What Makes A Good Author Newsletter?

By John Gilstrap

Every email I send includes an invitation to subscribe to my author newsletter. I have amassed a pleasing number of subscribers, and I appreciate every single one of them. But I have no idea what to do with them.

I get the idea of sending out newsletters to people who are interested in my books and, I guess, in me. But I rarely publish newsletters because I don’t know what to say. I mean, let’s face it, a self- aggrandizing look-at-my-shining-new-book email is not exactly an engaging communication. It’s self-promotion. And there’s a place for that.

But I think a newsletter should be something people find informative, interesting and engaging. This is where things fall apart for me. I recently broke a toe. It hurt like the dickens, my foot swelled to the point that I had to wear one of those stupid boots, and now it’s getting better. That was very much the focus of my attention for a couple of weeks, but do people want to read about that? They have their own problems, after all, and many of them would trade theirs for the relative nuisance of my hurts-like-hell fractured toe.

My wife and I are building our dream home in West Virginia. That’s interesting to us, but the books I write are all about heroics and high stakes. Is the new house interesting for others to read in a newsletter from a guy who writes thrillers?

Dear TKZ family, this blog post is all about your comments. What would you like to see in an author newsletter? Not necessarily mine in particular, but in the larger sense? First-time authors and decades-long veterans are all seeking to grab the attention of readers, but I think it’s destructive to bang one’s own bell continuously. So, where’s the balance? What would you like to see? Are there any author newsletters that you think knock it out of the park? If so, share the links.

On the flip side, what kind of newsletter sends you straight to the mark as spam button? (No need to share those links.)

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

45 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Author Newsletter?

  1. Sorry to hear about the toe, John, and hope all’s smooth with the house project. I haven’t written newsletters, per se, but I have a blog following who I send Mail Chimp messages to every two weeks promoting the newest post. I guess that’s somewhat like a newsletter, and I write the email and post content in a “what’s in this for you – the reader” form so they click and hopefully funnel through to my sales products.

    Me thinketh most folk are self-absorbed and don’t give a fat rat’s ass about your toe or my post unless we sell it in their interest, and we have to be savvy enough to convert their curiosity to sales. When I find the formula, I’ll share it. Over drinks, of course, with you buying.

  2. John, I hope you make a quick and hiccup-free recovery. Recommended reading while you mend: “And He Built a Crooked House” by Robert A. Heinlein. http://homepages.math.uic.edu/~kauffman/CrookedHouse.pdf

    With regard to your newsletter…why don’t you ask your subscribers the same questions you’ve asked here, since they are your audience? Garry may be right, but I’m thinking that some of the folks who have hit “subscribe” your newsletter might be interested in a story (told in your own unique style) about how you broke your toe. how you arrived at the idea of your latest work, or one of your great stories (that I have been privileged to hear at this or that writer’s convention) such as the time you did a signing at Costco with your table placed by the bay doors leading to a storage area. Let them have a peek at the man behind the curtain that some of us have been privileged to know in person. Good luck!

  3. Just chat with them a little, John. Like with good neighbors over a back fence. You can even have Graves stop by and chat with them now and then. This has been working for me almost every morning for the past 6 years in my Journal.

  4. Sorry about your toe.
    I use my newsletter for announcements of writing stuff, and I don’t send them often. I usually include a short paragraph about what life is like where I live along with a picture. Your readers would probably like house progress pictures.
    I also try to offer something exclusive for subscribers. A contest, a sneak peek at the upcoming book, anything they’re the first to see.
    (Although I know of one author who gives a free book with every newsletter, and my friend, who reads her books, says “I never need to buy them. She’ll give it away eventually.”)
    I don’t mind a recipe as an extra, although I haven’t added those to my newsletters. I used to share them weekly on my blog.
    Turnoffs for me are the authors who mail them weekly, because to me, they’re filled with “filler” although I suppose readers do like those peeks behind the curtain. I don’t need those in my inbox, and that’s the big “unsubscribe” button trigger. Once a month is my limit.

