Which comes first, the email list of readers, or a novel that attracts them?

Some writers believe that building an email list before you have a novel to offer is putting the cart before the horse.

Podcast listener, Meredith Abernathy, asked:

“I keep hearing the advice to start marketing and start a newsletter as early as possible, even before you’re published. But whenever I ask for help in my Facebook writer groups, they say I’m putting the cart before the horse.

I have no books to offer for free in exchange for newsletter signups, so I have zero signups. I’m not sure about offering sample chapters of my novel because they may change again between now and publication. 

Is there something I can offer that readers care about, or am I doomed to launch a book to zero readers?”

Meredith, first, you are not doomed!

Second, we believe your email list is the horse that pulls the cart. To build an email list strong enough to pull your novel, you can offer readers a short story.

In our Five Year Plan, we talk about the value of writing short stories for developing your craft and grow your readership.

I’ll freely admit, writing a short story is different than writing a novel. But there are several advantages for writers who learn to write short stories.

Short stories make you a better writer.

I was on my neighborhood swim team for over ten years as a kid. We won every meet every year for at least five years in a row. In the years I competed, we won the championship all but two years.

Our secret to our success was swimming drills during practice. We rarely swam like we would in a meet. Instead, we focused on a specific technique for a day. We would swim for 15 minutes with kickboards to master kicking faster. We would swim using only our left arm. 

Other teams swam hard. We swam smart. We did not swim a lot of “garbage yardage” by swimming three miles a day.

Writing a full-length novel as your first project is the slowest path to publishing success. As a beginning writer, you are probably reinforcing bad habits you’re not aware of yet, and you need to work on specific techniques.

You don’t usually get much feedback on your novel until you’re finished writing the whole thing. But by that time, you’ve made the same mistakes for 300 pages, and when you rewrite, you must fix the same problems repeatedly. 

Many authors give up on the process at that point because it is so exhausting.

On the other hand, writing short stories allows you to focus on specific aspects of your craft to improve on them.

My brother, David, is going through The Five Year Plan to Becoming a Bestselling Author Overnight. Early in his writing, he struggled with creating character voices. All his characters sounded like a sarcastic version of himself. 

To fix the problem, he started writing short stories in the voice of various characters to learn how to make them sound different. He wrote a short story from the point of view of a computer to force himself to see the world differently.

Some of his stories are told from the point of view of unimportant characters in his story world, which has also helped with his world-building.

In one short story, he left out all dialogue because he wasn’t working on dialogue. That wouldn’t work for an entire book, but it was a great drill to hone his other skills.

Short stories are fun, and they allow you to work on specific writing muscle groups. They are the writing equivalent of the drills we swam in practice. 

Short stories make it easier to get feedback.

When you ask a friend or fellow writer to give feedback on your novel, you’re asking for at least 12 hours of their time. It’s no small favor. You may have a tough time finding someone who will do it for free, and paying an editor to provide feedback on an early draft can be costly.

On the other hand, a friend or fellow writer can read and provide feedback on a short story in a few hours. It’s still a favor, but it will take less time, and you’re more likely to find someone willing to critique. 

Short stories are easier to edit.

When the critique is done, and you get feedback, it’s easier to edit and make changes to a 5,000-word short story than in a 95,000-word novel. It’s less overwhelming, and you’re more likely to follow through with the changes that need to be made.

And as you rewrite, you’ll learn from the mistakes you made and unlearn your bad writing habits.

Short stories are easier to abandon if things are not working out.

After you make changes, you may discover some aspect of your story that doesn’t work. Maybe your premise is unconvincing, or your storyline can’t be fixed. It’s much easier to abandon the short story than to discard a novel you’ve worked on for five years. 

Many writers have invested so much time and emotion in their first novel that it feels tragic to let it go. But often, the best thing you can do for your career is to move on and start a new book.

Most successful authors have at least one early novel that they vow never to publish. Years later, they recognize the work was not publishable, but they’re grateful for the practice it provided.

In his book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, author Adam Grant cited an experiment done with a group of ceramic art students. 

