Newsletter 101: Tips on how to build, grow, and monetize an email list for writers of all genres and formats.
As a writer, do you need an email list?
The answer is, yes. Always.
If I could go back in time and change one thing in my writing journey, I’d have started building my email list sooner. I only actively focused on building my newsletter in 2020, after more than five years of writing online.
If you’re reading this, don’t make the same mistake as I did.
No matter whether you’re just starting out or you’ve written thousands of blog posts and published more than a couple of books, you need a mailing list.
But why send out emails when you can write articles? And who would even want to subscribe to your mailing list?
If you’re pondering these questions, this article is just right for you. Read on for everything you need to know before starting a newsletter, how to go about building a subscriber base, and what differentiates newsletters from your regular blog posts.
Part One: What Makes a Newsletter So Important
The popular short video app TikTok had a user base of 200 million+ people in India. And then one fine day, the app was banned in the country. The 1.2 million TikTok content creators in India not only lost millions of fans but also their livelihood. As creator Shivani Kapila quoted, the ban on TikTok felt like all the hard work over the past two years was gone.
You might have written on several platforms and gathered an audience. But if those platforms suddenly disappear and no longer allow you to publish your articles, where would your readers find you?
You might have written books, but if your readers want to learn more about you as a person, where should they go?
The answer to both the questions is your mailing list.
When you leave a link at the end of each published blog post or at the back cover of your books, you invite your readers for a chance to connect with you on a more intimate level.
You give them the option of letting you into their “digital home”, aka, their email inboxes. Sending them periodic emails and giving them the option to have a one-on-one conversation with you by hitting “reply” is a powerful way to turn your casual readers into fans (more on that later).
If you aren’t convinced yet, here are some more reasons why every writer needs a newsletter:
You are your own boss
While writing for online publications or magazines, you might have come across an editor with whom you could never get along well. They might have asked you to tone down your language, to only talk about certain topics, and in general, might have taken your individuality away.
When you write a newsletter, you bypass all these middle layers. It’s the easiest way of getting your voice across to your readers directly.
You don’t need the approval of an editorial team.
You don’t need to make sure your voice matches a particular theme.
You can write what you want and send it to your readers immediately.
In essence, you’re your own boss.
The connection with readers is intimate
When your email subscribers receive your newsletter, they won’t feel like they are reading a post that’s available for everyone on the internet to see. They know it’s a special community they are a part of, and this alone makes them more inclined to read your emails.
At the end of each email, you can add a small prompt that forces the reader to think and encourage them to reply to the mail. They know this isn’t a comment on a public platform and their message is for your eyes only. This encourages them to be their true selves. You can imagine how strong a connection such openness will help you build.
It keeps you accountable
Often, when you’re writing on a platform that has hundreds of other writers, you’re just one in several, and no one would really miss you if you suddenly stop writing.
But when you send out your newsletter every week, your readers know what to expect from you and when.
It might be hard to establish a routine in the beginning, but as your readership grows and you make them a commitment, you’ll feel bad about letting them down. After you set up a rhythm, people are going to miss your writing and ask you when they can expect the next email from you.
This feeling is empowering, and it’s the most effective way of forcing yourself to write regularly without relying on external sources of motivation.
Bonus: It can become your most valuable income stream
Your newsletter can be monetized in two interesting ways.
- Subscriptions: Platforms like Substack, Letterdrop, Revue, etc. let writers charge a monthly subscription fee from their readers to keep receiving emails. This can be a simple, yet, sure-shot way of earning directly from your end consumer.
- Sponsorships: If you find brands whose mission you resonate with, you can collaborate with them to write sponsored posts. This will not only introduce your subscribers to more interesting companies but will also help you earn some money from the sponsorships. Swapstack helps you do just that: connects you with hundreds of brands you can choose from and request an introduction with — to monetize your newsletter and nurture possibilities for potential brand collaborations.
In addition, your email subscribers are the first ones to receive information regarding any new product or service you launch. You can convert them into your first buyers by making them an offer (usually a discount or a pre-launch benefit) they can’t refuse.
Part Two: How to Build A Newsletter
Now that you’re convinced that having your own email list is the best way to build an engaged audience, how to go about building one?
To have a successful email newsletter list, you need two things:
The right tool
An email list doesn’t mean you’ll have to personally type out all the emails, cc or bcc them, and hit send.
You’ll need a third-party application like Mailchimp, ConvertKit, MailerLite, or Substack that collects people’s email addresses and send emails to hundreds, even thousands of people at once without having to type out each email address over and over again.
A place to collect emails
You’ll need someplace to host a sign-up form. You can do that on your own website or social media platforms. The easiest way to do this is to add a sign-up link at the bottom of every article you publish.