    • There’s a school of thought out there that frequent newsletters (whatever that means) keep readers reminded that they are actually receiving communications they subscribed to, and therefore are less likely to report the newsletter as spam.

  5. I think everyone would like to know the magic to a great newsletter, and sorry to say, I don’t have it. But I can tell you that I DO include interesting things about my life – because I’m…eclectic (sounds so much better than odd, doesn’t it?)
    But I’m not rolling in subscribers, either (wait-that didn’t sound right) so maybe you shouldn’t follow my advice.

  6. I subscribe to very few author newsletters, & my thoughts may not be commonly held ones but in my very limited experience as a reader receiving an author newsletter:

    1) I am daily inundated w/information of all kinds. Keep the newsletter short.
    2) I really appreciate a quick humorous moment (a joke, a discovered irony, etc)
    3) I don’t mind and certainly expect a sales pitch in a newsletter, but don’t let that be the ONLY content. (same for authors who have FB author pages)
    4) A brief mention of something interesting in the author’s life is fine (example: author found a really cool course or activity that they tried out). I mean no offense to any author, but I don’t generally want to hear about common every day life–after all, I have one of those myself. I want to read something that picques my interest or curiosity. I’m driven by learning new things, so that’s the angle I look for.

    One final thing I would add–I will mention no names, but I have actually received an author newsletter from an author who comes across as a bit of a crabapple in their newsletter. So checking the tone of the newsletter is very important.

    • All excellent points, Brenda. I know you weren’t talking to me, per se, but thank you just the same. You gave me a great idea for my subscribers.

    • Thanks for these. If you don’t mind me belaboring the point a bit more, do prefer the short, informative and funny newsletters to be formatted as another email, or are graphic production qualities important?

      • I’m about once a month, doing what BK suggests. Short, something amusing, and usually one deal, but not always. And yes, formatted as an email. I want it to be a real communication, not a brochure. I’ve heard there is “newsletter fatigue” out there.

        Also…I don’t respond to pop ups that say “Subscribe to my newsletter!” Um, why? I give away a free novella for sign ups.

        • I hate the popups, most others will say they do, too. But my new subscribers took a nice upward jump when I tried adding one to my website, so apparently not everybody hates them. I’m leaving it there a while longer.

      • Graphic production is not important to me. A short, informative newsletter with the qualities I mention are what I look for.

  7. I’m a newbie, so take this for what it’s worth…could be gold, could be fodder for File 13.

    I don’t do a “newsletter”. I hate even the sound of the word. It reminds me of the 6-7 page Christmas letters we get from a few used-to-be-acquaintances who we haven’t seen for years, don’t talk to, and don’t know anyone who still knows them. That’s a File 13 for me.

    I send out an email to my subscribers (tiny list) once a month, and I write a blog post every two weeks. When someone signs up for the first time, they get an automated Welcome Series of emails, then it goes to once a month.

    I try to keep the emails short. The content is derived from my writing focus, which is writing stories of redemption and renewal, lasering in on difficult family relationships. I try to point back to a recent blog post . . . sometimes. And sometimes I do talk about myself, like how I became a bookaholic, and then an author.

    My blogs of late have been series: Character interviews for a WIP, and another called Flawed Families 101. (I write what I know-ha!)

    I’m still learning what works and what doesn’t. I haven’t been at this long enough to have it down pat. I’m hoping to get a few more ideas from y’all. 🙂

    BTW, I do subscribe to other authors’ websites and emails, including some of you. And I do read them!

  8. That’s good news about your dream home, but as newsletter material? No thank you.

    Better, I think, to share with your readers some of the ideas and experiences that inspired your stories. Or perhaps fleshing out some of the themes you explore in your latest piece.

    I think that’s the kind of topic that would interest readers and make them feel they’re getting special access to you and your work.

