Author Newsletters – A Spy’s Report

by Virginia King, Mystery Author @selkiemoonbooks

Building an email list is regarded as the Holy Grail of book marketing. You can:

  • Keep fans engaged with ARCs, freebies, giveaways, and updates
  • Tantalise fans between books with sneak peeks, witty blog posts, and quizzes
  • Build buzz around new releases with pre-orders and social shares, while a ‘street team’ posts early reviews

Best-selling indie authors who offer their formulas as courses attribute much of their success to lists. But do they work for everyone? Especially with readers receiving emails from multiple authors each month?

To learn how to turn subscribers into fans, I’ve followed authors with different styles and I’ve downloaded free ‘lead magnets’ and signed up to newsletters across a range of genres.

The Four Stages of an Author

Marketing expert Chris Syme defines four stages in an author’s evolution and what promotions to use at each stage. From Stage 1: one or less published book, a day job, less than 50 sales a month, no marketing budget; to Stage 4: multiple titles, full-time writing, a comfortable salary from sales, a monthly marketing budget over $1000.

The Broadcast Email

These stages explain why Stage 4 authors often use broadcast emails, not newsletters. Catchy subject lines may increase open rates, but they’re preaching to fans: new releases, a few teaser lines, a cover image, retail links. Any ‘personal’ content is crafted to close the sale, for example:

My mother always taught me to tell the truth. Now I sit at my keyboard and tell lies all day. LOL. Can you pick the lies from the truth in After Dark?

The Update Email

Update emails are short and irregular. Successful indie author EM Kaplan (Josie Tucker series, Rise of the Masks series) sends emails when she has news. Her updates are often brief and she experiments with content: new releases, special offers, snippets from her blog, even books on sale by other authors. Her subject lines reflect her trademark humour, for example: Funny, Snarky, and ON SALE. Her subscribers respond by buying her books. This email did well for her.

The Newsletter

Usually monthly, subscribers can rely on the regular newsletter to follow a familiar format that also guides the author’s content.

1. The ‘Level Zero’ Newsletter

Book blogger Renee Conoulty began her list when she enrolled in a writing course. Her first newsletter had eleven subscribers including herself and her mother, resulting in four opens and one click. Gradually she created a free flash fiction collection exclusively for subscribers, then her first novel (Don’t Mean a Thing). Her niche is in a corner of romantic fiction and her monthly newsletter follows a three-part structure. Renee also A/B tested subject lines: 50+% opens for listing the contents: A touch of truth, invisible bunnies, empty fiction and blank screens; 30% for posting her name. Here’s a sample.

2. The ‘Sharing Content’ Newsletter

Traditionally published author Keith Stevenson (Horizon) entertains subscribers in his newsletter “Beyond” with links to his research: scientific content that fascinates and inspires him as a sci-fi writer. He says, “I’m not a quick book writer, so there’s no point banging on about my works in progress. The newsletter gives me a regular schedule to write about interesting things and recycle the articles on my blog.” Here’s a sample.

3. The ‘Author Brand’ Newsletter

Traditionally published romance author Tess Woods (Love at First Flight) created a big following for her personal brand using a relaxed warm style, giveaways and quizzes. Her monthly “Tess Woods Newsletter” follows a regular format, packed with content and photos: book news and appearances, tips for writers, a recipe from another author, a review + interview with a different author, a quiz. Cross promotion provides fresh content and finds new fans. Here’s a sample, and link here for Tess’s newsletter tips.

Raining Chocolate Frogs

Some authors at Level 3 and 4 offer a monthly prize for subscribers, ranging from a $100 Amazon voucher (Diane Capri) to a fair-trade gift (Tess Woods). Subscribers don’t need to open or click to enter, but Tess says giveaways attract subscribers (it’s worked for her) who then won’t stay around for the monthly prize if the newsletter isn’t interesting.

A Subscriber is NOT a Fan – Yet

Indie authors at Stages 1 and 2 have the task of turning subscribers into fans before they become unsubscribers! Subscribers can enter a list from giveaways, joint promotions, and free lead magnets, but:

  • have they read and liked the freebie?
  • do they want to hear from the author again?
  • will authors get interaction if readers subscribe to multiple lists?

The Automated Email Sequence

We’re told that the automated sequence converts new subscribers into fans, who then go on to receive the above email types. Here’s advice on the timing and content of a sequence: Bryan Cohen – three free webinars, Chris Syme – free webinar, and Stephanie J. Pajonas on The Author Biz.

Spying on Five Mystery Authors

To see some email sequences in action, I chose five books in an InstaFreebie group promotion in October, then tabulated the authors’ emails. Each author has a different coloured tick.

