How to Grow Your Newsletter List as an Unpublished Author
All my research for building an author platform has always come up with one common denominator: start an author newsletter. This is all very well and good, but my book isn’t even published yet (it's in the query trenches), and I had to ask myself two glaring questions:
What on earth could I do or say to get folks to subscribe to my newsletter?
What would I say in my newsletter once they subscribed?
Okay, okay—this might sound a little hippy dippy, but I realised that if I didn’t believe in my own book and my own writing ability, how on earth could I convince others to believe in me? So, readjusting my mindset, I gulped down a healthy dose of bravery and decided I was doing this!
What I did wrong: actually, I didn’t do anything wrong at this stage, in fact, as weird as it felt, I followed the Rules for Writers advice of Janet Reid (literary agent and Query Shark), who recommends having an email capture form on your website. It’s just a spot where folks can drop their email so that they can receive any potential updates from you, even if you aren’t intending sending anything out just yet. I didn’t think anyone would use this facility, but a dozen kind souls dropped their emails to me this way in my pre-newsletter days.
Author newsletters are not a new concept. They’ve been around for decades, and there are plenty of lovely authors and publishing gurus out there who have generously shared the formulas that worked for their successful author newsletters. So, why sweat it and try to recreate the wheel, when there is an absolute goldmine of info out there to be used?
It’s prudent to do research upfront to decide which website or newsletter platform has the most suitable options for what you’re trying to achieve. I decided to use Wix to build my website. I saw that it had the facilities to create a newsletter (they call it an email campaign), and the site had a blog option, which is what I also wanted. Thanks to helpful tech reviews like Lars Lofgren's, Top 4 Website Builders for 2020—which compares the prices and features of some easy-to-use web builders: Wix, WordPress, Squarespace, and Ucraft—I was able to compare website builders, and make an informed decision. The fact that Wix was click-and-drag-easy for a technophobe like me was what helped me decide.
Here’s a fabulous resource for starting a newsletter from scratch by Jane Friedman, Email Newsletters for Authors: Get Started Guide.
What I did wrong: I kept seeing that I needed to build my brand—colour schemes, logos, font, and images. But to be honest, it was all too overwhelming in the beginning. I ended up playing about with a few different newsletter headers and layouts (and getting feedback from my handful of confidantes about what they liked or didn’t like about my newsletter layout). While it is important to eventually settle down with your branding so that it becomes recognisable to folks, I’m not sorry I experimented a bit with this in the early days. It’s better to do this while you only have a few subscribers than to throw a re-branding curve ball at a larger subscriber base later. Don’t let small details hold you back. Get going with your newsletter today.
This is where having a social media presence (and a healthy dose of bravery) can be handy. Not just platforms with numbers, but platforms on which you’ve engaged, connected with and helped your followers. When I first announced I was starting an author newsletter on my Twitter feed, I gave myself a goal: if I got three new subscribers in my first month, I would consider it a win. I got fifty three!
I had no lead magnet (the tempting little offer you give away for free when your subscribers sign up), no book to promote, and no one to vouch that I wrote a halfway decent newsletter. It was ground zero, and yet, over fifty of my lovely followers decided to give me a go. I also called on a handful of my closest friends, family, and beta readers to sign up, just so that I knew there were some friendly faces in the crowd when I hit send on that first issue (actually, I sent them a few test emails first to see that it all worked properly).
What I did wrong: It took me a few months to pluck up the courage to plug a post about my newsletter subscription on my author Facebook page (I should have been brave and just done it straight away), but I was delighted when I realised that it yielded some subscribers! I recently started an Instagram account, but I did not think that this would gain me any subscribers because you can’t paste links in an Insta post—you have to send readers up to your bio where you have a link to your website. Then they have to find your newsletter subscribe page on your website.
HINT: make sure you have several spots on your website to sign up to your newsletter. I didn’t think folks would bother with this whole Instagram palaver, but they did! Social media works to build newsletter subscribers, so make sure you use your platforms, and don’t delay like I did.
What could I write about in that all important first issue that wouldn’t scare away those precious new subscribers? I scoured dozens of author websites to see if they had archived newsletters that I could look at. I subscribed to a dozen best-selling author’s newsletters to see how they were doing it. One thing I learned from this is: make it easy for folks to find and subscribe to your newsletter. Sheesh! On some sites, I felt like Indiana Jones hunting for the holy grail! And of course, I researched. I was quite surprised at how boring and spammy some of the newsletters were from best-seller authors (to the point that I unsubscribed), but it was a great lesson in what NOT to do with my own newsletter.
