Build Your Bookselling Business With an Email List

by Beth Saunders

1 April 2013

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Every bookseller has a contact list of customers, even if it's buried in an email inbox, a pile of invoices, or a Twitter stream. Have you been using that list to grow your business? Or have you been putting off the idea of a newsletter because you're not sure what to write, hoping book collectors will find you through social media or your online listings? Customers may find you, but you're missing out on repeat sales if you don't keep in touch with them.

Why Email Is Better Than Social Networking

Do people even read email anymore? Aren't they all on Facebook or Twitter? Actually, some of them are on Pinterest, now.

Or Google+. One reason email is better for your business is because of the volatile nature of social networking. Remember MySpace? Exactly.

The best reason to use an e-mail list is because you have control over it. "Free" social networking sites belong to somebody else and the way they work can change without notice. For example, my bookshop page on Facebook had about a hundred "likes" the first year. Some people are not on their computer everyday, and Facebook prioritizes popular posts in each person's timeline, so about half to a third of those fans saw each post. When I announced my end-of-year clearance sale, I was shocked to see that twelve people ever saw that post. What happened?

Facebook keeps their specific algorithm for priority or "EdgeRank" secret, but I've noticed a few trends. Words like "sale" and "clearance" kill a post because they sound like spam. And posts with photos get more coverage. I gradually built up the number of views with frequent posts, but that was hard work. And then - in the fall of 2012 - Facebook changed their algorithms to encourage business pages to pay for promotion. Some of my views went down to ... three.

That doesn't mean you should abandon social networking all together. Booksellers need to have a presence wherever their customers are. Instead of relying on these fickle sites, however, use them to point people to your bookshop website and to get them to sign up for your e-mail list.

What to Write in an Electronic Newsletter

Create a standard format to make writing easier for you and reading easier for your audience. Look at BookThinker emails, for example: Every newsletter has one or two feature articles with a small picture and a link. The sidebar has reference links, and the bottom has book-related advertising and repetitive information, like how to subscribe or unsubscribe.

I have an open shop, so my emails always start with author events or sales, followed by a brief list of new acquisitions. Sometimes I add a link to a blog post about my book hunting adventures. At the bottom I include shop hours and trade-in policies. People like that standard formula; they learn to check the time-sensitive information at the top. They can ignore the repetitive information at the bottom, but they know where to find it.

Keep it brief, but use links. People are short on time and overloaded with information, so they like to skim headlines to see if they want to read more. Links to your website or blog not only keep them from getting bored by a long email, they also increase traffic to your website, which helps people find you through search engines.

How Often to Send a Newsletter

I send bookshop news out once a month, with an extra reminder for a special event. People have told me they look forward to getting their newsletter. Depending on your business and your writing skills, I recommend once a week at the most and once a quarter as the minimum guideline. Whatever you decide, be consistent so readers will know what to expect.

Where to Find Subscribers

Notice that word: "subscribers." It doesn't mean everybody in your inbox. While your aunt might enjoy reading everything you write, your cousin might be more interested in "Swamp People" re-runs than antiquarian books. Your friends might not feel comfortable telling you not to send them business messages. No matter how nice a person you are, unwanted email is spam, and it's annoying. Building an opt-in audience will increase the number of books sold per recipient, optimizing your time - and money, if you use a paid email service - while minimizing the number of people who delete your emails without reading them.

Now that you know not to annoy non-subscribers, how do you find those people who are truly interested in books?

  • Send a one-time email to everybody in your inbox, offering them the opportunity to subscribe to your newsletter. Ask them to do a simple task, like hit reply and change the subject line to subscribe (that's how my list started).
  • Use social networking sites, as mentioned above, to encourage people to sign up.
  • If you have an open shop or a booth at book fairs, leave a sign-up list on the counter or table.
  • Send a personal email to your online customers when they order. For example: "I hope you enjoy these stories about North Carolina history. I have more North Carolina history books on my website at (link). If you'd like to subscribe to my newsletter, just...."
  • Add a sign-up box to your website.
Here's my review of four email services that offer things like website sign-up boxes and unsubscribe buttons.

Give an incentive to grow your list. Professional bloggers offer free advice or reviews in a certain niche to grow their audience. Authors offer discounts and previews to promote their books. BookThink has been providing free advice to booksellers for nearly a decade, growing the BookThinker email list to about 15,000 readers! You can use your bookselling specialty (eg. U.S. history, nautical maps, science fiction) to give out interesting tidbits that your readers will look forward to and possibly share with others.

Why are you doing this?

Whether email marketing, social networking, or eating breakfast with you local chamber of commerce, remember the goal: to sell books. The first sub-goal to that is to get people to visit your bookseller website (or call you about a particular book). The second sub-goal is to get potential customers to sign up for your newsletter and keep them interested enough to actually read it. Just like customers who walk into your bookstore (or browse through your website), if they don't find what they're looking for today, a few months from now you might have just the book they want. E-mail is a consistent way to keep that connection.

Elizabeth (Beth) Saunders owns Tannery Books, an online and open bookshop in a small town in North Carolina. She writes about her adventures searching for ancestors, history and books on the Travels with Books blog.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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