I Need Coffee: How to Create an Author Newsletter That Isn’t Terrible

Alt Text: Photograph of the face of a stone building featuring the sign of a coffee shop that reads “I Need Coffee!” in white letters on a black background. Above the coffee shop sign is a memorial plaque, written in Czech, honoring Anna Honzáková, the first woman doctor to graduate from Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague. She graduated in 1902.
“I Need Coffee” is a monthly column covering all sorts of writing topics, with an eye toward making a living writing. INC (the initialism is deliberate) has a broad audience, including published authors, aspiring authors, independent authors, Big-5 authors, and boutique authors. The column used to appear on Huffington Post Books, but for all of the reasons I’ve moved it to Medium.

So you’ve decided you want to send a newsletter to help you connect with your readers. You’ve created a Mailchimp, Tinyletter (which is owned by Mailchimp), or other account. You’ve taught yourself the software. You’re totally ready to do this.

Wait. You’re totally not ready to do this.

What the eff do you write in your newsletter? I mean, really. Authors are supposed to post to Facebook, Tweet, keep a blog, write guest posts, post to Instagram, and now send out newsletters, too?

When are we supposed to write our actual books?

The benefits of author newsletters

Not the market-y benefits of newsletters. The people benefit of newsletters. Newsletters are a special way to share personal insights with your readers. Newsletters, therefore, create connections with your readers. For the record, this business about creating connections applies to all of your social media work. If you aren’t using FB, Twitter, IG, or whatever to create connections with people, then you are doing it wrong. If you are spamming people on Twitter with relentless “Buy my book!” tweets, you will get blocked. By me. Right now. Because I don’t know you, and I don’t care about you. We don’t have a connection.

But the reverse is also true. When my friends have new books coming around, I want to hear about that news. I’m happy for them, excited for them. I’m delighted to see those tweets and other social media shares about the new book. Because I have a connection with the author, and the author is important to me.

The same “connection” rule holds true for email newsletters, but on a much more serious level. Following someone on Twitter has really low stakes. Allowing someone into your inbox has much higher stakes.

If you convince someone to let you into their inbox, you have to make it worth their while.

At the same time, because email is more private, you can share things that are more private, things you might not put on the internet to be googled. Not that you should consider email newsletters private, legally, in the slightest (and surely you did not). But an email is a letter genre. And the letter genre is special. It is, in its very form, personal.

If the thought of writing a personal letter every month exhausts you, though, take heart. I’m about to make writing your newsletter easier for you with a formula—yes, a formula—that will make your newsletter look professional, simple (in a good way), and easy to recreate on a regular basis.

Step 0. Become super familiar with your newsletter software.

This step is important. You don’t want your software to stand in the way of your newsletter success. I’m going to write these instructions based on the presumption that you have already read the Mailchimp or Tinyletter tutorials and watched the YouTube video guides. (Mailchimp is what I happen to use. There are other newsletter platforms out there that are also good.)

OK. Now that you are a pro (or, fine, semipro) with your newsletter software, let’s talk about what you want to put into your newsletter.

Step 1. Create a title and a theme.

A newsletter is much easier to write if you have a starting point. It is also much more interesting for people to read. That is, people are much more likely to open the newsletter if they know what they are getting. By giving your newsletter a title and a theme, then you are doing yourself a favor, because you have a starting place when it comes time to write your newsletters, and you are doing your readers a favor, because they know what to expect.

The title of my newsletter is “Writing Isn’t Sexy,” and the theme is how, although it may seem like the writing life is glamorous, it really is so, so not. I created header art for my newsletter, and I use the same header art every month. Again, the consistency is for my readers, so they know what they are getting.

Step 2. Break your newsletter into sections, and then use those sections every time.

Just like having a theme, having consistent, predictable sections in your newsletter helps your readers know what to expect. Here’s an example of what might be a newsletter’s sections:

(1) Main story of the month.* This is a large box.

(2) Books update. This is a medium box.

(3) Recommended Reads and Book Deals. This is a medium box.

(4) Short Bio (of you). This is a small box.

(5) Social Media Links (yours). This is a small box.

