Subscription Marketing for Authors: A Primer

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Today’s guest post is by Anne Janzer (@AnneJanzer), author of the newly revised Subscription Marketing. While her book is targeted at businesses getting into the subscription market, this excerpt contains valuable advice for authors seeking to build a relationship with their audience.


Much ink has been spilled about how businesses benefit from subscriptions: predictable revenue streams, tighter customer relationships, and more. Nearly every industry now participates in this rapidly growing sector of the economy. Start-ups launch with subscription models, while established businesses are now jumping in. And services like Substack and Patreon make it possible for everyone—including unpublished writers—to get in on the action.

But you need to plan carefully if you want to see results.

How subscription marketing is different from traditional marketing

Traditional marketing strategies focus on leading people to the initial sale. Subscription businesses shift their focus from the point of sale to the long-term, ongoing customer relationship. The subscriber remains a prospect, deserving ongoing engagement and nurturing.

That means, in the Subscription Economy, you’re only doing half of your job as a marketer if you focus on the sale and ignore the reader. If your income depends on subscription-based relationships, then it’s time to adopt the mindset and strategies of subscription marketing.

Subscription marketing resets fundamental ideas you may have about marketing. For example, as a subscription marketer:

  • Leads are fine. Relationships are better.
  • Large marketing budgets are helpful. Creativity is priceless.
  • Interrupt-driven tactics like advertising deliver inconsistent results. Adding value always works.
  • Chasing sales is exhausting. Creating value, however, is energizing.

When you’re starting from near zero, nurturing readers seems like a problem for the distant future. But the best time to think about retaining your readers is before you’ve acquired them.

If you want to growth-hack your way to success, work on attracting the right readers from day one. Demonstrate and nurture your readers’ perception of value, and they’ll do the marketing for you.

Here’s how to market your subscription, whether offered through Substack, Patreon or some other platform.

  • Add value through content. Master the skills of content marketing; they will help you both attract the first readers and nurture them once they’re on board. Great content need not be expensive. A large budget is lovely, but creativity and empathy are available at any budget level. If you can imagine your ideal reader’s perspective, you can create digital books, blog posts, videos, and other content that they’ll love.
  • Add value through community. Build a community around you, and you’ll achieve multiple objectives: nurturing readers, attracting new ones, encouraging word-of-mouth, and even reducing costs. Most important, you’ll be creating value in relationships between people.
  • Share meaningful stories. Stories form strong connections. Tell your origin story; develop a brand story; share reader stories.
  • Share your values. Pick a cause and stand up for it; this can help you earn trust and might deliver earned media you could not otherwise afford.
  • Nurture free trial and freemium readers. Subscription relationships are built on trust and value. If you’re relatively new, readers may not have enough information yet to trust you. In this situation, a free trial or freemium offering can go a long way toward both establishing trust and demonstrating value.

A world of churn

Churn is what happens when customers leave, or recurring revenues vanish. Churn is the enemy of growth. For every subscriber who leaves, you must find a replacement before your new signups represent growth.

Churn is often the difference between success and failure.

We sign up for services because they are convenient, fun, or affordable. But there are just as many reasons to cut back or unsubscribe. Again, a quick glance into your personal life illustrates the pervasiveness of churn.

  • Do you ever sign up for a free trial of software that looks interesting, only to forget to use it? (I’m guilty of this one.)
  • Do you subscribe to online content, then months later, overwhelmed by all the messages in your inbox, go on an unsubscribing binge?
  • Do you periodically look for ways to dial down recurring subscription costs?

In transactional business models, marketing and sales organizations worry about losing new sales to competitors. In a subscription business, because subscribers pay over time, they decide repeatedly to remain a customer (renew) or leave for a competitor (churn).

A relentless focus on churn (or, if you’re an optimist, its counterpart: retention) is the duty of every marketer in a business with subscriptions. High churn numbers represent an opportunity. If you can reduce churn rates through marketing campaigns or customer success efforts, you can have a significant and lasting effect on revenues and growth.

As your readership grows, replacing subscribers who leave becomes more difficult simply because the numbers increase. If you’re serious about growth, get serious about managing churn.

What if growth isn’t your primary objective?

Most authors, speakers and consultants should focus on nurturing value (not growth), because long-term success is built on relationships, referrals, and returning clients.

I first encountered Paul Jarvis when I took his online MailChimp course. Jarvis writes software, teaches online courses, and is the author of the wonderful book Company of One. He uses that term to refer to any business that questions growth as its main objective. Jarvis writes:

Too often businesses forget about their current audience—the people already listening, buying, and engaging. These should be the most important people to your business—far more than anyone you wish you were reaching.

