Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: The Power of the Email Newsletter

My journey to newsletters was through blogging. And my journey to the humble blog was circuitous as well. I’m thankful for those journeys, because email newsletters have proved to be an amazing tool for me and countless other bookmakers and photographers.

To begin at the beginning, I first heard the word blog in the late 1990s at an invitation-only creative festival in Laguna Beach, California. I almost didn’t warrant an invite. I was new to California, relatively new to photography, and most importantly, a total nobody. But I had one friend on the list, and he convinced the festival director that I was harmless and wouldn’t eat much. 

Halfway through the first day, during a presentation by a 15-year-old web designer who was so popular he was no longer accepting new clients, I heard the word blog. “What’s a blog?” I wondered to myself.

I leaned over to the person next to me and asked, “Hey buddy, what’s a blog?” Unbeknownst to me, the person I asked was the founder of what would arguably become the most popular blogging platform in history. He looked at me with patience and pity, motioned at the paper journal I was using to take notes, and said, “A blog is just like your notebook, only in digital form.” That moment completely changed my life. I left the event, walked home, and made my first keystrokes on my blog later that day.   

Person sitting at a desk writing a newsletter

Shortly after the initial blogging break-in period, I began to investigate the world of my fellow bloggers. What I found was amazing. Having come from the journalism world—all structured and proper—what I found in the blogging world was like the Wild West. There was a high level of skill and talent but wrapped in a level of creativity, passion, individuality, and entrepreneurship that I had not encountered before. Looking back on this period now, I realize these pioneering people were some of the first online community builders long before social media and its influence became the norm for billions of people.

One of the ways bloggers built a following and kept in touch with their readers was via the email newsletter. You might think the world has changed, and in numerous ways, it has, but when it comes to the email newsletter (something many folks believe is an outdated mechanism), this antiquated gem is as relevant today as it was back then. In fact, I would argue when it comes to building an audience—a real audience—and selling books, there is no better tool available than the email newsletter. Here’s why.

First, a reader must subscribe or opt-in to receive a newsletter. This means there is no confusion when it comes to what someone is signing up for. They provide their email address, which becomes part of the subscriber list. In essence, subscribers are giving you permission to populate their inboxes. Most people consider their email a semi-sacred place where anything unwanted is immediately filtered out, but by subscribing, they are saying, “Please send me something on a regular basis.” This shows a high level of commitment.

Another important aspect of why email newsletters are so valuable is that in the era of 15-second videos and imagery consumed in a fraction-of-a-second thumb swipe, an email newsletter feels like a conversation. In-depth, personal, and exclusive, the newsletter has become a digital relationship with those most interested in knowing us and our work. Some of the best email newsletters I subscribe to will often take 15 minutes or more to consume, longer if they provide links to outside references.

In addition, email newsletter subscribers are more likely to be real humans. Studies on social networks show up to 80 percent of the traffic is bot traffic, meaning non-human entities complete most transactions. With an email newsletter subscriber, you can verify who they are and why they are interested in your work. Once you have the email address, you can begin to correspond, letting the subscriber know you look forward to building your relationship over time.

Person with thought bubbles around them that say "+1 new subscriber!"

Newsletter subscribers also have a much higher click-through rate than social media followers. Email subscribers are more than ten times more likely to engage with your work than social media followers. Not to mention, email subscribers typically spend three hours a day checking work email and two hours a day checking personal email, which means they are spending more than ten times the amount of time on email as on social media.

When it comes to our beloved books, email newsletter subscribers are far more likely to engage with their pocketbooks when compared to followers on social media, especially when they receive exclusive content via the newsletter. It is also possible to engage with your subscribers to better understand their budget and what they are interested in. Do they want a large, collectible coffee table-style photography book or something smaller, cheaper, and more behind the scenes?

Finally, another beauty of the email newsletter is that the newsletter is not beholden to someone else’s algorithm or advertising campaign. You don’t have to worry about someone determining whether your email will be seen or not seen, and you don’t have to worry that random advertising will take over.

The email newsletter is a critical part of crafting an online ecosystem. You can build a community of value by creating your audience one person and one email address at a time. One email per month is all that’s required. Building a creative community takes time, so if this seems daunting, don’t worry about it. Start slow, start small, and focus on the story you want to tell. Be honest, humorous if possible, and then get ready to sell some books.


Dan Milnor is Blurb’s creative evangelist, helping creators learn to self-publish and self-promote. If you’re ready to build a high-quality book to print and distribute, head to Blurb today.

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