Part 9: The Ultimate Guide to Newsletter Engagement

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Welcome back for Part 9 of the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing! This section of the guide is all about using your newsletter to actually sell books.

First, a little refresher on our Ultimate Book Marketing Formula, which is the heartbeat of this guide:

We’ve hit the most important part of the formula: building and engaging our newsletter. The email list is the backbone of our platform. In the previous section, we talked about actually building our subscribers up via organic (front/back matter) and non-organic (giveaways and cross promos) means. So if you don’t have any subscribers yet, you’ll want to check out Part 7: The Ultimate Guide to Newsletter Building first.

After you have some subscribers, however, your next mission is getting them interested in your books. Many authors think generating subscribers is the difficult part; it isn’t. I understand why: getting your first subscriber (or couple hundred) can be an exercise in hair-pulling frustration. But once you crack that code, you’ll find that the true test comes in getting them to read your next books.

Because having a bunch of subscribers who don’t pick up your books is worth zip. You need engaged subscribers who will buy your work (preferably for full price). A list of 1000 raving fans can catapult a new book into the top 500 of the entire store. A list of 40,000 people who barely know your name will do nothing.

In this section, we’ll cover:

  • Email frequency: how often should you mail?
  • Content & Tone: choosing what works
  • Subject lines that actually work
  • The Reactivation Campaign: How to re-engage inactive subscribers
  • General engagement tips

In short, the choices you make in regards to frequency, content, style, and tone comprise the entity that is “your newsletter.” You want to establish these from the get go to set clear expectations. These decisions become part of your overall brand. Make them wisely.

Before we hop into engagement, though, let’s make sure you have three key pieces in place before continuing.

If you’re just stopping by and want to start from the beginning of the Ultimate Guide to Book Marketing, you can find the complete series here. Each part stands alone, though, so if you’re just interested in a particular topic, feel free to jump in wherever you see fit.

Before We Begin

This is flight check of sorts. If you haven’t done these three things yet, stop reading and go take care of them (they’re all outlined step-by-step in Part 7):

  1. Set up your organic newsletter.
  2. Set up a simple autoresponder. This can just be a single “Welcome” email delivering a free book to new subscribers, or it can be longer. Longer autoresponders are key to increasing engagement/sales when you have a large backlist or are using non-organic methods to build your list.
  3. Make sure your welcome email does three things: (1) if applicable, deliver the free book, (2) ask them to whitelist your email and (3) establish expectations in terms of frequency, content, tone, and style.

These will run passively in the background, regardless of whether you implement anything in this guide. Plus, it’s easier to revise/fix what you already have using the ideas below than it is to try to build them from scratch and simultaneously remember everything we’ll discuss here.

Remember: a platform is built brick-by-brick. Get the foundations in place, then build on top of them.

Email Frequency

The fear of irritating readers is one of the main things that stops authors from starting a newsletter (or ever sending one at all). It’s worth remembering that readers specifically signed up to your list to hear from you. If you don’t send them newsletters, then you’re doing them a disservice.

Rather than be paralyzed in fear as you wonder whether you should send an email, here are the three basic approaches to email frequency:

  1. The monthly newsletter. This is sent regardless if you have a new book or new content to share. You’ll also send newsletters when you have deals or new releases that fall outside the purview of the monthly schedule.
  2. The release only newsletter. Only email when you have a new book.
  3. The when I have interesting stuff to share newsletter. This gives you a little bid more variety: you can share deals, new releases, books in the genre, and so forth.

There are variants of these, of course: you could do a weekly newsletter (appropriate in non-fiction, less so in fiction where you’re unlikely to have enough news to justify that frequency). You could do a release only plus deals newsletter.

The idea here is to establish this frequency upfront, in your welcome email. Tell people exactly what to expect.

Then meet this expectation.

It’s generally okay to move from more emails to less. The inverse poses a problem: if you tell people you’ll only email them for releases, but then send them random emails about cross promos, cat pictures, and everything under the sun, you’re breaking expectations.

I do a monthly newsletter for my fiction books (around the 1st) and a weekly newsletter (every Friday-ish) for my non-fiction. For the fiction, this actually ends up being once or twice a month with the other content (release emails etc.). I explain this in the welcome email to set their expectations accordingly.

