Business Musings: Found It!
I’ve been poking, poking, poking trying to find the new topic that will send newer writers, particularly indie writers, into high dudgeon. Topics like that expose the current myths and traps that writers can find themselves in.
I was beginning to think we had hit that point in the indie cycle where the writers had spread out and didn’t have the same assumptions or were no longer making mistakes as a group (besides the usual ones that we all make).
But, no. I found it.
Newsletters. The new free.
The responses I got to my newsletter post, both privately, in my comments, and on other blogs, made me laugh and made me sad at the same time.
First, let me clarify something about my Business Musings blog. I haven’t said this for quite a while.
When I write a post, I’m usually thinking out loud, looking for what’s best for my career—not your career. Not everyone’s career. I don’t believe that writers are all cut from the same cloth. We’re all different with different needs.
So when I say I’m going to do something, that means I have decided to something that’s best for me.
At the end of the newsletter post, I mentioned that I preferred the old-fashioned way of doing newsletters, getting constant readers and fans to sign onto my newsletter, not getting names and hoping to convert them to buying my books.
As someone said in comments on the newsletter post, it takes a year to convert one freebie reader to a regular (paying) reader. One. And heaven knows how many other potential readers got turned off with the extensive marketing campaign directed at them.
I understand the value of using mailing lists of potential readers, trying to get them to sample your work. It has a lot of value. As I said in the newsletter blog, it’s one way to do a newsletter.
The problem is so many new writers think it’s the only way.
A writer wrote to me personally and told me that she writes the same copy for all her readers, so the distinction I made is unimportant to her. The response I had, which I did not email back was, well, then, you don’t understand marketing. You’re doing yours wrong.
How do I know that? Years of working in and around advertising.
Sorry, folks. Writing newsletter copy, whether it is to regular readers or to people who have never heard of you, is marketing. Advertising.
I know you hate to hear this, but you must target advertising. What works for 80-year-old Millie in Des Moines doesn’t work for 25-year-old Jean in Paris. (And yes, we’re working on an international level. Remember that.)
Use your voice and your perspective in each newsletter you write, but write different newsletters for faithful readers than you do for possible readers. After all, you talk to your friends differently than you talk to strangers, don’t you? (Or do you? If not, you’re probably scaring people.)
As with all of these schemes—and they are schemes—you have to ask yourself how much time you can afford to spend on them. If your writing time is limited, then you really should tone down your marketing.
If you feel like you have more than enough writing time, then by all means, write a lot of newsletters and ad copy and whatever else it takes to acquire new readers.
I know of no writer who has enough time to write. But then, I don’t know every writer.
Newsletter sign-ups are seductive. They have real numbers, all people who seem interested in you or your work. You can get 50,000 newsletter subscribers to your list by giving them a free book and doing other promotions. That’s exciting.
But what counts are actual sales to actual readers. And not one-time sales. Repeat sales to the same customer. That’s what we all want.
Repeat business is the goal of retail, by the way, which is what we’re in when we sell books directly to the consumer. That’s why Amazon developed Amazon Prime, to entice repeat business. Once you have customer loyalty, you have a powerful tool.
The reason I like back-of-the-book newsletter signups is that studies have shown people who ask for targeted marketing are actual fans of the product. Those fans go out in larger numbers to purchase a new product.
When you email your newsletter to 100 people, and 80 of them buy the book you’re promoting in that newsletter, then you have real fans. That fan base will grow.
That growth is not exciting, unless you understand that each person who signs up to a fan-base newsletter wants to be on the list because they like your work. They’ve actually read it before they sign up.
These days, no one wants to think about growing a fan base. Nor do they want to think about a career that lasts longer than a few years. Who cares what happens ten years from now, writers think. All that matters is right now.
I could copy and paste the blogs I wrote five years ago about free and permafree and put the arguments right here. They are the same arguments I would use about “growing” a newsletter. When you “grow a newsletter,” you’re not cultivating readers. You’re cultivating subscribers—to a newsletter.
Yes, I know that growing a newsletter to tens of thousands of names is the current thing. The problem is that it’s not how to effectively market, not at the numbers I’ve seen.
Did you note that when I wrote about Debbie Macomber, I said that she innovated almost every marketing thing that romance writers do? For Debbie, those things were incredibly effective. Something new is usually effective for the innovator and a handful of early adopters. After that, the effectiveness rate goes down exponentially.
And the current thing becomes passé pretty quickly.
I could, if I wanted to name names and point fingers, show how the gurus of 2011 with their marketing schemes are either gone or quietly writing the next book.
None of the people who are giving marketing advice to writers today—the infomercial kind of marketing advice (see below)—have had careers long enough to actually understand how the advice works in the long-term.
These people are promoting instant success. Which, granted, they’ve had.
And that success will vanish once their tried-and-true system becomes “so last year.”
What do I mean by infomercial marketing advice?
Think about infomercials for a moment and the promises they make. Even better, tonight, after you’ve read this blog, watch a few infomercials. Listen to the words the infomercial marketer is using.
