Email Marketing, Authors, and Possibilities: An Interview

One promotional feature that many authors use in various ways is email. And I know that there are some who consider the newsletter akin to communication from the devil, and some who adore having author news in a digest format. Some authors email exclusive deals, and some maintain a digital mailing list to sent out alerts about sales and appearances in local stores or writing groups.

Email is ubiquitous – most of us have it, so it makes sense to use it, particularly if you’re looking for contact, customer cultivation, and promotion. I was pondering the efficacy of email, and decided to go after someone who knows a lot about email marketing, and who cannot avoid me.

Meet Margaret Farmakis, Senior Director of Strategic Services at Return Path, an email services company that helps major corporations digitally connect with customers. She helps clients improve the response, revenue and return on investment of their email marketing programs. 

Margaret is also my cousin. So in exchange for an informal interview, I promised not to post any really embarrassing childhood pictures of the two of us. 

People hear “email campaign” and think “Spam.” How is a good email campaign different?

Margaret: The first rule of email marketing is to make sure that you request permission from your subscribers before sending them email. Not only is it a best practice, it’s the law according to the FCC’s CAN-SPAM Act. Spam is unsolicited and unwanted email. Spammers don’t care if you want their email or not (they just send it to you anyway) and it’s very important for marketers to distinguish themselves from spammers by ensuring that their practices don’t in any way reflect those of a spammer.  

How to accomplish this? Well, a great way to think about email marketing is that it’s like dating. Good relationships establish trust early on, rely on open and honest communication, operate respectfully and are mutually beneficial. This is the type of relationship you should strive to have with your email subscribers.  

You can start by clearly stating what subscribers can expect to receive from you at the point of email address capture. If you’re planning to send them monthly newsletters with the latest installment of your new novel, keep that promise. Don’t break it by also sending weekly promotions to buy your other books. Subscribers will notice you’ve broken your promise and either tune out, delete your messages as unread or worse – report your email as spam to whoever is hosting their email account (Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, Google, etc.).  

The more complaints you rack up, the greater the likelihood that you’ll be treated as a spammer, which means your messages will start being delivered to the junk/spam folder (rather than the inbox) or eventually get blocked all together. This is the last thing any marketer wants because once you fail to achieve inbox placement, you’ll see your response rates (metrics which track the number of times people open and click on your email messages) plummet.  

That will in turn affect your ROI (return on investment) and your email marketing goals– and for most marketers that all important goal is revenue. Email can be a very lucrative channel when best practices are followed. For more information about best practices that can help you achieve email marketing success, click here to read Return Path’s white paper “Creating Great Subscriber Experiences: Are Marketers Relationship Worthy?”  

How can email help an author establish a brand, and reach new potential readers?

Margaret:Email marketing is a great way to keep your brand top of mind with subscribers (your customers and prospects). It’s an immediate and interactive form of communication and the only direct marketing channel that allows you to have a dialog with your subscribers. Want to know what your readers think? Use email to ask them for their feedback, opinions and comments.  

Email is also especially effective when you integrate it with your other marketing efforts. If you’re using Facebook, YouTube or Twitter to promote yourself, link to those pages in your email messages. Likewise, promote your email program through your social networks. Recent studies have shown that 87% of people share product recommendations and reviews with friends and family through email, and 62% use social networks regularly.  

Everyone prefers to be messaged to in a different way, and by integrating your communication strategy across channels you’re ensuring that you reach more subscribers with the information they want in the format that they want it. 

What elements make a good email campaign? Newsletters? Special offers? Is there a frequency that’s optimal, or is it all about content?

Margaret: A good email program combines a variety of content and promotional offers so that the nature of the messaging isn’t one dimensional (“Free shipping,” “20% off,” “Free shipping,” etc.). Your subscribers won’t be in-market to make a purchase or take a desired action all of the time, so simply sending promotional offers will become redundant and lead to subscriber fatigue.  

Subscribers are most interested in themselves and they are looking to your email program to help them live better lives, become smarter, more beautiful, more organized, be better parents and better friends. That sounds like a tall order, but what it really means is that your content and promotional offers need to be benefit oriented.

For example, subscribers may be interested in an email from an online apparel retailer announcing the new spring line of clothes. But chances are the retailer will have more success with an email that announces their new spring line and identifies three top trends of the season and three corresponding outfits that will keep subscribers on-trend and looking great. Which email would be more interesting to you? The difference is subtle, yet important. The first email is all about the marketer (“Buy clothes!”). The second email is about the subscriber (“We’ll help you look fashionable and trendy this season!”) 
The optimal frequency for your program really depends on the nature of your business, what you’re trying to accomplish with your email program and your unique subscriber base. For example, if you’re a publisher like the New York Times or InStyle Magazine, daily emails may make sense as subscribers want to keep on top of the latest current events and entertainment news.  

