Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.18: Launching an Author Newsletter

Through all the tumultuous evolution of various social media platforms one thing has remained stable: email. In this episode we talk about how to design and deploy author newsletters.

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Create a newsletter and add a signup to your website.

Thing of the week: Wings Once Cursed and Bound, by Piper J. Drake.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Two kinds of newsletters, content newsletters and marketing newsletters. Content or announcements? One newsletter or many? One channel is probably best. What are you passionate about? How often can you do it? Don’t overcommit! Look at platforms, MailChimp and others. Consider an assistant! Collect addresses. 

[Season 18, Episode 18]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Launching an Author Newsletter.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[DongWon] So, this week we wanted to talk about creating your own newsletter. One thing that I wanted to distinguish up front is that, in my view, there are two distinct types of newsletters that exist in the world. I think a lot of the confusion that people have, and a lot of the trepidation people have, comes from confusing which one is which. So, the newsletter that I do, Publishing Is Hard, is what I would call a content newsletter. It is a thing that I create and send out on a regular basis that are essays, whatever missives, what we would have once called a blog. The other type of newsletter is a marketing newsletter. This is for announcements. It’s not a place where you write an essay about what you think about craft, what you think about writing. It’s a place where you tell people, “I have a book coming out. Preorder it. I have an event coming up. Buy tickets. Here’s my new cover.” Whatever it is. Right? So keeping those two things distinct in your brain, I think, is the first step to really understanding a strong newsletter strategy. So that’s sort of like the overall framework I wanted to launch this conversation with. There are reasons to have both. The basic difference is, I think, every single person who is doing a thing on the Internet where they want people to buy stuff should have a marketing newsletter. Should just have one. If you have… Launching a content newsletter is a more deliberate thing and takes a lot of work and thought as to what it is you want to be doing with it. But if you want to be an author, if you want to have published books, please, please, please make a newsletter. We’re going to talk a little bit more about why and how to do that.

[Mary Robinette] I was very resistant to doing a newsletter for a long time, because all of the newsletters that I heard people talk about were the content newsletters. I was like, “Oh, that’s very exhausting.” Even though I had blogged daily for years. It just… It felt different. Then I was also resistant to doing a marketing newsletter because I’m like, “Who’s going to read that? It’s just going to go in and say by my things. It’s just going to be people putting me in spam folders.” But I’m finding that actually having control of my audience is like really handy for not just the regular things, but also the surprise visits, the “Hey, I have a sudden giveaway I want to do.” That it is a nice way to connect to people.

[DongWon] Yeah. I think one of the things we’re finding as digital marketing develops over the last I don’t know how many years since Al Gore invented the Internet is the only thing that we know works is email marketing. Right?


[DongWon] I think display ads, I think content marketing, all of those things can work in certain circumstances. They tend to be very, very expensive. Email, though, getting in people’s inboxes, especially people that you know are interested in what you’re providing because they signed up for your newsletter in the first place is just one of the most effective ways to activate people, to get them to go do the thing that you want them to do. So having a marketing newsletter, the reason I recommend it so highly, is it’s direct access to your core audience, to your main supporters. It is… You can make an appeal to them that is like, “Hey, please do this thing.” Now, the thing to remember with a marketing newsletter is that every time you send one, some percentage of the people are going to unsubscribe to that thing. Right? That’s okay, that’s part of the process. Right? You’re going to lose people every time you send it. So, the thing about that, every time you pull the trigger on sending a marketing letter, is that I’m going to lose some people when I do this. Because it shows up in their inbox, they’re like, “I don’t remember signing up for this. I’m going to unsubscribe.” It’s fine. It’s how people use the Internet. But you want to make sure when you are doing it as a result, you work doing it for a really intentional purpose.

[Erin] I have a question that is just for me. I am somebody who does a lot of things in different areas. I do some game writing, I do some short story writing, I do some teaching. If I’m creating, because I’ve yet to put together a newsletter, but I’m using this as the drive to do it, am I like… Should I be having three newsletters? Should I be having one that, like, has a lot of different types of content? Or will people get mad and unsubscribe more?

[DongWon] It’s a tough balancing act, because you don’t want to hit the marketing things too often. Right? If you’re sending one every week when you have something dropping, people… You’re going to lose a lot of your audience over time as people unsubscribe, because they’re like, “These are too many emails.” Right? So finding that balance is tricky. If you’re a traditionally published author, it’s not too bad, you’re doing one or two or maybe three of these a year. Whatever. With the number of things you have coming out, I would advise, like, yeah, have one channel. I don’t think segmenting your audience is going to be… I mean, it’s just like way too much work for you and too much work for your audience, too, to figure out which newsletter they want to sign up for. I would just try instead and really think about how can I bundle these things together to make sure that I’m not touching them too often.

