Web designer and author Paul Jarvis started sending a weekly newsletter in late 2012. He had just started writing, having previously paid his bills solely with design work. He wanted a place to share his creations with his fans, and was hoping email was that place. But before long, he realized he wasn’t totally happy with how his Sunday morning newsletters were working out.
"I realized my mailing list was a one-way-only broadcast," he admits. "I elicit feedback and questions at the bottom of every email to my list, but those were only one-to-one."
He decided to try something new, asking his readers for help like so:
"I didn’t expect anything, to be honest," he says. "I was just curious to see what’d happen. It was fun because for once I wasn’t in charge of the content for my newsletter—the subscribers were."
He sent the first email to 3,700 subscribers, who responded with more than 120 stories, a handful of which he shared in his following newsletter. "[I received] more than 25,000 words," Paul says. "Needless to say, I spent a good deal of that week reading."
Experimentation is as experimentation does
Paul likes trying out new things with his list. Last year, he did 15-minute phone calls with 35 of his subscribers. Another time, he gave away llamas. (Well, virtual llama adoptions, technically.) He mostly writes nonfiction, but he’s shared rare bits of fiction with his readers, and once offered them a free e-course called Write & Sell Your Damn Book. He looks at his readers as a sounding board of likeminded people, so experimenting with them just makes sense.
While he’s always encouraged feedback, asking for stories was a way of amping up that dialog. "As a writer, these are my most important people," Paul says. "Not only do they buy my books, but they also help guide me towards what to write next. In sharing their stories, I enjoyed how smart and interesting they all are. Afterwards, I felt the bond in a reciprocal sense—they’re interested in what I have to say, and I’m interested in what they have to say as well."
Paul says he makes more money selling books through his email list than any other channel. But it’s not just about ROI. He takes his subscribers’ reactions as an indicator of where his written work should be heading. He’ll often send out sample chapters and early drafts to his readers, then decide how effective that work is based on open rates, shares, and replies—the data informs his books.
"A lot of authors would think that sharing the content from books they’re selling or writing would lead to a decrease in sales, but I see the opposite," he says. "Sharing whole chapters from my list, for free, only strengthens their eagerness to buy it when it comes out. There’s less burden to prove the book is worth the money when they already know they enjoyed a passage from it. I’ve spent years fostering a dialog and sharing valuable information for free with my list. So when the time comes for them to buy something from me, they’re eager."
Always be learning
Email tends to be a little more personal than blogs or social media. It’s made by and for people, and the thing about people is that sometimes they don’t have all the answers. Paul is a person looking to connect with other people and get some interesting work done in the process. Maybe that’s why he enjoys email so much.
"I’m not some corporation or even some author holed away in a fortress of solitude," Paul says. "I’m just a guy who writes a lot, and is always available to my readers. I still answer every email a subscriber sends me—no robots or helper monkeys! Everyone can learn more from their audience from actually listening to them. The ways we communicate, whether it’s social media or mailing lists or whatever, can run both ways. It doesn’t have to be creators talking at our audiences. We can listen, too."