Notes on the email sequences

  • Four welcome emails arrived almost at once
  • Over 30 days, the number of emails from each author varied: seven, six, six, four, one.
  • Subject lines were mostly creative
  • The teaser by one author hinted at interesting content to come
  • Email styles varied from a plain ‘letter’ addressed ‘Hi’ without headings or images, to bannered ‘newsletters’ addressing the subscriber by name, several ‘topics’ plus multiple photos

Lessons Learned

  • Authors in a group promo could stagger their welcome emails
  • Early emails set the tone for the author’s style – funny, formal, spiritual etc
  • When authors outlined what to expect from their newsletters, I felt respected
  • Over several newsletters, a relaxed chatty style wooed me – surprised!
  • Offering extra freebies or repeat freebies creates reasons to keep in touch
  • None of the authors added ‘Mystery Author’ to their sender name – recommended
  • Too many photos don’t load, especially on mobile devices, and the email may go into ‘promotions’ and get overlooked
  • Emails every few days seem too often, but if they’re read they do create a connection – surprised!
  • One author sent one email only, three weeks after my download: 1. I wondered who she was. 2. It was a regular ‘newsletter’ to fans with content that didn’t feel personal to me as a new subscriber – salutary
  • One author asked me to buy the book I’d already received for free – keep the sequence updated!
  • Most authors assumed their free book had been read after a few days – how likely?

From the Gurus

  • Be relaxed and personal, let them see who you are
  • Interaction is key – ask a question, give readers something to click and a reason to click
  • Keep in touch and keep it simple
  • Use the 80/20 rule: 80% compelling content/20% sales promo
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for sales

An Email Provider with Automation

My free MailChimp membership didn’t include automation so I lost the momentum with new subscribers that a sequence creates. Here’s what Bryan Cohen says on the subject. I’ve now switched to MailerLite (easy to use with responsive templates and fast technical support, plus all memberships, including free, come with automation) and I’m creating an email sequence for the first time. An unexpected benefit is that the interaction feels personal. I’m gradually sharing the essence of what inspires my books and asking questions that spring from that. Bryan Cohen is right, it’s like a first date.

When Email is ‘Graymail’

For an opposing view on all of the above, check out Derek Haines’ post about ‘graymail’ – emails to which a user has subscribed, perhaps to receive a product or service, but then has little interest in receiving afterwards.

Want to Snoop?

If you’d like to spy on my L-plated email sequence, download my free ghost story Laying Ghosts. It’s a one-hour adrenaline rush, so you might like to read it, too!

Authors, what’s been your experience with emailing fans? Are you, or do you know an author who’s doing it especially well? Please leave a comment and share!

Many thanks to Molly for hosting this guest post and to the authors who generously answered my questions and provided links to their newsletters.

Virginia King is the author of the Selkie Moon Mystery Series – psychological mysteries with a mythical twist. The First Lie has won a BRAG Medallion. She lives with her husband in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney and has two pet alpacas, Toffums and Andy. Visit her website and like her Facebook page here.

Note from Molly: If you haven’t already, check out my Amazon Author Page, friend me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter. Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe and you won’t miss a post. By the way, all original content by Molly Greene and guests is copyright protected. Mwah! Thank you so much.



, , , , , , , ,

22 Responses to Author Newsletters – A Spy’s Report

  1. Anne Hagan December 12, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

    Building an email list has been my biggest stumbling block. I read a great article a few months ago about getting set up with Mailchimp and I set about doing that only to find I couldn’t integrated with my paid for, hosted WordPress .com site like a .org site that was hosted elsewhere. Yes I was paying instead of using a free page but I had little more functionality than someone with a free set up.

    Now that my subscription is about to expire, I’ve gone about the process of transferring my site and domain to a new host where I can get more robust features and I can integrate support for a newsletter. In the meantime I’ve read here and other places about programs that are even better than Mailchimp. Sigh… It’s a never ending circle of working on marketing systems and marketing and not writing.

    Anyway, thanks for a truly great article that really lays everything out nicely.

    • Molly Greene December 12, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

      I agree, Anne – wish I could find an inexpensive virtual assistant on Fiverr 🙂

    • Virginia King December 12, 2016 at 6:59 pm #

      Hi Anne, thanks for sharing these struggles. I think all authors are quietly (or not so quietly) dealing with these issues that take us away from writing. I hope the new system gives you some freedom to concentrate on the ‘core business’

  2. Matt Cowper December 12, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

    Good in-depth info here!

    I’m going to try to make my newsletter a potpourri: a cool image from DeviantArt or somewhere similar, a link to some epic music to make subscribers feel Herculean, some snazzy quotes, a blog roundup, and of course promotional content.

    Reading this blog, it seems like a warm and personable style (with a dash of quirkiness) will engage readers.

    • Molly Greene December 12, 2016 at 6:44 pm #

      Matt, you nailed it – “a warm, personable style with a dash of quirkiness.” Yaay! Thanks and good luck!

    • Virginia King December 12, 2016 at 7:00 pm #

      Cool, Matt. Where do we sign up? 🙂

  3. Sue Coletta December 12, 2016 at 6:17 pm #

    I ended up using my MailChimp for post notifications, but I suppose I really should have a monthly newsletter, too. My click rate is high, thankfully. Fingers crossed that it stays that way! You’ve inspired me to send a happy holidays newsletter. Thanks for the excellent post and great advice!

