This article, written by Mindy Klasky  is from the January 2022 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership. 

Newsletters remain one of the most valuable tools authors have to promote our work. Our newsletters can be created without filters on content. We aren’t restricted by anyone else’s ideas about whether an image or a word is offensive. We manage the frequency of communication without being forced to bid for the privilege of reaching our audience, as we must for cost-per-click advertisements. And we can turn our newsletters into conversations, deepening our bonds with our readers.

Newsletters, though, are under fire. Apple now gives recipients the ability to obscure their data, so that senders of email no longer receive accurate reports on which emails were opened. (Google is likely to do the same in the near future.) Newsletters have long been subject to spam-fighting rules, often being shunted off to recipients’ spam or promotions folders based on specific “trigger” words or an email service provider’s disfavored computer server.

Now more than ever, a newsletter is far more likely to reach a recipient’s inbox (and to be read and acted upon) when the recipient has communicated with the sender in the past. While that communication may be in the form of opening an email, more valuable contact occurs when a recipient clicks on a link in the message or replies to the message with an email of their own.

One author, Pru Warren, has built an avid, active base of readers by using her newsletter to collaborate with her readers on a multi-part novel with a variety of choices for each installment.

A rose by any other name
Warren calls her project You Decide. It is a madcap romantic suspense story, complete with gorgeous spies, an octogenarian trickster, and a plot to derail a presidential candidacy. It functions, in many ways, like the popular multiple-choice novels marketed under the federally registered trademark Choose Your Own Adventure.

Beginning in April 2021 and continuing through November 12, 2021, Warren emailed a new installment of You Decide to her mailing list. The installment included:

  • A one- or two-paragraph summary of the action thus far.
  • A chapter of the story, generally between 1,000 and 1,500 words, usually ending with a cliffhanger.
  • Three options for the next installment—typically along the line of “Follow Character A, B, or C from this encounter”—along with a reminder that readers could always submit their own idea instead of selecting from the list.
  • A promotion of Warren’s current standard-book release, including an image of the cover, a short summary of the plot, and a link to purchase the book.

The course of true love
Warren modified her storytelling approach as You Decide proceeded. As an initial matter, she quickly realized that she needed to label the point-of-view character for each installment. With a week between entries, readers didn’t necessarily immediately recognize the tone of each perspective.

Similarly, after the first dozen or so installments, Warren realized that she needed to include a short summary of the preceding action. Readers had to be reminded of secondary characters’ names and functions. Occasionally, they also needed to be refreshed on plot threads that had been launched several episodes earlier.

Approximately one-third of the way through the story, Warren polled her subscribers, asking them what level of heat they wanted in the book’s love scenes. Readers voted overwhelmingly for “spicy.” Warren’s published novels include spicy scenes, so the vote was not surprising. Warren did announce the results of the vote, though, so that readers who wanted sweet romance could adjust their reading habits, possibly skimming some episodes.

Occasionally, Warren had strong ideas about where she intended to take her story. Those ideas could be encouraged by giving readers one or two very appealing options, making the third a relatively weak contender. (Once, when Warren was determined to write the long-promised love scene, she told her readers no vote was necessary for the following week. No one complained!)

The final two episodes coincided with a long-scheduled vacation when Warren would have no internet access. Of course, story options were quite limited by that point, as Warren was writing the climax and brief denouement of the novel. The penultimate segment did not offer readers any choices; instead, it promised a short epilogue (thus preserving readers’ expectations and Warren’s vacation plans).

All’s well that ends well
In general, Warren considers You Decide to have been successful. When she launched the story, she created a new newsletter segment, sending only to the subscribers of her general newsletter who expressed interest. In the course of writing You Decide’s 36 installments, Warren received at least one vote from approximately 90% of the You Decide subscribers. Approximately 5% of the subscribers voted on every installment.

Warren successfully strengthened her connections to her readers. Consistent “opens,” frequent replies, and occasional clicks on embedded content all made it more likely that future emails from Warren will arrive in her readers’ inboxes, rather than their spam or promotion folders. While the inner workings of email service providers are obscure, the benefit of having a highly connected segment of subscribers (You Decide readers) may provide a “halo effect” to other Warren subscribers, connoting the overall strength of Warren’s list.

There were, however, some shortcomings that became apparent as the experiment progressed. While one subscriber joined the reading list approximately halfway through the story (after meeting Warren in person and hearing about the venture), the reading base did not otherwise expand once the story began. The “barrier to entry” was simply too high, with a large backlog of story segments to be read by anyone joining partway through. (Warren did provide the entire “story thus far” on her website, along with the choices for each preceding installment. Those entries are available here.)

Writing the story also took time during Warren’s busy writing week. In addition to writing her weekly You Decide installments, Warren sent her more traditional newsletter to her subscribers (weekly, for her most engaged subscribers, and monthly for everyone else.) Of course, she also wrote novels as well.

Warren is publishing the complete You Decide story as a novel, Emma’s Mission (which should be available by the time this article is published). She intends to list as a co-author all subscribers who voted on every installment. She’ll send an ebook copy to every subscriber who voted on even one installment.

And one final measure of the experiment’s success: Warren intends to launch a second You Decide project in the coming year!