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Author Newsletters: Why All The Spam?

Author newsletters... we need to have a talk. Yes, me, I'm talking to you to (what?)

If you've ever gone down the rabbit hole of subscribing to author newsletters, you don't need me to tell you that it can quickly start to feel like we're taking your inbox and abusing it until you have no choice but to unsubscribe. So I wanted to talk about my own changing decisions with how I handle my newsletter, why authors send you so many emails, and how I think the whole newsletter dynamic of what authors like myself do is changing.

First of all, let me go ahead and just acknowledge that I've had some weeks where I might send as many as four newsletters, and there might possibly even be a week in there where I sent more. Before I get into all the reasons for newsletters, I just wanted to point out that about a month ago, I committed to getting as close to two newsletters per week except when I have a new release of my own to let everyone know about.

But why do we send so many newsletters? Are we really that anxious to tell you about the three or sometimes more books that we personally endorse every single day of the week, and in the case of some authors, multiple times per day?

The answer is that one of the oldest and most effective (the whole effective part is rapidly changing though, and I'll explain why) forms of advertising is a newsletter swap. For example, when I know I have a book launching around the 18th of March, I'll start reaching out to authors to set up newsletter swaps. Simply put, it's a "I'll send you to my NL if you send me to yours" kind of deal. The problem?

When authors get desperate to make their new book have every fighting chance of doing well it can, they can tend to get carried away. They may set up swaps with authors they've never heard of just to get those extra few buys during their promotional period. I know I've been guilty of this myself, especially earlier in my career, so I'm not pointing fingers.

This is a problem because the basic premise of a newsletter is supposed to be that you are getting personally tailored recommendations from an author you trust. If you like my books, you should feel like books that show up in my newsletter have at least gone through some sort of review process, even if it's just a glance at the blurb, cover, and knowledge of the author's past work. In reality, you're essentially getting spammed with a list of everyone who agreed to promote the author.

When I first started in 2016, newsletters were much less rampant. Authors were more picky about who they would agree to send, and if you were a new name on the scene, you didn't even need to bother asking a successful author for a swap. A big part of the reason was that no author with a mailing list of 20,000 people is going to want to "trade" a swap with you and your list of 500 or even 4,000 subscribers.

A few things happened to shake this up. One was the popularization of newsletter building giveaways. Some services popped up and some authors also banded together to pool resources and create some sort of big grand prize giveaway. They'd used pooled resources and their own newsletters to promote the giveaway, and the requirement for entry was agreeing to give your email to every author who was participating. In many cases, these giveaways could include as many as thirty authors or more. I know the first few I heard about got every author who participated as many as 10,000 subscribers for as little as $50. Maybe this sounds fine at first glance. After all, if 10,000 people agreed to give away their emails, they must be interested in getting promotions, right?

The problem is there's no way to differentiate between legitimate "organic" (meaning they signed up with no incentive) subscribers and incentivized subscribers. So now all those bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young authors were approaching more well-known authors with their newsletters of 15,000 subscribers or even 25,000 subscribers and asking for swaps. It's a lot harder to say no to that, no matter how successful you are.

This all started around December of 2016 and started speeding up gradually through the beginning of 2017. By some point around July of 2017, it wasn't uncommon to hear authors talking about a "promo stack" (a short period of days where they book almost all of their paid promotions in an effort to catapult the book to high ranks and hope it sticks there) included as many as thirty or fifty swaps.

It became publicly shared strategy in the indie author community, especially among aspiring new writers who were looking for their first big break. All you had to do was pay for a few newsletter building giveaways, and then set up as many swaps as you possibly could.

Around this time, everyone I knew, myself included, gradually began increasing the number of swaps we did. Many authors I knew were starting to change their oldschool opinions on newsletters. Gone was the idea that a newsletter should be a fiercely protected commodity, that it was an author's number one asset. You no longer heard about authors who only sent out one or two newsletters per month. Now everyone was sending several a week, and some of the most aggressive authors were sending as many as three per *day*.

