By Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
This is part of a series called “How I Book,” a collaboration between New York Times bestselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, and Dan Blank, the founder of WeGrowMedia. The aim is to provide honest, practical advice to writers negotiating the murky waters of publication, especially around their roles in publicity and marketing, where so much is expected and so little guidance is often offered.
When my first novel, The Effects of Light, came out in 2005, the internet still felt a lot like the wild west. I asked an in-house publicist if I should have a website designed and her look in response was a combination of shock and concern, as if she didn’t quite know how to break it to me how outlandish it was that someone like me would consider getting something like a website. In the eleven years since, so much has changed; author websites are now de rigeur, and social media threatens to take over the lives of so many writers. But there are still plenty of aspects of this job, especially where our writing careers meets our online lives, that feel pretty wild west-y. I’d argue that for many of us, the newsletter occupies this real estate.
I’d heard about author newsletters long before I started one. I’d heard about them and I wasn’t convinced. I didn’t quite know what they were, or what they were for, or why anyone would want to read them. So I didn’t have one, and I was totally fine with that.
During the publication of my first two books, I collected email addresses, most of them ending with “aol” or “yahoo” since this was the mid-aughts. Occasionally I’d send out a blast to as many of these addresses I could fit in one email, and the content included was very my-book-focused: “here is where I’m reading, here is where you can buy my book, here is an article I wrote about my book, thanks for supporting me.” I’d argue that though these emails got my point across, they did not make for scintillating reading, and did not offer anything surprising or useful, unless you specifically were dying to know when my next reading was going to be (many weren’t). Plus it was a real headache, trying to keep track of all those email addresses, many of which started to go defunct as people switched to gmail, and then there was a lot of bounce-back management to deal with.
Luckily, a lot of this inconvenience came right at the time I found myself crawling under a proverbial career rock, which meant that I was thrilled to have no way to keep in touch with many of the folks who had supported what I now considered to be my failed early career. But when I sold Bittersweet in 2013, and hired Dan Blank to help me strategize my author platform in the year before publication, one of the first things he suggested was starting a newsletter.
“I’m not interested in having a newsletter.” I think those were my exact words. “It’s too much work,” I argued, “and what are the benefits? People can always go to my website to find out about my events and other book news.”
“That’s not what a newsletter is,” Dan replied. “A newsletter is about building community, and keeping close to that community, even during the droughts.”
But what would I write about? And how often would I send it?
His response shocked me. “Write about what you’re passionate about. And send one every week.”
I had a million questions, and Dan’s answers boiled down to this: what makes an author’s platform sustainable — for both the author and the reader who is encountering the author there — is genuine passion. It may seem easy to fake interest in a particular topic when writing a short article. Or one might be tempted to believe that you could even put on a more “palatable” persona for the benefit of social media. Leaving aside that I think social media is actually a great truth serum, the fact is that when you’re writing a weekly newsletter you really have nothing to hide behind. It’s you, talking about what you care about, week in, week out. The people who want to know that person are your core group of fans, and they are the people who will mobilize for you, and shout your name from the rooftops when they time comes. Part of your job as a writer should involve actively strengthening your community with these core supporters on a regular basis.
How Do I Find My Topics?
I had thought coming up with my newsletter topics would be challenging, and the reason for this misconception had to do with backwards thinking. I had it in my mind that the newsletter was somehow external from me, something that I was going to have to force myself sit down and do on the regular. It sounded punitive, and I couldn’t imagine who’d want to read it.
Dan agreed that if I treated the newsletter that way, I’d burn out on it — fast — and no one would want to read it. Instead, he suggested thinking of the newsletter as offering a window into my mind, into whatever had excited me that week. Put that way, I had plenty to say. Not only was I excited about what was happening in my own career — the Bittersweet publicity and marketing campaign was just amping up, making me feel as though my dreams were coming true; but I was also consuming popular culture — reading articles, listening to music; and parenting my young son, which always includes plenty of adventure.