  9. Hey John,

    Check out this http://www.louisepenny.com/newsletters.htm. It’s part of her web site, but the emails are sent out with mail chimp. And yes, we all follow her journey: her husband’s illness and subsequent passing, her trips (when we could travel), her support, friends and helpers, tips, where she is writing from, interviews, book events and launches (all virtual now).

    Using your mess as your message, sharing joys and doubts, sharing value on writing and your skill set, your thoughts about it, habits…..etc. Fans want to know Authors. Your bio has Years! of monthly newsletter in there alone.

    • Thanks for this link, Robin. That’s some great stuff. Instinctively, I’m pretty closed-mouth about private stuff. Maybe I need to get over that. It hadn’t even occurred to me to plumb my bio for blog fodder. Great idea!

  10. John, I find this post very interesting, because I struggle with the same questions. I read NEWSLETTER NINJA, by Tammi Labrecque. I like her approach, but still struggle with what to put into the post. I send my newsletters monthly, and give updates on the progress of the next book. I read somewhere that having the recipients take action by clicking a response button decreases the chances of the newsletter being marked as spam by the email sites. I have experimented with asking questions, that the readers answer by clicking on a button, taking them to my website, where they can answer the question and be in a drawing for a book. But as to the meat of the message in the newsletter, I’m still looking.

    Thanks for writing this post so that we can all learn.

    • I second Newsletter Ninja. Great book! Finding your own angle can be tough–I never felt like I did it well with my fantasy subscribers. My mystery list feels different already. I have a lot of material to share. It’s harder with middle grade books. It might be worth googling other middle grade fantasy authors and seeing what they’re doing, if they have a list or “just” have a website with posts there.

    • I third Newsletter Ninja because it shifted my mindset about the purpose of a newsletter. I send a monthly update with sections: quick anecdote about something currently happening in my life, inspiration (podcast I liked, movie I recommend, Instagram account I liked, etc.), recipe (I write cozies), writing update (if there’s anything new), reader poll (I added this after reading Tammi’s book), deals or promos on my books or friend’s books that I think readers would like. Since adding the reader poll and making my short intro more personal, I have seen a large increase in readers engaging and replying to my emails. Now it’s easy throughout the month to note things that fit into each section. It’s become fun instead of a dread.

      • “It’s become fun instead of a dread.” That alone is reason enough to buy the book–which will arrive at my house on Saturday.

  11. John, very sorry to hear about your toe. I fractured my foot a number of years ago and that took a while to recover from. Hopefully you’ll be back hitting stride sooner rather than later.

    I’ll echo Joe and Harvey’s advice. Your subscribers signed up to stay in touch with you. You can talk about your book in progress, perhaps research you’re doing for it, or a related topic. You can recommend books or shows you’re watching.

    Pet photos and stories (if you have a cat or a dog) can be popular. I’d say your toe is indeed a topic for conservation–how it was broken, or your healing process. Same for building your dream home. Like Harvey put it, imagine you’re talking to a neighbor, only this one wants to know about you and what you’ve been up.

    One thing I did for several years while publishing fantasy novels was to share other books, usually ones on sale, with my readers, as part of a promotion. This is an indie author thing, and not something I’ve seen traditionally published authors like yourself do, and it’s something I don’t intend to do with my mysteries. It certainly could be effective, and I built up a sizable list of fantasy readers, but they tended to be ones mostly interested in such deals. Which I knew would be the case going in.

    For my mystery list, I’ll likely eventually do a “reader magnet,” a tie-in story to my novel series that a reader can receive if they’ve signed up for my list. This was effective with my fantasy subscribers.

    Hope your toe heals quickly!

    • Thanks, Dale. The good news on the toe is that I’ve been out of the boot and into a real shoe for the last couple of days. The bad news: I have to ice it down every night to reduce the swelling.

      Your newsletter advice intrigues me. I do worry about anything that requires follow-up because I’m terrible at that sort of thing. There’s some great advice swirling around here.

      • Glad you are out of the boot. I sure didn’t like wearing one 🙂 Like Deb mentioned above, a simple automation sequence can do the work for you with signups. Definitely check out “Newsletter Ninja” for this.