Monitor click and open rates to gauge how readers are responding to your email frequency. If you’re getting a ton of unsubscribes (1.5%+ per email) or lots of abuse complaints (0.5% per email), then you might be sending too many. Or you may not have sent an email in the past year…which means no one remembers who the hell you are. Which leads us to a final point.

There is no best email frequency. The magic bullet, if there is one, is consistency. Pick a schedule that you’re comfortable with, then deliver.

It’s really that simple.

Content & Tone: What to Say (and How to Say It?)

Content is tied into email frequency. The more interesting content you have to share, the more frequently you can email people without having them ignore you.

Content-wise, here are some of the things you can share:

  1. Slice of writing life stories.
  2. Book recommendations.
  3. Cover reveals.
  4. Excerpts from upcoming books.
  5. Exclusive stories, epilogues, lost chapters etc.
  6. New release info: dates, pre-order links, announcements, and, of course, the actual release day email.
  7. Podcasts, guides, blog posts, articles etc. (for non-fiction)

These aren’t mutually exclusive; in fact, you’ll often weave these together in a single newsletter. In my monthly fiction newsletter, I add a brief update on the new book’s progress and perhaps a little behind the scenes glimpse (e.g. I shared the illustration process one month). I also added a recommendation section, where I recommend books, shows, or movies that I’ve actually watched.

That last part is key. Your emails need to be valuable. These can be actually valuable. Spending my own time to sift through the stacks of books and recommend them something in the genre that’s good has tremendous value. Shotgunning out recommendations because I need to run something for a swap is the opposite of value.

Wasting the reader’s time is the worst thing you can do.

This is the same reason why my curated promo list is valuable (and it’s shared in all sorts of random places), and all the random lists on the internet are not. When you can do the hard work by curating out the maelstrom of BS, that has a ton of value. Another non-fiction would be a guide that can help them lose weight or make their first $1,000.

Information is not valuable. It’s a commodity. You need to go a step further for readers to stay engaged.

The other way to be valuable is by being entertaining or interesting. Glimpses into the writing process – which, while of little interest to you, can appear mystical from the outside looking in. Updates on a book that they’re looking forward to qualify. Even pictures of animals can, provided you loop them back into your writing somehow.

You’re only limited by your creativity. One thing I’d keep in mind is to use your skills as a storyteller. If you subscribe to any non-fiction lists, many of these are written like a piece of ad copy. This is a viable approach, but it demands different skills. Instead of honing an entirely new skillset, employ the one you already have.

Don’t worry about length. There’s an ongoing debate about the merits of long versus short copy. This extends to emails, where people make wild claims about readers being unwilling to read long emails.

I have sent out some very long non-fiction emails.

They got high open rates because they were interesting and relevant to the target audience.

Instead of length, follow this rule: don’t be boring.

This rule dovetails nicely with our next consideration: how you communicate with your readers. That is, your tone.

While there are technically a million and one ways to approach this, let’s whittle it down to two simple options: your natural email “voice” or whatever matches the tone of your target market.

For my fiction, I use the former, which happens to fit the sarcastic/laid-back tone of one of my target markets (urban fantasy).

For non-fiction, however, I strip most of this out in favor of a more just the facts tone. Readers of how-to non-fiction don’t respond well to lots of expletives, and adding too much style generally splits your audience between people who really like it, and those who make it their mission to tell everyone that they didn’t like how things were written and that everything inside is garbage as a result.

Ask me how I know.

The takeaway here is to know your market and also to understand what hill you’re willing to die on. If your natural voice isn’t a good fit for the market, then it’s better to adapt than to die. Because if you curse a lot but write sweet romance, those newsletters are going to go over like a lead balloon.

And whichever option you choose, the tone should always be like addressing a friend. The inbox is a personal space. Think coffee shop rather than sales seminar.

Ultimately, with frequency, content, and tone, the format is less important than setting expectations early on during the welcome sequence and then being consistent. The people who naturally respond to your type of newsletter will stick around. Don’t try to please everyone. Whatever format/tone you decide on will inevitably alienate other people. Trying to cater to everyone is a surefire way to crater engagement.

Formatting

A brief interlude, but an important one. Keep the formatting of your emails simple. This should look like an email to a friend (as much as that’s possible). Fancy templates that look like slick sales catalogs are terrible for two reasons: they get caught in spam filters and they look like advertisements.

We don’t want either of those outcomes. So use one of the simple text templates. As a bonus, you’ll save a ton of time on complicated formatting.

