Business Musings: Newsletters and Discoverability
I promised in the comments of last week’s blog that I’d write about newsletters. Except for mentions and brief discussion in blogs on other topics, I really haven’t discussed newsletters much. In my book Discoverability, I list newsletters as one of the minimal things a writer should do (in addition to a static website and a book publication list) so that readers can find the work.
I have often thought about writing a blog on newsletters, but something kept stopping me. Finally, as I answered a comment when last week’s blog went live on Patreon, I started to get a glimmer of what has nagged me all along. Thanks to T. Thorn Coyle for her prodding (some of which you can see in last week’s comments), which got me thinking even harder.
Newsletters Before 2011
Writers have had newsletters long before email newsletter services came into being, long before the internet came into being. The indefatigable Debbie Macomber has done a newsletter for more than twenty years, and she has used it to great advantage. She used a lot of strategies that helped her hit the bestseller list, but also kept her readers loyal.
A May 2010 article on the BookPage.com blog lists three reasons why Debbie Macomber is a bestseller, and they all have to do with her newsletter. Please note that the post got published just as the indie world was starting to take off. Debbie’s still traditionally published, so she was doing all of this stuff before Constant Contact and MailChimp.
She wrote, printed, and snail-mailed a newsletter. This article looks at a later iteration of Debbie’s newsletter, but when she started, she couldn’t afford to be quite as fancy. I’ve heard her speak on the way she cultivated her fans to help her success. (The speech I heard was in the early part of this century).
The three things the 2010 newsletter had were:
- Coupons for upcoming books
- Stickers and bookmarks with her 2010 releases listed on them
- Folksy news of Debbie, along with recipes and tips
The coupons and stickers weren’t in the newsletter. They were with the newsletter, in the same envelope. Here’s what the BookPage blogger said about the coupons:
Here’s the smart part: they’re only valid during the first week of a book’s release, when sales are especially crucial.
Go back to last week’s blog on bestseller lists, and you’ll understand just how brilliant this move is. It mobilized all of Debbie’s hardcore readers all over the country to buy a book at a discount at the same time.
Debbie would have had to do the coupons in coordination with her publisher, not something she could have done as a newer writer. But by the time 2010 rolled around, she had a lot of clout, so yes, it was possible to do such things.
But in her newsletters, she hasn’t just offer coupons to her fans. She’s done all kinds of promotions. Debbie has been the queen of sharing and promotions as long as she’s published. She published her first novel in 1983. I don’t know for a fact whether or not she started doing newsletters then, but I do know that she’s been an innovative promoter since the early 1990s. A lot of the things you see romance writers do for promotion were ideas that Debbie had first and did better.
She’s still doing newsletters, innovative promotions, and incredible reader interaction. You can see all of her recent newsletters here.
I’ll be honest. I look at everything Debbie’s done or doing or plans to do, and I get instantly tired. I know how brilliant her promotions are. I know how much work she did from the very start to create this bond with her readers. She’s amazing.
What you need to know about her is that she does not cynically cultivate these connections. She enjoys them, and does them really well. There’s a reason her newsletters resemble the chatty letters that my aunt used to send me.
First, Debbie is that chatty, driven, organized person. Second, the newsletters reflect the kinds of books she writes, the books that appeal to her readers. And third, I’ll bet she can’t imagine doing this work any other way.
When I first saw what she was doing, and the brilliance of it, I briefly toyed with doing the same thing. But I’m not that person. I always planned to write a holiday newsletter for my family and never got around to it. (My parents used to write one every year, and my sisters still do.) I am not the cheery, chatty, connective type.
(Right now, a whole group of my friends and acquaintances just did a spit-take, because they know what an understatement that is.)
One of my closest friends, Kevin J. Anderson, started a newsletter sometime in the early 1990s. The newsletter’s still going strong, both as an email newsletter and as a few-times-per-year paper one.
The focus of Kevin’s newsletter is a little different than Debbie’s. Technically, a friend of Kevin’s started a fan club for him, and she writes the newsletter, with information he provides. When the newsletter’s in paper, it’s a beautifully designed four-page flyer with news about Kevin and his co-authors, where he’ll be signing books, and what books are being released when. The newsletter contains appearance information for the next several months, so readers know when and where they can either hear Kevin speak or get him to sign books or both.
The paper newsletters often go out around the holiday season and have, for many years, included a calendar. The calendar features photographs from Kevin’s hikes (he’s an avid hiker) and often (although not always) lists the release dates for his books.
He occasionally uses the newsletter for special promotions. Mostly, though, the newsletter (especially the email version) is informational.
Both Kevin and Debbie acquired each newsletter subscriber slowly, one reader at a time. Because both Kevin and Debbie were traditionally published when they started their newsletters, they couldn’t put newsletter information in the back of their books.
These sign-ups often came from word of mouth or at appearances. Once Kevin and Debbie started their websites, they had newsletter sign-ups on the site.
