Creating an E-mail Newsletter
Part I: Before You Start

by Moira Allen

Writers have experimented with a variety of forms of "self-publication" on the Web, and one of the most popular types of publication to emerge from online technology is the e-mail newsletter. There are literally thousands of e-mail newsletters online, on every subject you can imagine (and many you probably never dreamed of).

E-mail newsletters appeal to writers who dream of launching their own periodical, without the costs of print, paper and postage. Unlike a Web site, they have the advantage of requiring no design or HTML skills. All you need is an e-mail program; sites like Yahoo Groups and Topica will host your newsletter at no cost.

Before yielding to the temptation of the "paperless periodical," however, you need to ask yourself a few questions -- the most important being "Why?"

Determining Your Purpose

There are actually many good reasons for a writer to launch an e-mail newsletter. One of the most common is to provide a vehicle through which to promote your books or other writings. An e-mail newsletter can be a great way to stay in touch with fans, and to build a larger audience for your work.

Newsletters are particularly effective if you've written a nonfiction book, as you can use it to target an audience hungry for information on your subject. By creating a newsletter that offers worthwhile articles, news and updates, and links to useful sites, you're likely to attract a broader readership for your work. Such a newsletter is also likely to attract links from Web sites related to your topic.

Fiction authors often use an e-mail newsletter to keep fans informed of new releases, speaking and booksigning engagements, and other events in the author's life. Such newsletters may also include short book excerpts, or perhaps nonfiction material (such as background information or writing tips) that are related to the author's fiction work.

Another reason to launch a newsletter may simply be your desire to provide information about a topic that is close to your heart. Whether you write about parenting or pets, children or computers, chances are you have lots of information to share that won't fit into a traditional magazine article.

Whatever your reason for launching a newsletter, your second question should be, "Who?"

Determining Your Audience

Who will read your newsletter, and why? Unless you can answer these questions, your newsletter's circulation will remain discouragingly limited. As you develop your newsletter topic, you must also develop a mental picture of the "typical" reader for whom the newsletter is designed.

If, for example, you wanted to launch a newsletter about "writing," you need to determine what type of writer you want to reach. Do you want to provide information for beginners, or for more experienced writers? Based on your specific area of expertise, should you target writers in a particular genre or subject area, such as mystery writers or tech writers? Perhaps you might choose to target writers in a particular demographic group, such as "writing parents," or "working writers." By defining your audience, you will be able to define the content that is most appropriate for your publication. You'll also have a better idea where to find that audience (i.e., by promoting through Web sites that appeal to that audience).

If your goal is to promote your work to existing and future fans, you need to know a little bit about who your fans are and what appeals to them about your work. Are your readers drawn to your books by the characters, or for your accurate depiction of a period in history? Do they enjoy the romance or the flashing swords? Are they interested in your personal life, or would they rather hear your tips on becoming a successful author?

Keep in mind that you can never please all the people, all the time. For every letter that I get telling me that the "Writing World" newsletter has too much "beginner" material, I'll get another saying that the articles are too advanced. For every person who complains that the newsletter is too long, another will say that it is too short. One will ask why I never cover a particular topic; another will ask why I wasted so much space covering that same topic. Having a firm "vision" of what you want to accomplish and whom you're trying to reach is the best way to keep this sort of conflicting feedback in perspective.

But "how" will you reach that audience and accomplish that goal? That's the third and final question you need to ask yourself before launching a newsletter!

Determining Your Approach

It's very easy to get caught up in the excitement of launching a publication, to imagine the thrill of having hundreds or even thousands of readers signing up to read your words every month, or even every week. Then the reality sets in: Those readers expect something from you every month, or twice a month, or every week. How do you intend to deliver?

  • Do you have enough material to produce a regular publication? Does your subject area lend itself to regular coverage? Does it offer enough "fuel" for regular monthly, bimonthly or weekly articles? Is enough happening in your field to provide regular "news updates?" Will you be able to fill those pages week after week, month after month, year after year?

  • Do you intend to write all the material yourself? This is the least expensive way to produce a newsletter, but also the most time-consuming. Coming up with something new for your readers week after week can be a tremendous burden. Nor can you afford to "slack off" -- even a single mediocre issue will cost readers.

  • Do you need help? Many, if not most, e-mail newsletters rely on contributions from outside writers. Many also have a small "staff" to help gather news items, hunt up useful links, and manage subscribers. It's often possible to find volunteers for all of these tasks, but when your help is unpaid, it can be more difficult to control the quality of your newsletter. (It's hard to be critical of the performance of those who are donating their time or work out of the goodness of their hearts.) Which brings us to the final question...

  • Do you want your newsletter to be a source of income? Many e-mail newsletters began as labors of love -- and evolved into income-producers. Often, this transition is a matter of necessity, such as the need to generate enough income to pay for contributions to the publication. Many editors suddenly realize that their "labor of love" is cutting into paying writing time -- and to justify its continued existence, it must start paying for itself.

In Part II, "The Mechanics" (, we'll look at ways to make a newsletter profitable, as well as how to design and format your newsletter, and how to attract and manage subscribers.

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So, You Want to Start an E-Zine? -

(This article originally appeared in 'The Writer' and has been reproduced with permission from Writing World

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