The error of numerosity

Sarah Wendell over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, has a post up today about what she calls Unwitting Newsletter Douchebaggery–that is, people signing up other people for newsletters on the basis of the exchange of e-mails, business cards, and loving glances shared across the room. I started to comment over there, but it turned out that what I had to say was only peripherally related to the post, and the content was much more relevant to authors than readers. So I decided to post it here instead.

I think that Unwitting Newsletter Douchebaggery, and its close cousins, Twitter Dumbassery, Goodreads Nitwittishness, and Facebook Spambingo, come to pass because people fall into the error of numerosity. That is, they think that more is better. A mailing list of 10,000 people is better than a mailing list of 1,000. 10,000 Facebook likes is better than 2,000 Facebook likes, and 8,000 Twitter followers is better than 200.

They think this because Successful authors often have large mailing lists, many Facebook likes, and a bunch of twitter followers.

But what they don’t think is this: successful authors have many people on their mailing lists because many people want to buy their books. People actually do like those authors. They want to get their newsletters. The error of numerosity confuses correlation with causation: Successful authors have big numbers as a result of success. If you’ve grown your lists organically, they can help solidify your success. But having big numbers by itself won’t make you successful. It will just make your newsletter more expensive to send.

This is something I learned through experience. I don’t think I’ve ever engaged in Unwitting Newsletter Douchebaggery (I’ve always had a double opt-in for my newsletter, and I’ve always been very clear when someone is doing something that gets them subscribed to my newsletter), but I have engaged in Unwitting Newsletter Ignorance. When I first started out as a baby author, I tried to grow my newsletter mailing list–because bigger numbers are better numbers!–by holding regular contests. And it worked! I got names.  One time, my contest got posted on some “win free stuff on the internet” site and my numbers got completely massive that month! Hundreds and hundreds of people signed up in a short space of time. Whee!

So I sent out my newsletter (play obligatory Peter and the Wolf music) and ….


My open stats weren’t great, and there was almost zero effect from sending out a newsletter. Running regular contests took time, energy, and money–the first two of which were in far shorter supply than the last. Eventually, I moved from monthly contests, to quarterly contests, and after two of those, I stopped running contests entirely. Growing my mailing list just did not seem to be worth the time I was spending. I basically neglected my mailing list for a year and a half after that.

But–in retrospect, this is not weird at all–over the course of that year of discontent with my mailing list, my list actually became more effective. The people who  didn’t want to buy my books unsubscribed. And the people who were adding themselves–there was still a link on my website; I just wasn’t advertising it–were doing so not in the hopes of some great prize, but because they actually wanted to read my books. My open percentages got bigger; my clickthroughs increased. At this point, now that I can actually see sales in something close to real time, I can send out a newsletter and verify that it is having a real, noticeable effect.*

There’s a reason why people say that the formula for success as an author is “Write a good book. Then write another one.”

It’s not because newsletters, facebook, and twitter can’t help. It’s because focusing effort on growing those things in a nonorganic fashion does very little good. Newsletters and social media aren’t a goal in and of themselves. They solidify success; they cannot create it. No amount of promo-spam will make someone who doesn’t want to buy your book pull out their wallet. But if someone wants to buy your book, you only need to give them a gentle little touch–“Hey, it’s out!” and they’ll squee and rush out, because they’ve been waiting for just that moment.

But it’s not the number of newsletter subscribers, or Twitter followers, or Facebook likers, that makes those things work. It’s the level of interest of the people who subscribe.

So, don’t just avoid being a douchebag. Avoid falling into the pit of numerosity. Having bigger numbers might make you feel better, but if those numbers come from people who don’t want to read your next book, they don’t mean anything.


* At this point, my newsletter is growing at a rate similar to the rate when I held contests, and I can attribute it to one thing: I’ve modified the page that immediately follows the end of a book so that it says something along the lines of, “If you liked this book, sign up to find out when my next one is available.” There’s a clickable link. I don’t offer any reward except finding out about my next book; people who sign up do so because they want to find out about my next book.

Google Analytics tells me that last month, almost 50% of my web traffic originated from people clicking that link.

So I’m not trying to say authors shouldn’t think about growing their newsletter list, or their Facebook fan pages, or any of those other things–not at all. It’s just that every success story I’ve heard about newsletters and Facebook and twitter has involved people saying things like, “I have so much fun with my readers on my Facebook page. We swap recipes!” and never “I had nothing, but then I got 5,000 people to like me on Facebook because I gave away a Kindle Fire, and now I’m selling like mad!”

I don’t think it makes sense to focus on, “How can I make my numbers increase?” It’s much more effective to ask yourself the question: “How can I make it easier for readers who want to read my next book to find out about it?”