The newsletters served the same purpose for both writers:
The newsletters let fans know about upcoming releases. Every newsletter Debbie and Kevin release assumes that the people who get the newsletter are familiar with the author’s work, like the author’s work, and want more of the author’s work.
Keep that in mind.
Kevin and Debbie are unusual. A lot of us knew what they were doing. I envied their organization and drive, but could never get myself to do the newsletter. Besides, doing a newsletter before Constant Contact became ubiquitous (somewhere around 2005) [link], was costly.
At minimum, you had the cost of paper, envelopes, and postage—not counting the time it took to stamp and address everything. After the early newsletters, neither Debbie nor Kevin used their home printers to make the newsletters. They had the newsletters—and accompanying material (in Debbie’s case)—professionally printed.
I have no idea how big their newsletters are now. I suspect Debbie’s is in the hundreds of thousands of reader subscribers. Kevin might not know, since his is still run by the fan organization. I suspect his is large as well, given the cross promotion he occasionally does with the band Rush for their joint book projects.
What Kevin and Debbie do is what I think of as a newsletter.
And therein we find the basis of the problem I’ve been having whenever indies describe “getting names” for their newsletter.
As I said last week, I would rather have 1,000 true fans on my newsletter than 50,000 names that signed up for a free book. The problem isn’t the sentiment. It’s the word newsletter.
The Function of Newsletters
All newsletters—from Debbie’s to Kevin’s to some brand new indie writer’s—are advertising.
And like all advertising, the person who is writing the ad copy needs to know where the ad is going.
If you are trying to use your newsletter to get it in front of people who have never read your book, you’re using the newsletter for a different purpose than Kevin and Debbie do.
To put this in better marketing terms: when you’re using the newsletter to attract new readers, what you’re actually doing is some kind of ad flyer. Or, if you’re a good writer (and I’m assuming all of you are), you’re producing an advertising circular.
Advertising circulars are newspapers that sell ads. Advertising circulars often have content as well, so that people read the content and glance at the ads on each page.
Back in the day, a lot of ad circulars with good content became weekly alternative newspapers of rather high quality. In the last decade, as small rural newspapers have declined, they became ad circulars with a bit of content.
What goes around comes around, I guess.
Offering free books, going to other sites to get names to put on the newsletter, those are marketing gimmicks, things that publications do to boost the publication’s circulation.
It’s an effective way to work, particularly when the list you’ve bought (or bought into) is targeted to your product or interests. You get new names of unknown people onto your list.
A percentage of those people will then sample your free content. A smaller percentage of them will like what they see and buy some of your content. An even smaller percentage will then become fans of your work.
Doing things this way has become the new “free.” Writers are sharing lists, they’re sharing ways to boost their newsletter sign-ups, and they’re sharing methods of getting new names.
Some writers who are a bit more savvy about this stuff recommend isolating the new names from the rest of your mailing list as segment, emailing a newsletter to that segment with some additional free content, and seeing who opens, reads, interacts.
Which is good if the tracking software is good. (See the comments on my post Data Diving for the ways that can go wrong.) Eventually, the writer will have new names for the mailing list—and with luck, those names become fans who then buy books.
The Problem With Writer Newsletters 2017
As far as I can tell, no one who goes the ad circular route talks about the content of the newsletter. They talk about the freebies and how to leverage them. They talk about how to maintain and manage the list, but they don’t talk about the most important part of any ad campaign.
How to communicate.
It’s all about audience, baby.
If your newsletter is for your constant readers (to use Stephen King’s term), then your newsletter will have information a regular reader wants.
That information includes:
- When the next book is coming out
- Where you’ll be appearing to sign books or to give a presentation
- Special perks
The newsletter for possible readers, which I am going to call the ad circular only for clarity’s sake (not as a judgment because, again, I think it’s a valid way to go), also includes that same information.
- When the next book is coming out
- Where you’ll be appearing to sign books or to give a presentation
- Special perks
But…this is where the content varies.
The old-school newsletter will then have chatty commentary. For Kevin’s newsletter, that includes where he hiked while writing certain novels, inspiration he found in other places, some of the fun trips he’s been on that weren’t writing related.
In Debbie’s case, she often discusses her family or what she’s knitted recently (seriously) or recipes that she loves. One newsletter on her site includes her wedding photo.
These newsletters assume the readers will want to know these personal things about the writer. I’ve seen newsletters that discuss upcoming books which will feature favorite side characters or include some material that was excised from a novel but isn’t a standalone story.
These are things that fans and long-time readers are interested in, but that people browsing the bookshelf for their next read have no patience for.
The ad circular newsletter will have (or should have) basic information. Where can the reader find more books by this author? What order should the books be read in?
The ad circular should be shorter and to the point. But it should also have a lot of voice in the body copy so that the potential book buyer actually reads the newsletter rather than deleting it.
It’s a trick to write that kind of copy, especially on a monthly or quarterly basis.
Once the reader buys a book, then there’s still no guarantee that reader is a fan. They still might not want the chatty recipe-and-hiking laden newsletter.
But so many writers transition the newbies to that chatty old-school newsletter right away. And the attrition rate grows.
