Running a Successful Newsletter

By E.A. Aymar

Tweets flash by. Facebook only shows some of your posts to your readers. Most readings draw small crowds, and are generally geared toward local audiences. Direct mail is costly.

But everyone who subscribes to your newsletter is guaranteed to receive it – whether they open it, of course, is a different matter. There’s no question that one of the best ways to reach people is through a newsletter, but how do you put one together that doesn’t have people searching for an “unsubscribe” option?

We asked the folks behind three of today’s best newsletters for their thoughts:

Sarah Weinman (The Crime Lady) is editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s, published by the Library of America in 2015, and of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories From the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, published by Penguin in 2013. She is also News Editor for Publishers Marketplace, where she works on Publishers Lunch, the industry’s essential daily read with more than 40,000 subscribers. Her reviews and articles have appeared in many print and web publications, including the New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street JournalBuzzFeed, the New Republic, theWashington PostMaclean’sHazlitt, The New York PostVulture, The Globe & Mail, and more. 

Abby (Crime by the Book) has been a crime fiction fan ever since she first discovered her mom’s childhood collection of Nancy Drew books hiding in a dusty box in their attic. After going on one adventure with the strawberry-blonde sleuth, she was hooked, and has been exploring the best (and worst) in crime fiction ever since. 

Alex Segura is a novelist and comic book writer. He is the author of the Miami crime novels featuring Pete Fernandez: Silent City, Down the Darkest Street, and Dangerous Ends, via Polis Books. He has also written a number of comic books, including the best-selling and critically acclaimed Archie Meets KISS storyline, the “Occupy Riverdale” story, Archie Meets the Ramones and the upcoming The Archies one-shot. He lives in New York with his wife and son. He is a Miami native.

(Ed. note: To read Alex Segura’s story of how he was first published, click HERE.)

How long ago did you start your newsletter?

Crime by the Book: I started the newsletter in its first iteration this past fall. It’s gone through a number of evolutions since then as I’ve tried to find the best formula to suit my readers.

The Crime Lady: New Year’s Day 2015. I didn’t think too deeply about it, but I knew I wanted to replicate what was good about my old blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind – the recommendations and links part — without committing to the same frequency, since I had burned out after seven years of posts. 

Stuff and Nonsense: Without checking the site, I think it’s been a few years. It was very much inspired by my own reading habits. I found myself listening to a lot of podcasts and also reading newsletters – specifically Sarah’s excellent The Crime Lady. It struck me as a cool way to connect with fans and discuss not only what was happening for me as an author, but what other things I was enjoying in terms of books, movies and other forms of entertainment. 

What major changes have you implemented over time?

The Crime Lady: See the “didn’t think too deeply” part. It’s a single-voice newsletter, with occasional exceptions — I asked some critic/reviewer friends to chime in with books they were looking forward to reading — so I pretty much do whatever I want. Which has solidified [it] into being musings about crime fiction & true crime, recommendations of books, film/TV, podcasts, and links.  

Crime by the Book: My newsletter actually started as a more straightforward “review alert” system – I’d send out a quick email blast after each new post went up on my site. It quickly became clear that this wasn’t the best way to deliver information to my readers – that’s just too many emails clogging up someone’s inbox. Thanks to reader feedback and a willingness to experiment on my end, I’ve successfully settled on a once-weekly email delivered to readers on Saturday mornings.