Over time, I realized that these seemingly disparate topics actually worked well together, because they offered little tidbits of every aspect of my daily routine — my writing, my personal interests, and my mothering — and gave my readership a well-rounded sense of my life. As folks signed up, they learned not just about the latest with my book, but gained a deeper understanding of my life, and grew invested, not just in the particular book that had brought them to me, but in me and in my career.
How Often Should I Send This Thing?
One of the best things about having a newsletter is that you get to make up your own rules. Some people only feel comfortable sending something out to their supporters once a month — that’s fine, as long as you stick to it, and the readership who signed up for it knows that’s when they can count on you. I’d argue that anything less frequent than that is more of a news-blast than a newsletter, and allows for less personal interaction, since you’re more bound up in making sure everyone knows the most important pieces of your writing news, which doesn’t leave much room for those delightful little bits of life that flit in, and round you out to someone who has never met you but feels invested in supporting you.
Why do I send a newsletter every week? Well, there’s a lot of debate about this, but after keeping one for two years, I can say I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. Writing the newsletter is a weekly occasion for me, a kind of summing up of where I’ve been in the past week, and where I hope to be in the week ahead. Of course there have been periods of time in which I haven’t sent it out weekly — while on vacation, for example — and occasionally I feel a wave of guilt for “slacking.” But generally I’m consistent, and I think that counts for something. I’ve had a number of subscribers say that they look forward to hearing from me, and that’s incredibly motivating.
Sending so frequently means that some weeks my newsletters are very short:
Some weeks they are much longer than that, describing a specific idea or experience that has resonated with me since we were last in contact.
Generally, I try to keep to less than four topics per email. Sometimes that feels like not enough, especially in those weeks around publication day, when I have a million zillion things going on and I want to share all of them. But I try to imagine what I’d like to find in my inbox, what I’d like to be invited to participate in, and keep it limited to that.
How Do I Treat My Readership?
I do not believe a newsletter is for random passersby; that’s what my website is for, a place to discover the basic facts about me and my books and move on. I treat the newsletter as a place to connect with my readership, and so I treat all of the subscribers as though they are confidants. Sometimes when I’m drafting the weekly missive, I imagine myself at an event to promote my book, looking out at a crowd made up of people who all made the effort to come hear me share my work. There’s a profound level of trust and investment in that act, and I want to honor that.
Nearly every week, I get a handful of responses back from my subscribers, responding in some way to the ideas I’ve shared. I do my best to reply in a timely and thoughtful fashion.
And more than a year ago, I decided to start a monthly giveaway of one of my favorite books in the world. Why? Well, I wanted to be buying regularly at my local independent bookstores, and I liked the ideas of a monthly book recommendation to my subscribers, a kind of “if you like me, you might like this.” I also liked the idea of extending generosity to my subscriber base without expecting anything in return; they see me practicing what I preach by community building (both by supporting fellow writers, and by spending my own money to offer them a gift on the regular). I’ll also note that by choosing my “favorite” books, I’m free of being asked by friends inside the business to give away or promote their books. While I am happy to talk up friends’ work, I find that I’m more comfortable doing that on Facebook or Goodreads; my newsletter is a place to share only those pieces of writings that have truly changed my life. Finally, doing a monthly giveaway also gives me a chance to promote my newsletter on social media, although the truth is, I don’t think anyone who is signing up for my newsletter because I’m giving away free books is necessarily going to want to stick around.
One of my subscribers, a fellow author, recently asked me about this monthly giveaway, and whether I have any evidence that it has an impact on my own book sales. The truth is, I don’t. But her question prompted me to understand that the goals of my newsletter are one step deeper than simply wanting to sell copies of my books. I want to make an investment in my readership, and I can only hope my commitment will be reflected back in their investment in me. If I’m being a hundred percent genuine in addressing them, and they decide to stick around for that, I can only assume that means we have built mutual trust and support.
How Do I Get People to Sign Up?