Here are a few examples of infomercial marketing advice:
- If You want To Make A Real Salary—From Home—Order Our Free Booklet!
- Gary The Photogenic Infomercial Guy Stumbled On A System To Flip Houses. He Made Millions! He Is Now Willing To Share His Easy Five-Step System So That You Can Make Millions Too!
- Tired of The Grind? Want To Be Your Own Boss? Learn Susie’s Day Trading System, Karl’s Make-up Tips, Amway, or A Million Other Similar (if weird) Things. And In Less Than Thirty Days, You Will Be Able to Quit Your Day Job And Pay All Your Bills!
Here’s the thing: A lot of those infomercial guys? They give great advice. Their systems are pretty dang good.
For the short term.
You, the writer and potential marketer, should cherry-pick their advice, and see what applies to you. What can you do—and still write enough books to actually have a career?
These gurus—whether they’re writing gurus or marketing superheroes or promotion geniuses—are all about the marketing, not the writing. They write enough books to have a little bit of product, and then, rather than write the next book, they learn how to promote the hell out of their product.
That kind of promotion works. You can make a lot of money in a short period of time doing whatever they tell you to do.
But then, everyone jumps on the new promotion bandwagon, everyone does the same thing, and the audience (be they readers or TV viewers or the average person on the street) gets tired of the repeated calls to buy something they already have.
What you saw from me in newsletter post was pretty simple.
I’ve been hearing from all kinds of sources about the “new” way to do newsletters. As I said in that post, I was confused as to how people were writing those newsletters, and it turns out, most writers were confused as well.
They never thought about their target audience.
The writers thought about growing the numbers on their newsletter, hoping to convert those people to readers, and once those people were converted to readers, they got the exact same newsletter—which is not the right way to do it.
As I said last week, some of the gurus recommend segmenting a list, or splitting off a new list to deal with the new names, which is the right way to do it. But all that culling and list maintenance? You have to be pretty diligent, and you have to do it the right way, or you’ll lose the very people you’re trying to cultivate.
As more and more people discussed the post and newsletters on various list serves, in the comments, and in my email, I got startled and a little worried. These writers are willing to spam their potential readers. Sending a newsletter every week? Every two weeks? Spending months hitting up potential readers until they get worn down and buy the product that they’ll probably never read?
And…as Anne R. Allen said in her most recent blog…you hit the readers too many times with your newsletter, and you’ll be classified as spam. There’s a hefty fine per email for spam.
She also pointed out something I did not know: writers are sharing their email newsletter sign-up names with each other. I shudder at that. I finally understand why I’ve been getting newsletters from writers whose work I dislike. I knew I had never signed up for their newsletters, so why do they appear in my email?
Apparently because I had signed up on the wrong list.
Don’t do these things, people. And think about what you’re doing here. Make sure you’re not spamming people. (Most of the gurus’ advice is spammy, scammy advice, by the way.)
Let me give you one last example.
The marketing tricks used in the “new” way to do newsletters are as old as time. We used a lot of them snail mail at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction when the publisher had some extra cash to put into promotion. The exact same marketing tricks, done through a slightly different medium, but with the exact same results.
Here’s how it worked:
We would buy subscriber lists from other magazines. We would then send snail mail to those subscribers, a post card perhaps, or a flyer, offering a free issue in exchange for a cut-rate subscription.
A lot of those subscriber lists were from similar markets: when I edited at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, we would often buy the science fiction subscription list from Asimov’s and Analog. Sometimes we’d buy from other magazines or magazine services.
The subscriber lists would cost a hefty chunk of money, as did the mailings, so this was always a big marketing investment.
In order to get the free trial, the potential subscriber had to actually pay money. The subscriber would get—say—13 issues instead of 12. The first issue would be free. The subscriber would then have to cancel before getting the second issue, which a lot of people were too lazy to do. It’s like a gym membership. You forget that you’ve paid for it after the money is gone.
If the free-trial rate from one of those lists was less than 40 or 50%, then we tossed the list. We would never go back to that list.
What you wanted was at least 50% free-trial subscriptions. We would see if we could hang onto them the following year, for renewals, when subscriber would pay more money for the magazine. If we were doing our job, we would receive renewals at least 70% of the free-trial subscribers. (How did we know? We knew when we had done the marketing campaign. We would know when the subscribers needed to renew.)
The biggest marketing drive I was a part of in those years ended up retaining 85% of the free-trial subscribers. My publisher was extremely pleased with me that year, because he had not seen a resubscribe rate that good in a decade or more.
These days, I’m seeing conversion numbers from writers with huge newsletter “subscribers” of less than 10%. (By conversion, I mean names on the list that turn into actual book buyers. One-time book buyers.) Some conversion rates are even less than 1%. One blogger told me he had about 100,000 names on his list and he could count on 1,000 of them to buy the next book.
That 1,000 is enough names to get on an Amazon bestseller list for a day. And that’s nice. Everyone would like to get 1,000 sales. But he didn’t tell me if those 1,000 bought the books immediately or spread out over time. Nor did he realize that he was probably spamming 99,000 people (if they even bothered to open the newsletter).