If you’re more active on social media, you can keep talking about your email list every once in a while so the people know you have one and can sign up if they wish to.
If you write books, you can put a sign-up link on your e-book or a QR code on the back cover of your paperback so your readers can directly sign up to start receiving emails from you.
Part Three: Taking the Plunge
You’ve decided you need a newsletter and can’t wait to start building one. So, how do you go ahead and take the plunge?
Step one: Get a good emailing service
As mentioned before, there are several emailing services, each with its own set of pros and cons.
Before selecting one, it’s important that you spend a few moments thinking about your requirements and doing some research, so you can find one that is best suited for your needs.
Step two: Create your call to action
Your call to action (or CTA) is the prompt that will ask readers to sign up for your email list.
Once you sign up for an emailing service, you will receive a link that you can use on other platforms. To make it more attractive to potential email subscribers, you need to have an interesting CTA.
Here are some ideas that might help:
- Offer a free ebook. If you’re a non-fiction writer, you can compile 5 or 6 of your highest-performing posts and make them into an ebook that your subscribers will get for free. If you’re a fiction writer, you can offer a short story or the first few chapters of your new novel. Either way, set your sign-up link such that every time a new reader clicks on it, they will be signed up for your email list and will also receive the free ebook in their inboxes. For example, James Clear offers chapter 1 of his New York Times bestselling book, Atomic Habits, for free when people subscribe to his email list.
- Offer a free mini-course. Another great way to get more readers to join is to offer a mini-course spanning anywhere between 3 to 10 days. You can set your emailing tool in such a way that every new subscriber gets an automated series of emails for the next few days.
- Offer an attractive freebie. If ebooks or mini-courses sound too overwhelming, you can make a list of good habits, or maybe a list of book recommendations of a particular genre. You can also offer a checklist or a cheat sheet related to your niche.
- Mention the benefits of joining your newsletter. If you can’t think of a freebie to offer, you can mention what the subscribers will get by joining your newsletter. Bestselling author Mark Manson invites readers to join his newsletter by saying, “Each week, I send out three potentially life-changing ideas. Join millions of readers around the world.”
- Focus on the community. If you’re not sure of what freebie you can offer, you can always focus on the community and the kind of impact your newsletter will be having. For example, body positivity advocate and author Mary Jelkovsky invites people to join her community by saying, “Join a community of empowered women and learn to love yourself unconditionally.”
- Focus on the message. Another interesting way to entice new readers to subscribe to your mailing list is to highlight the message your newsletter has and what benefits they can expect by joining. Bestselling author James Altucher does an excellent job of this by writing, “Will you be 1% better today? Will you choose yourself?” And instead of the more generic “Sign up now” or “Join today” message, Altucher’s sign-up button reads “Yes, yes I will.”
While choosing a CTA, it’s important to keep in mind the niche you’re trying to build and what tone your newsletter will have. It might be easy to find other authors’ CTAs tempting and use something like they’re using. But really think about your motive for starting a newsletter and choose something accordingly.
If you eventually plan to sell courses, starting with a mini-course as a freebie might be a good idea.
If you have written or plan to write books, starting with the first few chapters or a short article or story aligning with the message of your upcoming book would make for an excellent freebie.
Remember that the freebie has to offer enough value in itself so you don’t run the risk of sounding too spammy.
If you’re just starting out and now sure where you’ll be in the next few years, you can be honest and simply say “Join my email list to stay in touch.” Several successful authors have reached their first 100 subscribers using a simple CTA, and later on, changing it to something more attractive as their audience grew.
Step three: Write a welcome message
If you have a freebie, you will of course need to generate an automated email that will give the readers a link where they can download their ebook.
If you’re planning a mini-course, you’ll have an email drip campaign where your subscribers will get a series of emails over a set time.
Even then (and especially if you’re not offering a freebie), you’ll need a welcome message to set the tone and let the readers know what they can expect from your emails.
Here’s how you can go about writing a welcome email that stands out:
- Introduce yourself. Several times, readers find something interesting while skimming on the internet, click on sign-up links, and later forget whose emails they signed up for. That’s why it’s very important for you to tell them more about you.
- Introduce the concept of your newsletter and how it will solve a problem they are struggling with.
- Conduct a small survey by asking your subscribers to reply to the email or leading them to a form. This is where you can collect information about the kind of people who subscribe to you. It will help you structure and present your content so it can help them better.
- Ask your readers to whitelist your email ID so any future emails from you don’t end up in their spam inboxes.
Step four: Set a schedule and start
Fix a routine and set a schedule when your audience can expect to read your newsletter. This might require some research regarding what’s the day and time most of your subscribers are in the mood to read. You might need to experiment a lot at the beginning and later adjust as you learn your readers better.
