Why I shut down my email list

After five years, it was time

Tim
Tim
Jan 25, 2020 · 4 min read
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Image for post
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

It was the middle of the decade when I started writing an email newsletter. March 2015, to be exact.

Email was the next big thing in media — again! It was a more personalized and intimate way to communicate in a world of 140 characters. It was a nice change of pace and seemed to be an effective way to reach your audience, as I wrote for MediaShift.

I jumped on the bandwagon and started writing a Tinyletter, with no agenda or goals. I resurrected some of my old work and shared what I was listening to or reading. I remembered what it’s like to write just to write.

During that time our family moved twice, I found a box of my old writing, and decided to turn it into a book. During that time, my email newsletter was instrumental in helping me sort out thoughts. The book turned into a 2 1/2 year process.

Sometimes I didn’t know what to write when I sat down — kind of like right now — but the act of opening my laptop to the blank page, drinking coffee and forcing myself to think took care of that.

It became a useful and sacred ritual. Until it came time to move on.

Writers are told again and again that they need to grow their email list. That’s the key to building a sustainable audience, according to conventional wisdom.

Phase 1: Grow your email list. Phase 2: ??? Phase 3: Profit.

So that’s what I did. I linked to my newsletter in my Twitter bio, my email signature, in my Medium articles. If I had a Medium article that blew up, I gained some subscribers over time.

I moved from Tinyletter to Mailchimp. I put links and GIFs and images. I published consistently, each and every Sunday (with a few exceptions for vacations). I spent a few hours each weekend crafting emails.

Then what happened? Not much.

Over five years, the growth of the list plateaued. I had a much higher open rate than the industry average, but the click rates to Medium articles hovered around 1–3 percent per email. That’s just a few dozen clicks for my modest email list.

There could be several reasons I didn’t see more results. It could be the newsletter trend blew up and saw diminishing returns when people’s inboxes filled up. It could be Gmail’s promotions tab configuration that basically regulated newsletters to the spam folder. It could be that I didn’t do enough to consistently create or promote my newsletter.

At the same time, I started getting actually paying work — corporate blogging, ghostwriting, freelance articles. Writing that demanded more of my time, if I’m honest about where income came from.

In the end, it was an opportunity cost decision. After five years, do I want to continue with my newsletter experiment? Or do I want to devote more time to writing work that actually paid and had potential? Or even just have more time to drink my coffee and read a book on a Sunday morning without worrying about crafting an email?

For weeks, I thought about shutting down my email list. In the end, I decided to close it down at the start of a new year, after promoting the launch of my book. It was an easy decision.

That’s not to say I won’t miss writing my newsletter. And I appreciate all it has done for me, including honing my skills and creating a discipline around writing.

Without it, I also wouldn’t have started or finished a book.

Last year, I set a New Year’s resolution deadline to publish my book by January 1, 2020. A goal is a dream with a deadline, as the saying goes.

In the past year, I rediscovered what I love about being creative for the sake of creativity, and why I started the book in the first place.

For me, I learned that creativity is about writing in a little room, making collages out of trash with my kids and teaching.

Today, both the physical book and the e-book is live. New Year’s resolution… check.

Then as I wrote about the hero’s journey week by week last semester, it taught me that every journey comes to a close and prepares you for the sequel. You have to close one chapter to move onto the next.

Last summer, I was having lunch with my favorite professor. He just published another book, and I asked his advice as I’ve been writing a book for more than two years.

How do you know when you’re done?

Well, at some point you just have to say you’re done, he told me.

He always had a knack for simplifying.

So here we are! It’s a new decade. I wrote 229 issues of my newsletter. I’m now working on some secret projects and ready to move on. Some projects are for profit and paying the bills, and some are just for me.

So I hit send to email my Mailchimp list one last time. It felt like saying “so long” to an old friend, but knowing you had to go your separate ways.

See you on the next journey.

Tim Cigelske is the author of The Creative Journey: A Timeless Approach to Discovery. He draws on his experience as a journalist writing about creative people from all walks of life, including farmer, children’s author, comic book artist and Pixar animator. His writing has appeared in Runner’s World, Adventure Cyclist and Onion AV Club. Ashton Kutcher called him a “clever punk.” Don’t sign up for his weekly newsletter.

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