When I was doing magazines, if we only got 1,000 free-trial subscribers off a list of 100,000 subscribers, we would consider the money we spent for that list wasted.
Yeah, yeah, I know. You think you’re not spending money.
But you are. You’re spending writing time. And I know most of you don’t think of your time as valuable, particularly your writing time, but it is.
I realize not every one of you is following the gurus’ advice to the letter. I also realize that some of you are having good success with your discoverability newsletters. (You know: those newsletters sent to people who have never read your work before). That means you’re doing something right. Good for you.
The rest of you? Get off the bandwagon, evaluate your time and the return on your investment, and figure out what’s best for you. Some of you will return to newsletters. Some of you won’t.
A lot of you dismissed what I had to say about advertising and advertising copy because I decided not to jump on the get-50,000-names-for-your-newsletter bandwagon. Instead of looking at the analysis and thinking about the ways you write your newsletter copy and what the point of your newsletter is, you dismissed everything I said.
Um, why? What myth did I puncture? Why did you work hard at looking away from any analysis at all?
My newsletter post was me thinking out loud about what’s right for me.
I would rather write new work than spend every few days composing more advertising copy. Or, as most writers call it, writing a newsletter. Writing ad copy is still writing. And it’s not nearly as valuable as writing the next book.
I know. I’m easy to dismiss, because let’s see…pick a reason from the list that appeared in the list serves after the newsletter post. I’ve been around for a long time so I never had to build readership. (Um, what?) I’m not on any Amazon bestseller lists. (How do you know? I have more than 400 titles. I don’t even know if I’m on a list.) I don’t like newsletters. (Actually, I do, when they’re done well. My favorite is from Ad Week—yes, Ad Week, and damn they’re good. [They better be, given the source.])
I love the folks who say I’m not making money at my writing. For the sake of my bona fides, let me say this. I’ve been a full-time fiction writer since the mid-1990s. I have made more than six-figures on my writing alone since the mid-1990s. That doesn’t count the money I made editing or the small amount I make when I teach. (Usually I lose money teaching. I consider teaching paying forward.)
I make more money the years when I sell a lot of subsidiary rights, like foreign translations or movie options on my work. Those things don’t show up in an Amazon bestseller list. Or any bestseller list, for that matter. (Well, the translations do sometimes, and I’ve been on bestseller lists all over Europe. I haven’t checked to see if my novels in Asia or Latin America made any lists.)
So, yeah, these gurus make money on their marketing. But at the moment, because most of these gurus have only written a few novels (all have published fewer than ten), the money the gurus are making is short-term money.
Until I poked at the newsletter topic, I hadn’t realized how deep it had permeated the indie world. The anger. The gnashing of teeth. The comments saying that I don’t understand.
And yet, I’m not the only one who has noticed this. Anne R. Allen says in the comments on her blog that she had finished her newsletter blog, titled “Author Newsletter vs. Author Blog: Five Reasons I Prefer a Blog, and Six Reasons You Might Not,” before mine hit the light of day. She modified hers to reflect a few things from mine.
Which means that the newsletter thing has risen to one of those everyone should do it this exact way to be successful myths. And the gurus of these methods—who say “Do it my way and you’ll sell thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of books,” are infomercial marketers, and nothing more.
When someone gives you a prescribed way to do something, guaranteed to give you a great result, without knowing anything about your business…folks, I’m sorry. That’s not good marketing. For anyone. Except the person perpetrating the idea.
They’re marketing themselves and their system. Not their novels.
Yes, you can get some good ideas from these people. I’m taking a few ideas from one of the current gurus for a project I’m working on. But only a handful of his ideas, and certainly not the way he wants me to do so. And I haven’t paid a dime for his expensive guaranteed system.
His system is so time-consuming that I’d lose most of my writing time chasing names on a newsletter. That’s not even gaining readers. That’s gaining email address that might or might not be valid.
So please, think before you take some of the advice from these gurus.
And before you take advice from me.
You need to make the right choices for your business. But please do a business analysis of those choices. Do a profit and loss. Figure in the cost of your time. (If you’re not earning money from your writing yet, bill your hours at minimum wage or what someone earns at an entry level position at your day job.) Then factor in how many hours of writing you’re losing.
Compare the cost of those hours to the amount of money you’re making from sales of books that occurred solely because you took someone else’s advice on newsletters. If you can’t make a direct correlation between the newsletter and sales, then you are doing something wrong.
I know, I know. Numbers and data and statistical work. I’m asking you to look at your writing business like a business.
Numbers are great when they inform what you’re doing. Numbers can be a trap when you’re chasing something illusive.
I’m pretty sure Debbie Macomber has 50,000 newsletter subscribers or more. I’m also pretty sure that Debbie’s subscribers buy her books. If her publisher was willing to give her a coupon to send to them in 2010, then she was guaranteeing tens of thousands of book sales in the first week.
You want to build a fan base, folks, not get names on a list.
How do you build a fan base?
Write great stories. Publish them. Rinse. Repeat.
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“Business Musings: Found It,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / jgroup
The Runabout in Asimov’s
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