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Creating an E-mail Newsletter
by Moira Allen

Return to Blogging & Social Media · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Part I: Before You Start

Writers have experimented with a variety of forms of "self-publication" on the Web, and one of the most popular types of publication to emerge from online technology is the e-mail newsletter. There are literally thousands of e-mail newsletters online, on every subject you can imagine (and many you probably never dreamed of).

E-mail newsletters appeal to writers who dream of launching their own periodical, without the costs of print, paper and postage. Unlike a Web site, they have the advantage of requiring no design or HTML skills. All you need is an e-mail program; sites like Yahoo Groups and Topica will host your newsletter at no cost.

Before yielding to the temptation of the "paperless periodical," however, you need to ask yourself a few questions -- the most important being "Why?"

Determining Your Purpose

There are actually many good reasons for a writer to launch an e-mail newsletter. One of the most common is to provide a vehicle through which to promote your books or other writings. An e-mail newsletter can be a great way to stay in touch with fans, and to build a larger audience for your work.

Newsletters are particularly effective if you've written a nonfiction book, as you can use it to target an audience hungry for information on your subject. By creating a newsletter that offers worthwhile articles, news and updates, and links to useful sites, you're likely to attract a broader readership for your work. Such a newsletter is also likely to attract links from Web sites related to your topic.

Fiction authors often use an e-mail newsletter to keep fans informed of new releases, speaking and booksigning engagements, and other events in the author's life. Such newsletters may also include short book excerpts, or perhaps nonfiction material (such as background information or writing tips) that are related to the author's fiction work.

Another reason to launch a newsletter may simply be your desire to provide information about a topic that is close to your heart. Whether you write about parenting or pets, children or computers, chances are you have lots of information to share that won't fit into a traditional magazine article.

Whatever your reason for launching a newsletter, your second question should be, "Who?"

Determining Your Audience

Who will read your newsletter, and why? Unless you can answer these questions, your newsletter's circulation will remain discouragingly limited. As you develop your newsletter topic, you must also develop a mental picture of the "typical" reader for whom the newsletter is designed.

If, for example, you wanted to launch a newsletter about "writing," you need to determine what type of writer you want to reach. Do you want to provide information for beginners, or for more experienced writers? Based on your specific area of expertise, should you target writers in a particular genre or subject area, such as mystery writers or tech writers? Perhaps you might choose to target writers in a particular demographic group, such as "writing parents," or "working writers." By defining your audience, you will be able to define the content that is most appropriate for your publication. You'll also have a better idea where to find that audience (i.e., by promoting through Web sites that appeal to that audience).

If your goal is to promote your work to existing and future fans, you need to know a little bit about who your fans are and what appeals to them about your work. Are your readers drawn to your books by the characters, or for your accurate depiction of a period in history? Do they enjoy the romance or the flashing swords? Are they interested in your personal life, or would they rather hear your tips on becoming a successful author?

Keep in mind that you can never please all the people, all the time. For every letter that I get telling me that the "Writing World" newsletter has too much "beginner" material, I'll get another saying that the articles are too advanced. For every person who complains that the newsletter is too long, another will say that it is too short. One will ask why I never cover a particular topic; another will ask why I wasted so much space covering that same topic. Having a firm "vision" of what you want to accomplish and whom you're trying to reach is the best way to keep this sort of conflicting feedback in perspective.

But "how" will you reach that audience and accomplish that goal? That's the third and final question you need to ask yourself before launching a newsletter!

Determining Your Approach

It's very easy to get caught up in the excitement of launching a publication, to imagine the thrill of having hundreds or even thousands of readers signing up to read your words every month, or even every week. Then the reality sets in: Those readers expect something from you every month, or twice a month, or every week. How do you intend to deliver?

  • Do you have enough material to produce a regular publication? Does your subject area lend itself to regular coverage? Does it offer enough "fuel" for regular monthly, bimonthly or weekly articles? Is enough happening in your field to provide regular "news updates?" Will you be able to fill those pages week after week, month after month, year after year?

  • Do you intend to write all the material yourself? This is the least expensive way to produce a newsletter, but also the most time-consuming. Coming up with something new for your readers week after week can be a tremendous burden. Nor can you afford to "slack off" -- even a single mediocre issue will cost readers.

  • Do you need help? Many, if not most, e-mail newsletters rely on contributions from outside writers. Many also have a small "staff" to help gather news items, hunt up useful links, and manage subscribers. It's often possible to find volunteers for all of these tasks, but when your help is unpaid, it can be more difficult to control the quality of your newsletter. (It's hard to be critical of the performance of those who are donating their time or work out of the goodness of their hearts.) Which brings us to the final question...

  • Do you want your newsletter to be a source of income? Many e-mail newsletters began as labors of love -- and evolved into income-producers. Often, this transition is a matter of necessity, such as the need to generate enough income to pay for contributions to the publication. Many editors suddenly realize that their "labor of love" is cutting into paying writing time -- and to justify its continued existence, it must start paying for itself.

Part II: The Mechanics of Your Newsletter

Once you've answered the questions above, you still face a host of questions about how to run your newsletter:

Choosing a Format

Fortunately, e-mail newsletters are relatively easy to format. You can prepare your text in a word-processing program, or directly in an e-mail message. (If you use a word-processing program, be sure to avoid formatting or special characters, like "smart quotes," that don't "translate" properly in e-mail.) Here are a few formatting tips to keep in mind:

  • Keep it short. Many ISPs screen out messages over 50K in length, so try to keep your newsletter around 40K.

