The increasing importance of newsletters for selling books
PLUS: Tiktok's creator exodus
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The increasing importance of newsletters for selling books
Substack published a good roundup of how authors are leveraging its platform to sell their books.
There’s been lots of media coverage lately of “BookTok” and TikTok’s huge role in driving sales, and while I don’t doubt that it’s incredibly important, I also think there are relatively few authors who are succeeding on the platform. Most authors just aren’t natural video creators, and there are also plenty of book genres that aren’t geared toward TikTok’s core demographics.
I think the bigger trend within the author community in recent years is increased emphasis on growing a newsletter audience.
Why? I’m actually working on a longer piece about this issue, but suffice it to say that a lot of organic distribution channels that authors used to rely on have completely dried up.
Take Amazon as an example. It’s the world’s largest bookseller, and a decade ago its recommendation algorithms were incredibly powerful at driving book sales. But in recent years, the company has reoriented its business around selling ads, and as a result nearly all that organic distribution has disappeared. I spoke to a really successful author the other week who pays Amazon a substantial amount each month just to run ads against searches of her own name. Why? Because even when her fans were specifically searching for her work, Amazon was burying her books under a mountain of ads.
Facebook also used to be great for authors. Not only did their fan pages get lots of organic distribution within the Newsfeed, but they could also run highly targeted ads for relatively cheap. Today, not only does Facebook’s algorithm bury page content, but competition for ad space is more crowded. This has driven up the cost-per-conversion considerably.
Newsletters, on the other hand, allow authors to actually own the audience relationship, and so you’re seeing more of them leveraging platforms like Substack to deepen that relationship. In some cases, they’re publishing regular updates on the book-writing process, but the most successful newsletters involve actually expanding on the topics that are explored in the books.
Newsletters are also making it easier for authors to secure book deals. In every book proposal, there’s a large section dedicated to “marketing” where the author needs to explain why they’re in a unique position to actually drive sales. Five years ago, an author may have touted their large following on Twitter or Instagram, but today an acquisitions editor is much more likely to be impressed by a large newsletter subscriber base.
If there’s anything we learned from the trial around Penguin Random House’s failed acquisition of Simon & Schuster, it’s that nobody can predict whether a new book will be a hit or a dud. But all things being equal, there’s probably no better indicator of a book’s marketability than the size of the author’s newsletter following.
What do you think?
Diversify your revenue stream in 2023 with membership
In the modern age of content distribution, a media business built on a single social platform (think Twitter) or funded by advertising alone (think Apple privacy updates) cannot be sustainable.
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How to launch a successful events business
As the media industry focuses on revenue diversification, more and more publishers are venturing into live events — both virtual and in-person. Not only can they be monetized in multiple ways, but a well-planned event can provide a great venue to forge a deeper connection with your most engaged audience.
But events are tricky to pull off and can be intimidating for those who haven’t hosted one before. This week, I pulled together a panel of people who run some of the most successful events companies in the world. They include:
Chris Ferrell, CEO of Endeavor Business Media
Bo Brustkern, co-founder of Fintech Nexus
John Allsopp, who runs one of the most influential conferences for web designers, developers, and digital creatives
Ross Douglas, founder of Autonomy Paris, a major trade show
Sarah Peck, a podcaster who launched the Wise Women’s Council
Boye Fajinmi, co-founder of The Future Party
And Randy Gage, a New York Times bestselling author
In our discussion, we talked about everything including what to charge, picking a host city, finding sponsors, and negotiating with venues.
You can watch our discussion in the video embedded below:
Video embeds not work in your email? Then you can find it over here.
Do you live in Los Angeles?
I’m going to be in the city the week of February 20th and I’m hoping to organize a small dinner with my readers. If you’re interested in joining, then definitely reach out. You can find my contact info over here.
TikTok’s creator exodus
Insider profiled a creator who built up a big following on TikTok and then began moving her audience onto a newsletter as soon as her video engagement went down:
"It helps centralize the process of engaging with your community," she said. "That in turn helps your content evolve, because you're more on top of what your audience wants to see from you and what resources they need."
She also thinks creators are getting tired of being told to diversify across platforms, and believes that more will start looking for central hubs to house their content. A newsletter, she said, is easier to create than a full-scale website and can be automatically sent out.
Of course, this advice applies to any major social media network, but I’ve noticed that TikTok stars are especially vigilant about pushing their followers onto other platforms.
Much of it has to do with TikTok’s monetization opportunities, or the lack thereof. Hank Green posted a viral video last year bashing TikTok’s creator fund, and though it’s since rolled out a formal revenue sharing process, early reports have been underwhelming.
Most TikTok stars set up camp on YouTube, where it’s much easier to monetize longform content via the platform’s ad-sharing program. It recently rolled out robust revenue sharing policies for YouTube Shorts, and that will likely result in further incentives for TikTokers to move over.
I also think creators are extremely wary of TikTok’s recommendation algorithm. It’s great at propelling a creator into instant stardom — in fact, it may now be the most effective vehicle for ramping up an audience very quickly — but it also renders TikTok as the least reliable platform for reaching your own followers. Even though platforms like Twitter and Instagram are increasing leveraging algorithmic recommendations, they’re still fairly reliable at serving you content from the accounts you follow.
So what does this mean for TikTok’s longterm prospects? For now, it benefits from its addictiveness and the fact that it’s great place for a creator to launch their career, but I doubt its top executives are excited that its stars are so focused on migrating their audiences onto competing networks, especially with features like Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts moving in to replicate its core offering.
Want to apply my knowledge and skillset to your own content?
I now work with a team of media veterans who can develop a content strategy for your brand, ensure that this content reaches the target demographics within your industry, and help you deepen client relationships and remain top of mind.
You can find our full list of services over here.
The NYT's earnings report in a nutshell: "What recession?" [NYT]
How did Barnes & Noble come back from the dead? By decentralizing its book selection process and giving more power to the local store managers. [Ted Goia]
The advertising market may be slowing down, but demand for events — from both attendees and sponsors — still seems to be strong. [Digiday]
I think both Vox and Penske are savvy media companies doing lots of smart stuff, but I'm highly skeptical to the idea that injecting another $100 million into Vox is going to somehow be the magic bullet that gets it to consistent profitability. [NYT]
Ken Doctor spent years commenting on the business of news. Then he decided to put his money where his mouth is and launch his own local news site. This year, it's projected to reach profitability. [LA Times]
Let’s go steady
I only publish this newsletter once a week, but I’m constantly curating media industry news on a daily basis. If you want to check out my commentary, follow me on these accounts:
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.
Perfect article for me as I'm getting started with my own newsletter.
Could you please share some examples of authors who are doing well by expanding on the topics in their books? Any novelists taking this approach, or are they non-fiction authors?
You should talk to Tim Grahl & Storygrid ppl about newsletters.
Newsletters have always been a big driver for self publishing too