Subject Lines

While I initially thought that clever subject lines would carry the day, extensive testing has demonstrated a clear trend: obvious subject lines almost always outperform anything else. This isn’t surprising, given our oft-repeated marketing rule: clarity trumps cleverness.

As an example from the first email in my sci-fi autoresponder:

  • “Your Free Novels & Novellas” produced a 79.2% open rate.
  • “so, I heard you like science fiction…”  produced a 62.2% open rate.

For new releases:

  • [Title] is Now Available
    • Drop Dead is Now Available
    • Smoke Show is Out Now
    • Bomb Shell is Out (and just $0.99)
  • The New [Series Name] [Genre or Novel] is Now Available
    • The Latest Jack Reacher Thriller is Now Available
    • The New Tess Skye Novel is Out Now
    • Ruby Callway Returns Today (Just $0.99)

When in doubt, be obvious. It’s very hard to come up with something clever that will beat the direct approach.

You may see suggestions that subject lines that look like emails from friends a la “check this out” or “what’s up” can generate high open rates. This can be true, but you want to be careful using these. They can feel extremely bait-and-switchy, and piss people off. If you’re not a good copywriter, then don’t use them. Even then, you’d only use them in very specific circumstances (like one of the tricks below).

What Should I Do About Inactive Subs (Reactivation)?

Each subscriber you have on your list brings you that much closer to paying more per month. To be honest, while authors focus on that, it’s a minor concern. We’re talking about a couple hundred bucks a year, max, in most instances.

The reasons we want to engage inactive subs are two-fold: one, we’d like them to become readers if possible, since we went through the trouble of getting them on the list. Two, having a ton of inactive subs on your list can drag down the deliverability of your emails to engaged subscribers.

What to do about these inactive subscribers, then? Well, we don’t just want to delete them out right. Click and open rate data, while useful, isn’t 100% accurate. Some people will open every email, but won’t appear in the stats for a variety of reasons. Just blanket-deleting them would be unproductive.

Instead, we want to send out what’s known as a reengagement or reactivation campaign. A reactivation campaign is an email sent out specifically to inactive subscribers with the goal of getting those still interested in your content to essentially confirm that they want to stick around. It follows two steps:

  1. Segment or tag all the subscribers who haven’t opened your emails for a minimum of 90 days. You can go longer to be more conservative, like 6 months. Name this segment/tag “Inactive.”
  2. Send only these subscribers a reactivation email. Set up a link in the email that removes them from the Inactive segment/tag if they click on it.

Very important: no one will open every email. Even your biggest fans will occasionally miss an email. So don’t boot people off for missing a couple emails. We only want to remove people who clearly aren’t interested, not engaged fans who weren’t interested in specific offers. Hence why we only send this out to people who haven’t opened an email in 3 – 6 months.

The subject line should be “Do You Want to Keep Receiving My Author Newsletter?” Then the body of the email should be something along these lines:

“Hey, my email service says you haven’t been opening my emails. But sometimes that’s a mistake, so I don’t want to remove you from my newsletter list if you want to stay. Just click here to keep receiving my newsletter. If you don’t click and don’t want to stick around, you don’t have to do anything. You’ll be automatically removed in 7 days.”REACTIVATION TEMPLATE

Then remove whoever doesn’t click on the link. Generally speaking, you can expect about 10 – 15% of the inactive subscribers to stick around. That means you can chop thousands of subscribers if you do this. That can be a little disconcerting, but remember that these are dead-weight: they’re costing you money, they’re lowering your deliverability, and they don’t want to receive your emails.

Removing them, then, is a win-win for everyone.

As for how often you should send these campaigns: I’d recommend doing them every six months if you’re building your list via non-organic means and sending emails out on a monthly basis. Naturally, if you haven’t sent a newsletter in six months, or have sent all of one, don’t send out a reactivation campaign. You’ll accidentally delete a ton of engaged subs.

And if you’re exclusively doing organic list building, then I wouldn’t worry about reactivation campaigns. Their engagement tends to be much higher, and there generally aren’t enough inactive organic subs to be impacting your deliverability.

General Engagement Tips

Here are a few tricks you can use to increase your open and click rates.

