical novels as well as a series of practical marketing books for writers. His Let’s Get Digital (How To Self-Publish And Why You Should) is currently in its third edition, and discusses everything from writing to market, building your platform, to optimising your metadata. He’s now convinced every author should have a mailing list.
‘All authors need to have a newsletter. It’s not just the best tool for the job in terms of retaining readers and deepening engagement – nothing else comes close,’ he explains. ‘Instead of building up your platform on a site you don’t control, like Facebook or Instagram, your ultimate aim should be to build up a list of readers that you do control. This is the most important thing an author can do for the long-term health of their career.’
When David says all authors, he means everyone, including those who are traditionally published.
‘It is doubly important for traditionally published authors who can’t use many of the marketing strategies that self-publishers profit from. They might have a bit of a fight on their hands to get their publisher’s permission to include a sign-up link in their ebooks, but they should make it a key demand in negotiations – it really is that important. And even if they fail, they should still have a hard push on their site towards that sign-up page and actively seek to grow their mailing list.’
One traditionally published writer who wishes he’d thought earlier about his author mailing list and newsletter service is Vaseem Khan (https://vaseemkhan.com), author of the successful Baby Ganesh Detective Agency novels.
‘My first novel, The Unexpected Inheritance Of Inspector Chopra, came out in August 2015,’ he explains. ‘My first newsletter came out in December 2016. I regret not having a website and a newsletter subscribe option on that website from the first day that my book was launched. I think this is a must for all debuts. Publishers put a lot of effort into marketing debuts and thus it’s criminally wasteful not to try and capture as much of any interest generated as possible.’
Creating a mailing list takes time, which is why the sooner we start the better. Many of the email newsletter services like Mailchimp, Mailerlite, Moosend, sendinblue and Mailjet (see Business Directory for links) offer free plans for small subscriber lists. Using one of these can be a cost-effective way of building up our newsletter subscriber lists at the beginning. They’re also excellent at dealing with all the GDPR requirements that data handlers must now adhere to.
But once readers have signed up to our newsletters, how frequently should we be sending one out?
Vaseem has opted for four newsletters a year. ‘My newsletter is quarterly as I think that’s a nice balance between too frequent and not frequent enough. We’re all busy people and inbox fatigue is very real. Also, quarterly means I actually have something new to say.’
David, on the other hand, has changed tack and now issues his newsletters more frequently. ‘I changed everything about my approach after reading a wonderful book called Newsletter Ninja by Tammi Labrecque, which is written specifically for authors. The two main changes are that I now email regularly instead of just announcing releases. I thought I was doing readers a favour by not cluttering their inboxes, whereas I was really only contacting them when I wanted something. And that’s no basis for a sustainable relationship. Aside from that, I now really try and make sure there is genuine value in each email I send, so that subscribers look forward to receiving them. These two changes have revolutionised newsletters for me in both effectiveness and personal enjoyment.’
Content is King
The frequency choice is a personal one. If you’re self-publishing several books a year then a more frequent monthly or bi-monthly newsletter might be more appropriate. But if you’re producing only one book a year, it’s important to stay in touch with readers enough times a year to remind them you exist.
So, what should we be sharing with our readers?
‘Your personality has to shine through,’ explains Vaseem. ‘An engaging newsletter builds a friendship with your reader base through personal anecdotes, an insight into your wider life, and some fun stuff. I talk about my cricketing exploits and offer research highlights from the university where I work in my day job. Tone is important. It has to match your writing and your personality.’
Often readers want to know more about the book writing process and how we, as authors, work and live. As Vaseem says, it’s about building a friendship.
David thinks we should treat our newsletters like any other piece of writing we may undertake. Craft them. Think about who our readers are and what will interest them.
‘I think the average writer’s antipathy towards marketing leads them to get all twisted up with newsletters,’ he says. ‘They forget they are storytellers, that readers want to hear from them, and that a newsletter should be personal but also contain lots of common ground – you have one obvious thing in common with all your readers: you all like the same kinds of books – the type you write. If you remember that, there’s lots and lots of topics you can cover in your newsletter that will be of mutual interest, and not just be about you and your books all the time.’
Think about exploiting some of your research trips. How have you learned about the background matter to your next book? Where did you visit? Include photos and anecdotes. Make recommendations. Treat them like the bonus bits on a DVD.
‘Think of all the things that reader-you enjoys about your particular genre,’ says David. ‘Remember that you are a fan as well as a writer, and make a list of all the types of things that excite you about your niche. And then put your writer-hat back on and craft a story around all this content. A writer of thrillers can talk about famous serial killers. Historical fiction authors can really delve into the research of a book, or explore alternative views of famous events. The SciFi/Fantasy crew can argue about the ending of Game of Thrones or review The Martian. There really is no end to the kind of interesting content you can share with your readers when you remind yourself of the passion that drove you to write in the first place. Tap into that. Share that. People respond to passion above all else.’
Remember, we’re readers too, so behave like them. We should sign up to favourite authors’ newsletters, and find out what they share. Vaseem recommends this as a great source of inspiration for our own newsletters.
‘Subscribe to a range of author newsletters to get ideas. Use the ideas that best represent you. And never forget that content is king. People want to know about you, not just your next book. If you can entertain them at the same time they won’t unsubscribe.’
It’s not uncommon for writers to write both fiction and non-fiction, or to write in different genres under different pseudonyms. We should, therefore, consider writing different newsletters for each distinct market.
It’s a mistake that David feels he made at the start of his newsletter journey. ‘Every email should have value to the recipient – if it doesn’t, they will stop opening them and your list will begin that horrible, slow decline of engagement and responsiveness. I write historical fiction, science fiction, and non-fiction. There isn’t very much crossover between these audiences, so it’s a huge mistake to try and write one email to please that diverse crowd – one I made for years but have since corrected. I wish I had done it sooner, quite frankly.’
In theory, producing email newsletters shouldn’t be challenging. We’re writers, after all. What’s a newsletter if it’s not something to be written? Think of them as letters to our friends, for that’s who our readers are.
Give recipients special opportunities. Are you looking for more beta readers? Put a call out in your next newsletter. Got a couple of designs for your next front cover but are unsure which to go for? Put them in your next newsletter and ask your readers for their thoughts.
Think of readers as friends who want us to write more of what they enjoy reading. That way, we’ll create newsletters that are read and enjoyed and, ultimately, that’s what will enable our writing business to flourish and thrive.
Get some newsletter inspiration – sign up to David’s, Vaseem’s (and Simon’s) newsletters here:
David Gaughran: https://davidgaughran.com
Vaseem Khan: https://vaseemkhan.com/book-club/
Mailing List Services: