Thursday, December 01, 2016

Indie Publishing Paths: What’s Your Newsletter Plan? Part Five

By Jami Gold, @JamiGold

Part of the Indie Authors Series

So far in this Indie Publishing Paths series, we first focused on how to decide which path will work best for us. We figured out our goals and priorities so that when we’re ready to put our book up for sale, we could decide on:

The second phase of our indie publishing journey is to figure out how best to hold onto our readers from book to book. So far, we’ve covered our options for…:

A couple of months ago, we started digging deeper into the first bullet item above for how to keep our readers. One of the most effective methods for keeping readers is to use a newsletter, so we’ve been exploring our newsletter options.

So far, we’ve discussed:

Today we’re going to wrap up this section on newsletters by talking about keeping our list “clean”… 

What’s a “Clean” List?

As we mentioned when talking about a quality list versus a quantity list, we can choose different approaches to growing our newsletter subscriber list. As long as we ensure we have permission to send emails to everyone on our list, either choice is valid.

While quality lists might accumulate more engaged subscribers, quantity lists might be better at helping readers discover us and our work. However, as we discussed in that post, the quantity approach might also result in subscribers who never open or read our newsletter. (Quality lists aren’t immune to this problem, but it’s less likely to be as widespread.)

In other words, our list could fill up with junk emails of people who signed up just for a contest, giveaway, or freebie. Depending on how the signup was structured, maybe the subscriber’s email was fake, or maybe they gave a throwaway address that they ignore and use just for junk emails. Or if our list has been around for a while (such as if we’ve been collecting emails for years), the percentage of bad emails will increase over time, as people change email addresses and don’t bother changing their subscriptions.

Those junk or bad emails are what we mean by a “non-clean” or “dirty” list. Our subscriber list isn’t limited to valid email addresses.

Is a Dirty List Bad?

A dirty list can cause two main problems: one affects our statistics and one affects our cost.
  • The Statistical Problem: If we’re the type who analyzes the stats of our newsletters—such as our open rates or our click rates—having a bunch of dead-weight subscribers can mess with the numbers or mask issues or insights.

For example, if we want to see what style of subject headlines get the most subscribers to open our email—but a significant percentage of our subscribers are junk—we won’t get a true picture of any differences. We might see our open rate go from 12.2% to 14.8% and decide that wasn’t a big enough jump to worry about optimizing our subject headings. Yet if 50% of our subscribers never open our newsletter because their addresses are junk, that means among our “clean” (valid) subscribers, our open rate went from 24.4% to 29.6%. Those latter numbers look more significant—and are more encouraging for putting in the effort to improve our newsletter.
  • The Cost Problem: Many newsletter services start off as free and charge once we have X number of subscribers, so a dirty list means we’re paying extra for junk subscribers.

For example, if our newsletter service is free for the first 1000 subscribers, any junk subscribers will make us cross that threshold sooner. And often, once our newsletter kicks into requiring payment, it won’t go back to free if we later fall back under the limit. So it’s in our best interest to delay the switchover from free to paid for as long as possible (unless we need features only available in the paid version), and that means keeping our list clean.

How Can We Fix a Dirty List?

In other words, it’s generally a good idea to keep our list fairly clean, and if cost is an issue, we might want to spend a decent amount to time to clean our list before hitting the paid-service threshold. As I mentioned above, quantity lists are more susceptible to the junk address issue, but even quality lists can depreciate over time.

So how do we fix it?

A common piece of advice is to prune our list. This usually refers to checking the analytics within our newsletter service to determine who’s opened our newsletters and deleting all subscribers who:
  • have never opened a newsletter or
  • haven’t opened an email from us in X amount of time.

However, I don’t recommend following that advice because the analytics from our newsletter service aren’t perfect, and the way our service can tell whether an email has been opened or not isn’t fail-proof. Some email systems that our subscribers use won’t let our service know when our newsletter emails have been opened.

For example, I read (and then delete) many of my emails from the "preview pane" of my email program. Do those get passed back to the sender as opened or not? Or what if an email program doesn't send information back at all because of privacy or security settings? Or what if a subscriber forwards their email to another address?

Even if we see that a subscriber has opened an email in the past but hasn’t lately, we still might not know for sure. What if their email system went through an upgrade that changed its behavior? Or what if their old system is now forwarding emails to a new email address on a different system? Or maybe the settings on their desktop are different from their laptop. Etc., etc.

If we rely on those analytics to decide who to delete, we might delete valid subscribers who do open our emails—and their email systems simply don’t pass on that notification to our newsletter service.

Instead of deleting subscribers who might actually be reading our newsletters, let’s talk about a few less drastic options… *smile*

Watch for Bounced Messages

Emails can fail to be delivered for several different reasons. The email address could no longer exist or be valid, the mailbox could be full (often a sign of abandonment), our message could be rejected for some reason (labeled as spam), etc.

Depending on our newsletter service, we may or may not be able to control—or even see—messages that don’t go through. Some newsletter services will automatically prune subscribers with bouncing email addresses, but we shouldn’t make that assumption.

If our newsletter service doesn’t clean those up for us, we should look for those “bounce” notifications and delete those subscribers ourselves. Or if we don’t have access to those notifications, we could use a service such as BriteVerify to check the emails of our list and then delete any bad addresses.

Invite Readers to Unsubscribe

I mentioned this technique last time as a way to encourage higher engagement (click rates) from our subscribers, but the same process can help get rid of uninterested subscribers. If we suspect we have a high percentage of subscribers who aren’t interested (but haven’t bothered to unsubscribe), we could send a special email to those who haven’t ever opened our newsletters (or haven’t opened one in a long time) with a subject like: Do You Still Want to Hear from Me?