  12. Sorry to hear about your broken toe, John. Best wishes for quick healing.

    I have a blog dedicated to the craft of writing. Each month I send a newsletter to my subscribers announcing a blog post of an interview I did with a writing expert or an award-winning author. (I’ve had the pleasure of hosting James Scott Bell, Randy Ingermanson, Renni Browne and Dave King, among others.) I think it’s a great opportunity for my subscribers to interact with people who are leaders in the field, so I view my newsletter as a service.

    I occasionally send an interim newsletter to announce a Booksweeps promo or something similar, but those are rare.

    • Thanks, Kay.

      I have a YouTube channel dedicated to the craft of writing, but in my experience, there’s very little crossover between subscribers to my channel and subscribers to my mailing list. Do you find a nexus between your craft-related blog and book sales?

      • I’m not really seeing many book sales tied to my craft of writing interviews, but that wasn’t really the goal. I wanted to establish relationships and provide a place where new authors could come to interact with the experts. However, I think the relationship building provides a foundation for recognition.

        Whatever the case, I am definitely enjoying the process and the people!

  13. Hi John! Like others here, I have a “site” and I do “posts” to subscribers. The emails are then short announcements of and links to those site posts. I use MailerLite for the signups, and I have a two-part auto-responder sequence with a cool PDF infographic I created (comparing NYC stats of 1609 and 2019).

    Because I figure that people have signed up to know something about what’s behind my stories, or who’s the man behind them, I tend to do posts of a few types:
    — exploring subjects/themes covered in my books. For example, my stories tend to cover the 4 Posts of the seasons: 2 solstices and 2 equinoxes. So I’ll post on those days with more info about these important turning points. Maybe a little astronomy, history, etc.
    — writing process, where I am in a book’s creation cycle, inspirations, etc.
    — my personal connection to the current book. An example is what I posted for my first novel (NEW YORK 1609) about the birth of NYC from its earliest beginnings. I talked about my personal connection to NYC and Manhattan, final trips to NYC with photos of actual locations, my reaching out to Native American groups involved with NYC… things like that. Real behind-the-scenes stuff.

    I’m also in the camp of “not too frequently.” Like quarterly or so for me, which is enough for me (and probably the signees) to handle.

  14. Well, what I did for my nonfiction books was to talk about the same kinds of nuts-and-bolts issues that my books were about, especially if I could frame them with a recent personal experience. So when I get around to starting a fiction newsletter, I expect I’ll share anecdotes about the chapter I’m beating my head against at the moment (hopefully without too many spoilers) and offer dubious advice that my current predicament brings to mind. This on the assumption that everyone is a fellow novelist, though often on hiatus.

  15. I second Louise Penny. She even has Olive and Mabel (dogs) videos imbedded in her newsletter.

  16. Hi John, I follow a couple of authors who post interesting stuff related to the genre they write in. Matthew Reilly is an action writer and I think his Facebook page has a really good mix of promoting new books with interesting facts (he doesn’t do a newsletter, but the same principle can apply). I think if people read crime, then anything crime, whether it be an interesting fact, a recommendation of a new crime movie, etc. will keep people engaged. It could be something you include? Cheers.

  17. I’m not a fan of newsletters but I do enjoy blogs (like this one). Any more I avoid e-mail because it’s marketing central and I just don’t have time. People I love text me or Telegram me (we have several family groups set up).

    I like Twitter for “Hey I’ve got a book out.” I discovered Jonathan Maberry and Harlan Coban that way. Jonathan posted something like “tell me something interesting” and I had just read a blurb about something interesting so I shared that. Harlan posted a picture of kids skateboarding and asked “what are you doing this beautiful afternoon”. I was repotting orchids so I posted a picture of my orchid in bloom.

    I was interested in both of them as people first. I didn’t find out they were writers until later.

    John, I hope your toe is better soon. I am interested in that, but I work for a hospital.

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