Making a List
So, here I am, a minor author with some stories sold. I have a novel approaching publishability. I have enough stories to put out a collection.
This posting is the article I wish someone had written for me to read, a primer on author newsletter logistics. As with most learning, I like to start with the big picture, the context.
While I like to think I know something about writing, I knew next to nothing about publishing or marketing. So I bought a book about how to self-publish. The over-arching advice, rule number one, the bare minimum thing every self-publishing author must do--according to this book anyway--is build a list of email addresses for a newsletter.
Unless you're fairly famous, your books don't sell themselves. It's trivial to upload a file on Amazon and call yourself published, but after that? Who exactly will buy that book? The short answer is: almost no one. Even your potential fans won't know to look for it.
Of course any self-published author must do their own marketing. For some people that means giveaways. For others it means Facebook ads. But apparently the cheapest, most effective thing to do is send out a newsletter to your registered fans. The 'conversion' of newsletters to purchases runs pretty high, so they say.
I'm a technical guy (Computer Science MS), but I didn't understand how it all works. It's not rocket science, but I found it interesting to dig into. Author newsletters are a big segment of the email business. There are companies that are dedicated to managing newsletter subscriber lists, creating snazzy looking mailings, and even transactional stuff like giveaways.
Step one is to have a website or webpage somewhere from which you can collect email addresses. It's a simple idea, but there's a big difference between posting static content for readers, and quite another to implement transactions which require data storage and retrieval. I used to work in IT, so the idea of setting up a server with a database and coding transactions was a painful thought. It might be more painful to me because I know, in detail, what it takes to do and maintain. Imagine how your less technically inclined writers would feel about it. Even if you're clever and maybe think up a cheap way to code it, what if you're successful? Then the volume of those transactions shoots up. Will your little kludge of a system scale up to meet demand? And how much of your time to you want to spend maintaining and monitoring those systems? You get the idea, not fun to even think about.
Like all common tasks that no one wants to do, there are people you can pay to do it for you. You've probably heard of MailChimp. They are one of the companies that does all this email related stuff I'm talking about. MailerLite is another one, the one I decided to use.
Collection of email addresses is achieved by embedding a form from a mail service into a webpage. In my case, I log into MailerLite and use their GUI builder to create a page to collect email addresses. Really I only have to customize one of theirs; they provide templates because it's the basis of a ton of their business. Once you layout the page, your mail service gives you code to embed in your webpage, literally. You cut and paste that code into your webpage/website. In my case, I use Weebly to host my website, so I go into Weebly's GUI builder and insert 'header code' and 'control code'. The header code is for establishing page-scoped CSS setup. The control-scope code is to actually manifest the mail-service interface (screen/page/popup). Then when the user goes to that page of your website, the embedded form shows up. That gives the user a chance to enter an email address and click a button to send it to your mail service. In my case, if I log into MailerLite and go to 'Subscribers', I'll see the newly entered email address.
Simple, right? Conceptually, yes, but you do have to figure out your mail service's interface and your web-hosting company's interface to embed code. In my case, when the form popped up on my Weebly site, the paragraph ( "<p>" in HTML) content was the wrong style. Some sneaky combination of CSS settings polluted the embedded page. I had to spend a few hours trying to figure out exactly what bit of code to tweak and how. Unfortunately, MailerLite doesn't directly support Weebly. They have 'integrations' which is to say partnerships among these companies. So MailerLite plays with Wix fairly nicely and Weebly seems to play nicely with MailChimp, but MailerLite and Weebly gave me some grief.
That's the kind of thing that would put off a non-techincal author. Imagine someone like that having to debug the form embedded on their website. It's one of a thousand little things that pushes authors towards traditional publishing or hiring a 'web guy.'
I got through it, cursing a little. As usual, I'm happy to have done it because now I learned some important things in the process. At that point, users of my website could go to the newsletter page, enter their email address, and those addresses would pile up in my MailerLite account. In my case, when I publish short stories, I get to tell readers my website URL. The idea is that they get a tickle out of a story, go to my website, looking for more and signing up for my newsletter which will hopefully turn them into a book purchaser some day in the future.
Did I mention I've never sent out a newsletter yet?
It turns out you need email service to send out newsletters. Yeah, I know, you have an email, right? You don't need simply an email address, you need your own email domain. That may sound like a big deal, but if you have a website, you likely already own a domain. By 'email service' I mean that the DNS (domain name servers) entry of your website domain (e.g. lbspillers.com) will now contain the records that direct email correspondence to servers willing to take them.
Strictly speaking, you don't need your own email domain. The thing is, that free email services don't want to do bulk mailings for you and a lot of email client software gives the stink eye to emails coming from those free services. How many emails does it take to make Gmail balk? I don't know. A lot, I suspect. But more importantly, how many people will take your email seriously? There are authentication protocols like DKIM and DMARC that email clients can use to decide if an email claiming to be from you is authentic. Using your own email domain allows your email service to participate in these kinds of authentication protocols, ensuring that no one thinks your newsletters are spam or from a spoofed address.
Cursing again, I went to my internet domain seller, the people who manage my DNS entries, and discovered that basic email service with one glorious mailbox would cost me $11 a year. For that price, I was willing to get with the program. I purchased email service and spent a few hours setting up my one email email@example.com.
Now I am finally positioned to send out newsletters. Even better, those newsletters will have the very professional looking "unsubscribe" links that will let users opt out. That's not just a nice feature, but required unless you want to be accused of sending out spam emails. It's another little thing that your mail service takes care of for you.
Did I mention that MailerLite is free until you reach 1,000 subscribers? Yeah, pretty cool. So my total cost for setting up for author newsletters so far is $11 for the year (renews at $14…it was a sale) and some fairly aggravating hours learning the nitty-gritty details of all these vendor interfaces.
Now I just need readers.
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