  1. Resend your emails to non-opens. This can get you an additional +6 – 8% increase (e.g. from 38% > 44 – 46%) in opens. Most email services can do this with a couple clicks.
    • Resend the second email with a much different subject line.
    • Resend the second email at a different time. E.g. if you sent the first one at 7 AM, send the second one at 5 PM.
    • Choose the resend date strategically. If it’s a launch, send it on the last day with a “last chance!” type of headline. If it’s a general newsletter, maybe a week later (or not at all). You don’t want to resend every email.
  2. A/B test your subject lines. A good subject line can generate an additional + 5 – 7% increase (e.g. from 30% > 35 – 37%) in opens. Again, most email services can do this with a single click. This is typically only worthwhile once you have 500 – 1000+ subscribers; otherwise, there’s not a large enough sample size.
  3. Double-check the first 50 – 100 characters of the email. Basically the first two sentences. This is what pops up in the “preview” section of their email client. If neither this nor the subject line are compelling, they’re probably not opening the email.
  4. Train subscribers to click. Always have at least one link to click in your autoresponder and broadcast emails.
  5. Train subscribers to buy. Don’t give away only free stuff – or too much of it. Your unsubscribe rates will spike when you do ask them to purchase, and your click rates will be low.
  6. Send the “thanks” email on the last day of a launch or promo. This one’s simple, but wildly effective: when you’re running a limited time promo or launch, on the final day, send out an email with the subject line “thanks.” Remember our discussion on using “real” subject lines? Here’s one instance where it works. You kick off the email by thanking them for a great launch/promo, share some stats (readers especially love records), then add a mention that the deal hasn’t ended a la “if you haven’t picked up Drop Dead, you still have a little over 12 hours to grab it for the launch price of $2.99.” This blends a classic “last chance” hard-sell into a very soft-sell email and drives a ton of sales.
  7. Use your list for retargeting via Facebook. If you don’t know what this means, then don’t worry about it. This is different than the other tactics listed, as it’s exclusively used for selling books, not influencing open/click rates. You can reach subscribers who don’t open your emails (or don’t see them) via Facebook Ads by uploading your list as a custom audience.

What Should My Conversion & Open Rates Look Like?

The industry average open rates for music/musicians is 23%; media + publishing 22.8% (according to MailChimp). These are sad sack averages that you can trounce, however, by using the methods outlined in this guide.

  1. Landing page: for non-organic traffic (e.g. from Facebook Ads), aim for 30%+ conversion. Organic traffic should convert at 40%+.
  2. Autoresponder: aim for a 70%+ open rate for the first email. Click rate should be 40%+ (if you’re giving away a free novella). These will both drop significantly over the next emails in the sequence.
  3. Basic broadcast email: aim for an open rate of 30 – 35% from non-organic subs who bothered to actually download your initial freebie (e.g. the free novella); 45 – 60% open rate for organic subs. Click rates with news you’re sharing. I’d aim for a 10 – 20% click rate for a new release.

All of this data is supplied automatically by your email service provider. You should have separate lists or segments for your organic/non-organic subs (along with separate landing pages) so you can compare the relative stats.

Most people judge the quality of their list based on open rates and click rates. Then they work on increasing those numbers. These metrics don’t give you a complete snapshot of your engagement/list quality, however – ultimately the best metric is sales. If your list isn’t generating sales, then actual engagement is poor.

A very important note on optimization: make sure you’re actually getting enough traffic through the funnel before spending a bunch of time tweaking stuff. Stats get heavily skewed when you have 7 subs – like 100% of people are reading your emails, or 0%. Open/click rate data is largely useless until you have a 200+ subscribers.

What’s Next?

We’ll explore some simple optimization tricks critical to maximizing your sellthrough and newsletter subscribers in Part 10: The Ultimate Guide to Optimization.

Summary

  • A well-engaged list can help you get reviews, sell books at full price during launch and give you valuable feedback on your work.
  • Having a well-engaged email list is far more important than having a huge mailing list.
  • While open and click rates are useful, the ultimate measure of list engagement is sales.
  • Frequency: choose a frequency that’s appropriate for the amount of content you have to share. The true silver bullet is consistency. Pick a schedule and stick with it.
  • Content & tone: rely on your storytelling chops to make your email content more engaging. You have two options for tone – your natural voice, or whatever is expected in your genre.
  • Clean up non-openers/non-engaged subscribers to keep your email subscription costs down and click/open rates high.

Action Exercise

  1. Decide on your newsletter frequency, content, and tone going forward.
  2. Adjust your Welcome email and autoresponder to correctly set these expectations.