Simple Author Promo Tip: Nail Your Email Subject Line

As writers, we all know how hard it is to read a book without dissecting, critiquing or copy editing in your head.

As a publicist (und a lapsed writer), I can’t help giving the same scrutiny to every email and newsletter blast that lands in my inbox. Sad, perhaps, but true.

That’s because, whether you realize it or not, certain emails are actually important marketing pieces that have writing requirements of their own — just the way fiction does. Those announcing your book publication, those telling the world about your launch-party or a reading you’re giving. Emails you send to booksellers inquiring about holding an event are marketing pieces, too.

So, I offer a simple bit of advice about how to make sure that promo-related email you’re about to send doesn’t get deleted immediately or relegated to the “read later” file, only to be forgotten:

It’s all about the subject line.

Typically we think of that little field as an afterthought of sorts we have to figure out how to fill with…something. Since it’s a bit of a nuisance, we may be tempted to shirk it by just plugging in a neutral phrase requiring little or no thought. Something like, “Hi.”

The problem is, just like with fiction, you need to grab your audience’s attention with an engaging and well-crafted one-line summary of what they can expect if they open the book (or the message) and read it. For books, that description is called the logline. And when it comes to emails related to the marketing of your work, that’s exactly how you should think of the subject line: as a logline.

I see a lot of subject lines that are vague and offer no specific information on what I can expect when I open the message. These are the polar opposite of loglines. For example:

  • Guess what!
  • Finally, after all these years…
  • So excited!
  • My book!
  • Novel
  • Reading

When I see subject lines like these, I cringe. Each of them could have so many different meanings:

  • “Guess what!” I have no idea, so this can wait.
  • “Finally, after all these years…” Um, you’re pregnant? You’re taking that bucket-list trip to Australia?
  • As for “Reading,” my first thought is that this email is either about helping kids with reading skills, or is offering some good book recommendations.

Because you’re writers, you’re more likely to figure these subject lines are referring to publication dates, launch parties or readings in local bookstores. But if you weren’t a writer, your eyes might glaze over with bemusement.

How, then, do you craft that key phrase without stepping over the dreaded line between informing and being overtly self-promotional or spammy? There are a few important guidelines to bear in mind. Here are my top 4:

1. Get right to the heart of it

Come right out and say what you need your email’s readers to know up front including what the email’s purpose is. Are you announcing a book launch? Say it. Are you inviting people to a reading? Use the word “Invitation” or a phrase such as “Join me.”

2. Be specific and gritty

Include any specific, crucial information that your recipients will need to bear in mind so that the details stick and they can plan to follow up accordingly. Is your launch party in 2 weeks, or in 2 months? Give that date. Will attending entail travel for some, or an overnight stay? State its location.

3. Don’t wax sentimental

Just like with other writing exercises, every word counts. Your space is limited, so don’t waste it by exclaiming how excited / honored / thrilled / touched / nervous / verklempt you are to be reaching out about your book. See point #1 above.

4. Keep it tight

An email’s subject line field can hold a lot of content, but chances are that when a message lands in any given inbox, that content will get cut off at somewhere between 75 and 115 characters. Because the last thing you want is for important details to flow out of your readers’ field of vision, make sure the entire message is super tight. That means it should pack an optimal amount of information into a limited number of characters. Kind of like a tweet.

Here are a few examples of subject lines that work:

  • Join me! Celebrating launch of my novel 11/10/15, Harvard Bookstore
  • Invitation to reading: [TITLE OF BOOK], 12/1/15, Flyeaf Books (Chapel Hill)
  • Announcing the release of [TITLE OF BOOK] ; on sale today!
  • Talk proposal (Edgar nominee): “How Mystery Writing Unearths True Crime Stories”
  • Proposing event featuring award-winning author of [TITLE OF BOOK]
  • Would you consider blurbing my novel, [TITLE OF BOOK]? (Penguin, fall 2016)

Of course, the body of the text is important too, and overall, the same guidelines apply. But without a subject line that pulls your email’s readers in, they may not get that far — or may do so too late.

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