You've probably already guessed where this is headed. If you haven't, let me tell you how it went.

Three big problems were forming. One was that the pool of subscribers was largely shared between authors. Say, for example, that there are 60,000 unique emails between all the indie authors (most authors have a list size around 10-20k, so I'm just guessing on this number). Out of the 60,000, let's also say that 30,000 of those emails are people who only signed up because they wanted to win a prize, and they just haven't bothered unsubscribing from everyone, or they abandoned the email. That would mean only half of the subscribers in the entire pool are actual willing readers who want to buy the books we're emailing them about.

So problem number one is that if you set up thirty newsletter swaps and did the popular thing of adding up the number of subscribers for each of the thirty newsletters sending you out, you might say "I'm going out to 300,000 people next week!". In reality, those thirty newsletters could potentially be going to the same 20 or 25,000 people. You might not even be touching the half of the pool that is willing and wants to see recommendations.

Problem number two is that authors were too tempted by the large number of swaps available, and we undermined the trust of our subscribers. So on one hand, our subscribers were getting "suggestions" for books that were train-wrecks by first-time writers who only made it into the newsletter because they had a 15,000 person newsletter they bought for $100. The other problem was that the only way to send out thirty swaps is to increase the frequency of your newsletter, meaning inboxes were getting more and more stuffed with newsletters that were becoming less and less meaningful.

Authors also started selling spots in their newsletter. Some charged (and still charge) exorbitant fees like $300 for a single send, while others charge per click (the going rate is $0.20 per click). Most newsletters get between 100-500 clicks for a book, meaning a paid newsletter spot can be worth about $100, so you can see why authors get tempted to start selling these spots, even if it is likely degrading the trust of subscribers with every questionable feature.

The final problem? At some point, the reaction of authors was to start demanding a "solo". That meant they didn't want to be one of five or even one of two books you were recommending in your newsletter. They wanted to be the star attraction with no competition. Authors who thought of themselves as having more valuable list would demand to be sent as a solo. Newer authors would demand it too if they had bought a big enough list.

So now instead of trying to send thirty people out in a month, authors were also having to try to figure out how to send twenty or so of those thirty on their own day.

All of this came to a head with many authors sending newsletters almost every day. The worst offenders were sending three newsletters per day. Some of the less moral authors were also developing a practice of splitting their newsletter into segments, so they could still send you "proof" that they emailed you out, but they were actually just sending you to some segment of their list they decided was okay to spam into oblivion.

The result? Newsletters don't work as well anymore. People don't click as much. People don't subscribe as often. Personally, I don't blame them.

In the old days, successful authors relied almost entirely on their newsletter to launch a new release. They could send out a single newsletter to their readers and get 500-1000 purchases in a day just from their fans. A result like that would propel a book immediately into the top 50 on Amazon where it'd have a great chance to get seen and stay up there if it was a good product.

I can't speak for every other author out there, but I know my own newsletter gets me about 50-80 purchases. That's not even close to enough to get the book visibility, which means I have to jump into the ever-deepening pool of paid advertising through Facebook and Amazon, which is a whole different story that I'll be sure to make a post about in the coming days.

It's kind of a grim tale, now that I've written it all out and look back, but it's the truth. Indie authors did what people do best. We found something good, and we got greedy, abusing and using it up so recklessly that we left behind smoking ruins.

All I can do personally is try to learn from what happened. I mentioned at top of this post that I was reducing the frequency of my NLs, which now I can explain means I've also drastically reduced the number of authors I agree to send. I won't lie and say I read every book I recommend, but I will say that my new and current standard is to only send books from authors I trust, and from authors I'm fairly sure haven't dipped into the darker side of publishing tactics that I'll also get into in another post. So stay tuned, and hey, maybe you can subscribe to my newsletter! Just kidding, but no... seriously. Please subscribe. I promise I won't abuse you! There's a little button at the top of the page? Okay. I'll stop.

Keep an eye out of my next post! It's going to be juicy.

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