    • Molly Greene December 12, 2016 at 6:42 pm #

      Don’t have to send monthly – quarterly or when there’s news will work. My takeaway from Virginia’s great material is the importance of solid follow-up emails during the first month to new subscribers!

    • Virginia King December 12, 2016 at 7:04 pm #

      Hi Sue Glad you found the post inspiring :-). I agree with Molly that a monthly newsletter isn’t necessary, expecially with subscribers who are already engaged. I know the gurus recommend it, but I personally think a little less often with a little more valuable content is better. And if you’ve got a high click rate, maybe don’t change what’s already working.

      • Matt Cowper December 13, 2016 at 5:24 am #

        At first, I thought I’d just do a new releases/important news newsletter, but then I thought more contact would be better, so I went monthly.

        But maybe less is more, like Molly and Virginia say? Anyway, I can always change things, which is the beauty of being indie.

        • Virginia King December 13, 2016 at 10:44 am #

          You could also ask your list if they’d like to hear from you more often and send them the quirky newsletter you mention as a sample. Ask them if they’d like more of that or if they prefer the “when there’s news” emails.

  4. Barb December 13, 2016 at 9:12 am #

    Great research on this article. My only suggestion is that authors research who they are using for their mailing program. Often easier or cheaper doesn’t necessarily mean better. Some services that don’t enforce rules as strictly find themselves blacklisted. Authors can be sending email to no one as their notes are marked as spam as their service has been blacklisted. A mailing service like Mailchimp, Mailerlite, Constant Contact, etc is nothing if their reputation is shot.

    • Virginia King December 13, 2016 at 11:47 pm #

      Thanks for this Barb. How does an author go about researching the various email providers? How would they know if the provider has been blacklisted and their emails are going into spam? I have no idea how to check their credentials.

      • Barb December 14, 2016 at 7:55 am #

        Hi Virginia, The easiest way to check your provider is to do a Google search for “name of provider + Review” You can get a lot of information that way. There are positives and negatives to all the services and you just want to choose a service where the positives to you outweigh the negatives. Generally speaking the stricter the service is about enforcing the rules, the less likely they are to be blacklisted for long (the blacklisting can be reversed, but you aren’t always aware that it is happening and important emails can not be delivered)

        Authors need to decide what is important in a service and make their own decision. Although what you don’t know, you don’t know as the saying goes…but don’t hesitate to ask Google for answers and look at comparative reviews. Sometimes they bring up things that you’ve never thought of…..

        • Virginia King December 14, 2016 at 5:07 pm #

          Thanks Barb, this is very helpful advice. Thanks for pointing out that it’s not just about usability but also the integrity of the service — something I’d taken for granted. Good to know what to check for.

  5. Emily Kaplan December 13, 2016 at 2:25 pm #

    Great article. Thanks for mentioning me. 🙂

    (EM Kaplan)

    • Molly Greene December 13, 2016 at 3:42 pm #

      Thanks for sharing with Virginia, Emily!

    • Virginia King December 13, 2016 at 11:49 pm #

      Thank you Emily. I keep trying to use your subject lines but my books don’t really fit 🙂

  6. Nicholas Rossis December 14, 2016 at 10:52 am #

    That’s a wonderful post on the subject. I have built a nice list, but now realize how far I have to go before I use it to the full extent. Thank you!

    • Virginia King December 14, 2016 at 2:56 pm #

      Thanks Nicholas. I’ve picked up so many great ideas from snooping on other authors — and also discovering what doesn’t work for me as a reader. I’m glad my investigations have inspired you.

  7. Angel Haze January 23, 2017 at 9:52 am #

    Loved this! I’ve been spying on author’s too–different genres just to see different techniques. I’ve noticed that the lists are chock-full of promos–whether new releases or book giveaways and it’s tiring. Just constant ads.I like when the author makes an effort to make a connection.

    One author had FANTASTIC welcoming emails and the emails promoting each book were wonderfully done. However, there was an email every three days that teased the author of the next book. I couldn’t read the emails because I was still reading the first book and I didn’t want any spoilers. It became annoying. The emails themselves were wonderfully done but to be expected to read his entire series in a couple weeks??? Then the automated series ended (after about 8 books were featured) and then I’ve heard nothing in a couple months.

    I like a personal message, story, or something fun that engages the reader! And not just free books or links to news releases. You don’t want your newsletter to sound like one big ad.

    Thanks for sharing your spy report!! More authors should do it! You can really learn a lot!!

    • Virginia King January 23, 2017 at 2:29 pm #

      Great insights from your own spying, Angel 🙂 Yes, all authors need to read their own emails as if they’re a reader. I notice some authors try to sign readers to their advance reader team only days after they’ve downloaded one free book — it’s unlikely that the reader has read the book yet and so couldn’t know if they’re a fan. I agree about engagement — am still on the learning curve about being genuine.