Treating my newsletter as a partnership with readers (they want to know about my next book, and I want to tell them) rather than as a promotional activity (I want to show it to as many people as possible, without thinking about their preferences at all) completely changed the effectiveness and reach of my mailing list.

At this point, I would modify the formula above: “Write a good book. Make it easy for the people who like it to find out about the next one. Then write that one.”

29 thoughts on “The error of numerosity

  1. You’re absolutely right. The obvious question now is….any date yet on the firdt Duchess War????


    Can’t wait!

  2. Excellent post. You just articulated a bunch of stuff I’ve felt in my gut for years but have been too lazy to think through in any coherent way.

    I too once had my newsletter contest end up on one of those free stuff websites and saw my newsletter list skyrocket…with a bunch of email addresses like “” Hard to believe they were ever going to buy a book.

  3. This was great, I am so glad I followed the link over from SBTB. Now I am debating whether to sign up for that newsletter here on the website or via the end of Trial by Desire, which I have just finished reading. I am dying to know when the Duchess War will be released.

  4. Thanks, Courtney. This is sound advice for a new author like me, who is looking for a sensible way to negotiate the minefield that is social media and marketing.

  5. Thanks for sharing your experience, especially the part about asking “How can I make it easier for readers who want to read my next book to find out about it?” As I’ve thought about it recently, platform is a little like the jars a child has to display the insects he or she caught. The jar is important, but it’s not all about the jar. It’s about the butterfly—or grasshopper—and about sharing the experience with Mom and whomever else.

  6. +1

    But…I have a question. As a writer, I have a web-site for writerly information (and an LJ for non-book related thoughts). I’ve never tried a newsletter. I know a number of readers have signed up for RSS notifications when I make a new post on my sites.

    Do you find you get a different response from newsletters than you do from posts on your web-site?

  7. Great advice! I read an article recently about following and un-following 500 twitterers per day to build an author platform and found it pretty unrealistic (although it did work for that author).

    The other problem with seeking twitter followers in an inorganic way can lead to following a list of spam or fake accounts.
    I wish you the best of luck with your next writing project!


  8. Well said. As a reader, I sign up for newsletters from authors I want to hear about. It’s hard to keep track of when authors have new books out – it doesn’t happen everytime, but I’ve certainly bought books as a result of a favoured author’s newsletter.

    I also sometimes sign up for newsletters which are part of contests but I almost never open them when they arrive. I can’t think of one in this category that has led me to buy a book.

  9. @Niki: Alas, there is no newsletter link at the end of Trial by Desire. I don’t have any control over the end matter on any of my books produced by HQN. You have to find it in one of my self-published books.

    I would put the link to it on my website here, but that would be curiously and hypocritically self-aggrandizing. 😉

  10. Also, Niki, I forgot to say that I have an official “forecast” up for tDW. The short version is (and always will be) that it’ll be up as soon as it’s ready. Not before. Not much after.

    But I am updating the forecast. I’ll have a little better idea if I can get to the end of this week…

  11. @Michelle Sagara: Michelle, I think that readers of my blog and readers of my book are a sometimes-overlapping group, but not as much as you might think.

    Truth is, there are a lot of arm’s length readers–by which I mean people who like reading books, but don’t really care about blogs or twitter or any of that stuff. Hard to blame them–why read author blogs when you could be reading more books? 🙂 At a mild guess, I’d say that those kinds of readers outnumber the people who read everything they can find by a margin of a gazillion to not many. (Note: extreme anecdotal evidence here; beware!)

    I think newsletters are best for those kind of readers–people who definitely want to read more by an author, but don’t devote much time outside of reading to “keeping up.” My blog in particular is writing/legal/publishing oriented more often than not, and I think there are a lot of readers don’t care about the ins and outs of the business of publishing much, so long as it gives them the books they want to read.

    Edited to add: And yes, I do see a different response than blogposts, twitter posts, et cetera.

  12. I heard you speak at RWA and was impressed by your honest look at indie publishing and publicity. This blog reinforces so much of what I heard at the conference. Thanks.

  13. Courtney, as usual, you speak such good sense. When Ruthie Knox and I first started formulating what became the Pimp My Read promotion, we toyed with the idea of making sign up to our respective mailing lists part of the entry requirement. Then we thought about it and agreed that we only wanted people who wanted to be on the list, not people who were going to sign up and then drop off just to win a prize. It really does defeat the purpose, IMO. I am a big believer in “if you build it, they will come”. It’s always about the books first, and then offering readers ways to connect if that’s what they’re looking for. But the books have to be number one.