The class was divided into two groups. The professor explained that half the class would be graded on the quality of a single piece of work, while the other half would be graded on the quantity of pieces they produced.

Instinct would tell us that the students who spent an entire semester perfecting one pot would produce superior work. But the experiment demonstrated that students who made the greatest number of pots learned better techniques and applied them to new works. 

In the end, the students who created more work created better work.

When you write short stories, you’re creating a volume of work. You experiment with different techniques that you can eventually apply to your novel. 

Short stories help with marketing.

The most important part of your marketing is to produce a high-quality product. Good marketing helps a bad book fail faster. Begin your marketing efforts with deliberate practice writing short stories so that your novel will be worth marketing.

Some authors get amazing results from advertising and promotion, while others get no results at all. The difference is that one book well-written and targeted to the right audience. For the other, the book is not a good fit. It might be marketed to the wrong people, or it might be promising something it doesn’t deliver.

You must learn to deliver a story that keeps the promise you made to the reader.

Becoming a better writer is good marketing.

Short stories make great reader magnets.

A reader magnet (also called a lead magnet) is a prize you offer your readers in exchange for their email address. Offering a short story can dramatically improve how fast your email list grows (Learn how to create and deliver a reader magnet).

Most authors want to use the first few chapters of their book as a reader magnet, but that doesn’t work for several reasons. 

First, a few chapters don’t provide a complete reading experience. Reading a short story, with its beginning, middle, and end, is a more satisfying experience for your reader than reading a segment of your novel.

But this doesn’t mean your short story has to be unrelated. You can offer a prequel, deleted scene, or the adventure of a minor character set in the same story world.

Second, readers can already easily view those chapters on Kindle Instant Preview by tapping a button. Making them fill out a form on your website is harder, and if you send them a PDF, it may be difficult to read on their device.

Many novelists realize they need short stories to give away on their website about a month before their book releases. Then they rush to write a short story. 

This is backward. Authors can use short stories to hone their craft, build their story world, and grow their email list before they even write the book. 

Make sure your short story is as powerful and well-crafted as it can be. It will serve as your first impression to readers. If readers find it ho-hum, they are not likely to purchase your book.

A powerful short story with a quality book cover image makes a great reader magnet.

Short stories help you find an editor.

Since you’re writing a first-rate short story, do not skip the editing. This is an opportunity to find an editor and learn how to work with him or her. If you’ve written several short stories, submit them to different editors to determine which editor is best for your story.

Now, when you want to lay down the money to hire an editor for your entire novel, you’ll know which editor is the best fit.

I had three editors edit the same chapter of my book, and it was a great way to find out who did the best work and who I could work with best. 

Short stories give you something to sell.

If you write all of the short stories we recommend in The Five Year Plan, you will have enough stories to bundle and sell as a collection. 

The income you earn from selling your collection can fund your future editors cover designers. You’ll be getting paid for your practice.

So, which comes first? The novel or the short story? 

In most cases, it’s best to write a volume of short stories before you publish your novel. 

Short stories are the deliberate practice of writing drills. Over time, you’ll have become a better writer, garnered a following, connected with the right collaborators, and maybe even made some money to invest in your novel. 

Featured Patron

Jamie Foley author of Sage: The Sentinel Trilogy Book 3

Ancient elementals awaken, fracturing a dying world to its core. Teravyn Aetherswift returns to the land of the living, but everything seems unfamiliar, including her little brother. Zekk offers help, but can an alluring Lynx be trusted? Sorvashti finally has everything she ever wanted, so the last thing she wants to do is run after traitors. But she won’t leave Jet’s side—unless the horrifying truth about his mother tears them apart. Darien is sick of being used and lied to. But if he stands up for what’s right, he’ll pay the price with his life… or the lives of those he loves.


Rubart Writing Academy

A four-day, in-person writing Academy, where you’ll discover the theme of your life, learn about the craft, marketing, branding, the business side of publishing, and find motivation and inspiration, so you can get published and share your stories with the world. For more information about dates and locations, visit our website.

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