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How to start and maintain an author newsletter

How writers can use emails to connect, engage, and retain readers (and sell books, too).

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You’ve probably already checked your email a few times today. This likely stands true even if you’re reading this article first thing in the morning, because if you’re like millions of others, you opened your inbox before even getting out of bed.

Email marketing, and more specifically an email newsletter, is a tried-and-true method of reaching people. However, I’ve noticed many in the publishing world are not taking advantage of its full power. Instead, I often see it treated as a more of a passive thing: have a sign-up form on your website, occasionally send an email. We can do better. Email, done right, takes time, skill, and strategy. While it may require a learning curve and some trial and error, it’s a communication tool nearly anyone can learn to use well.

Austin Kleon, author of Show Your Work, Steal Like an Artist, and, most recently, Keep Going, is perhaps one of the best examples of how writers can use email to engage with an audience. His weekly emails are consistent, clean, simple, and full of personality and useful tips – 10 to be exact. Kleon began his newsletter in 2013, but you could say he’d already been developing his formula as early as 2005 with his blog. The Writer talked to Kleon, as well as some marketing professionals, about the many ways in which writers can use email effectively.

Note: This article focuses mainly on newsletters. One-off promotional emails are important and useful, but they differ in many ways.

 

Why email still matters

The phrase “email is dead” is dead-wrong. We hear so much news about the billions of social media users that we might often forget that 99 percent of consumers check their email every day. That’s according to research from the Data & Marketing Association, which also revealed that people check email more than 20 times per day. A poll from industry blog SaleCycle states that 59 percent of respondents say marketing emails influence their purchasing decisions. Likewise, Emma – an email software provider company – reports 59 percent of marketers say email is their biggest source of return on investment. These are only a few compelling reasons to pay attention to email; many similar statistics exist.

But why does it still matter? How is it still relevant? Technology – and social behavior – have changed a lot in the past decade. Yet while some social media platforms or fads came and went during this time span, email has sustained its allure as an effective communication tool for both subscribers and senders. Kleon has a hunch as to why it’s remained popular. 

“I think that the dumber and easier and ubiquitous the technology, the longer it sticks around. And the longer it sticks around, the longer it continues to stick around,” says Kleon. “Everybody has an email address, and that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change any time soon.”

It’s a medium people are familiar with, sure. But it’s more than that. Lisa Catto, owner of social media coaching agency Caledonia Creative, says “email is a critical resource for authors because it’s one of the few pieces of digital real estate we ‘own.’”

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What Catto means is that users are in essence “renting” social media platforms. Twitter, Facebook, and the like can change at any time: in layout, in delivery, in algorithms, in existence. That’s why she and many like-minded professionals suggest using social media not as an end-all, be-all but rather a supplement to point people to the outlets we do “own.”

“We can use social media to direct our followers to our email lists,” she suggested. Catto, also a romance and cozy mystery writer, says this approach is important because “if readers or fans sign up, then we can communicate with them at any time” – and ensure that message reaches them, whereas a tweet or Facebook post can easily get missed or buried in a busy timeline.

Opting in to receive email updates is more significant than someone clicking a social media “follow” button. It’s a bigger display of interest, trust, even, because not just anyone will give up their email address so easily. To illustrate this, Kleon reflects on some insight from author Seth Godin, considered one of the greats in digital marketing.

“Email newsletters are what [Godin] calls ‘permission marketing:’ people have given you permission to reach them,” he explained.

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But what if I have nothing to promote?

If you’re worried about sending an email because you have nothing to promote, you might be approaching email in the wrong way. In fact, you could argue an email newsletter could be more successful without an obvious sales message.

Wise content marketers, like Godin, have long been in favor of sharing only things that bring value to an audience. “Marketing isn’t just selling people stuff,” Kleon says. “Seth defines it as serving your audience.”

And that’s precisely what Kleon does. Each week, he sends an email to his readers highlighting (and linking off to) the resources he found most helpful or interesting that week.

“…my ethos has always been, if I write about the things I genuinely care about in an interesting or useful way, the people who care about those kinds of things too will show up,” Kleon says.

As a reader of Kleon’s books and emails, I do show up for the value he provides. And, as a marketing professional, I admire his balanced approach. His willingness to share and the friendly manner in which he does so has become part of his brand, and you’ll never see an overt “buy this book” message. He says he’s deliberate in this balance.

“I always felt that if you’re super generous with your audience, then they’ll reward you when you have something to sell,” he says. “If you share things you love, then when you share the things you’ve made, you have a better shot at people paying attention.”

So don’t worry if you don’t have a product to sell or an event to promote. You always have something to share: your wisdom. Your passion. You.

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