These are some of the resources I used to compile my first newsletter:
Ultimate Guide: Establishing an Author Newsletter — Claire Bradshaw
20 Email Tips & Tricks for Author Newsletters — Shayla Raquel
14 Content Ideas for Author Newsletters — Nate Hoffelder
And here is what my first ever author newsletter looked like back in September 2019. Compare this to my current newsletter in July 2020, and you’ll see how it has evolved as I’ve learned new things along the way, and begun including content that has actually got my subscribers to respond and email me in return.
What I did wrong: I was overly cautious at first about giving random strangers access to email me. I had one uncomfortable email from a guy in response to my first ever newsletter that made me question whether I should encourage contact from my subscribers, but I then learned that I could control who stayed subscribed to my email list, and so I simply unsubscribed him from Wix and blocked him through Gmail, and I’ve never heard from him again. Getting to know my subscribers on a more personal level through email has been marvellous!
Now, this might sound like it contradicts all the good stuff that I’ve mentioned before this point, but don’t keep subscribers on your email list if they don’t open or read your newsletter, especially if you’re on a platform where you have to pay once you reach a certain number of subscribers. Also, email service providers like Outlook, Yahoo, and Gmail screen subscriber activity.
Sending emails to subscribers who don’t open your newsletter can damage your deliverability with these providers—they potentially prevent your emails from being delivered to everyone on your list.
Shayla Raquel also explains it in her 20 Email Tips & Tricks for Author Newsletters blog:
“Unsubscribe people who do not read your emails. One of my most effective campaigns was when I sent the email below asking a segmented list if they still wanted to write a book. This would prompt them to either unsubscribe or respond to me. Once they responded, I asked them how I could help, which meant they were engaging again. Understand this now: do not keep people on your list if they never read your emails. Either re-engage them, or unsubscribe them.”
What I did wrong: I completely trusted my Wix email platform to give me the correct data about my subscribers. I’ve subsequently found out that even the big hitters like MailerLite and Mailchimp can glitch and not give accurate info (it is technology after all). I took it as gospel that several of my subscribers were not opening my newsletter. I have a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy. When my data showed me a subscriber hadn’t opened my newsletter three months in a row, I unsubscribed them. It was only when I started getting some messages from folks asking where my newsletter was that I realised the inaccuracy of the data. Doh! I dropped to the floor sobbing (slight exaggeration) at the thought that I’d unsubscribed 150 potentially active newsletter readers without first sending a re-engagement email to see if they wanted to stay subscribed. I will always send a re-engagement letter from now on.
The good news is that I still have over 350 newsletter subscribers (and growing) with a 60% open rate (standard email open rate, according to Wix, is 15—30%), and a 7% click rate (standard is 2—5%), so I must be doing something right.
It’s great to have a spread of options on your author platform, like having a couple of different social media accounts, as well as a blog, website, and author newsletter. In a world of technology where a platform can be turned off with the flick of a switch, it’s best not to keep all our eggs in one basket. So, while I have my fingers in a few pies, and I have a growing email list in my Wix database, I also make sure that I export my subscriber emails each month and save them in an Excel document. If ever my email provider or newsletter platform glitches or disappears, I will still have that valuable list of folks who entrusted me with their email details. I won’t have to start from scratch.
What I did wrong: Instead of just archiving the subscribers who I deleted for not opening my newsletter three months in a row, I deleted them from my Excel list as well. Now that I realise that some of them were active newsletter readers, I wish I still had their contact details to be able to send them a re-engagement email. Oh well, we live and learn.
(I am not paid to promote these)
Newsletter Ninja: How to Become an Author Mailing List Expert — Tammi Labrecque
Building Your Author Newsletter List — Sam Missingham, The Empowered Author
(knocks back another shot of bravery)
It would be remiss of me to talk about building up and promoting my author newsletter without adding a subscription link to my own. You recall how I’ve repeatedly said to make it easy for your readers to find your newsletter subscription? You can find mine on my Home page, About page, Contact page, as well as my dedicated By the Book Newsletter page.
As you will see from this last page, I also have an archive of the last few newsletters so that potential subscribers can have a sneak peek at my product before handing over their email.
Before becoming an author, Emma Lombard was an editor in the corporate world across various industries—aviation, aquatic ecology, education and the world of academia. Her blog series Twitter Tips for Newbies helps writers (new to Twitter) navigate the platform. She also writes a monthly column for ENVIE Magazine, sharing publishing industry resources for authors. She is the author of the upcoming historical women's fiction, Discerning Grace. Connect with Emma on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or by subscribing to By the Book Newsletter.