[Dan] Yeah. Which is kind of, sort of, what I do with mine. I call mine a water cooler newsletter. Based on something a friend of mine told me a while ago, which is, if you think of social media as a water cooler, that’s a place where you go and you have interesting conversations with people. If someone shows up at the water cooler and all they ever talk about is how you can buy shirts in their store, you don’t want to talk to that person or listen to what they say. So my newsletter is very much a marketing newsletter, and I send it out once a month, whether I’ve got a new launch or not. I need to tell people about my calendar, and what events I’m doing, and so on and so on. But I also make sure to include I’m going to recommend somebody else’s book in every one. What is Dan reading right now? This. I am going to give you a quick update on what I am writing, in case you are interested. Like, I’m halfway through this book. So it is a tiny bit of content to help give you something interesting to read, and to recommend other people as well as just me. So that it’s not purely, “Hey, go to my store and buy my merch.”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That’s why, like, mine will often have pictures of my cats and I have an automation set up so that on your birthday, I send you a short story, and every year it’s a different short story. That… Remembering to change them is…


[Mary Robinette] Sorry for everyone who got the same short story twice this year.


[DongWon] I love that. I love having that little bit of a personal touch. Right? It can be automated, but still, it’s like a thing that you receive. It’s like, oh, here’s a special thing from this creator I follow, who I’m a fan of. I think it’s a great way to like get them more engaged with you in a more personal way.

[Howard] Coming back to answering Erin’s question, what should you put in your newsletter. I would ask this first. What’s a thing that you’re interested in and would be willing to write about on a regular basis that might interest other people? That could be movies that you like to watch. That could be… It could be cooking. I mean, there… Any topic. Literally, any topic. Because when you’re creating content, when you’re creating a content newsletter, when you’re creating something with hooks, something that grabs people and holds them, you have to be passionate about it first. If you’re not passionate about it, it’s going to be twice as hard to write about it. So that’s the… For me, that would be the first question. The second question, then, is how often can I do it? How much… What else do I have to promote that I would roll into it? With DongWon’s newsletter, it’s about your passion for publishing. Which dovetails nicely with Writing Excuses, passion…


[Howard] For talking about writing.

[DongWon] Exactly. Yup.


[Dan] It’s important when you’re asking yourself these questions to remember that you’re giving yourself an extra job. For the most part, you became an artist because you’re excited about creating art, not excited about promoting art. So don’t over commit to something you know you’re going to resent. Make it something like DongWon’s newsletter is something that they love to write, they’re passionate about. If it felt onerous, you wouldn’t do it.

[DongWon] That’s also part of why it’s so irregular in terms of the timing. I do it when I have bandwidth to do it. I am often insanely busy, and it’s… I just don’t have the bandwidth to come up with another well thought out, carefully worded newsletter. Right? So when it comes to the marketing newsletter, that’s why my advice is to make it as light of a touch and like a lift as possible for you of keep it simple. Stick to really basic things. At a bare minimum, just announce when you have stuff. Include extra things if you can, in terms of recommending other people’s books, little personal touches like your… Like the cat photos or the short story for… On people’s birthdays. Those are lovely little things. Those aren’t necessary. You can make it as late as possible for you to make it manageable. Then, when you’re looking at the content style newsletter, really think about what your bandwidth is. How much can you take on? Can you do a thing once a month? Once every two months? Don’t overpromise to your audience and leave them feeling disappointed. Give them more rather than give them less when you’re making that sort of content approach. I want to switch to talking about the mechanics of it, how you do these things, what platforms you use, things like that, but let’s first take a break for a moment. Then we will be right back.

[Dan] All right. So, I want to talk about the new book from our good friend of the podcast, Piper Drake. She has a book out called Wings Once Cursed and Bound. It actually comes out in two days from when this airs on May 2. This… Piper has a very successful career as a romance author. Wings Once Cursed and Bound is a step into a bit of a new genre. It is kind of modern fantasy. It is about a woman in Seattle who is secretly hiding the fact that she is actually a char… A kind of mythical creature from Thai folklore. She is a bird person. She encounters a guy who is a vampire who goes around in the world collecting mystical artifacts and locking them up so that they don’t cause problems for people. He is currently looking for the infamous red shoes. Kind of the same idea as the Hans Christian Anderson story about the red shoes that make you dance forever. So, it’s the two of them and those red shoes. They get embroiled in this big story. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. That is Wings Once Cursed and Bound by Piper J. Drake.

