Y’all might see some changes if you’re on my mailing list. Up until today I was a customer of MailerLite. They had nifty templates, cool automation functions, and really seemed to understand that readers of newsletters didn’t like spam. Being a customer of theirs felt like being part of a neat community where we respect our fans and all’s well until morning.
Turns out, darkness gnawed at the bitter fruit inside the hearts of humans. Or something. Email delivery cratered over the last few months, peaking in August when MailerLite were blacklisted by Spamhaus. My emails hadn’t been reaching fans. I picked up on this earlier in the year when a few emailed asking where I’d been. Checking the system, emails to many bounced, and had been doing so for longer than August’s hard fail. For a small window of time MailerLite moved me to new servers, but I think the plague spread; initially I got about 40% of people getting updates but those dropped to single digits (less than 5%).
I like being an indy author because it gives me a direct link to fans. If I’m getting less than 5% delivery, I don’t call that a connection. I call it a total fuck up.
A buddy of mine suggested using Sendy. I balked at the initial work – migration isn’t quick! – but after sending out an update recently and seeing fewer than 2% of people open it, I was like, “That’s fucked. Sendy, you’re on.” It didn’t hurt that the cost of entry was so low, and ongoing expenses for running email could drop to the price of a cup of coffee a month. Talking to folks shouldn’t cost squillions, right?
Setting up Sendy was totally painless. Putting the software on my server was the work of an hour or so. Most of that was cat-wrangling with AWS, so short-term I used FastComet’s servers to test delivery. I harvested a set of email addresses from MailerLite they claimed bounced like a rubber ball. 250 souls got an email from me asking if they wanted to keep hearing from me, and offering a small gift as an apology. What happened? This:
You’re not seeing an error there. Almost 45% of email respondents MailerLite noted as hard bounced opened the email. Only a few wanted the gift. A handful (under ten) unsubscribed. I know what you’re wanting to know: how many actually bounced? About 60 (less than 25%). Some of those were due to a colossal fuck-up on my part configuring my mail servers (I need to surrender my UNIX card). This led me to a simple conclusion:
MailerLite’s servers are being waterboarded, and my fans are paying the price.
These aren’t the only casualties of the system. Some of my biggest fans like getting advanced copies of my reads. MailerLite noted almost half of those bounced (no, they’re fine!). They have chronic delivery issues to spectacularly common email destinations like icloud.com (me.com), gmail.com, outlook.com … you get the picture.
Today marked the completion of the migration. All fans are safely in my new Sendy database. The welcome automation is up and running (and, ahem, has a few errors fixed). I’ve shared a bit of this with my author friends on Slack, and they had common questions I’ll try to address.
- How difficult is it to setup Sendy? This is super hard to answer, so like any asshole on the Internet I’ll be oblique. Sendy relies on a little knowledge of how servers work. If you’re unfamiliar with things like FTP, SQL, AWS, and so on, you may find it tricky. Sendy offer a convenient setup service for the basic system. I didn’t need it, you might. YMMV.
- How difficult is it to use Sendy? Easy and hard at the same time (my asshole powers grow). When you fire it up, it doesn’t have a nice smooth set of templates like MailChimp or MailerLite. The system is bare bones; you feed it to make it grow. You’ll want a landing page for fans to subscribe. When crafting emails you’ll need to use email templates (luckily a bazillion exist, but you need some knowledge of what to do with them). You need to recreate your automations / welcome sequences. This last stage took eons as I needed to carve what was useful from the still-bleeding carcass of my MailerLite dashboard and replicate it within Sendy.
- Are there any gotchas? The biggest I found was AWS, the core email sending system of Sendy. You can use your own provider’s SMTP servers (this works fine!) but you miss out on detailed bounce and spam reporting (it’s also unlikely, depending on your provider, to be as fast as AWS). Amazon took almost a week to approve my application to send email on my own behalf. Once they did, they really did – my limits are 50,000 emails a day. I have dreams of having that many fans, but it’s nice to have a little headroom.
- No, really. What are the gotchas? There are probably two significant ones. First, Sendy relies on your server hosting images or other nifty artifacts. You need a decent hosting provider so your emails don’t load veeeeeerry slowly, and you have capacity to hold the no-doubt very shiny cover reveals you’ll send to fans. Second, there’s no integration with services like BookFunnel, meaning you may need a different system for securely delivering ARCs (I’m using Booksprout with freeloader protection, so maybe check that out).
Despite this sounding fraught with peril, I posted this during the setup process:
— Richard Parry (@ParryForte) October 3, 2018
It was a lot of work but it didn’t feel futile. Fans can already see the results. It was just in time, too.
Wait, what? How bad can this get?
While I was going through the final pieces of migration today, I discovered my automation emails for fans … broke. But inconsistently so. I found hundreds of fans marooned in automation sequences. Some never got later emails. Others appeared to get repeat emails. Still others got looped back to earlier phases in automation. Here’s an example of the last activity on a fan’s account:
I’d like you to note today’s date (9 October) and the last action this subscriber saw (21 September). They never got moved from Phase Alpha to another squence Hell, they didn’t get any other emails from me. They just … fell off the end of the Earth (or, Internet). This is horrible from a customer service point of view (and I believe my fans are customers!). This person wanted to hear from me about cover reveals, new releases, and other slander I might make via email. Instead, they got ignored for over two weeks. Like I said, there were hundreds of these. It might go some way toward explaining poor open rates and unhappy fans.
It’s possible this is all down to a colossal cock-up on my part, but a) since most people made it out alive, and b) I set this shit up and take my hand off it, I don’t think it was me.
What’s this mean for you? Well, if you’re a happy MailerLite customer and your fans are well served, keep doing your thing. But if you’re wondering why your emails suffer delivery issues, and you can’t get a handle on dwindling fan contact, it’s possible it’s not you. I have some recommendations.
- If you’re technically savvy, Sendy works. It’s very cost effective, is very fast, and has a tonne of features. It’s not ConvertKit or MailChimp, but it will probably cost you less than two months of running either. Don’t forget to use something for secure ARC delivery.
- If you’re a bit unsure about technology, there are Sendy-alikes. For example, Nick Thacker’s built Author.Email to take some of the fuckery out of the process. Then there’s Pepo Campaigns. Or EmailOctopus. Or… you can use Internet search, too.
- If you want an easy solution that Just Works™ with automations, templates, and integration, MailChimp is probably still your gold standard to start with.
I hope this is useful if you’re struggling with fan communications. Feel free to drop me a line if you want more details. No, I will not help you setup your server, nor will I answer technical questions you have about some weird super-specific error you’re seeing. That’s why the universe created forums. Now go and talk to your fans. They deserve you.