In that email, we could ask whether they still wanted to receive our newsletters and then point them to our unsubscribe link. As I mentioned last time, we could also include enticements to stick around, such as hinting about exciting news coming up soon.

For example, I once participated in a large newsletter-signup contest, which resulted in a lot of subscribers who didn’t know me or my work. So I sent a one-time newsletter just to those new subscribers, essentially introducing myself.

In that special welcome, I reminded them to pick up my freebie short story and shared the link to the rest of my stories. After that section in the newsletter, I included this paragraph:
“Didn't mean to sign up? Or just wanted to participate in the Giveaway?

No worries! Just click the "Unsubscribe" link in the footer below.

But soon, I'll be sharing news about Stone-Cold Heart, my upcoming gargoyle-shifter novel, so I hope you'll stick around to hear about my forthcoming books! *smile*

Also, I have a contest running on my blog right now! While my blog focuses on writing-related posts, this contest includes reader-appropriate prizes as well (including signed print books!). Check it out on my website!”

In other words, I started the welcome newsletter with an offering of my freebie, I ended it with a teaser to stick around and yet another contest they could enter, and sandwiched the unsubscribe invitation between those two. Only those who really didn’t want anything to do with me unsubscribed, and that’s okay. I didn’t want them on my list anyway. *smile*

However, as I noted last time, many newsletter services punish authors (and may even delete an author’s account) if too many readers unsubscribe at once. So we need to be careful about using this invitation technique with too many subscribers at once.

And this technique obviously won’t catch subscribers who gave a junk-mail-only email address they never check. But it’s a step we can take to work our way toward a cleaner list.

Require Subscribers to Reconfirm

Let’s call this the “nuclear option,” even though it’s less drastic than deleting everyone simply based off our maybe-inaccurate analytics. This approach requires subscribers to take action if they want to keep receiving our emails.

Again, we’d want to target only subscribers who show in our analytics that they’ve either never opened our email or haven’t opened it in X amount of time (which might be 6 months to 3+ years, depending on the frequency of our newsletters). There’s no reason to make engaged subscribers go through this extra step.

We can send one “final” newsletter email and tell our subscribers that we want to be sure we’re mailing only those who are interested in our work. Then we can give the heads-up that this will be the last newsletter unless they click a link to confirm they want to stay on the list.

For example, I’ve seen some people send out an email with a subject of: "Do you still want to hear from me?"

And in the email, they say something like:
"If you want to remain on my list to hear all about blah, blah, blah, click here. In an effort to make sure I'm only emailing those who want to hear from me, you'll be removed from my list if you don't click. Hope to see you click and stick around!"

In the same way as the previous technique, we could hint at big upcoming news or promise benefits to subscribers in the future. But this requirement to do something to stay on the list is a good way to prune iffy contacts if we feel like our list is such a mess that we want to hit the reset button without starting from scratch.

With this technique, we could add all those unengaged subscribers to a second list, such as a “Stay Or Go” list.
  • If they respond, we’d remove them from that list, and they’d simply be back in the normal subscriber list. 
  • If they have not responded after a few weeks or a month (in case they’re on vacation and not checking email), any subscriber still in that Stay Or Go list could be deleted.

If we’re concerned about losing people who didn’t notice that final email until it was too late, we could include the link to re-subscribe in that final email, so they’d have the information later if they’re just really behind on email (like I am!). And/or we could send a “reminder” final email, nudging for more subscribers to respond. The goal is to delete those subscribers who are so unengaged that they can’t be bothered to unsubscribe on their own.

Each of these techniques gets deeper and deeper into our list, so we can start with the first option, move on to the second if we’re still having problems, and use the third if our list is really dirty and nothing else has worked. And no matter what, we should always include an unsubscribe link with every newsletter, so people can easily help us keep our list clean. *smile*

By the way, we’re coming to the end of the topics I had in mind for this journey through our Indie Publishing Paths. If you have questions I haven’t covered yet about our options as an indie author, let me know in the comments, and I’ll add it to the list!

After escaping Area 51 armed only with a ukulele, Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in causing her to sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas.

Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Apple iBooks | GooglePlay | Kobo | Additional Retailers

About Pure Sacrifice, part of the Mythos Legacy series:

A shapeshifting unicorn desperate to save his race...

The last guardian of his kind, Markos Ambrostead must keep the chosen Virgin hidden and untainted. But when an attacker breaches his protective magic, he’s forced to reveal himself to defend her life.

A tenacious woman who refuses to be ignored...

Celia Hawkins wishes the world would get a clue and stop treating her like she’s invisible. Only one man notices her, or is that her imagination? After narrowly escaping an attempted rape, she demands answers from her mysterious rescuer—starting with why he’s been following her.

Rules were made to be broken...

Markos can’t risk being tempted by the Virgin, yet emboldened by his attention, Celia’s determined to become his friend. Maybe more. Maybe much more. Now he must hold onto his crumbling willpower to maintain her purity—or his tribe will become extinct.

Amazon | iTunes | Google Play | B&N | Kobo | Additional Retailers


  1. Wow, there are lots of specific, helpful tips here! I haven't gotten into newsletters yet, but I would definitely want to reread this when I finally do. :D

    As for other topics for Indie writers, what about cheaper options of editing and cover designing for authors who can't afford to pay so much (e.g. more than $1000 USD)? E.g. Fiverr, pre-made covers, etc.

    1. I might be able to help with that. :) Thanks for the idea!