Apr 17, 2013

How Writers Can Use Email to Share Their Work

Let’s say you’re a writer who contributes to 10+ online publications. You share your work on Twitter, but your followers don’t see every tweet you ever post—that means they’re missing out on some of your work. The websites you write for have lots of contributors, so their RSS feeds aren’t specific to your content. And even if they were, people who want to follow your work would have to keep up with 10+ RSS feeds. That’s a lot to ask.

Plus, your mom might not know what an RSS feed is, and she’s not on Twitter. But she’s your biggest fan! So every morning, she has a cup of coffee and does what any big fan would do: opens up 10+ tabs to see if you’ve published anything new.

Your mom might not miss Google Reader when it’s gone, but she checks her Gmail every day.

Email is a great way to share your work with your biggest fans. It makes sense for your audience, promotes your content on different websites, and doesn’t take too much extra work on your part. Here’s how a few of my favorite writers use MailChimp and TinyLetter.

Create a Digest

After Google Reader announced it was shutting down, Ann Friedman tweeted a link to her TinyLetter signup form. She uses TinyLetter to send her new work directly to subscribers.

Friedman shares her own articles and links to stories she’s reading. She started the newsletter because it was a practical way to show her work to people who actually care. "I promote my stuff on lots of platforms, but I liked the idea of a newsletter people opted into because I knew that the only people receiving my self-promotion were the people who wanted it," she says. "Also, newsletters are a good way of sending my work to my parents and other people in my life who don’t feel like combing through my Twitter feed or keeping up with every single Tumblr post."

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My favorite part is this note at the end of one of her newsletters:

Gently encourage your friends to sign up! Also, you can simply hit reply to this email if you want to talk to me about any of its contents. Tell me what you liked and didn’t like. Or tell me what you want me to write about next week. Or tell me about your moisturizing routine. I wanna know!

Hilarious. And she makes a good point—another reason email newsletters make sense for writers is that people can reply directly to you. At the risk of sounding like one of those "Join the Conversation!" social-media-guru-ninja-people, email really does open the door for one-on-one conversations with your readers. When people are casually replying to emails from friends, they’re likely in the right frame of mind to reply directly to you, too.

It only takes Friedman about 30 minutes to put together an email in TinyLetter. "A quick comb through my personal blog to grab the links to what I’ve written, a spin through my Instapaper archive for links to work I’ve read, and that’s about it," she says.

Show Your Work

If you ask me, giving someone your email address and trusting them not to take advantage of it is kind of a big deal. Your subscribers already like you and care what you have to say, so newsletters are a great place to share behind-the-scenes or exclusive content with your loyal fans.

Writer and artist Austin Kleon uses MailChimp to email notes to his fans and update them on his work—makes sense, seeing as how his upcoming book is all about showing your work. "In the beginning it was just a way to directly market to fans—I’d only send an update when I had something new to sell," he says. "That never felt quite right to me, and now I’m reconsidering the way I operate."

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Kleon treats his subscribers like friends. In his latest newsletter, he wrote about adjusting to life as a dad, his daily meditation practice, and progress on the book. He also included some book, movie, and TV recommendations, which is always a nice treat for fans. Throughout the newsletter, he links back to existing content on his blog. Instead of a summary of everything he’s written recently, he only shares work that makes sense in the context of his note.

It takes Kleon a couple of hours to put together an email in MailChimp. He sticks with one basic template and a big image at the top, creates a draft, checks the links, and sends it out.

Find a Formula

Establishing a formula makes it easier to come up with ideas and keep up with your publishing schedule. Annie Murphy Paul writes about how people learn for a number of publications, including her own website. She uses her monthly newsletter, The Brilliant Report, to share her research and inspiration, usually surrounding a specific theme.

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She begins each newsletter with an article, links to popular posts on her website, and ends with a "brilliant quote" from another writer. And since it only goes out once a month, she doesn’t keep her subscribers too busy.

Share Other People’s Work

Writers are readers, too. Your fans want to know what influences your work. They care about what inspires you. Why not give them a peek at your own library? Linking away to other people’s content makes your email feel less like pure self-promotion, and it’s collaborative in spirit. All three of the writers we talked about share some sort of inspiration or a look at what goes into the articles and books they publish.

By the way, one of Kleon’s favorite newsletters is a monthly roundup of reading recommendations by author Ryan Holiday. Instead of sharing articles he’s published elsewhere, he puts together a book list for his subscribers. It’s exclusive to the newsletter, and his fans love it. Plus, that email list sure comes in handy when he’s getting ready to publish a book of his own. Avid readers, check out the newsletter.