[DongWon] Okay. So, as we’re thinking about how do I set up that newsletter platform for myself, Erin, you are currently thinking about doing this for yourself. Sounds like the rest of everyone else has your own marketing newsletter. What platforms are you all using? How did you go about setting that up? What do you feel like works for you? I mean, are there best practices that you’re finding really helping you reach your audience in the way that you want to be?

[Mary Robinette] So, I work with a company called Northstar Messaging. Because I have a limited number of spoons. So I had started mine with MailChimp. That was working really well for me for a long time. But there were a number of automations that I wanted to do with onboarding, and it was hard. It just didn’t do that well. So we’ve just switched over to Active Campaign which allows you to build sequences so that… This is called a nurture sequence. So someone comes in, and they get a welcome message. Then, a little bit later, they get a different thing that has some additional evergreen content, as they’re being folded into the regular flow. So that’s… That idea of a nurture sequence is something that I had heard about a lot, and hadn’t known how to execute it. Which is why I was like, “Hello. You are professionals.” It’s something that I have experienced as a consumer, and I know that they’re useful. But I just… I couldn’t understand how to do that for myself as a writer.

[Erin] I think that’s a great point, which is that it’s nice to see what you like in a newsletter. Like, if you have… You see somebody’s newsletter and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh. This design, I’m loving it.” Like, it’s nice to see, like, how are they sending it to you. Usually you can find it somewhere. Scroll down to the very bottom newsletter, you might see like, sent to you by MailChimp, or Constant Contact, or one of the many other platforms that is used to send newsletters. Or, if it’s the kind of content newsletter like you have, DongWon, you can sometimes tell in the URL. Like, what the service is behind the service.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Erin] I love doing that, just because, even though I don’t actually have a newsletter, I love making up the idea that I’m creating a newsletter, doing lots of research, and then not sending it.


[Erin] So, often I collect lists of places that would be good to use, just by looking at what other people do and saying I want to do that.

[Howard] You’re LARPing as a newsletter sender.


[Dan] I don’t actually know what system I use to send out a newsletter. Because of a different tool that I use, which is an assistant. I understand that this is not immediately accessible to every aspiring author. I have an assistant whom I pay. She puts together a newsletter for me, among other tasks. I will sit down at the beginning of every month, and I will write three paragraphs. What is Dan working on, what is Dan reading, what does Dan recommend. Then send them off to her, and she turns it into a newsletter and sends it out into the world. That has been, for me, an incredibly valuable way of offloading the parts of this business that I know are important, but that I don’t want to do, and still get some value out of them.

[Howard] I have the same model. My assistant’s name is Sandra. Sandra has a full plate of a million other things. With the long Covid and chronic fatigue, it’s not just that I don’t really want to spend time crunching the text for a newsletter, it is that we have to prioritize my time now so that I am doing the things that only I can do. Anything that can be done by somebody else gets handed off. So the newsletter management has been handed off. Now, that said, Sandra will sometimes come to me and say, “Hey, do you have anything for the newsletter? I need a picture. Do you have… My bank of Howard pictures has run dry.” So I will dig around and I will find something. This happens with newsletters. It also happens with a thing that is very much like a newsletter and is core to our business model, Kickstarter updates. When we’re working on a project and we need to let people know, “Hey, here’s what… Here’s where we are in this. Here are some art drops. Here’s what’s new in the…” It reads exactly like a newsletter, and the audience is exactly like a newsletter audience in that it is a self-selecting group of people who have chosen to hear about this. That’s one of the things that I like to remind people about newsletters is that they work better than banner ads or anything else because it is a self-selecting group of people. If someone unsubscribes, they have self-selected out of the group, and that’s fine.

[DongWon] But at some point, somebody said, “Yes. I want to take this content.”

[Howard] Exactly.

[DongWon] That is such a huge difference versus…

[Howard] Incredibly… Incredibly valuable.

[DongWon] Exactly. Exactly.

[Howard] Incredibly valuable. As a data point on that, when we did our last Kickstarter, we looked at… We had a marketing company help us find all of the self-selecting people that… Anybody who’d ever bought anything with us, subscribers to the newsletter, previous Kickstarters, whatever. It was over 15,000 email addresses. We sent out one mail blast saying, “We’re launching a Kickstarter.”

[DongWon] Great.

[Howard] And had more subscribers than we had ever had before. So, starting a newsletter and collecting these addresses is… It’s going to help you in the future, one way or another.

