The Ultimate Guide to Writing Email Updates (Your Fans Actually Read)

The average person receives 147 emails every day.

When I first read that statistic, it seemed like total hooey. Almost 150 messages every day? Maybe fancypants famous people get that many, but definitely not me.

I was debating between feeling relieved or unloved, when suddenly, it hit me: I probably DO receive that much email every day.

Between spam, the latest sales at Hobby Lobby, updates from family and emails from our lovely indie author friends, the amount of mail adds up quickly!

The process of filtering through my emails has become so automatic, however, that I disregard at least half of those emails before even opening them.

I’d be willing to bet that you do the same.

With that in mind, would it surprise you to know that, as an indie author, your mailing list is your biggest asset?

Your Mailing List is Gold, Baby!

It’s true: more than website visitors, more than Twitter followers, more than Facebook likes or Pinterest repins, the amount of folks on your mailing list gives you an instant snapshot of the state of your fanbase.

Are you rolling your eyes? Maybe the thought of sending obnoxious email newsletters feels sleazy, or perhaps you’ve tried it before but haven’t had good results.

Bear with me. Forget everything you think you know about mailing lists and email updates, and let’s explore the easy, fun and *effective* side of email marketing.

1. Set Up Your List

Before we can create those awesome email updates, you have to have a mailing list, right? So, sign up for Mailchimp. The basic features are free and suit the needs of indie fiction authors nicely.

If you have a self-hosted website or WordPress blog, learn how to add a signup form to your site. If you’re on WordPress.com, it’s a little hackier, but can be done.

2. Encourage Fans to Join Your List

Now that we have a list, it’s time to add your readers! While this could be a whole post in and of itself (and probably will be eventually), the major actions that encourage readers to join your list are:

1. Giving something away (that your readers actually want).

When readers join your list, send them some sort of freebie as a “thank you.”

This could be a short story, excerpt, alternate POV piece — whatever. But make it short and awesome; something a reader could finish in a few hours or less. Think of this as your “audition piece.” If they like what they read, they’ll stick with you!

2. Creating an awesome, convincing signup page, then linking to it instead of your website’s homepage.

If this goes against your natural leaning, I understand, but here’s the deal: over half of the people who visit websites only view one page (that’s a stat from this site, but the pattern is similar across the web).

You know how it is: our attention spans are super-divided nowadays. Linking to your signup page directly:

  • Offers the visitor a peek into who you are and what you write.
  • Gives them a reason to entrust you with their email address (remember that freebie?).
  • Puts them on the road to becoming a fan.

The Checklist for Writing Fun, Effective Email Updates

Now that you have a list in place, it’s time to start interacting with those fans! Woot!

Timing

How often you send out your email updates is up to you, but my advice is this: send them as often as possible without sacrificing quality and value. I suggest weekly (gasp! I know!).

Don’t get overwhelmed. You don’t need to create exclusive content for every update. While that’s nice now and then, the format I’m about to share is tailor-made to point to content already on your website.

No matter what you decide, be consistent. Unless you’re getting close to launch time (when things get crazy), choose an update schedule and stick to it — this way, your fans used to seeing you in their inbox.

Look and Feel

When you create your email, your eyes will be bombarded with dozens of pretty themes to choose from.

Wanna hear a secret? I hate them all.

Seriously, I used to be all about email newsletters with those fancy colors and images, but no more!

Use the most bare-bones formatting you can find (here’s a stripped down template I made for Mailchimp and how to import it).

With this basic template in place, you can format your emails so they look like a regular email to a friend. Because, in a way, that’s exactly what you’re writing!

Subject Line

After you’ve selected your template, decide on a subject line. Think of this is a headline for your email – it’s that important.

To do this, first choose the point of your email. You’re not just sending out random updates, but using your emails to build relationships and encourage your fans to take some sort of action, such as:

  • Reading/commenting on a blog post
  • Leaving a review
  • Purchasing your book
  • Answering a question
  • Sharing an opinion

Choose one purpose for your email, a single action you want readers to take. This gives your email focus; the last thing you want is confusion!

After you decide on your action, compose a subject line that grabs your reader’s attention. You can use common headline-writing tactics, but be sure to throw in your own flair!

Caution! Whatever you do, don’t make your subject line “May 2012 Newsletter” or “Newsletter #5″ or “Author Namehere’s Newsletter.” There’s nothing fun-sounding or attention-grabbing about those!

Your Email’s Opening Line

Now we can move on to the email itself! First thing’s first: the opening line.

Most email providers (like Gmail) show the first sentence of an email in the inbox itself, so it’s important to sound personal and non-spammy. Some options:

  • If users share their name when they sign up for your mailing list, use that information here, like “Hi Toni!”
  • Use a typical opening you’d use in an email to a friend. We’re fans of “Hey there!” and “Happy [Day of Week]!” This is totally dependent, however, on your personality (and what your readers are familiar/comfortable with)!