Stuff and Nonsense: When it launched, Stuff & Nonsense was pretty much an author update with a few non-writerly things sprinkled in. I’d talk about the comics and books I was reading, shows and movies I’d seen and from time to time I’d chime in with thoughts on publishing. I’d also link to notable stories that hit on topics that interested me – crime fiction, publishing, true crime, comics, entertainment, some sports, Miami. A few months in, I decided to shake things up and start interviewing authors, which is when I think the newsletter started to stand out and gel. I generally tended to keep the interviews light and easy – a quick way to spotlight an author I admired and to plug their book but also touch on whatever stuff they’d been enjoying, too, and to give their own shout outs to work that inspired them. I had the pleasure of talking to a lot of great writers, including Rob Hart, Dave White, Lori Rader-Day, Erica Wright, and Melissa Ginsburg, to name a few. I still do interviews, though – shocker! – I find it tougher with a kid to carve out the time. But I do mean to get back to it. One recent development, tied directly to time being scarce, was that I started running mini-essays by authors. They each run around 250-300 words and cover a variety of topics, from Steph Post talking about Florida crime to Dave White talking about the challenges he faces writing a long-running PI series. I like this as a sometimes-alternative to an interview because it gives the writer a blank slate and lets them talk to the reader directly. It also gives the readers of the newsletter a sense of their writing style, which to me is the best way to entice someone to buy your book.

Aside from word-of-mouth, what’s been the best way to drive up subscribers to your newsletter?

Crime by the Book: The CBTB newsletter actually came second to my site’s social media presence. Crime by the Book started on Instagram and has grown from there. In searching for the best ways to connect my social media audience to more longform crime fiction content, I developed my website and newsletter. I’ve found that having an active social media presence continues to be the best way to drive readers to my newsletter – Instagram in particular has been my largest growth platform, and I’ve been blown away by the willingness of my Instagram audience to engage with in-depth crime fiction content, delivered by newsletter.

Stuff and Nonsense: I’ve found social media and social shares to be very helpful. I see a spike whenever I do a particularly buzz-worthy interview, and it leads to a few subscribers. But the newsletter game is one of tiny peaks and valleys. Every blue moon I’ll see a notable uptick, but it’s mostly about inching upward.

The Crime Lady: I sort of don’t care? I am happy with my subscriber base but I do blessedly little to increase the numbers, because if you don’t want to read it, then you don’t have to. The archives are public which means more people read than subscribe, I presume.  

How valuable do you consider newsletters in regards to selling books?

Crime by the Book: Extremely! I have huge respect for trade reviewers and book critics, but there’s something undeniably selling about platforms that connect readers to other types of book coverage. My newsletter allows me to talk candidly with my audience and maintain that organic, reader-to-reader connection that has allowed CBTB to grow as quickly as it has. And, in a more practical sense, newsletters are the perfect way to keep your readers apprised of upcoming releases, sales, news, and more – you have a direct connection with readers that just can’t be replicated.

The Crime Lady: I think they are quite valuable because newsletters mean you have “names,” meaning people who are truly interested in what you have to say. Keep in mind though that The Crime Lady, for better or for worse, has an industry-oriented feel because of my roots as an industry insider-type person. So I’ll talk about stuff and it will reach people who may then reach other people in this degrees-removed sort of way.  

Stuff and Nonsense: I think it’s a good amplification tool, when used properly. No one wants to get an earful of promo in their inbox. They get that already. A good newsletter, and again, Sarah’s is the gold standard, informs and entertains. Only after reading it do you realize the writer was also promoting their own work. In addition to my “standard” newsletters, I do reserve the right to send out more promo-centric stuff, though I do it apologetically and I hope my readers understand. I think the best way to serve up my own book promo is by pairing it with other stuff, so it’s not just 500-words of me begging for you to review my book on Amazon. It makes it more interesting for me and hopefully the reader, too. 

What’s been your newsletter’s best moment?

Stuff and Nonsense: I think, overall, it’s been showcasing the work of so many great authors that might not have been as well known. Authors like Wright, Ginsburg, Hart and others, like SW Lauden and Angel Colon, are names deserving more recognition. I’m not saying my newsletter tipped them over the edge or served as any kind of turning point, but I’m happy if I’m able to help promote the work of writers that merit it by writing great stuff. Personally, as a fan, I was ecstatic to get the chance to interview Laura Lippman, who continues to be a huge influence on my own crime fiction.  

