Ever since my publisher told me I should start a newsletter, I have been trying to figure out how it would be different from a blog. I know how to blog. I maintained a content strategy / technical communication blog for years. It did a lot for my content strategy career, it helped launch my two content strategy books, and it still attracts hundreds of views a week despite my not having posted anything there in a few years. It had a pretty decent roster of followers. When I switched to fiction, I thought I would just do the same thing for my fiction career with this blog. But my publisher says newsletters are what sells books, which is why there is a newsletter signup form right next to the blog subscription form in the sidebar and footer of this page. (Please do sign up to either or both!)
Note: The publisher who asked my to start the newsletter is no longer my publisher. But they were right about the newsletter. It goes on.
So now I have to figure out if what I learned about blogging applies to newsletters, or if they are really just the same thing in different guises.
Here’s where they are similar:
- Both are collections of short form non-fiction content, usually with one or a few dominant themes.
- Both can be used to announce related events, like book releases or conference speaking.
- Both are released periodically, either on a schedule or when the author has something to say.
Here’s where they can be different:
- A newsletter goes to the inbox of the subscriber where it is more likely to be noticed while a blog post is on the web where it can be found by anyone.
- A newsletter can be a compendium of things, including snippets of information or curated links that one (or perhaps I should say I) would not generally think of putting in a blog post.
- Readers can comment on a blog, which means they can start a conversation not only with the author, but with other readers. Newsletter readers can write to the author, but no one else sees their comment.
- A newsletter may be more personal than a blog post. Yes, blogs were originally conceived as an online diary and were highly personal, but all of that kind of content has moved to Facebook and Instagram and wherever it is that the cool and the oversharing hang out these days. Blogs long ago transformed into a form of what is called “content marketing”, which means calling attention to yourself or your product by providing information that people may find useful. My old blog was content marketing; so is this one. A newsletter is a form of content marketing too, but because it is not out there on the web for all to see, it feels like a more intimate connection with a more intimate group, and that may encourage more sharing of personal details. It may also make the subscribers feel like they are part of a more intimate club, receiving something intended just for them. We all like to feel we belong to something.
- A blog post has a presence on the web. Over time it can rise in web rankings and show up in searches for key terms. Blog posts can also be shared through social media. This allows new readers to discover you or your product even if they have never heard of you. This can help you build an audience. Blog posts, in other words, have discoverability. People can discover your posts without ever having heard of you before. I got a lot of business that way with my old blog. Newsletters are all about fostering the relationship with your existing audience. People have to have heard of you before they can sign up for your newsletter. This is why so many websites badger you to sign up for their newsletter as soon as you land on any page of the site. Newsletters are not discoverable by themselves, they need other content to attract people to their signup form.
But the differences are not so clear cut as this in reality. And this matters because I am only one person and my main job is supposed to be writing novels. I have to budget my time for marketing activities and make sure I am making the best use of that time.
Let’s start with the inbox vs web difference. Yes, if someone signs up for your newsletter, they get it right in their inbox where they are sure to notice it. But if they subscribe to the blog (the two signup boxes are right next to each other, below and to the right) they get a notification of the blog post right in their inbox as well.
There are differences. Newsletter subscribers get the whole newsletter. Blog subscribers get a teaser and have to click through to read the whole post. This is not just a difference for the reader (would you rather read in your email app or in your browser?) it also has to do with tracking. Newsletter services are set up to track how many people open a newsletter. The reason blog subscriptions offer only a teaser is that blogs are set up to track visitors to the page, so they need people to go there. So with newsletters and blog posts you are tracking different things: opens vs. page views. But does this make a real difference to an individual author like me who, frankly, would not know what to do with this kind of data if they had it?
Does this mean blogs are better, because they have both discoverability and individual delivery? I wanted to think so, since that would mean I could just keep on doing what I was already comfortable doing. But its clearly not that simple, because otherwise, why all the fuss about newsletters?
And if you want discoverability for a newsletter, it is simple enough. Most newsletter services will let you publish an archive of your newsletters on the web. And what would that be, other than a series of short non-fiction pieces in chronological order, and what is that other than a blog, in form at least?
I do notice that most people with newsletters don’t publish an archive. (Which is annoying when you are trying to figure out how to write a newsletter.) I’m not sure why they don’t. Perhaps it has to do with preserving that notion of an exclusive club of subscribers. Or does it have something to do with blogs and newsletters being entirely different beasts, each with a different form and purpose?
