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Book Marketing: Frank Talk About Real Numbers

About a million years ago, I started my first author blog in order to talk transparently about book marketing and the results of various efforts. I didn’t keep that up, in part because it just took a lot of time, and in part because I do not sell many books and frankly I got embarrassed about the numbers. But I recently re-engaged with marketing by undertaking what I’ve called The Great Newsletter Flush, and I want to talk aloud about that, and about the results, because it is still the case no one wants to talk about the numbers behind their marketing or the results of those efforts and I still find that frustrating.

The Great Newsletter Flush was a simple and potentially disastrous experiment: I sent a final edition of my old newsletter in which I informed my subscribers I was starting a new newsletter and invited them to subscribe. Then I waited two weeks to see how many of my old subscribers came over.

I think some important context is that my old newsletter was developed almost entirely by participating in group book giveaways via various sites that specialize in getting authors new subscribers for their newsletters. The way they work is, a bunch of authors pay a fee to join a group giveaway and donate one or two copies of one of their books matching that particular giveaway’s genre or theme (for instance, I donated a couple of copies of A Fall in Autumn to various science fiction giveaways). Readers out there in the world would then enter the giveaway for a chance to win one or more of the books included in it, and in return for that entry in the giveaway they would agree to be added to all the authors’ newsletters. At the end of the giveaway I’d get an email from the organizer telling me someone to whom I should send a copy of my book, and I’d also get a spreadsheet with all the new subscribers to which I was entitled. I’d go add them to my mailing list, et voila.

The end result of that was that I had an enormous list with thousands of people on it and almost none of them interacted with what I sent them. Mostly they were people who wanted to enter a given raffle sometime in the last few years and then didn’t bother to unsubscribe once they got added. Thus, the goal of The Great Newsletter Flush was that I wanted to carve those people off. I wanted to boil my list down to only the people who are really interested in hearing from me in specific, and that’s exactly what it did.

Now, the numbers:

Old newsletter: 4,127 subscribers
New newsletter: 85 subscribers

Yes, that’s a 98% reduction in subscribers. Yes, I am thrilled!

Almost all–I estimate 99.5% and I’m not kidding–of the old newsletter subscribers were people who signed up via book giveaways over the last, say, six years and then hung around. Open rate on my old newsletter varied between 15% and 35%, but click-through rate on any links was never more than 1% to 1.5% of people who opened it, and those clicks never led to demonstrable bumps in sales. (If this means I’m bad at writing newsletters, well, whatever, these are the newsletters I find satisfying to write. )

Between the initial email and an automated resend to people who did not open the first one, the last edition of my old newsletter, which invited people to subscribe to the new version, got opened by just shy of 50% of those 4,127 people: 35% open rate on the first one, ~15% open rate on the smaller resend.

To me, the end result breaks down like this:

  • Most people did not bother to open the last edition of the old newsletter, which means sending them more emails would be wasted effort and wasted marketing budget.
  • Of the people who did open it, ~96% chose not to click a link and follow over to the new newsletter, which means sending them more emails would also have been wasted effort and wasted marketing budget. They’ve explicitly demonstrated disinterest (which I sincerely appreciate, because it saves me money and time).
  • The old subscriber list was large enough that MailerLite wanted me to pay $50/month to keep my newsletter going, and there’s absolutely no way it has ever provided ROI to justify the cost, even at the old rates, which were cheaper.
  • The new newsletter will cost me $15 and change each month: a $79 annual fee for The Newsletter Plugin’s “Blogger” level, which comes with additional extremely useful plugins, and $9/month for ElasticEmail API access at a level that allows me more emails/day and better support. I could drop the ElasticEmail subscription and run it all out of my own server, reducing my cost down to barely $6.50/month, but to me it’s worth a few bucks to let a provider handle a lot of the technical details and to know I can get help if I need it. It also means getting better analytics than I could generate if I ran it off my own site.

With all this taken into account, my newsletter now might prove to be worth the cost. At the very least, I will no longer run in the red just from my newsletter alone, and that’s good! It’s going to make my taxes next year look way better, for sure.

I realize there are people who will look at that 98% reduction in subscribers and think it was a disaster, but for me it is a triumphant success. I thought maybe 10, maybe 20 people would follow me over, so 85 looks pretty great. Also, I sent those people a newsletter yesterday and it was the first time I’ve looked forward to sending a newsletter in years. It’s worth it for that alone. I went into it knowing that would make it worthwhile no matter how many people followed me over.

One of the realities of my books, my marketing efforts, and my general presentation style (aka, “gay Vulcan”) is that it makes it hard for me to sell books. I do not feel comfortable approaching strangers, or being the first to engage in a conversation, and I never have, and though it gets easier once I get going at a con or whatever, it will never be easy for me to start.

Having a tiny subscriber base compared to other authors is perfectly in line with the fact my books are weird, genre-blurring/genre-bending stories it’s hard for me to boil down to an elevator pitch and hard for me to market to a wide audience. Flushing the list brought the whole concept of a newsletter down from being a near-insurmountable mountain I could not work the will to climb each month to being me chatting with the folks I know want to listen. Psychologically, that is a balm for my brain.

I have sometimes-overpowering anxiety when I try to market my books (and, frankly, in general day-to-day life), and that has always made people feel I’m standoffish and sometimes snobbish when really I am just deeply, deeply socially awkward and uncomfortable initiating social contact with anyone I do not already feel I know well. (An ironic loophole: it’s very easy for me to talk to people about it being very difficult to talk to people about anything else.) Frankly, my books are such that I am never going to pull the numbers other authors might see anyway, and that’s OK. My readership is very niche, and they’re never going to buy me out of my day job, and I love ’em anyway. They’re the folks who want to read my books and that makes them the audience I want.

Also, the open rate for those 85 people is, in less than 24 hours, nearly 100%. I am, quite honestly, pleased as punch.

I feel now is a good time to state that I DO NOT think this translates into general advice or that other authors’ experiences or attitudes about newsletters as a marketing tool will or should be the same as mine. The odds are VERY HIGH, no matter who they are, that their experience with any part of this is or will be different! This is just me telling you my experience so far.

I think the only generalized value of this is to say aloud, in front of all the gods and devils and everybody, that none of us has the same readership or books as any other and so none of us should hesitate to follow or ignore the conventional wisdom about marketing as we see fit. Each of us is going to have to experiment and find the right intersection of (a) what we can afford, (b) what we can do, and (c) what seems worth a+b. There’s so much generalized advice out there, and none of it applies to all of us, and for no one of us does all of it work. For me, psychologically, the end result of those facts is that I was growing a list that wasn’t producing results, and that made me feel like I was messing it up somehow, and that made me much less likely to engage in what does work because I was embarrassed at my own so-called “failure” at what didn’t.

So what do I do with the marketing budget I’m not wasting on a newsletter?

Good damn question. I’ve run FB ads before that I liked, but it’s very difficult to track when a Facebook ad results in a sale on Amazon. Amazon ads seem like a huge, mysterious machine, some Cyclopean construct encountered in another world in some fog-filled cosmic horror story. Google Ads are the very first thing I trash in my email each morning. So, I dunno. Maybe a year from now I’ll be signing back up for book giveaways and seeing what happens. But if I do wind up back at 4,127 subscribers, it’ll still only cost me $15/month, at least. It’ll be worth it just for that.

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