I got into a short discussion the other day about email lists and how much contact is too much and at what point we are abusing people’s trust, so I thought I’d share how I use my email list and some reasons why we shouldn’t be afraid of offending those on it.

First things first. I don’t think there is a complete, holistic, gap-less, universally applicable definition of spam. Spam is any unwanted email, regardless of whether the recipient signed up or not. People change their minds, often on a whim. (That cuts both ways: signing up and leaving.) If you maintain an email list for any length of time, you’re going to get a couple folks clicking the “report abuse” button. It’s not the end of the world, and provided you’re following industry best practices — such as requiring confirmation at sign-up so that people can’t use someone else’s email (it happens) — then you really have nothing to fear.

Don’t try to manage it yourself. In the U.S. for example, there are federal laws to worry about, like the CAN-SPAM Act, and unless you’re a lawyer with relevant experience as well as a software professional (in addition to being a writer), it’s better to leave compliance to the experts. There are a ton of free services that will handle your list and format your emails to comply with the law. I use MailChimp, but it’s not the only option.

At some point, people are going to unsubscribe. In fact, with large lists, you might have a handful of people unsubscribe with every single campaign. You’ll never know why, and if you’re just starting out, it’s important not to obsess. Some people might unsubscribe because they’re trying to save money and your books tempt them to spend it, in which case their departure is somewhat flattering!

Other people might have signed up on a whim, or during a promo, and once they get an email from you, it turns out they’re not very engaged. And that’s fine. Not everyone will stay in orbit, so you definitely don’t want to be adjusting your behavior out of fear of offending someone who in truth isn’t actually your reader! You need to be serving those who are.

And that’s why I think the “unsubscribe” button is a wonderful invention and I don’t think any of us should be afraid of it. Engaged fans are all that matter, and they will happily stick around provided you follow a couple simple rules.

#1 Don’t Overdo It

I can’t emphasize this enough. I’m sure all of us have had the experience of signing up for some rewards program only to get 2-3 emails a week from the merchant, or worse — every day! I think the magic number will vary from reader-to-reader, which means you need to find your own equilibrium, but I expect that as an industry, publishing is on the low end of the frequency scale.

I’ve noticed that I get better engagement if I send emails to people regularly, but not too often, which for me is between seven and ten emails per year, so less than one a month but at least one every 6-7 weeks, on average. (In practice, some gaps may be shorter and some longer.) For example, through September of this year, I have sent a total of six emails, on track to send eight total — one this week when Episode Four of THE MINUS FACTION is released, and one more at the end of the year.

The best use of email is to announce you have a new release, available right now. And let’s face it, that is for the most part pretty much all that most people ever want to hear from you. So if you want to keep things simple, stop right here.

But I’ve found that if I only send emails at book release time, that leaves (for me anyway) some very long gaps in communication. After awhile, there’s a kind of shock when folks see your email. “Wait . . . I signed up for that?” And at that point you have them completely reevaluating whether they want to stick around.

You want readers to be excited about you, about your work, about sharing it with others, and that won’t happen if they completely forget you even exist. You fight that first by writing more books! But some kind of periodic contact isn’t a bad idea.

Just don’t overdo it.

#2 Actionable and Immediate Service!

You’re in business. You need to hustle. You need to have enough actionable stuff going on with your “brand” that you’re driven by events to contact people periodically, but not too often, because you have something that legitimately serves them as readers.

Pro Tip: you don’t want to be sending emails just to hit a theoretical communication goal. Each and every email should be to announce something your readers might legitimately be interested in — enough to take action on it immediately, like clicking BUY. That mean don’t send them advertising. Don’t send “Look! I’m running a SALE!” The fact is, readers who have engaged with you such that they’ve actually signed up for your email list have probably already read everything of yours they care to. (Probably. Your experience may vary.) Sales and promos should be targeted to bring in new readers, so leave those announcements for more appropriate channels.

(But yeah, I’ve done it. Live and learn.)

Also, I don’t think most people want to get an email about your upcoming trip to Cancun. Or how excited you are to be writing this book none of them will be able to read until next year and will have forgotten about by then. Or that you’re a new grandparent. Or whatever. (Social media is another story. As far as I’m concerned, anything goes there.) Email is like a dinner bell. Use it when there’s a meal ready, not to call people to have a chat.

That being said, I bet your readers would want to hear that one of your books won an award or that you’re speaking at a conference, presuming that something like that wasn’t happening all the time. (See Rule #1.) I think they might like to know you have a new t-shirt or limited edition paperback for sale — that’s actionable — again provided that kind of thing is sufficiently rare.

And while I think sale notifications should generally be avoided, I do think your fans want to know shareable info, such as that you’re involved in a charity bundle.

But with all of that, you need to:

  • provide the direct link,
  • make sure there are no hoops to jump through or additional marketing spam, and
  • restrain yourself and keep it actionable. (See Rule #1. Have I repeated it enough?)

Some kinds of contacts will fall in the gray area. For example, some authors do a cover reveal in the months leading up to a new release. You’ll have to test the waters and see what kind of engagement you get in order to decide if something like that works for you.

So, to sum, the keys for me are:

  • Is this communication actionable for the reader?
  • Is it something that serves them?
  • Is it immediate?

If the answer to any of those questions is ‘no’, then I don’t send it. I don’t tell the people on my email list that my new book is coming. I tell them “It’s here!”

Now, if you don’t have enough going on to drive 7-10 emails a year, or whatever your equilibrium count is (maybe it’s 30!) there are other things that you can do in order to retain contact with your most interested fans. For example, the next best thing to a new book from you is a new book from someone else that your readers will likely enjoy because you vetted it for them. That’s a reader-focused service. You can be creative, but always serve the reader. Keep it actionable and immediate. Make sure the book is available now. Provide them a link to it in the email. And for the umpteenth time, don’t overdo it. Don’t keep sending book recommendations because you’ve got nothing else going on. (That suggests you have a better future as a book review blogger than a writer of fiction!)

In short, don’t fear your readers. Don’t hold back for fear of losing people. Anyone that touchy isn’t really a fan. Serve those who are — without overdoing it — and you’ll cultivate their trust.

cover image by marumaru

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