[DongWon] That’s the thing. You can start collecting them early. You don’t have to send a newsletter. No one remembers signing up for newsletters. Once you do it, you’re not like, “I can’t believe that person hasn’t emailed me yet.” Right? So you can start collecting emails now. Then, when your first novel comes out, five years from now, then, maybe, you have a few thousand names on that list. Right? That can make a huge difference as you just grow that a little bit over time. Just make sure any time someone goes to your website, someone goes to your link tree, or Twitter profile, or whatever it is, “Hey. Sign up to get updates from me here.” I think starting to grab those like little drips, it adds up over time. What I love hearing all of you talk about this is… It kind of… This is one of those things that plays into the category of what we call authoring. Right? Things that go into the job of being a professional author that aren’t actually writing books. Right? Which is an enormous amount of time. It is always shocking to me how much time and effort goes into dealing with email, responding about events, answering interview questions, all these things that sound like nice problems to have until you’re doing this so much you don’t have time to write. So, newsletters is a great one, especially a marketing newsletter, to offload to a consulting firm, in Mary Robinette’s case, assistants, whatever it happens to be. But when you’re early-stage, sort of more Erin’s position, you’re doing that research and figuring out how to launch it and build that up. I love hearing that you’ve already done all that homework. We’ll get you to pull that trigger soon.

[Erin] It’s happening.

[Mary Robinette] I should say that the marketing firm is a very new thing.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Before that, it was assistants, and before that, it was me, and when it was me, it was wildly irregular.

[DongWon] Exactly. That’s the process. Right? You learn by doing. I love hearing Erin talk about, like, figuring out what you wanted to do by seeing what other people were doing. I mean, that’s so much how we learn how to do all these marketing techniques is what’s working. What are authors I like? Who do I respect? What content am I getting in my inbox that I think is good? Just sign up for a bunch of people’s newsletters. I know it’s going to be annoying for a minute. But just see what they’re doing. Right? Go to your favorite authors pages. See what their newsletters look like. Learn some techniques from them. Then start applying that little bit by bit for yourself.

[Howard] It is worth pointing out that your newsletter can be a business model unto itself.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Howard] If you are passionate enough about what you are writing, if you touch a nerve, you may find, wow, Howard writes about lazy recipes for old people, suddenly has 50,000 people reading it. Well, maybe if I turn that into a book, I can make money out of it. That is a legit thing. Which is one of the reasons why I would encourage you, if you’re going to do a newsletter, write about things you’re passionate about. Because that passion, that’s what connects people to your fiction, it’s what connects them to your TikTok, it’s what connects us with each other.

[DongWon] If you’re doing a content newsletter, you can get people to subscribe and pay. It’s shocking how few subscribers it takes for that to suddenly feel like, “Oh. This makes sense for me to be spending a couple hours a week on this.”

[Erin] I think that’s also good because it gives you an assignment. So, one of the reasons that I have not started a newsletter for myself, despite the fact that I once worked as somebody who sent out newsletters for other people as a job. So it’s… I know what the thing is. Is because it’s so easy to put yourself last and say, “Okay. I only have so much time. I’m going to do stuff for other people.” Or to put your writing self first, which is a completely legitimate choice. But the authoring does sort of need to get done. So by being on this podcast, I’m forcing myself to do the authoring. We’re going to be asking you to do some of the authoring, too. But I think even more than that, if you have subscribers, it’s a way to sort of offload… You’re not making yourself do it, you’re doing it for somebody else. You’re giving them a gift. So, as long as that doesn’t become a huge like pressure on you, I think it can be a nice motivation to kind of kick yourself in the butt and sort of make yourself do the thing that you want to do. Because you want to reach other people and let them know about what you’ve been doing.

[Mary Robinette] It’s as if… It’s almost as if when you’re saying you’re using this as a way to get the… To make yourself do the newsletter. It’s almost as if you are figuring out who you are, and then doing it on purpose.


[garbled Exactly. Wow. Callbacks. As if we’ve planned these episodes. Exactly.]

[Mary Robinette] It would have sounded so much more clever if we hadn’t all just giggled at that.


[Dan] We’re clever, we’re just not very professional about it.


[DongWon] On that note, I think I will take us to our homework for the week. I think our homework is probably pretty easy to guess what I’m about to tell you to do based on everything I’ve said on this podcast so far, which is… Go make your own newsletter. Make a marketing newsletter, figure out what service you want to use. MailChimp is probably the most popular, but do a little googling. There’s a million guides out there. Make an account. Make a free account. Just sign it up. Figure out how to integrate it into your personal website, if you have one. If you don’t, make a website. Highly encourage you to do that. Then, you don’t have to do anything to it. Don’t send a newsletter, don’t do anything with it. Just make it, get the sign-up form on that site, and let it be.

[Mary Robinette] In the next episode of Writing Excuses, we talk about why publishers make choices, how writers can use that, and why Howard’s been using the Time Machine all wrong. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go start a newsletter. Or go subscribe to ours. Because we also needed to start one, and recording these episodes made us realize that we hadn’t. So, use the Time Machine, find our newsletter subscription button, subscribe, and join us.