Don’t overcommit and promise four emails a week as you might later burn out or lose motivation. Start small so you can be consistent, and once you’ve found your rhythm, you can pick a schedule that works best for you as well as your audience.
There are only two things you need to keep in mind: always have your target audience in mind and try to provide as much value as you can.
Part Four: Getting your First Few Subscribers
When you first build an email list, it might take time for it to really hit it off, especially if you’re a new writer. Here are some ways to get your first few subscribers.
- Ask your friends, colleagues, and family members to subscribe.
- Post on your social media channels that you started a newsletter and let your audience know what they can expect to get if they sign up.
- Collaborate with other writers who have email lists of their own, and you can do a shoutout-for-shoutout. Make sure the tastes of your target audiences align before attempting a campaign like that.
- After you’ve grown to 100 subscribers, you can start asking your readers to share with their friends if they enjoyed reading your emails.
The start might be slow, but never underestimate the power of compounding. If you write content your audience appreciates and keep publishing consistently, compounding will eventually work in your favor.
Part Five: What to Write in your Newsletter
You might have
1. Reader-generated content
Sharing the enthusiasm shown by existing readers is a great way to generate interest among your new readers. Here are some ideas of reader-generated content you can share among your newsletter subscribers:
- Reviews and pictures of your book.
- Comments on your articles that motivated you to keep writing.
- Frequently asked questions about your stories or writing journey.
2. Curated content
Yes, this is your newsletter, but you don’t only have to share the things you have written. You can curate articles, stories, and interesting case studies from around the internet and share them with your readers.
Chances are, if you found something interesting enough to want to share with others, your readers will think it’s interesting too.
3. Behind the scenes
Readers love what you write, there’s no doubt about that. But they also love to know how you do it.
Share snippets of your life as you keep honing your craft. Be honest and let your readers in on your struggles, making them feel like they are a part of the journey.
Here are a few ideas on how you can go behind the scenes:
- Lessons from your past experiments.
- Document lessons you learn as you grow.
- Tips and valuable advice from your expertise that you don’t normally share on social media.
- Share your story of how you reached the level of expertise you have today.
- Talk about a loss or failure, what you learned from it, and how your audience can implement the learnings so they don’t suffer the same.
4. Book recommendations
You can also talk about the books you loved or are currently reading. Even if you don’t want to write a full review, sharing a quote or an interesting insight might be enough to sate your readers’ curiosity.
5. Community building exercises
Aside from sending valuable content, you can also send out newsletters with the specific intention of helping your readers find like-minded people in your community.
This can be in the form of contests where you share the work of a select few participants, giveaways where you ask your readers to share their stories, or simply ask them to reply to the post and start a conversation with others on the thread (This can be platform-specific as some platforms like Substack and Letterdrop have the feature for commenting on newsletters, while MailChip and MailerLiter don’t).
6. Maintain a consistent template
Since your subscribers will be receiving your newsletter every week in their inboxes, having a template they’re familiar with will help in building a sense of loyalty.
Create buckets for content you can fill with new information while structuring each newsletter, and stick with it. Of course, if something doesn’t seem to be working, you can always make improvements and replace it with another section.
7. Plan ahead
Don’t forget to create an editorial calendar and plan ahead so you aren’t left floundering for topics after the first few weeks.
Bonus: What makes a newsletter different from articles
While you may have gained some level of mastery over writing articles or stories online or for a book, a newsletter is not the same as your usual article. While articles often deal with a particular subject matter, or, in the case of a series or column, parts of a detailed subject matter, your newsletter is more like a commitment you make to your readers to send them periodic emails.
Here are some points to ponder on before deciding what to write in your newsletter:
- Since it’s a medium that lets you talk directly to your readers, you need to keep the tone conversational. Start with a cheery message, ask them their thoughts on the topics you discussed, encourage them to hit reply and start a discussion, etc.
- After you gather your first few subscribers, you can do a poll or a survey asking them what they want to hear more from you. You can keep conducting periodic polls and based on how your subscriber base grows and evolves, you can keep reinventing the message of your newsletter.
Understand that even though you’re the one writing it, you aren’t the lead character in your newsletter. Your reader is. You have to keep their tastes, mood, and convenience in mind while deciding a topic and theme.
The Bottom Line
If you’re a writer, you need a newsletter. There are no two ways around it.
Now that you’ve learned the basics of building a newsletter and familiarized yourself with some tricks of how to go about building one, it’s time to start experimenting and launch your newsletter soon.
The prospect might seem daunting at first, but you’ll learn as you build your subscriber base. Your first few newsletters don’t have to be masterpieces. You can start small and polish as you grow.
Remember, the first step is always the hardest.