One of the fundamental best practices of email marketing is testing. You simply won’t know what will work and resonate with your subscriber base unless you methodically test a variety of options. For example, you can test everything from your program’s frequency (as long you set the appropriate expectations at the point of sign-up) to your subject lines, creative, offers, calls-to-action, time of day and day of the week. The options are endless. 

How can an author or publishing house keep email from ending up in the trash?

Margaret: A marketer’s sender reputation is the primary driver affecting inbox placement. Every marketer has a sender reputation. A sender reputation is like a composite credit score for your email program and is used by the ISPs to determine whether or not your email will get delivered to the inbox, the junk folder or not at all.

Your sender reputation score is based on weighted factors in a variety of areas. There are four key areas that are the most important for determining your sender reputation. Those are:
1. Complaints. Complaints are the result of subscribers clicking the “This is spam button” in their email client which registers their complaint to the ISP.
2. List Quality. The quality of your email list has to do with how you are managing your data, and whether or not it’s clean. If it isn’t, you’ll see a higher percentage of spam traps and unknown users on your file. Marketers should always remove unsubscribers and hard bounces immediately.
3. Infrastructure. This involves how your mail server is configured. Based on a variety of protocols, ISPs can tell whether or not you really are who you say you are, and not a spammer. It’s like a digital signature for your email.
4. Sending Permanence. It’s important that you maintain consistent mailing volume over the same sending IP addresses. Spammers tend to “pop up” on an IP address, blast their messages and then disappear.
Of these four factors, complaints are the most important. Why do subscribers complain?  They complain when marketers cease to be relevant. Subscribers complain when marketers don’t deliver on the promises made during the sign-up process. They also complain when they don’t recognize who you are or why you’re sending them email.

In the subscribers’ view, your email is the equivalent of spam when you continue to send email that’s no longer of interest or use to them. This is why relevancy is so important. Of course the offers and content that are relevant for one subscriber may not be for another, so don’t send the same email to everyone on your file.  

What ways do you think an author could effectively use email marketing that makes the email message all about the customer?

Margaret: A great way for authors to make emails more about the customer are to ask for their reviews and opinions. So the author could use the email message to ask subscribers for a review of their latest book that will be posted on the author’s website (there’s also a Facebook book review widget that authors could share through email by encouraging subscribers to visit their FB page); authors could also use email to help subscribers organize an online book club. Another idea is to host an online community on the author’s website and promote and link to it in the email message.

Every email message doesn’t have to be about the subscriber all the time, but these ideas are great ways to mix up the tone of the messaging so that it’s not all purely promotional and really connect with the author’s fan base.

Thank you, Margaret!

If you’re an author, do you use email for marketing and contacting readers regularly? If you’re a reader, do you prefer email contact from your favorite authors? Are you subscribed to their email lists? What do you think of author or publisher email marketing you’ve experienced? Anything’s better than winning the lottery in a country that doesn’t exist, right?

Comments are Closed

  1. Great info, Margaret! Thanks.

    I’ve been relearning Flash this week so I can produce my own book trailer (don’t worry, I’m trained) and as a result I’ve had the mantra “will anyone aside from me really give two flips about this?” running through my head.

    Splashing around in the shallow end of the promo pool is no picnic. My only strategy is to not do the things that other authors do that annoy me. Too much e-mail is definitely on the list. I belong to multiple author loops, and there are folks who participate in the chats, and then there are those who seem to turn up once a week to announce their new blog post (a promotional one, not one on the topic of writing or the publishing biz.) I want to feel like my fellow authors’ peer, not another traffic blip on their Google Analytics. I tend to toss messages from those folks straight in the trash. Like Margaret said, recipients are most interested in themselves. That’s me, selfish selfish selfish.

    One thing I do like, as a promo-receiver, is humor. I get a semi-regular newsletter from a fellow author, and while I don’t generally buy her books, I always read her newsletter because she’s hilarious as all get-out, and I bet if she keeps that up, I will start buying her books more often. Godo branding, I guess. It’s way better (in my opinion) to compose your promo e-mails as a human, and not a marketer.

  2. Rueyn says:

    I’m subscribed to a few of my favorites authors’ newsletters/press releases.  It actually helps me, because I don’t have to continually research when their next book is coming out.  I also like the little tidbits they tend to put in their letters about favorite characters/stories/et cetera.  I also regularly read author’s blogs (Gena Showalter, for example).

