Booksellers Offer Advice About Effective E-Newsletters

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"Creating Effective E-Newsletters," part of the American Booksellers Association's Thursday Day of Education at BookExpo America, covered everything from creating a template for a store's first e-newsletter to advertising author events and livening up stale newsletters with promises of "free monkeys." More than 50 booksellers attended the late-afternoon session featuring panelists Kelly Justice of Fountain Bookstore in Richmond, Virginia, and Margie Scott Tucker of Books Inc. in San Francisco. The event was moderated by Kevin O'Brien of Constant Contact, an ABA affinity partner, which provides booksellers with services to manage their e-mail marketing campaigns.

O'Brien started the session by outlining the benefits of e-mailing newsletters, which he said enable retailers to "focus on current business while growing new business" and increase the retention rate of customers. He underscored that e-newsletters keep customers connected to the store and can be tailored to individual customer interests.

Tucker told the audience that Books Inc. had started an e-newsletter in the late 1990s, but she "couldn't find the right vehicle" for it, so she discontinued it. Recently, however, she found one that met her needs. "I don't want to sound like a commercial for Constant Contact," she said. "But it does everything I want it to. It's easy and there isn't a big learning curve."

Books Inc. creates six to eight newsletters a month that fit various "interest categories" (e.g., Children's Events, Special Author Events, Gay & Lesbian Author Events, and an Online Book Club). Recipients only receive the newsletters that match their interests, and they can, of course, opt out whenever they choose. Tucker said that her e-list started slowly, but has significantly increased and continues to grow quickly. She makes it easy for customers to get on the mailing list by featuring a sign-up link on every page of the store's website, and she also encourages sign-up at events.

Tucker noted that the benefits of the newsletter are significant. "During the first five months of 2006 our website sales increased 390 percent," she said. "I can only attribute that to the newsletter." She also reported increased attendance at author events.

The Fountain Bookstore's Justice talked about the underlying message conveyed through her biweekly newsletter -- which takes her about four hours to create. "It's mostly not about selling books as much as it's about selling the store. If I can get [customers] in, I can sell them a book."

She accomplishes this by making the newsletter informative, eye-catching, and funny. Justice includes conversational descriptions of selected titles, which she also features on the store's website, and she highlights all the store's events in sidebars. To visually enhance the newsletter, she "went from using no pictures to lots of pictures." The wackier the better, she said, and noted that all photos click through to something.

Justice and Tucker both emphasized that the more original the newsletter's subject line and content, the higher the click-through rate. Correspondingly, Fountain's coupon for a "Free Monkey or Lemur" brought a lot of virtual and actual traffic to the store. Justice said the small plastic monkeys (and lemurs) had sold for 25 cents, but "they didn't provide 25-cents worth of fun. For free they're fun," she said, adding that it was also a great way to get rid of a dead sideline.

Another e-newsletter success story was Fountain's one-day offer for customers to "get shoved in a dark closet by a bookseller." Justice told BTW, "We shoved people in closets, well, actually one dark closet, all day long." The newsletter explained, "This unfortunate turn of events is inspired by the new glow-in-the-dark cover of Haunted (Doubleday), Chuck Palahniuk's latest book in paperback."

Justice and Tucker told booksellers that when customers are signing up for a newsletter online, the fewer questions they have to answer, the more likely they'll sign up. Recipients must be able to opt out, and Tucker found that including the opt-out box at the top of the newsletter caused fewer problems. She also suggested including a prominent privacy policy on the sign-up page, so customers are certain that their personal information won't be sold or distributed.

When asked how long it took to create the newsletter template with Constant Contact, Justice said, "No time at all. There are enough choices that you can find one easily. All you have to do is stick in your text and images."

After the session, Gilbert Pili of Cornerstone Books in Salem, Massachusetts, said, "I definitely think we need to have a more visually appealing newsletter. It will absolutely increase sales on our website." Pili added, "The main thing is the [Constant Contact] newsletter gives your store a more professional look. It's more interesting than text on the page, and most people are used to visuals. I also thought it was important to recognize that we're selling the store, not just books."

To see the Fountain Bookstore's newsletter, visit and sign up at To see Books Inc.'s newsletter, visit and sign up at To sign up for Constant Contact, visit --Karen Schechner