Crime by the Book: In all honesty, my “best moment” is redefined each week when I read through email responses to the newsletter. I genuinely love the connection I’ve been able to establish with my audience, and I’m always keen to hear what’s working for them, what books they’re finding through the newsletter, and of course listen to any suggestions they have for additional content to incorporate into my weekly emails.

The Crime Lady: My favorite newsletters are those with some sort of original content, which is why I don’t do it often. Like the piece I wrote on Susan Berman’s novels when The Jinx was airing. 

What’s something that someone starting a newsletter should avoid?

The Crime Lady: I don’t have a good answer for this question. I only know what works for me: talking about what I love in the hopes that others might love it too, and being gently critical/pointed about things as necessary, but not too often. 

Crime by the Book: Don’t start your newsletter without social media. It takes time and commitment to grow your social media presence, but it’s invaluable in driving subscribers to your newsletter. And beyond that, it’s just a fantastic way to engage with like-minded crime readers!

Stuff and Nonsense: Don’t think of it as a means to an end. It should be fun. I write my newsletters as if I were writing an email to a friend, recapping what’s been going on, commenting on things that interest me and sometimes sharing stuff about other writers. If you’re doing it to sell books, that’s fine, just be mindful that a good author newsletter isn’t going to change your publishing career. Do a newsletter and make it something you like to do because of X or Y. If you’re doing it to “market” yourself, you’ve already lost. 

Aside from any hosting fees, do you put money into your newsletter in regards to growth and/or content?

Crime by the Book: No, I don’t!

Stuff and Nonsense: Nope! It’s something I write for free and for fun. 

The Crime Lady: TinyLetter is free to host, but if I get past 5,000 subscribers I would have to pay in. Eventually I’ll migrate to a proper website, but am holding off till the last possible moment! 

What other newsletters should a fan of crime fiction follow?

Crime by the Book: I’m a huge fan of UK-based website Crime Fiction Lover, and they launched a newsletter this spring. I always love their books coverage, and their newsletter is the perfect way to keep up with crime fiction from across the pond.

The Crime Lady: Stuff & Nonsense by Alex SeguraThey don’t update anymore but Crime Syndicate, hosted by Reyhan Harmanci & Michelle Dean, is one I wish would come back (but not to the detriment of their current projects.) Is The Rap Sheet a newsletter again? If not, maybe it ought to be.

Stuff and Nonsense: Sarah’s is excellent. I like the newsletters that accompany many podcasts, like Crime Writers On and Criminal. I’m also really fond of crime comic book writer Ed Brubaker’s From the Desk of Ed Brubaker newsletter. I’m a pretty religious reader of the Sunday Long Read, which isn’t crime per se, but often contains some great, curated true crime content.

Thanks to Abby, Alex, and Sarah!

E.A. Aymar‘s latest thriller is You’re As Good As Dead. He also writes a monthly column for the Washington Independent Review of Books, and is the Managing Editor of The Thrill Begins. His short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a number of top crime fiction publications. Aymar is also involved in a collaboration with DJ Alkimist, a NY and DC-based DJ, where his stories are set to her music. For more information about that project, visit www.eaalkimist.com.

 

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Comments

  1. Jenny Milchman

    What a great dialogue about three terrific sources! Sarah, I think I might’ve let you know how much “Confessions” meant to me when I was just beginning to write crime fiction. Glad to discover Abby’s newsletter. And Alex, if you are looking for guest authors next spring, I would love to contribute a post about wilderness crime fiction.

  2. Alex Segura

    Jenny – sure! I’d love to have you. Let’s talk.

  3. Author
    EA Aymar

    I’m bias, but I really liked this column. And I’m really happy we got Sarah and Abby on the site! (We’ve had Alex on before BIG DEAL).

  4. Carmen Amato

    Signing up for all three of these! I agree that a good newsletter is an excellent way to reach mystery readers. I’ve had both success and fun with my newsletter called Mystery Ahead. There’s always an interview with a mystery author, book reviews, and mystery writing protips to give a little behind-the-scenes flavor. Boosts my own book sales and I get a ton of reader email after every edition.

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