Why Your Readers Don’t Open Your Email ‘Newsletter’

August Birch
May 23 · 7 min read

In world of ‘too much,’ we’ve got to help our readers want us

Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash

Occasionally, I’ll get a somber story from a reader who’s upset about her email list. Not that she doesn’t like the process, but that her reader’s list isn’t responsive. There’s little worse than spending an hour or two crafting an email no one opens.

Frustrating as it may be, there’s a fix to the email blues.

The size of our list won’t matter if we can’t get our emails open. And we don’t have to settle for the barrel-bottom industry open rates near the single digits either. It’s time to make our reader emails worthwhile.

It’s not that your reader is lazy or disinterested. He’s overwhelmed with content. We’ve become masters as filtering and tuning-out marketing messages. Including yours. If you want your readers to open your email you’ve got to give them a really good, self-serving reason to do so.

I’ve played with email marketing the good part of the last twenty years. There was a heyday of email, sure, where people opened everything that arrived in their in-box, from the sheer novelty of email. They heyday is long-gone, but the principles of copywriting haven’t left.

If you want your email opened, you better start talking about the reader.

Email is a miracle sales tool for authors. We get a captive audience. We’re on the same playing field as the billion-dollar companies (because no one can buy their way up your readers mailbox queue — yet). And we can sell our work automatically, using an email we wrote once and re-sent in perpetuity.

But we can’t send just any email.

There’s a method. And if you’re not careful in your word choice, good luck getting your email opened, let-alone your emails read. We must respect the almighty subject line. This is the gatekeeper of every email — a tiny headline that makes or breaks your content inside.

If we get the subject line right, we win.

Every author’s email list has a different vibe. We all subscribe for different reasons. What works for one writer may not work for another. But I’ve found a few core copywriting principles we should all be aware of.

If we want to get our email opened, we’ve got to stop talking about ourselves.


Why your readers won’t open your email

There are many reasons why you’ve got lousy open rates, but here are five common ones you can fix immediately. These are foundational no-noes when it comes to sending emails our readers won’t open.

Five reasons our subject lines stink:

  1. You talk about yourself — your reader’s got no time for pictures of your recent book research trip. The die-hard fans might appreciate a photo or two, but don’t make you the subject of your email. The reader cares about number one first. She’s got little time to open anything else.
  2. You’re boring — this is a no-brainer. Why should we open your email if there’s no difference between yours and the oil change coupons above it? Want your readers to ignore your email? Send them subject lines as exciting as wet paper towel.
  3. You give it all away — Similar to the next two points, if you explain what the email is about in your subject line, there’s no incentive for me to read it. When you give too much away in the subject line, we hit delete and move on, because we already know what you’re about to say… or we think we know, and that’s just as bad.
  4. You ask yes or no questions — “Trouble with your manuscript?” If my internal answer is “nope” there’s no reason in me opening your email. Questions work great, but you’ve got to be really careful with yes or no. Unless you really want to filter your readers and you know what you’re doing, I’d steer clear.
  5. There’s no mystery or intrigue — If your subject line is “my new book is out today, buy it here,” well, whoop-dee-doo, that’s great for you! But as a reader all this says is “give me money.” I want to be courted and led towards a gentle sale, not shoved against the wall and have my pocket picked by some desperate animal.

There’s a better way.


How to write subject lines your readers will open

Subject lines are half-art, half voodoo, and three-quarters science with a sprinkle of psychology. Never mind the math on all that. Subject lines are serious. And if we don’t spend almost as much time on them as we did writing the entire email, good luck getting the thing opened.

Is this manipulative? Yep. Everything in writing involves manipulation.

Your reader won’t buy anything from you he doesn’t want. We’re here to write because we feel we should be paid for our work. If you want to give your work away cool, but there’s little reason in spending time to make an email list. The idea with email is to get your work in front of your reader. The only way we can do that is if they open the damn things.

Here are five tips to get your emails opened:

  1. Our brains hate open loops — use unanswered, non yes-or-no questions. We’re wired to close the loops. This is why cliffhangers work so well in writing. We want to know what happens next. If it works for the six o-clock news it’s work for your subject lines.
  2. We’re greedy little pigs at heart — we care about ourselves first. If you send us an email that looks like we’ll gain something if we open it, there’s a higher chance we’ll click. Experiment with subject lines using the word ‘you’ instead of group-speak. You want your reader to feel as if you sent this email only to him.
  3. We read your email on our phones — not always, but a lot. Your subject lines better fit mobile screens. You get seven to nine words or so. Experiment. Look at the subject lines in your in-box. You want the entire subject line to fit and not be truncated. Your reader will not spend the time to try and figure out what you meant. He’ll either delete your email or leave you in unopened, email purgatory.
  4. We send emails like a friend, not a corporation — we rarely use the person’s name in the subject line. We don’t sound too excited, so we use exclamation marks sparingly. Think of the way you email coworkers, family, or friends. Your readers are your family and friends too. Send them more subject lines like that, and fewer subject lines that read “half off all my books this week!!!!” (This reads: “I’m so excited I can’t wait for you to unsubscribe as soon as you see this in your in-box”).
  5. Make it fun — who doesn’t like fun? Well, fun-haters, but we don’t want them on our list anyway. Yes, you’ve got to infuse your own version of fun into your emails. Some of us are more fun than others (I’ve been accused of being less-than-fun), but if you make your emails sound fun to open, you’ll have a better chance readers will click. We stop calling our list a newsletter. Instead, it’s reader’s team, a tribe, a mastermind, or anything but a newsletter. Nobody wants another newsletter.

It’s time to get your emails opened

Both you and your readers benefit if they open your valuable content. You put all that effort into crafting your email, now spend as much time crafting your subject lines. Subject lines are almost more important that your email content.

We test, send, and re-test each subject line until we’re happy.

The process isn’t for the lazy or feint-of-heart, but it’s the only way to ensure you serve the reader best. If she can’t see your message she’ll never buy your work. If she doesn’t buy your work you can’t improve her life. If you can’t improve her life you do the reader a disservice. If you don’t craft good subject lines you’re literally making your reader’s life worse.

Wait until an email has been sent to one or two hundred people before you go tweaking things. We need statistical significance. The more people you send to, the more predictable your outcome.

I’ve worked my way into fifty or sixty-percent open rates for most of my emails. I can’t guarantee you’ll get the same, but email is far from dead. This is the only free piece of marketing content you can send where your message isn’t distracted by scrolling cat videos. If your reader opens your email you’ve got her attention. You can do this.

It’s time to send better email.

If you’d like to grow your own reader’s list and you’d like a great way to get started (or to grow your current list if you’re stuck), join my free, Tribe 1K masterclass below.

We’re waiting for you.


(Enroll in My Free Email Masterclass: Get Your First 1,000 Subscribers)

August Birch (AKA the Book Mechanic) is both a fiction and non-fiction author from Michigan, USA. A self-proclaimed guardian of writers and creators, August teaches indie authors how to write books that sell and how to sell more of those books once they’re written. When he’s not writing or thinking about writing August carries a pocket knife and shaves his head with a safety razor.

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The Book Mechanic

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August Birch

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Author, Teacher, Email Expert, Entrepreneur | Enroll in My FREE Tribe 1K Email Masterclass for Indies : bookmechanicmedia.com/your-first-1000-subscribers/

The Book Mechanic

Down-and-dirty growth strategies for commercial writers and creators, with a blue collar work ethic, and a no-nonsense voice.