It certainly seems like people are playing with the model in different ways. For example, I recently signed up for Dan Hitchens’ new newsletter, The Pineapple. This led me to Substack, the platform that Hitchens uses. Each newsletter services has a different model and different features, which is partly accounted for by the ways that the different hosts make money, and partly by how the users make money.
Most newsletters seem to be loss leaders — they are distributed for free in the hopes that you will buy something else. The goal for an author, I am told, and the goal for many other kinds of newsletter publishers, is to build a list of 1000 “true fans”. A true fan is defined as someone who will buy anything you release automatically — buy every book you release, if you are an author. Once you have 1000 true fans, apparently, you can make a living doing whatever you are doing.
Substack, on the other hand, is aimed at people who want to make money from the newsletters themselves. Substack allows newsletter authors to set a subscription price for the newsletter itself (they take a cut, which is how Substack makes money). But Substack also allows you to create free newsletters as a way to build an audience before asking people to subscribe. And Substack also creates an archive of your free newsletters and allows readers to comment on them publicly, which makes it pretty much identical to a blog.
Other newsletter services make money by charging you a tiered rate based on the number of your subscribers, which makes Substack an attractive proposition to me, because you can apparently have an unlimited number of subscribers to your free newsletter and never pay a cent. They would make a cut if I ever set up a paid newsletter, but I can’t see myself doing that. That model seems to work for journalists and pundits, but I can’t see how it would work for fiction writers.
But then I ask myself, if I had a Substack newsletter with archive and commenting, how would that be any different from what I have now in this blog? Other than the fact that it would be on their site rather than mine, I don’t see a technical difference. I could set this site — gmbaker.net — up as the kind of 6-page site that many authors seem to have as a home on the web and link out to Substack for the newsletter/blog. Frankly, I’m tempted to do just that.
But that’s really just the technical side of the question. The other questions are about content and the relationship with my audience.
From an audience relationship point of view, would my audience prefer the newsletter form over the blog form? I note that, to date, for this site, blog subscriptions outnumber newsletter signups by a ratio of 5 to 1. But I am not sure how much to read into that, because my audience at the moment consists (I presume) of people who know me personally, people who knew and followed me on social media in my content strategy days, and people who stumbled onto this blog through search or social media. Until my first novel comes out, it isn’t readers of my novels. But they, presumably, are the audience that I should be cultivating for a newsletter, especially if my goal is to accumulate 1000 true fans. The current preference for blog subscriptions over newsletter signups, therefore, may not mean anything at all.
From a content point of view, would I be (should I be) publishing different stuff if I was thinking in terms of newsletter rather than blog? The first question I ask myself is, even if it should be different, what else do I have to talk about? Some author’s newsletters seems to treat their readers like a member of the family and fill the space with holiday snaps and tales of the exploits of their children and grandchildren. I’m not going to do that. I am an introverted Englishman. We don’t do that. No, whether it is blogging or a newsletter, it is mostly going to be about reading and writing and a little bit about travel.
What I could do more of, particularly in a newsletter, is curated content. I do clip a lot of things I see on the web to OneNote, either just for future reference or because I think I might want to blog about them at some point (I’d have to live 100 years to get through blogging about all the ones I have already clipped.) Dan Hitchens, who I mentioned above, does something he calls Pineapple Slices — a newsletter in which he collects posts on several topics and writes a short comment on each. That seems to suit the newsletter format more than the blog format. (It does, but I have no idea why!) That I could do, I suppose, based on all of the stuff I end up clipping when I browse the web. If you were subscribing to my newsletter (please do!) what would you want to see? And what do you see as the differences between blogs and newsletters, if any? If you subscribe to any author newsletters, what is it you like best about them? Please comment below — before or after signing up for the newsletter and/or subscribing to the blog. Thanks!
Shortly after I published this post I got an email from a subscriber pointing out that the subscriber notification email is sent from a noreply email address, which meant that if he had not had my email address already, he would not have been able to reply. My correspondent is a newsletter fan, and his comment made me realize something else about the blog vs. newsletter issue. Blogs and blogging tools are all about establishing public communication. Newsletters are all about establishing private conversations. WordPress notifications default to a noreply address because they are designed to direct people to the blog. That private vs. public communication issue seems to be wider than any differences in content. As a writer, my instinctive prejudice it to public communication — to publication. But in terms of selling things, private communication may be a much more compelling tool.
I’ve also noticed that people seem more and more reluctant to comment publicly on blogs. Perhaps this is a reaction to the growing toxicity of social media. That might suggest a growing preference for private channels of communication out of the sight of the Twitter mob.
But one of the nice things about blogs is that you can update your posts as new thoughts and information become available. That would be a lot more intrusive in a newsletter.