As a participant in the Subscription Economy, “companies of one” have many advantages over larger organizations. Sure, you may not have the budget of the big guys, but you have something that they don’t: yourself.

Email-based subscription models

Many authors provide goods or services that don’t easily fit a subscription billing model. Perhaps your work lends itself to individual projects rather than ongoing subscriptions. You might sell a few online courses or derive most of your income from one-time transactions or book royalties.

Still, you can find a way to embed subscription relationships into your business. Don’t worry about linking revenue to the subscription at the outset. Focus on building those subscription relationships instead. If you’re not ready to add a membership or subscription offering, consider starting with a simple, non-revenue-producing subscription relationship: the email subscription.

An email subscriber pays you with the currency of attention by giving you permission to send messages and by opening and reading your emails.

However, doing email well can be tricky. To see what I mean, look at the marketing emails in your inbox right now from a subscription perspective. Some are spammy; they abuse your trust by trying to sell, sell, and sell.

Others deliver real value. They’re informative or funny. Some are welcome reminders of your relationship with the sender. Those are effective value-nurturing emails.

Seth Godin is a prolific author and a genuine thought leader in the marketing space. He emails his subscribers every day. Yes, every day. These posts (which live on Seths.blog) are short, but inspiring. By showing up and providing value daily, he earns the right to occasionally tell his subscribers about his latest courses and books.

Why do all this work when there’s no revenue tied to it?

If you’ve read this far, you know one answer: Use emails to sustain and nurture relationships with existing and past readers, and future ones.

The discipline of regularly producing content for your audience forces you to put yourself in their shoes, learn about their issues, and empathize with their situations. This makes your future work better, whether you’re writing books, coding software, or crafting furniture.

This email list can also be the gateway to subscription revenue. For example, the email content may become part of something bigger, like a book or podcast. Godin’s book What to Do When It’s Your Turn (and It’s Always Your Turn) curates and compiles inspirational posts from his blogs in a beautiful package.

Or consider premium email subscriptions. You might offer both free and paid email subscriptions, giving paid subscribers early access, personalized input, or extra content.

While the revenue from paid subscriptions may be small, the benefits are outsized. For example, Jane Friedman publishes The Hot Sheet, which puts her at the forefront of publishing industry news, and connects her with people in her industry and beyond. It reinforces her core value as someone who understands the publishing industry. She is making a subscription product from the ongoing research she would do anyway.

Anne Janzer Subscription Marketing Third Edition

And even if you’re earning revenues, the primary benefit of a subscription email may be the opportunity to forge a closer connection with your audience. People who pay to subscribe to your blog will put aside the time to read the emails more carefully and will contact you with questions or insights.

Parting advice

Large organizations often struggle to put a human face on the brand. They may rely on spokespeople or talking geckos to personify the brand. They worry about fonts and logos. You’ve got something better than a logo—yourself. Add value to every interaction by being yourself, as part of any subscription offering, even if you rely on automation to simplify your operations.

Posted in Guest Post, Marketing & Promotion.

Anne Janzer is the author of Writing to Be Understood about how to make nonfiction writing compelling and enjoyable to read. Her book The Writer’s Process: Getting Your Brain in Gear combines the lessons of a writing career with the teaching of cognitive science to uncover the secrets of writing productivity. She learned about online advertising in her past life as a marketer. Today, Anne works with business writers and nonfiction authors to communicate their ideas more effectively. Find her work at annejanzer.com.

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Harvey Stanbrough

The link to Substack went to a for-sale URL.

Jane Friedman

Sorry about that, Harvey. It’s now corrected. http://substack.com

Angela Ackerman

Hi Ann,

Nice to see an article from you here at Jane’s. 🙂 I have the 2nd edition of your book, and it’s an excellent resource, especially for those new to the subscription model–thank you for writing it. Two questions for you, if you don’t mind: first, how much new content has been added to your third edition, and second, what other books on subscription business/subscription marketing would you recommend, ones that you yourself found helpful?

Thank you!

Ritu K

I really liked this: The discipline of regularly producing content for your audience forces you to put yourself in their shoes, learn about their issues, and empathize with their situations. This makes your future work better, whether you’re writing books, coding software, or crafting furniture.

I have been thinking of creating content more consistently lately and it definitely feels hard. But this is a really helpful take on it.

Great piece!

[…] Anne Janzer: Subscription Marketing for Authors: A Primer […]

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