    I keep wishing there was a way (on Amazon or other bookseller sites) to auto-purchase upcoming releases by authors you’ve pre-selected, so you wouldn’t have to go through and purchase each book separately.  It’s tough to keep track of all those authors!

    But I digress 🙂

  3. GrowlyCub says:

    Here are things NOT to do if you are an author.

    Set up an email list for your readers and then never post anything, not even when a new book gets released!  And have already released titles as ‘coming soon’ on your website.

    Or have a list on which you share everything but your writing progress.  All those birthday wishes are lovely, but totally irrelevant to me.  I signed up to learn about your books, not somebody’s marital issues.

    Or have a website that does not list your backlist titles, or doesn’t explain how your books are related, or has only a partial backlist.  I don’t want a buy link, I want a synopsis!

    It’s really pathetic if I have to go to fictiondb or fantasticfiction to figure how many books you’ve written and if any of them comprise a series.

  4. joanneL says:

    It’s all about content.
    The emails I receive are the ones I’ve signed up for so the author is ‘preaching to the choir’ and I already want to hear about their books. Let me hear about the books.

    I want emails that tells me when her next book is due for release (I love that phrase, like the books are wild animals held in a cage until their street date) and what’s coming next in her series or releases.

    Authors who send too many or who have newsy letters about their cat (dog, hobbies, kids, travels, cooking, trained seal) have little or no relevance to the books I buy and hit the spam filter after the third or forth email with that kind of content.

    I would NOT be comfortable with an author who wants subscribers to put up a review on her site. That’s a personal oh-no for me, others might think it’s great.

    Publisher emails often list their newest bestselling authors’ books rather than also having their newest authors. I think that’s a lost opportunity.

    Can we see the blackmail pix of you & your cousin now?

  5. Tina C. says:

    Here are things NOT to do if you are an author.

    And if I might add…

    There was an author who had an ad for a book here (I’d have to do some research to remember which one) that intrigued me enough that I clicked on the ad.  This took me to her website, where she had synopses for her other books.  I found one I liked even more than the one I’d initially clicked on, so I began to try to track it down.  I discovered the following:  the ebook was cheaper than the print book, but the print book appeared to be longer.  That struck me as odd.  I tried to find out from reviews if there was more material in the print version or just a chapter or two from upcoming books—anything to justify an additional (and significant) amount of pages and price.  No luck.  I tried to track down an email address for the author and in all of her various pages and websites (and there were several), there was not one single way to contact the author.  At that point, I was so damned annoyed, I didn’t buy a single thing from her.  I’m just one person, so no big whoop—but what if I’m not the only one?

    only37—Sure!  I could pass for that, I guess.

  6. SB Sarah says:

    Authors who send too many or who have newsy letters about their cat (dog, hobbies, kids, travels, cooking, trained seal) have little or no relevance to the books I buy and hit the spam filter after the third or forth email with that kind of content.

    It’s like the email equivalent of those utterly disgusting fake holiday letters that come enclosed in a Christmas card, right? Those letter are more about self-promotion of the family’s awesomeness (or the writer’s awesomeness) and not at all about the recipient – same rules apply.

    I think Cara Davies hit the nail on the whaddyacallit and translated what Margaret said about making the content about the recipient not the sender – what I’ve been calling “ancillary marketing.” If the goal is to make the reader laugh and not to sell the reader a book, then that’s effective. I subscribe to Elizabeth Dulemba’s email list not because I have read her books (I haven’t though I plan to look at them next chance I get) but because her weekly email list includes a coloring page that my dudes love. It is so effective as a promotional tool, I remember the name “Dulemba.” Which, granted I’m super monster ill right now but I can’t remember what I was wearing yesterday.

  7. Heather says:

    Speaking as a reader, email =/= a blog.  Email from authors is primarily to let me know of a new release (or a reissue of an old one, but you better let me know it’s a reissue.)  The definition of occasional is *not* daily or even weekly, so if you say I’m signing up for an occasional email, let it be occasional.  Also, emails announcing new releases after I already bought it from Target are too late.  Let me know a couple weeks ahead of time that your new book is coming out.  (Bonus email points for being able to differentiate email lists based upon zip code so that I can get an email when an author is coming to town.)

    For authors who want to share personal stories, tidbits, viewpoints of the world and their industry, that’s what a blog is for!  There an author can share all sorts of stuff, and, being an author, it will probably be written very well.  So feel free to expound on anything there.  Save the “buy me now” stuff for the occasion email.

  8. Very interesting and for me, timely.  Thanks for sharing.

  9. Jacqueline Wilson says:

    Thanks for a great post.  I really enjoyed it.  I am looking for ways to advertise an organization I belong to and thought e-mail might be the way.  I also write newsletters to be distributed via e-mail.  My biggest concern as a regular jane sending out e-mail to a large list is the fear that 1.) I can’t send that many e-mails at one time or 2.) I will be blocked by the receiver. 