The Body of Your Email

Write the body of your email like you’re writing to one person. While you’re writing, picture a single reader in your mind and write the email directly to him:

  • Write like you speak, NOT like you’re writing your novel. It’s okay — no one will be grading your grammar!
  • Use short paragraphs to break up your email. Long walls of text overwhelm readers!
  • Want a few bonus points? Read your email out loud!

Inserting Your Call to Action

Remember that single purpose we decided on before you started writing your email? Now it’s time to add it in!

  1. Add your call to action in at least two spots. Since most readers skim emails, it’s important to repeat yourself.
  2. Craft the link or action in a conversational way, like it’s a natural part of the email. Use “Click here to check out my short story” not simply “click here”

Add Your Closing

Like your opening, your closing line is up to your personal taste, but consider this excellent post on the “familiarity index” of different email closings.

PS: Don’t Forget the Post Script

Those fun asides commonly found at the end of letters and emails are actually the second most read part of your message!

While including a PS in every email could dilute its effectiveness, it is an excellent spot to restate your call to action or leave a closing thought.

Author Email Example

While it may seem like a lot to remember, seeing the concepts above in action makes the crafting engaging emails easy as pie. Here’s a sample I whipped up:

SUBJECT: NEW Halloween-y Short Story Inside (I’m eager to hear your thoughts!)

Hey there!

October is already here — are you breaking out the fall decorations? Even though there’s not the slightest hint of a chill in the air here in Florida, I’m already plotting out the design for my front porch Halloween display!

Believe it or not, Halloween is my favorite holiday. Everyone assumes that it’s Christmas (perhaps because of my awesome Christmas village), but Halloween is first on my list. Something about it signals the beginning of an exciting holiday season, and I’ve always been drawn to that.

Plus, you know, all the candy. I can’t lie, I’m a sucker for the candy (pardon the pun).

Anyways, I was struck by a bit of inspiration over the weekend, and whipped up a short story about new beginnings, old candy and the costumes we wear year-round. I’d love for you to check it out:
Click here to read ‘Did They Make All The Candy Corn in 1976?’

It’s a bit of a departure from my normal fare, so I’m interested to hear what you think. After you’ve read the story, would you leave  a short comment and share your thoughts (be honest!)?

I’ve been stressing over whether I should flesh it out, and your feedback will help a ton :-)
Click here to read the short story and leave a comment!

Thank you for taking the time to check it out and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

Happy October,
Toni Imnotanauthor

PS: Did I mention that the story involves a costume made completely out of candy corn? You know you can’t resist finding out more about that!

That’s all completely made up, of course, but it gives you an example of the principles I discussed above. The best part? It took me less than 10 minutes to write!

The Number One Rule of Emailing Your Fans

The biggest rule of mailing list etiquette is this: write emails that you would like to read. If it sounds boring to you, your readers will likely skip it: make those emails entertaining and action-oriented!

No matter how awesome your emails are, however, some folks WILL complain or unsubscribe — that’s okay. Don’t take it personally. Your real fans will stick with you!

Download the Super-Duper Author Email Checklist!

Even if you’re skeptical, give this style of email updates a try. It’s fun, fast and helps you build personal relationships with your fans. I’m so passionate about this stuff that I created a handy checklist to keep you on track!

Soon, you’ll be an emailing pro, interacting with your fans one-on-one — no sleazy feeling involved!

Talk Back

I’m curious: do you have a mailing list? Has it helped your indie career? Did the tips above give you any ideas or make it seem more do-able to you? Do you have other tricks to share? Let’s discuss in the comments!

  • http://heathersunseri.com Heather Sunseri

    I’ll definitely be stopping back by to see if anyone responds that they have done this successfully. I’d really like to try this and get it set up on my website. Email updates, even if every two weeks, sounds like a more intimate way to communicate with readers. And to encourate them to communicate back. I’ll be bookmarking this to come back to later and get started. Thank you for the info.

    • http://selfpublishingteam.com/ Toni @ Duolit

      You’re welcome, Heather! I hope you give it a try. Personally, we were killing ourselves trying to put out a traditional newsletter every month or so. The whole thing was a huge pain! Since we switched to doing something like this in March, however, emailing our awesome indie peeps has been way more fun and effective!

  • Katharina Gerlach

    I’ve got a list of 50 people so far. I don’t send regular emails because it feels like spamming to me, but I keep them informed on major events (like publications, open readings, reviews, book-tours). I once did a poll about the frequency for mails, and most people wanted one mail per month not more. I’m quite happy with my list. I have a click-through rate of 35-50% (which is quite good), but would like to grow it some more.

