By John Gilstrap
A couple of months ago, I ran into a longtime friend I hadn’t seen in years, and he asked me why I’d stopped writing. The last book of mine that he’d read was Scott Free, which came out in 2003. When I told him that I’d written two books since then, he expressed shock and asked why I hadn’t told him.
In the pantheon of really good questions, that one shoots right to the top. I thought I had told him. I mean, I’m on Facebook, right? And I tweet and I’ve got a website. I spent a lot of money on publicity and advertising for No Mercy. How could he not know? Even as I type those words, I realize how impossibly naïve I sound.
When At All Costs was published in 1998, my wife and I developed a comprehensive mailing list of 1,500 people. This included everyone from family to old high school classmates I hadn’t spoken to in years. It even included my wife’s old classmates. We entered all of the data into a mailing list program, and we mailed a ton of postcards announcing the birth of the book. Hands down, At All Costs was my bestselling book.
Running into this longtime buddy was my wake-up call to how thoroughly my publicity efforts have deteriorated. When I really looked, it’s obvious where I dropped the ball.
In retrospect, I made a couple of critical errors. First, it was a mistake to use a mailing list program instead of a simple Excel spreadsheet. After a series of computer upgrades, the mailing list became unreadable. We failed to collect email addresses at all, but given that it was 1998 and email was not the ubiquitous presence that it is today, I cut myself a break there. Finally, we had no way to keep track of people as they moved. If you don’t actively farm your mailing list, it becomes useless with astonishing speed.
My biggest mistake along these lines came in 2004 with the publication of Six Minutes to Freedom, my nonfiction collaboration on the rescue of Kurt Muse from a Panamanian prison. I talked myself into ceding the lion’s share of promotion to Kurt himself, figuring that people would rather hear from the coauthor who actually lived the story than the guy who merely put it in writing. I neglected to consider that my fans are my fans, not Kurt’s.
As a practical matter, then, until No Mercy was released last summer, fans of my work thought I’d disappeared for six years. And publishing years are like dog years. Never again.
A week ago, I sent my first email newsletter. Even though I’ve lost most of my old snail mail list, I’ve captured lots and lots of email addresses over the years, and I’m letting everybody know what’s going on in my writing life. I haven’t yet decided how often the newsletter will come out, but I’m pledging two things: 1) that I won’t release one unless I have something to say; and 2) it will never be longer than a single page.
I’ve been resistant to such emails in the past primarily because of the hassle of keeping the mailing list current. Who needs the agony of removing people who unsubscribe, or culling the addresses that are no longer valid? Even adding individual subscribers is ultimately time consuming.
Well, wouldn’t you know? There are websites that do all of that for you. I found one that is extraordinarily affordable. Of the 1,200 addresses in my initial email list, 200 turned out to be bad, and the program eliminated them. Twenty or so have asked to be removed from the list, and the program handled that, too. Thirty-five people have clicked the link to subscribe, which means that they’ve either visited my website or clicked the newsletter link to see a sample and subscribe.
Best of all, I’ve received emails from several dozen people who were unaware that I was still writing books. Of course, that didn’t touch the number of people who wrote to tell me about the typo in the first news item. Hey, at least they’re reading.
I’m sure there are a number of sites that do this sort of thing, but I’ll be happy to share this particular site with anyone who drops me an email.
So what about you? How do you keep in touch with your long-time fans? Do you like author newsletters, or are they annoying pains in the hindquarters? (I can go either way on that one.) Let us hear from you.