This morning I received an email announcing StoryOrigin will leave open beta in April and begin its long-promised subscription business model. StoryOrigin is a service that facilitates newsletter swaps among authors looking to grow their mailing list. It does so by creating a network of authors who exchange book mentions and lead magnets in the hope of acquiring new subscribers or making book sales. The site is easy to use, and what it does, it does well. Before StoryOrigin, authors either relied on attracting visitors to their websites (and hoping to hook them with a lead magnet) or using one of the many newsletter swap groups on Facebook.

In the email, StoryOrigin outlined the changes and, importantly, the new Standard Plan's price: $10 per month, or $100 per year. I'll get to whether this is worth it for me in a moment, but first is the question of why authors go to the effort of growing a mailing list.

Why authors grow their lists

Indie authors want to grow our mailing lists because a newsletter is touted as one of our most lucrative marketing channels. Facebook marketing is more miss than hit, and while Amazon and Goodreads are more effective, they are expensive. A newsletter is comparatively cheap to operate. In theory, at least, you have a captive audience -- people who have been kind enough to give you their email address. Build your list, build their trust, convert them to paying customers -- that's the mantra. This strategy is promoted by the indie author heavyweights, such as Nick Stephenson (who sells courses on this strategy), Mark Dawson, Joanna Penn, and even Pat Flynn's Smart Passive Income podcast.

While this strategy is based on sound reasoning (and notable success stories), the reality is different for most authors. As someone who's run an email newsletter for 6 years, I feel as though the heyday of this form of marketing has passed. Over the last couple of years, I've noticed a real drop off in subscriber engagement. It started happening when Gmail decided to automatically direct subscriptions to the promotions folder instead of the inbox - which most people either ignore or don't even know exists. Similarly, Hotmail (and Live mail) are much more likely to mark an author's newsletter as SPAM as not. Gmail and Hotmail users account for 90% of my subscribers. Couple this with the EU's GDPR laws, and it's been a pretty rough time for bloggers in general, not just indie authors.

People have become far more weary and wary of email marketing, and I don't blame them. Email marketing is an easy strategy to abuse. I'm just as tired of SPAM as you are. Email used to be my favourite form of correspondence. Now I dread opening my Mail app and having to spend 30 minutes of my day weeding out the crap, most of it sent from parties (businesses and services, online creators, authors) who have abused the trust I gave in sharing my email.

So, GDPR forced me to axe 90% of EU subscribers -- including Britain and Ireland, my second biggest readership market after the US. Gmail and Hotmail changed the way my emails are received. People's changing relationship with email cut both engagement and growth of my list. I also prune my list every 6 months of people who don't engage with my newsletters to cut my email costs. In this context, I must now evaluate whether StoryOrigin is worth $10 a month to continue with the strategy of growing my newsletter.

StoryOrigin has indeed garnered me about 2000 new subscribers since I started using the service. Yet, it's equally true that my attrition rate for subscribers I get through StoryOrigin is something like 90% within the first 3 months. In other words, for every 100 I get, only 10 stick with me after 3 months. Compare this to those who sign up directly via my website, and it's the opposite picture. I get fewer subscribers on my website, but they are far more loyal and far more engaged.

What's happening is obvious, or a least I think I know what is happening. Across the indie knowledge and entertainment economy, creators race to the bottom to compete for audiences hoping to convert a small percentage of them into paying customers. But giving away content for free attracts a fickle audience, and once free dries up, people move on. I completely understand it -- unless a reader feels compelled to support an author, there's zero incentive to stay. There's so much free content available a reader can spend a lifetime never paying for books. My wife is a prolific reader and never pays a cent for what she reads, thanks to author giveaways, Wattpad (and similar sites), and our local library's participation in the Overdrive service. Kindle Unlimited's all-you-can-eat subscription similarly disincentivises readers for paying content that's not otherwise available to them as part of their subscription.

Dodgy maths and the numbers game

Allow me to build a straw man argument.

Let us imagine an author with a mailing list of 1500 readers (that's not unreasonable if you've been doing this a while), which they manage with MailerLite. We'll assume that 5% of an author's mailing list is converted to a paying customer, whereby this hypothetical subscriber buys one $2.99 book a month from Amazon. That's 75 sales a month with a royalty of roughly $2 a book, once you subtract tax and Amazon's delivery fee. I'll round up to $150 in royalties a month. Not too shabby, but then StoryOrigin and MailerLite will take $25 (plus local taxes). Still, that leaves about $125, which after 10 months will pay for the editing costs of your next book...

However, the fatal flaw in my straw man is the theoretical 5% of subs buying a $2.99 book every month. My average newsletter click rate is 3%, and that might go up to 5-6% when I'm giving away a book for free (I told you, engagement is down). Of that 3%, I'd be lucky if 1% actually part with their cash. So, in reality, my conversion rate is a fraction of a per cent.

To make the aforementioned $150 bucks a month, the author's list would have to be many, many times larger. I'm shit at maths, but we're talking a factor of 20 or more. At 20 thousand subscribers, MailerLite costs $100 a month. Mailchimp's Essentials plan costs $170 a month -- plus local taxes, and plus the $10 you'll have to give to StoryOrigin to help grow your list to that figure.

Concluding thoughts

I like StoryOrigin and respect what the developer has done to streamline what was previously a bit time suck. In fairness, he's been open about the service transitioning to a paid subscription model for as long as I've used it. I don't know the exact structure of StoryOrigin's payment plans; I'm not sure if there's a free tier and what that would provide. I feel the Standard Plan at $10 per month ($100 per year) is too much for the vast majority of indie authors, most of whom are lucky to sell one book a month, let alone the 75 I used in my straw man argument.

Then there are issues with building a list in the first place. It's a double-edged sword. It might result in more sales, but the costs incurred increase sharply as your subscribers grow. My experience running a newsletter for 6 years has taught me, this strategy is not the secret formula for success that Nick Stephenson's Your First 10k Readers mantra would have you believe. Keep in mind that Nick makes most of his money -- you guessed it -- selling courses and coaching to authors looking to replicate his success.

So, is $10 a month for StoryOrigin worth the price for growing my newsletter list, given my poor retention rate?

Probably not.

Of course, your mileage may vary.

The question surfaces an awkward reality, the elephant in the indie publishing room. Indie authors often spend far more on marketing (and services in general) than they'll ever recover in royalties. The truth is, I never cared about my newsletter numbers or retention rates. Still, if I have to pay $10 a month just to grow my list, then suddenly that retention and conversion rate becomes crucial. I would feel far more pressure to monetise my list instead of treating it like a communication channel to my readers. Given my admittedly half-arsed approach to marketing (and my attitude to authorship business in general), it's not a threshold I feel willing to cross. It's literally my spending time and money propping up other author's lists hoping that I'll procure and retain their readers along with my own.

When I say that last sentence aloud, suddenly the whole enterprise seems rather a ridiculous endeavour!