    • http://selfpublishingteam.com/ Toni @ Duolit

      Awesome, Katharina! That’s an awesome click-rate, and it’s perfect that you adapted the frequency to work for you and your fans. Every group is different, so it’s definitely worth experimenting to find out what works best for you.

  • http://ryancaseybooks.com/ Ryan Casey

    I’ve managed to build a list of 50 or so too, like Katharina. At first, I used to link my blogs to these email updates, but I decided to separate the two as I am well aware that although some people want blog content, whereas others just want notifications of new releases, and the like.

    Now, I use it solely to inform people of giveaways and new releases before anyone else. The main reason I do this is because I noticed a visible drop in click-throughs the more blog post updates I sent. Since making this change, the click-through rate has returned to a good standard again.

    Really, I think it’s about finding what works for you as an individual, and that’s why I really like this post. It’s so important to really ‘define’ the mailing list to fans – if it’s a place for regular blog updates, state so. If it’s a fortnightly writing tips newsletter, say that too. I’ve rebranded mine a ‘New Release Updates’ newsletter, so people know what they are getting. I have RSS links and a separate email subs list for those who would prefer to receive blog posts, so the choice is there.

    Great post, cheers!
    Ryan

    • http://selfpublishingteam.com/ Toni @ Duolit

      Thank you for your comment, Ryan, and you’re exactly right — defining your list to your fans is important! If you decide to switch things up, keep them in the loop so they know what to expect. Wonderful point!

  • http://twitter.com/LaurenClark_Bks Lauren Clark

    I DO have a mailing list but have only sent out one newsletter! I have to credit Laura Pepper Wu of 30 Day Books for getting me to do it! It’s amazing how having a little sign-up bonus helps people feel like they are getting something when they do enter the email on the ‘dotted line.’

    Great tips! xx, Lauren

    • http://selfpublishingteam.com/ Toni @ Duolit

      Thanks Lauren! I LOVE Laura’s post on mailing lists for authors — it’s an awesome one that I had to link to several times in this post. She rocks!

    • laurapepwu

      Awww, thanks both of ya lovelies! I was just about to write what a great post this is. Lauren, you are rocking your mailing list, and have a great gift to giveaway. Now you need to send more newsletters out – I love hearing from you!

      I have been focusing on my weekly newsletter since May and I have SO much fun writing it! Your point about ‘write an email you would like to read’ is spot on, Toni. Fab post.

    • http://selfpublishingteam.com/ Toni @ Duolit

      Thanks Laura! Isn’t it amazing how, once you find a format you enjoy, how much easier it is to keep up with writing email updates?! I’m constantly amazed at how much I actually look forward to writing those emails — mainly because I know I’m going to get to hear from all our awesome indie friends in return!

  • http://twitter.com/PaulSalvette Paul Salvette

    Toni,

    Excellent article.

    Our email list is extremely important to our small business. When we got started I boneheadedly thought “Who still receives news via email?” and tried to focus more on social media. However, a lot of people, who are often more older/mature, can actually be put off by the informality of Facebook/Twitter and prefer person-to-person communication through email. We kludged together some code that sends out the email or newsletter with a personalized heading “Dear Mr/Mrs. xxx”. The list of emails we have compiled is the first place we look when rolling out a new service.

    We have a simple HTML template with small images for our newsletter, but the bare-bones approach sounds like it could work as well. Great article. My only suggestion is not starting an email with “Hey There!”, but I’m sort of old-school.

    • http://selfpublishingteam.com/ Toni @ Duolit

      Hi Paul! Thanks so much for you comment. And, no worries, I totally felt the same way about emails (as recently as earlier this year *headdesk*). Thanks for your suggestion, too, about the opening — it definitely underscores the importance of knowing your audience and what feels familiar/comfortable to them :-)

  • http://twitter.com/yeseniavargas32 Yesenia Vargas

    What an awesome post, Toni! This is something I’ve been wanting to know more about, and you do a great job of summing it up. I’m working on creating a monthly newsletter myself. I’m thinking of how to tailor it for both target market readers and writers. I think maybe subscribers could check off boxes for what kind of stuff they’re interested in? Such as: receive blog posts, receive book book updates, get extra writing tips? Thanks again for these awesome tips!

    • http://selfpublishingteam.com/ Toni @ Duolit

      Some stuffy types will advise differently, but I think any additional segmenting you can do when your reader signs up will increase the effectiveness of your email updates. Having a checkbox is an awesome idea, Yesenia! :-)

  • Jenn Crowell

    This is seriously one of the most helpful articles I’ve read on email marketing. It seems so daunting to do — and I’ve been putting off establishing a “newsletter,” as it feels so corporate when I’m just one creative human, but your advice helps me to imagine myself sending out emails that keep it real and approachable.

    • http://selfpublishingteam.com/ Toni @ Duolit

      Thank you, Jenn! I’m so glad this made you want to start using email to engage your fans. :-)