Journalist Ann Friedman started her e-newsletter, The Ann Friedman Weekly, after she lost her magazine job. Formerly the executive editor at GOOD, she was navigating the world of freelancing and looking for a way to keep her name fresh in editors’ minds. Not only has it since helped her land many assignments, but the newsletter—which contains curated articles she finds interesting alongside her own original pieces, as well as GIFs and the “occasional product endorsement”—has developed an impressive following of more than 25,000 subscribers.
Friedman isn’t alone. Writers of all stripes are now turning to this once written-off tool as a device to reach readers as directly as possible—right in their own inbox. And for those who make it a priority, providing consistent, quality content to their subscribers, a newsletter can pay major dividends.
Why To Launch an e-Newsletter
If you’re a freelancer, an e-newsletter can announce your latest bylines to your audience. Many journalists use it to keep friends, family and dedicated readers up to speed on their work.
For some writers, the newsletter is the new blog. (Though the two can also work in tandem—many bloggers use newsletters to help circulate their posts.) Ariane Resnick, author of The Thinking Girl’s Guide to Drinking, set up an email list because a blog seemed like an ineffective use of her time. “I was looking for a way to offer advice and recipes,” Resnick says. “But I don’t enjoy blogging: You create content, put it out, and no one might see it.” She is also using the newsletter to expand her brand. “Rather than just being considered a chef and a nutritionist, it’s been helpful to show people that I have more to offer in the general lifestyle realm.”
Fantasy novelist Suzanne Johnson says her monthly newsletter—which includes blog posts, giveaways and news about her most recent releases—has been her most effective marketing tool. “There are thousands of books published every month,” Johnson says. “So how do you find true readers and how do you keep them engaged between books?”
A newsletter is a more targeted marketing tool than a blog because readers are able to opt in (or out) of their own volition. Even if your audience is small, those who subscribe are doing so with a built-in interest in your work. They’re your biggest fans, your best customers. Author Jessica Scott, who writes contemporary fiction, recently started selling her indie books on Amazon, iBooks and other platforms. Every time she sends out a newsletter (which features early news about new books, teasers of latest releases, and the occasional “random bit of information”) she sees a 30–40 percent bump in sales. When entertainment and travel journalist Valentina Valentini started sending out her e-newsletter featuring her clips, she was flooded with pitches from publicists: “[They] wrote to me saying, ‘Oh I didn’t know you wrote for so and so. That would be great for this client I have.’”
While most offer their newsletter for free, some have even managed to convert it into a revenue stream. The Ann Friedman Weekly makes money in two ways—through subscriptions and classified ads. When readers subscribe for $5 per year, they receive additional, exclusive content. The e-newsletter also features four to five classified ads, for which Friedman typically charges between $50–100. “It’s very difficult if you’re a freelance writer to have a revenue stream that you control,” she says. “I take a lot of career security in the fact that this is a thing I built. Even if it’s not a ton of money, it’s income I can count on.”
How to Hook Subscribers
While it can be tempting to start off by adding everyone in your address book to your subscriber list, Friedman warns against it. “It’s terrible practice,” she says. “The only person I added was my mother.” Instead, to garner subscribers, add a subscribe button to your website, and promote the newsletter as relentlessly as you can on your social media accounts. (You can even designate “Sign Up” as a call to action at the top of your Facebook page.) It’s also smart to send polite email invites to trusted writer friends and editors—without being too pushy, of course. And don’t forget to plug a link into your email signature.
Once you’ve begun to build a list, your e-newsletter must provide some kind of inherent value to keep subscribers engaged. What you choose to include will depend on the type of writing you do, as well as what you plan to achieve.
Scott offered six chapters of her new release as a freebie to her subscribers. In her September 2016 newsletter, Johnson enticed her readers to preorder a copy of her upcoming novel by raffling off a Kindle Fire. Readers could enter the drawing by preordering the book or sending her a postcard. She also routinely offers subscriber exclusives, such as deleted scenes or a sneak peek into a new cover.
In anticipation of her new parenting book in 2018, independent journalist Katherine Reynolds Lewis is using her e-newsletter to build her platform as a parenting expert. Her January newsletter began with a personal note, which she followed up with some book recommendations and curated articles on parenting.
An important note: If you want a loyal readership for your e-newsletter, you must send it regularly. Friedman is fiercely punctual with her weekly send. In the last four years, she has only missed four weeks.
What to Watch For
Keep in mind that you’re not sending out a company newsletter, so don’t make it sound like one by using a stiff voice. Employ a casual, professional tone—one that implies a level of intimacy. “A big mistake is to see the newsletter just as a vehicle for selling,” Lewis says. “It should really be a vehicle for engagement.”
Second, recognize the importance of tracking statistics—seeing who’s opening your emails (and who’s not), and what subjects are most popular with your readers (based on click-thru rates). Most newsletter services charge based on total number of subscribers, so make sure your list is fine-tuned to include only your target, active readers. After Scott’s list grew to 21,000 subscribers, she used analytics to see how many of them actively engaged with her newsletter, and ended up cutting her base by almost half.
Finally, don’t set up an e-newsletter if your heart isn’t into it. “If you’re a writer who thinks about this as a chore, it’s not going to be [a good use of your time],” Friedman says. But for those who do invest the energy, an e-newsletter can be an essential piece of your authorial platform.
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This post is edited by Writer’s Digest Managing Editor Tyler Moss. In addition to working with new submissions and a regular stable of freelance contributors to WD, his own freelance credits include Conde Nast Traveler, The Atlantic, Outside and New York magazines.
Follow Tyler on Twitter @tjmoss11.