There are no tricks or shortcuts to getting people to sign up for your newsletter. There shouldn’t be, not if you want subscribers who are genuinely invested in you. That’s why using a mail subscription service like Aweber, TinyLetter or Mailchimp is a great option, because people have to opt in twice — first to sign up, and then to confirm that they do, in fact, want to join. Also, for a low monthly fee, a subscription service handles all the logistics of managing your list, keeping track of new subscribers and of those who unsubscribe, offering editing tools and keeping stats on every newsletter you send out, which can be useful as you craft future missives to your subscribers needs.
The week before I started my newsletter, I sent out an email to about fifty people, all of whom I knew already had a deep investment in me. This list included my mom, my sisters, my best friends from high school and college, and a bunch of other personal supporters. I felt pretty sure that this “safe” group of people was likely to be interested in what I had to say on a weekly basis, and sure enough, most of the folks on that list signed up. This meant that when I typed my first newsletter, I was writing to a very friendly group, most of whose faces I could imagine out there in the proverbial audience — they were my hometown crowd.
Next, Dan and I built a sign-up box on the side bar of my website, so that folks would immediately be given the opportunity to sign up when they found me at MirandaBW.com. We also made a separate, hidden page on my website exclusively for newsletter sign-ups, which I could link to in posts on my Facebook author page, and reference in my email signature…
…and in my Twitter bio…
When I participate in a reading or event, I always bring a clipboard where people can write their email addresses to sign up. I’ve found that even better than having this clipboard at the signing table is to actively have it passed while I’m presenting — certainly I’m much more likely to sign up for something when it is passed onto my lap than when I have to go up to a table and sign up for it. As soon as I have the chance, I enter these folks into my account (I use Aweber) and then they have the chance to opt in, so I never feel as though I’m putting pressure on them.
What started as a group of about forty people in January 2014 has now become a solid community of 340 people, who’ve come to me via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, articles I’ve written, my books, word of mouth, and in-person appearances — and the list grows almost daily.
Now, there’s been plenty written about “list building” which may have you looking at that number — 340 subscribers — and thinking it’s not so big. “Two years of work for THAT?” But I believe that building a newsletter base is about quality, not quantity. If I imagine the sound of 340 people cheering on the day JUNE comes out, of 340 people taking action by buying, or talking up, or even just knowing about my book on a deep level, that is worth every minute of time I’ve put into this project. This core group will be the heartbeat of my book launch, and I can’t imagine the process without them.
How Does A Newsletter Help Me?
Beyond the building of community, and reaching out in a regular basis to folks I might not otherwise get to meet in person, there have been a few moments where I’ve noticed how powerful this core group of supporters can be.
In the spring of 2015, Plympton published a kindle single of a short story of mine called Frito Lay. About a week before the single came out, they emailed me in bit of whirlwind, saying they needed to put some reviews of the book up on Amazon as soon as possible. Did I have any people I could think of who’d be able to help us in this way?
I sent an email out to my newsletter, saying there were ten copies of the short story available in exchange for an honest Amazon review in the next three days. We heard back from ten people within an hour. I was shocked that a story of mine seemed like such a hot commodity to my subscribers, and it made me realize how powerful building true connections can be. I suppose you might call my subscriber list my “street team” — the group of people I can truly count on to help me when I need it.
Although I can have no way of knowing the direct impact this newsletter has on book sales, the experience with Frito Lay makes me confident that on JUNE’s release day — May 31st — I’ll have direct access to my biggest fans. I’ll be able to remind them to please review the book honestly on Goodreads and Amazon, and to spread the word about the books in their circles, both on and offline. Even if this direct connection leads to twenty Amazon reviews that first week — likely to be favorable — it will have been worth it. The value of having sent this newsletter out for two years lies in this kind of ask, because my readership knows I don’t ask for much very often. We have built trust, and that means they will likely be ready to take action on my behalf if and when I ask them too.
Feel free to join my newsletter to see me do my best to practice what I preach.