  • Avoid frills. Don't use fancy fonts, colors, or graphics. Often, these won't show up properly at the other end, and they can be distracting.

  • Don't use HTML. While HTML can create a more attractive newspaper, not every e-mail program translates it correctly, which means that some subscribers may find your newsletter difficult (or impossible) to read.

  • Don't use attachments. Never attach files, graphics or photos to your newsletter. If you do, you'll get irate letters from virus-wary subscribers -- and many ISPs will simply route your newsletter to the trash.

  • Include a header that lists the title, contact, subscribe/unsubscribe information, and a table of contents. Include instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe at the end of the newsletter as well.

  • Include a copyright notice at the end of the newsletter, along with details on how to request permission to reprint material, and whether subscribers may pass along the newsletter (in its entirety) to others or to discussion lists. If you have articles from other contributors, provide a separate copyright notice for each article (e.g., Copyright © 2014 John Smith).

  • Include the complete URL (http://) when listing links, to ensure that the URL will automatically convert to a hotlink.

A final format decision you may wish to consider is whether to include all your content in the newsletter itself, or to link to additional material on your Web site. Some newsletters simply offer summaries or the opening paragraph of an article, then direct the reader to a Web site to read the rest. Others are self-contained. This is purely a personal decision; some readers prefer the link approach, while others prefer to get all the information in one place.

Attracting and Handling Subscribers

If you build it, will they come? Not unless you promote it! Often, the best way to promote an e-mail newsletter is through a corresponding Web site, where readers can learn more about the content, read back issues or selected articles, and sign up. Another way to promote your newsletter is to swap ads with other newsletters on comparable topics.

Before you start hunting for subscribers, however, you need a way to manage them. Unless you want to spend hours each week signing up new subscribers, unsubscribing others, and purging your list of "bouncing" e-mails, you'll need a list service. Fortunately, you can get such a service free on sites like Yahoo! Groups and Topica. These services offer free newsletter hosting in exchange for the right to include advertising at the end of your newsletter. Unfortunately, you have no control over that advertising, so your newsletter on "heavenly desserts" may end up with an Atkins diet ad at the end!

If you'd rather not have someone else's ads in your newsletter, another option is to pay for list management. Rates vary, usually beginning at around $10 per month. For example, aWeber.com, which hosts the Writing World newsletter, charges $10 per month to host a newsletter with up to 9,000 subscribers. Many list- management services also allow you to archive back issues of your newsletter, or even provide a location to upload files and photos to which you can refer your readers.

Making it Pay

By doing it all yourself and using a free hosting service, you can create and run a newsletter at virtually no cost. Many editors soon decide, however, that they need to make their newsletters self-supporting, or even profitable. If, for example, you're trying to earn a chunk of your living as a writer, putting out a free newsletter can cut significantly into your paying writing time.

Making a newsletter "pay" can be a challenge. Here are the most common approaches:

1) Charge for subscriptions. Though this seems an obvious solution, in reality it rarely works. Since so much information can be found on the Web for free, it's difficult to persuade subscribers to pay for it. Worse, if your newsletter started out free, it's almost impossible to convince subscribers to pay for it later. (Many newsletters have tried this and sunk without a trace.)

To attract paying subscribers, you must convince them that you have something worth paying for. This usually means something that they can't easily find elsewhere for free, or something that will give them a return on their investment. In the world of writing newsletters, this usually means market listings; market newsletters such as WriteMarketsReport and Gila Queen, for example, have successfully followed the paid subscription model. AbsoluteWrite offers a free newsletter and a premium paid edition, the latter offering considerably more market information.

2) Sell advertising. E-mail classifieds usually range from $10 to $50 for a one-time ad, depending on your circulation. A good way to find potential advertisers is to review related publications, and e-mail their advertisers to let them know about your newsletter. Unless you have a circulation of 1000 or more, however, don't expect to get too many takers! When selling advertising, you'll need to decide on such issues as size limits, placement within your newsletter (will you put ads "higher up" for more pay?), how many ads you'll accept, and discounts on multiple-issue listings. It's also best to accept only ads that relate to your content.

3) Sell a product. If the initial purpose of your newsletter was to promote your books or other products, then it is "making money" as long as it succeeds in that purpose. If you don't have a product to promote, however, you might consider "inventing" one, such as an e-book or report.

4) Ask for donations. Many e-zines ask for voluntary support from their readers. The easiest way to do this is to set up an account through Amazon.com's "Honor System," or through PayPal. Typically, however, this approach only works when you are actively promoting it, and you'll find that your first flurry of contributions tapers off rapidly. Some newsletters devote more space to their pleas for donations than to actual information, which doesn't tend to please subscribers.

Often, the most effective approach is a combination of approaches -- advertising, perhaps a premium "paid" edition, a product, or a call for donations that includes a "free gift" (such as an e-book) for anyone who responds. Before you become too involved in trying to figure out how to make your newsletter "pay," however, take a moment to determine whether this fits into your original goals for the newsletter. Don't let yourself fall into the trap of trying to put out a newsletter to raise money just so you can put out a newsletter. No matter what your reason for publishing your own e-mail newsletter, be sure that you keep sight of those original goals!

Find Out More...

E-mail Queries and Submissions: Keeping Editors Happy, by Moira Allen

Helpful Sites:



So, You Want to Start an E-Zine?



Copyright © 2004 Moira Allen.
This article originally appeared in The Writer.

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


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