May 12, 2016

Why Shea Serrano’s Fans Beg to Pay Him for His Newsletter

Shea Serrano

Shea Serrano never dreamed of being a writer. “I wanted to be a teacher, work at a Title I school, be a part of the community, work there for 30 years,” he says.

And yet, here he is, 8 years after deciding to try out this writing thing: a best-selling author with 74,000 Twitter followers. He’s both philosophical and practical about how he got here, too. “I want to take advantage while I can,” Shea says. “It’s not often you get the opportunities to work on things that you like to create and take care of your family. I’m just following my feet.”

Twitter—a medium at which he truly excels—certainly hasn’t hurt, though.

“I’m in Houston, a lot of other writers are in New York, L.A., other places,” Shea says. “I’m by myself anyway. Twitter is a good way for me to not be alone for a few minutes when I’m writing and stuck on something, or looking for new ideas.”

He built his following as a writer at Grantland (RIP), where he wrote about everything from Selena to celebrity NBA fans. And his distinctive style translates well to social media, albeit with fewer capital letters. So when he told his Twitter army that the book he wrote, The Rap Yearbook, was available for pre-order, they took it up as an underdog cause, flooding his mentions with screenshots of their purchases. Then they wiped out Barnes & Nobles’ stock. Then Books-A-Million’s. And there he was in The New York Times (along with his friend and illustrator, Arturo Torres), on a list that included Marie Kondo, Joel Osteen, and Charles G. Koch.

His next venture is a book about basketball, but in the meantime, he’s doing a weekly newsletter called Basketball And Other Things, accompanied by Torres’ drawings. It comes out on Tuesdays, and the “and other things” are all over the map. A recent issue was about Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, for example. The one before that imagined The Purge featuring NBA players. (Shea doesn’t think Steph Curry would survive Purge Night, by the way.)

“The newsletter is a way to test out what works, what doesn’t work. I can put extra stuff in there,” he says. “Stuff that doesn’t make sense in the book. And it’s practice to make sure I’m writing.”

The typical open rate for MailChimp newsletters in the sports industry hovers around 26%. Given his devoted fanbase, perhaps it’s unsurprising that B(AOT)’s open rate is a rather stunning 77%.

Shea’s big on community and vocal about supporting stuff he loves—and his fans have taken that up as a cause as well. Following the first newsletter, he got an offer from a fan to pay him for it. After the second issue, even more offers started pouring in. Some of his fans even tried to trick him by buying bookmarks he was selling and sending too much money. He’d trick them back by refunding the full amount and sending the bookmark anyway.

“The best way to support people who make stuff you love is to pay them,” Shea says. “But at the same time, it seems like it makes it less cool for me. My whole reason for doing this is to do cool stuff. It doesn’t work if there’s an ad for WingStop.”

As a compromise, he agreed to accept donations for one day. He added a button to his newsletter with the call to action “Ultralight Beam” and the promise that, “You can receive B(AOT) into your inbox and then absorb it into your existence for exactly $0 forever.” He also said that he and Torres would pile up the money and burn it a’la The Joker in The Dark Knight, but that was probably a joke.

Donations poured in—more than $4,000 total. (He gave $1,600 to Torres and $2,700 to a women’s shelter.) Then he took it down and refused to accept any money that rolled in afterward. He’s posted screenshots of PayPal refunds, one with an exhortation for the guy to spend it on tacos.

What makes Shea’s followers so supportive? “If you can get people feeling like they’re invested, it’s less self promotion than it is an experience. [pauses] That sounds dorky.”

Dorky or not, it’s worked for Shea. He never comes across as too self-promotional, even when he’s pushing his work. And the experience is real. He often announces when he’s in a town and where he’s headed for tacos, inviting locals to meet him and hang out. He handed out some of his profits in the form of $100 bills to fast-food workers. His online presence feels real, like a guy just kinda naturally taking his thoughts over to the internet. And the newsletter that he writes in 1 day, when he’s not writing his book or tweeting or taking care of his kids? The newsletter that’s only 3 months old? It just eclipsed 21,000 subscribers.

“The whole point of the internet and social media is to connect with people,” Shea says. Or, as he tweeted once:

my no. 1 main dream is that everyone who makes something gets to see people experience it and like it

(my no. 2 main dream is turbo legs)

No turbo legs yet, but he’s living dream 1. As far as other people getting there, well:

“The advice is don’t stop,” Shea says. “A lot of times the people who are successful aren’t the best—they’re the people who didn’t stop knocking at the door.”