Kevin and Debbie use their newsletters like hip-hop artists used street teams in the 1990s. These teams would go out and do one-on-one market for the artist in question. They got perks—t-shirts, free CDs, something grand—for their effort.
But Kevin and Debbie never saw the work that the fan did. They saw the results of the work. And, to be frank, I’m not sure either writer ever thought of their fans as potential marketers. I’m pretty sure that’s just the result of those chatty newsletters.
The ad circulars, though, are introductory. They’re being used as brand discoverability. Don’t know who Suzy Q is as a writer? Well, here’s a sample of what she’s doing. See if you like it.
The ad circular is a first step toward getting a reader.
The old-school newsletter already has the reader and is, for lack of a better term, weaponizing that reader.
When you design your newsletter, pick which audience you’re gearing it to. Then don’t change midstream. So if you start your newsletter as an ad circular, keep it an ad circular. (Maybe devise a secondary newsletter for longer-term fans.)
If you started your newsletter as an old-school newsletter for fans only, then keep it that way. (Maybe delve into the newer way of doing things with a different newsletter.)
Remember who you’re writing for, and design your newsletter accordingly.
It has taken me forever to understand why I was deeply uncomfortable every single time someone asked me to participate in a grow-your-newsletter campaign. I did one, a few years ago, and it grew my newsletter. Fortunately, less than 1% of the new names dropped off the list. But I’ll be honest, it was a deliberately tiny experiment, and I did the experiment wrong.
I wasn’t thinking ad circular. I was confused by it all, trying to see how it worked, and I didn’t target the audience right at all.
So I stopped.
I’d been working intuitively—which is something I do often. I was instinctively groping toward an old-school newsletter. Or rather, old-school newsletters.
If you scroll to the bottom of this page, you’ll see several newsletters. My overall newsletter is at the very top of the page, but the other newsletters at the bottom are for different series.
Since I write in so many genres, I figured some readers wouldn’t want to know everything I did. Those readers would only be interested in the Retrieval Artist series or the Kris Nelscott books or the goofy Grayson novels. I wanted to have a place where those readers could gather, and get the news that pertains to them.
Those newsletters have a much smaller subscriber base than the overall Rusch newsletter. But I get a lot more questions from the other newsletters, which are only active when I have a new project in that series or under that name. I also talk about things that matter only to the readers of the series, not to someone I’m trying to entice into the series.
I try to do the Rusch overall newsletter regularly, although I suck at monthly.
But I’m still thinking about ad circulars too. I’ve talked WMG Publishing into experimenting with some of the new newsletter tricks to get a lot of subscribers to the newsletter. I’m happier when WMG does it rather than me, partly because of something I wrote in an email last week.
When I promote the newsletter, I feel like a marketer. When I write an old-school newsletter, I feel like a writer communicating with readers. Obviously, I prefer the second one.
If that means I don’t have 50,000 newsletter subscribers like some newer writers do, that’s okay. The people who’ve signed onto my newsletters want to get them. My unsubscribe rate is astonishingly low.
I do have to say, though, that digging through Debbie’s old newsletters has had the same effect on me that it always has. First, I feel completely inadequate. Then I feel like I’d better hurry to catch up on all the nifty things she’s already pioneered. Finally, I crawl into my office and get back to the work in progress.
I don’t feel overwhelmed when I think about fiction writing. I feel completely overwhelmed when I focus on the “shoulds” of marketing.
After all, I’m a writer, not a marketer. (Cue the Dr. McCoy voice: Jim, I’m a writer, not a damned marketer.) I do want more readers, but I’m willing to get them through word of mouth, one reader at a time.
That said, I do have newsletter sign-ups at the back of my books—or at least, the books I’ve published since 2015 or so. (We’re slowly adding that page to the older books as we update the interiors from their ancient beginnings.) And I’m pretty sure I get a lot of subscribers that way.
Only I don’t dig into the data to find out. I’m guessing. Because…I’d rather be writing. And life is much too short to do anything else.
I do want to say thank you, though, to everyone who talked to me about newsletters this week. You really helped me crystalize my thoughts. I was finally able to put my finger on what’s been bothering me about the changing face of newsletters, and more importantly for me, how to apply a newsletter properly to my own writing business.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
(Please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.)
“Business Musings: Newsletters and Discoverability,” copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / HaywireMedia
Ten Little Fen: A Spade/Paladin Novel
Spade and Paladin find themselves snowed in at a remote sf convention, with a killer on the loose! Get your copy here.
Get a Free Book, Monthly Updates on New Releases, and Special Offers
The Chase, the latest Diving novel, answers a lot of your questions about the series. It also might cause you to ask a few more. Click here to find out more.
Get Early Copies of the Thursday Business Blog and More!
Rethinking The Writing Business
All the licensing blogs in one volume. Learn how to think about your writing business in a way that will enable you to work smarter, not harder. Get yours here.
A New Edition of A Dangerous Road
For book clubs and reading groups, complete with questions! Go here to order.