What’s with the “boxes”? Mailchimp lets you design a newsletter by using templates, and within those templates you use drag-and-drop elements such as text boxes to create your newsletter design. Each one of the sections in the previous list is a drag-and-drop element in Mailchimp. I made recommendations for how big each of the sections should be based on my experience creating my own newsletter and coaching others.

Once you’ve laid out your newsletter, you can start filling in the sections.

* Sending a newsletter out monthly seems to be the sweet spot based on all of the research I’ve done. If you send it more frequently, readers feel like they’re getting spammed. If you send it less frequently, readers lose touch with who you are.

Step 3. Fill in your sections.

But here’s the deal. When you fill in your sections, you will use templates for most of them, and you will — repeat after me — keep it short.

One more time: Keep it short.

The greatest thing about writing a newsletter is that you don’t have to write much at all. Readers don’t want to receive long emails. Think about it: Do you like to receive long emails? Of course not. Because NO ONE EVER wants to receive long emails.

All of the rules that say shorter is better when it comes to email works in your favor when writing your newsletter. Your newsletters should be short and they should be fun.

Let me explain, using the sections I outlined above.

(1) Main story of the month

The main story can be anything.

Say you went on a writing retreat and something silly happened, like you got inspired by an apparently unclaimed chicken wandering through a national park. (That happened.) Say you went on a road trip through an unfamiliar state with your family and had some thoughts about that. Remember how your newsletter has a theme? That theme will help you brainstorm ideas about your newsletter. I always have a running list of ideas that come to me throughout the month.

Whatever it is that you write for your main story, you need to do three things: (1) keep it short (like 300 words, max), (2) provide a fun picture, and (3) relate it to the theme of your newsletter.

The most important thing with your main story, though, is that you open up to your readers. They’ve let you into their inbox. You need to share a bit about yourself. You need to be genuine.

(2) Books update

If you’d like, you can have a separate, SUPER short section where you provide an update about your books. Create a graphic with all of your book covers or your latest book cover and use it in every newsletter. (Here’s where templates in Mailchimp are super helpful.) In ONE sentence, give an update about your writing. “Nearing the end of the sequel to [Book Title Here].” You hardly have to change this section at all.

(3) Recommended Reads and Book Deals

Here’s where you provide a service to your readers while at the same time come across as super not self-centered. Scroll through book-deals emails and the Kindle deals. Find a book that you love that’s on a price break, and recommend it here. Put the book cover graphic up, too.

Look what you just did! You just helped your readers find a book on sale by an author they might not know! You’re SO HELPFUL. I love your newsletter! Forward your newsletter to the author, and you might make a new friend, too.

(4) Short Bio (of you)

Provide your author portrait and a 1–2 sentence bio of yourself. This doesn’t really change much from month-to-month. Be sure to update it as new books come out. But you can just leave it be so long as your bio hasn’t changed. Remember, you’ll be getting new subscribers all the time so new people will need this information.

(5) Social Media Links (yours)

Be sure to have all of your social media links tied in to your newsletter, including a link to your website. This is another part of your newsletter that doesn’t change unless, for some reason, you change the URLs of your social media.

Summing up

As you probably figured out, the hardest part of writing the newsletter is coming up with your main story each month. As I mentioned earlier, I keep a note in Evernote where I jot down possible ideas throughout the month, so when it is time to write my main story, I have many options to pull from. (The rest of the ideas I often use as blog posts.)

And remember: keep it short.

The books update is easy. And if nothing has changed since the month before, just leave it as it was. (But I bet you can come up with a one-sentence update from the month before.)

The book recommendation is actually fun to write because you get to go see what books are on sale and recommend one.

Your bio and social media links pretty much stay the same so long as nothing has changed, so that content needs little attention from you.

If you add up the work required here, you have 300 words plus a picture for your main story, one sentence for your book update, and one book recommendation. That’s it. That’s your total newsletter writing labor — once you have laid the groundwork.

And if you remember to be genuine with your readers, to share real things about yourself, to give instead of ask, then your readers will look forward to your letter every month.

You can totally write a newsletter.

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