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A Newsletter Keeps Hungry Readers at the Table 

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Imagine you, the writer, are a restaurant. In the US, restaurants send out emails to tempt in customers. There are pictures that make you hungry with descriptions of the different meals offered. There are updates about new offerings, and there’s some kind of promotional enticement to give you the extra push to get there in the immediate future and maybe try something new while you’re there. Trust me, the metaphor works. We’ll get into the complexities shortly.

An effective newsletter plants seeds. With it, you’re not only informing readers about your achievements, you’re sending out a representation of yourself and your work.

If you’re a self-published writer, this is an especially important tool for building a loyal readership.

An email newsletter is a long-term investment, more of a commitment than social media, a conversation instead of a shout-out. If you’re consistent and respectful and you send your subscribers something they want to read, the newsletter will bring your audience to you.

Before we dive in, here’s some maths-based perspective:

  • The average e-newsletter open rate across all industries is about 20%, so if only one in five subscribers is even opening your email, you’ll need to work your way up to a large base.
  • Add to that another daunting statisticonce that 20% of subscribers has opened your email, only about 3% click on (in other words, engage with) something within it.

 

The maths can be discouraging, but remember it’s a long-term investment. Your email subscribers haven’t clicked “like” or “follow” in passing. They’ve made an educated choice to listen to what you have so say. Once you have their attention, they will go from subscribers to readers.

Before you start designing, you need a plan.

Where do you make this newsletter? The good news is: you can do this for free. The most popular free newsletter engine, which we also use here at Mash, is MailChimp. When you’re looking around at the options, check out their templates, their services, and how they help you track your subscribers.

How often should you send this newsletter? You want to keep yourself present in people’s minds, but you don’t want to alienate them with unwanted emails, or “list fatigue”. Ideally, you want your readers to look forward to it, to smile when they see it in their inboxes. Decide this now, because your readers want stability. They want to know what you’re going to be sending them before they commit.

How often you send the newsletter depends on what is going to be in the newsletter and how often you have that kind of content to offer. If it’s going to be focused on you and your work, which it should be—because, otherwise, what’s the point?—you’ll be including publication updates, any new blog posts, and information about what you’re currently working on. A lot of email newsletters also include interesting facts or quotes related to their content.

What else should you include? That’s up to you. The best way to figure this out is to pay attention to the newsletters you like and, well, steal ideas. How often you send a newsletter should relate to how often you have these kinds of updates. If you send your readers rambling fluff just to fill a newsletter, they’ll know it and unsubscribe faster than you can say spam folder.

So, now that those decisions have been made, there’s something else you need:

A list of subscribers.

The method that other people’s trial and error has proved most successful is called “permission marketing.” This means your subscribers give you their information willingly and with expressed permission.

Don’t buy a list of random people and suddenly start emailing them when they haven’t asked you to. That’s the fast lane to the blacklist.

How do you do this? Begin with the basics: social media posts and a pop-up form on your website. That will be a start, your first handful, but to really grow the list, you need an “ethical bribe.” In return for something that interests them (and is pertinent to you and your work), all you want is an email address and permission to send a lovely and irresistible newsletter at a preset frequency. No-brainer.

To get started, you’ll need some promotional items that are specific to you as a brand. If you’re a productive self-published writer, you certainly have a selection of work to offer “permafree.” Here’s what that entails: pick piece of writing you’ve published, preferably one that was selling well for a while but has slowed down since your newer work was released, or the first book in a series, and make it free in return for an email address. It’s called “permafree” because it’s free forever, not for a limited time. (Many self-published fiction writers, like J.F. Penn, use permafree books as very successful advertising tools for their new work as well.) On your website and at the beginning and end of your permafree ebook, you should also add a call to action with an image that entices readers to sign up for future updates, a.k.a your newsletter.

If you do not have more than one publication to offer, you can give away the first three chapters of your book, a short story, or a “limited-time offer” to receive your completed e-book when it is released.

Once you have a small list with which to begin, you’re ready to start designing.

What are the top ten must-dos of newsletter design? Here’s what I’ve learned as the Master Mash Newsletter-er:

  1. Large, high-resolution images. Nothing says amateur like blurry pictures. They are the rotten apples that spoil the whole bundle. They also should be large enough to be engaging, not teeny afterthoughts.
  2. A dynamic, consistent layout that resembles your style. Your newsletter is an extension of your public image. Use colors, fonts, and text blocks that make a seamless transition to your website or blog. If you have a website, each news item can be very short and direct traffic there for further engagement. If you don’t have a website, the newsletter can be a bit more comprehensive, but still avoid going on for too long. Use clear headers to make your newsletter easy to navigate.
  3. The right subject line. There are two schools of thought here, and both have similar statistics. Option 1: The straightforward subject line, “Weekly News from Mash Stories.” Option 2: Something clever and related to the newsletter’s content that sparks the reader’s curiosity. I’ve tried both at Mash with very little difference. Option 1 is better suited for a larger outlet with an established following. Option 2 gives you an extra magnet while people are still learning your name.
  4. A tone that targets your audience. It’s best to be direct and conversational, but be yourself. This is a representation of you, so you want to sound like you.
  5. Use hyperlinks to keep it brief. People don’t want to spend all morning reading your newsletter, so keep each item or bulletin to about 100 words with hyperlinks leading to more information. These should not be hyperlinks leading to all the far corners of the internet, but mostly hyperlinks back to your website, your publications, or interviews/articles about you. You want to drive their attention there so they can continue being your readers.
  6. Encourage engagement. If you ask your readers to answer a specific question, if their input is essential to your success, you’re more likely to keep those people committed. Tell them to reply to the email in order to join the conversation. Add a reader-inspired segment to make responses enticing.
  7. Schedule delivery strategically. Most people spend the most time reading their email first thing in the morning, so you want your email to be in their inboxes before they log in. If your email arrives at 3PM, they will be less likely to open and read it. Most email-generating software will also link to your social media so the newsletter will automatically appear there, too.
  8. Avoid spam filters. There are a lot of no-nos in this area because spam filters have become more sophisticated to catch the more crafty spammers. Take the time to learn how they work so you can avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Don’t just add contact emails to your list; make sure they sign up willingly. Your email also has to, by law, have an opt-out or unsubscribe option.
  9. Keep the list growing from the roots. When you see the growth of your list is beginning to stagnate, your audience is your best resource. Prompt your readers to forward the email onto their friends. Ask your readers what else they’re reading and tell them what you’re reading, and then add a new section that fits what you have in common. Improvements and additions give the impression that you’re going places and you have to grow to make room for all your successes.
  10. Most importantly, you need content that people want to read and share. And for the love of all things grammatical, proofread it. Proofread it several times. Have several people proofread it.

If a store sold all the same products and never added anything new, its customer base would plateau and eventually peter out. A newsletter tells readers you’re a serious writer, so be serious and keep writing.

Over to you, Mashers. What great newsletters do you receive?

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Kate has a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Lesley University. She enjoys all the equipment on the writing playground, evidenced by her many simultaneous projects. She is a freelance writer and editor, author of the poetry collection How to Love an Introvert, and is working on a piece of non-fiction while dabbling in children’s books and flash fiction. She’s the Platform Manager at Mash Stories and the owner of Black Squirrel Workshop LLC.

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