    I have also been studying blogging and I love the point one of you made that the personal stuff should be on the blog – not the newsletter. 

    Rueyn – the Seattle Mystery Bookshop does just that.  If you agree to leave your credit card number with them, every time an author (such as Jayne Anne Krentz) has a new release, they will process the order and ship the book to you automatically.  I don’t know how many romance authors they carry, but I suspect that they might do it for a number of authors.  As JAK lives in the area – her books are usually autographed before shipping.

    Please note:  I am not affiliated with them in any way.  So far I have only bought one book from them, but I hope to order more. The biggest problem with ordering from someone like them, no discount.

    In any case, this subject is something dear to my heart – almost as much as romance novels!

  10. You can start by clearly stating what subscribers can expect to receive from you at the point of email address capture.

    Yes! Absolutely!

    There is an author who signed me up for her e-mail list because I posted once on her blog. There was no way to unsubscribe listed in the e-mail, and after the second piece of mail, I got frustrated and shunted that e-mail address directly to trash. Although I had considered giving that author’s books a try, after that, I prioritized other reading.

    Before I was even remotely interested in writing, the only author whose newsletter I signed up for was Julia Quinn’s (even though she was by no means the only auto-buy author). She told me on her website precisely when I would get mail (only when she had a book out) and what she would do with my information (keep it private and and not sell it) and how I could opt out. I really appreciated knowing EXACTLY what I was signing up for—that I wasn’t signing up for a weekly delete-on-sight mailing, that she understood my concerns about privacy and spam—so I signed up.

    Here’s a question: would people be likely to sign up for a newsletter-via-RSS-feed, if they don’t want to give out their e-mail addresses?

  11. Karen H says:

    I am signed up for many authors’ email newsletters.  That is my preferred method of contact as I check my email at least once a day.  It was really great when Sabrina Jeffries sent an email that she was coming to my town for a booksigning (and I got it beforehand so was actually able to go).
    I do not use any of the social networking sites, for a multitude of reasons, so email is the only electronic communication I access.  I love getting the newsletters as I find out useful information about upcoming books and the authors’ lives as well.  One of my favorites is Christina Dodd since she always has a little quote at the end (the best was “Save Earth—it’s the only planet with chocolate!”).

  12. Carin says:

    Heather said

    Speaking as a reader, email =/= a blog.

    I absolutely agree.  I want an email to tell me when a next book is coming out. A week or two’s notice is fine.  I also appreciate knowing when an author has added significant new content to their website.  Significant to me would be a new excerpt from an upcoming book, a book trailer, or new bonus material.

  13. Ros says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever found an author website that was worth spending more than two minutes at.  Most aren’t up to date and most are poorly designed with content I don’t care about.  I don’t follow author blogs much either (those that I do are very much focussed on the writing process, such as Jo Bourne’s blog) and it would never have occurred to me to sign up for an author email list.  I just don’t think that authors are especially interesting people (not less interesting than others, but certainly not more).  I want to read their books.  And that’s it.

    Also, if I may have a moment to squee, was that Jacqueline Wilson who commented, or someone else of the same name?

  14. orangehands says:

    Thanks for the information Margaret.

    It’s very simple what I want from a newsletter. I want authors to tell me when their newest book is coming out, if they are offering a contest, and/or free stories. (Some authors put free stories directly on their website. Others send out free stories to just their subscribers.) Everything else should be in their blog/on their website, which I may or may not be reading.

    Though I don’t necessarily want all the information she provides, I do like that Suzanne Brockmann has an outline of what she is going to say and then says it. Though sometimes her outlines seem too detail- filled, it means I don’t have to read everything when all I want is to find out if her latest book is coming out the 21st or the 22nd.

  15. Courtney Milan said:

    There is an author who signed me up for her e-mail list because I posted once on her blog. There was no way to unsubscribe listed in the e-mail, and after the second piece of mail, I got frustrated and shunted that e-mail address directly to trash. Although I had considered giving that author’s books a try, after that, I prioritized other reading.

    Same thing happened to me, and guess what I found in my Spam folder not too long ago? One of that author’s emails. I don’t remember marking it Spam, but either I did or others who are frustrated with not being able to unsubscribe have done so (or both!).  Definitely not what you want to happen with your newsletter, right?

    Thanks for this info!

  16. heridanu says:

    Email marketing is old way but still effective for our marketing campaign. The challenge is how to use email with effective but we’re not judged as a spammer.

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