  14. I’ve never added anyone to my newsletter list, and I still have less than 5,000 subscribers, but I know that they are my true fans. They open my newsletter, read it, click through to buy links, go to my website, etc. I love them 🙂 Sometimes, I get discouraged when authors have huge newsletter lists and I don’t, but my readers have been fantastic and loyal, so I try not to get too upset!

    Great article Courtney!

  15. Courtney, That was a well thought out reponse. I liked the information concerning the link between your current list and sales. Thank you.

    I hope to see you again at yet another conference.

  16. My new personal favorite is a self-published writer liking a traditionally published writer’s page one Facebook then blatantly demanding said TPW like his/her page back in exchange.

    The sad fact of life is that the no-spam laws have a gaping loophole, which is that anyone with whom you have a business relationship can send you solicitations. A business relationship being essentially any connection whatsoever. So, if you’re inclined to accept any and every request on LinkedIn, you are establishing one, and that person can send you all the advertising they want. Or sign you up for their newsletter. Or whatever.

    This being one of the many reasons I love Gmail, where consigning such stuff to the trash requires but a click of a button.

  17. I am a new author and have a ways to go before I have my own newsletter to distribute, but I like the information you shared about FB & Twitter, it’s great information and helps solidify what I’ve already been feeling.

    I’ll just GO out there and state that there are lots of mediocre (and I’m being kind here) writers out there w/thousands of fans/followers. As you pointed out one should not judge the success of a person by the high LIKEs/Followers or lack thereof. As a matter of fact, I believe that the reason why some best selling authors (I know a few) do very little on FB and/or Twitter is because they are busy writing BEST sellers!

    I am at fault for getting caught up on that, get more LIKEs/followers, BUT I have recently ‘toned’ it down to focus my energy into my upcoming book 😀

    Thanks for sharing!

  18. Fantastic post.
    I see numerosity Douchebaggery all the time.
    I would like to have people follow me because they like me and what I write.
    One day I hope to have a newsletter, but that day can wait.

  19. Courtney, I have followed you on FB and Twitter for quite sometime, but never meandered over to check out your page or blog until now. Wow. I just spent an hour of revisions time, reading your posts. Smart nd informative and really eyeopening. Right now, I am excited and proud to be traditionally published, but I am also delighted to see how many options writers now have. And I am delighted to find a blog such as your with such good information.

  20. Definitely.

    Plus it smacks of conning the public into thinking your book is more popular than it is in order to fool them into buying a book because it ‘seems’ to be popular and thus at least well-written enough to entertain a lot of people.

    Sure Likes are a great tool, but when did they become just a number people can fake in order to fool the buying public? Shouldn’t that be illegal? It is misleading the public after all.

  21. Ms. Milan, I truly thank you for this excellent explanation of the number’s game. As a new author, just coming into the world of writing, I knew there were some who pushed numbers – you ‘have’ to have numbers, lots and lots of them. But nobody bothered to explain that quality is always better than quantity, that there needs to be a ‘reason’ for the numbers. I guess I sort of assumed lots of numbers meant lots of people interested in reading my books. Natch.
    Thanks so much. You have solved a problem not only for me but for my two dear friends who ‘live’ with me on our shared website. I will be referring them to this post as soon as I leave here.

  22. Great post! I’ve done contests in the past to get people to my website and blog, but the amount I spent on the contest was never recovered in book sales. I do have a twitter account, but spend little time there and don’t have a Facebook account. I do have a blog and post on a regular basis with information about research I’ve done for my books and excerpts and info about the books themselves. And I keep my website up to date, but I try to spend most of my time writing new books.

    While social media can be fun, it takes up too much time that I could use to get that next book written.

  23. Can’t tell you how many people have recommended this blog to me. I’ve been trying to concentrate on writing rather than email/other social media because I won’t have anything out until next April and my intention is to have another book in May and another in June which won’t happen unless I write them and take the time and attention to write them well, so I figured I’d gotten the gist of it and let it go. I am so glad I took the time to actually read what you’d said! Thank you for releasing me from mostly self-imposed pressure. I’ll write on Facebook when I have something to say about my ordinary life, and enjoy email — still haven’t got the hang of Twitter. Come March and April I’ll mention the book(s) and move on.

    But thank you thank you. I’m no longer anguishing over it.

  24. What a stellar post! Last winter, before my second book came out, I took another author’s advice and worked hard on getting subscribers to my mailing list in whatever way possible. Most of them were exactly what you described: contests that took time and money I really didn’t have. And of course, when the book release, the click through and buy rate from the newsletter stunk. It was disappointing, and I haven’t done much since. But, as the book sold, and especially after a Book Bub sale, I received several new subscribers. And I know every one of them actually wants to read the next book. So I believe whole heartedly in what Courtney is saying. Thanks so much for the post!

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