A Writer’s Guide to Effective Newsletters
“Newsletters suck. Mine doesn’t.”
That’s the copy on the little pop-up you see when visiting my website. Accompanying that message is a picture of a forlorn kitten, along with a promise of said kitten not getting its next meal unless you sign up for my newsletter.
But a gimmicky signup form does not a great newsletter make. Most newsletters do, in fact, suck. Suck hard. So how does a thriller writer make a meaningful newsletter, one that will keep the unsubscribes low and the open rates high? I’ve written a monthly newsletter since 2017 and, after a lot of trial and error (and effort), I’m repeatedly told mine is one of the best newsletters out there (thanks, Mom!).
Here are some of the things I’ve learned to make an author’s newsletter stand out.
You Have to Care
DO NOT write a newsletter because you think you have to. Same thing applies to doing book readings. Also, marriage. You have to want to write a newsletter, because only then will you put effort into it. You must possess the ego to assume people want to hear from you, and then it’s your job to figure out interesting things to say. If all you do is list your upcoming book events, you’re missing a huge opportunity to connect–as both a person and a writer–with your audience. My newsletter averages 2,000 – 2,500 words, and very little of those are spent on promoting my books.
My newsletter goes out at 7am Mountain Time on the 13th of every month. EVERY MONTH (okay, once I skipped because I was in a totally shitty mood). My point is consistency matters. If you send three newsletters in one month and then another six months later, you’ll annoy people. Once a month is just fine.
Most of your subscribers are readers, not writers. Yes, it’s okay to talk about the craft of writing, but make it personal. What do you hate about writing? What struggles are you having that your readers could relate to? What brings you joy as a writer? Or talk about why you like to write the dark, disturbing things you write, you psycho thriller writer.
More often than not, my “main feature” in my newsletter is not about writing. It might be a list of things I’m grateful for despite the pandemic. Or I’ll detail the months of work crafting that year’s Halloween theme. I’ll talk about what scares me–truly scares me. One time I wrote 1,500 words on why I absolutely believe in ghosts. Whatever it is, you want to give your readers an idea of who you are as a person, not just as a thriller writer. Oh, and be funny. People like funny.
My newsletters all follow a particular format. They begin with my “main feature” article, the longest part of the newsletter. Then there’s any book news I have to announce along with upcoming event dates. After that, I review a book I’ve recently read and a show or movie I’ve watched. Then I have my tidbits: photo of the month, updates from my kids (something to humiliate them), update from my cat (who’s an asshole), small passage from my upcoming book, and answers to readers’ questions. Then I have my giveaway, which brings me to my next point.
Give Away Stuff
Every month I feature Carter’s Tell-Me-A-Secret contest. I ask a personal question and encourage readers to reply with an honest answer. I might ask What’s your biggest regret in life? or Tell me about the time you were arrested. I choose an answer and mail the winner a signed copy of a book, then feature that answer in the next newsletter. Whatever it is, make the newsletter an opportunity for readers to engage with you personally and win stuff that’s only available to subscribers.
Reply to Readers
I get a decent amount of feedback from my readers after every newsletter goes out, and I reply to them all. I love hearing from them, and I know making a personal connection will make them more likely to want to read and recommend my books. This is a chance to build your own little community, so it’s important to stay engaged.
Be Okay with People Unsubscribing Every Time You Send Something Out
Because they will. Damnit.
Add the Content to Your Website
You’ve done all this work, so make sure to turn it into a blog on your website. My site features a section called “Shit I Think About,” which contains monthly blog entries that are simply stripped-down versions of my newsletter. But a couple of rules here: 1) Don’t post it to your website the day the newsletter goes out–wait at least a couple of weeks. Your subscribers should have first access. Similarly, take out the contest portion as well as book news and book events.
Make it Pretty
Make sure you know how to use MailChimp or whatever platform you’ve chosen. It’s not hard, but invest some time in video tutorials. Understand how to use graphics effectively, how to scale photos, view how the newsletter will appear on different phones and laptop screens, etc. Have your content edited to avoid typos and be consistent in your template’s color scheme (I always use the colors of my current or imminently releasing book).
Send it Twice
Five days after you send it, send it again to those who didn’t open it (and change the subject line). Yes, some people will notice it twice, but you’ll get a good amount of fresh opens.
Say Goodbye to Ghosts
You don’t care about the number of people who subscribe (but MailChimp does!), you care about how many folks are actually reading your newsletter. Every six months or so, send a message to those subscribers who haven’t opened your last six newsletters. Give them a few chances to re-engage by affirming they want to be on your list. If they don’t reply, remove them. The only thing an unengaged subscriber does is add to your monthly delivery cost.
Get Folks to Sign Up
Don’t be shy about asking people to sign up for your newsletter, and let them know the benefits of doing so. (And, ahem, you can sign up for mine at www.carterwilson.com). You can bring a sign-up list to book events and run contests on social media. Pre-order contests are also a great way to grab new subscribers. Be creative! Hell, I’d rather have newsletter subscribers than Instagram followers, because I’m sending a more rich and thoughtful message every time I hit SEND.
One technical piece of advice here. On your website, I suggest you employ a two-step sign-up process, so whomever signs up also has to click on a link emailed to them. If you don’t, you’ll get a lot of “bot” signups, which are just empty email addresses that increase your delivery cost.
So that’s pretty much it. It took me a while to figure things out and I received some great advice from my PR team. But in the end, just like your books, it’s about your content. And your content is only as good as your passion to write it. Be original, be vulnerable, be funny, provide value, and strive to make a human connection with your readers. The great part is you already know how to do all these things, because you are a supremely talented THRILLER WRITER. See? The hardest part is already done.