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Janet Roberts

Publisher Interview: Randy Cassingham
By Janet Roberts

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If Randy Cassingham were a newspaper, he'd be the New York Times. A software designer? Microsoft. A soft drink? Coca-Cola. In other words, he's one of the towering brands in email publishing, someone others turn to not just for what he writes but how he does it as well.

Randy produces three free email newsletters:

  • "This is True," a collection of incredible-but-true stories that more often than not chronicle the outstandingly stupid things people do every day. (This is True's paid version was one of the first paid-circulation general-interest email newsletters.)

  • "HeroicStories," accounts of personal courage and heroism, kind of the antidote to This is True.

  • "The Stella Awards" details notable frivolous lawsuits and other legal shenanigans.

We asked Randy to take a break from his publishing empire, which includes his newsletters, speaking, consulting and other writing gigs, to talk about email publishing. You'll find his comments vintage Cassingham: to the point, funny and often contradicting the conventional wisdom.

Janet Roberts: You recently launched your third newsletter, The Stella Awards. How has the email-newsletter-publishing business changed since you launched This Is True in 1994?

Randy Cassingham: In 1994, TRUE stood out because there was so little quality content available then. People were flooding onto the Internet because it was cool, but once they got past the basics of the technology they quickly started to ask, "What is there to DO here?"

TRUE was something they could get that made being online worthwhile. I don't mean that egotistically, really -- there wasn't all that much to see that you could count on being there every week. It helped too that TRUE appeals greatly to writers and reporters; it came to their attention, and when they needed something interesting to write ABOUT in their own columns and articles, there it was.

Of course all that has changed. Now, there's so much content competing for attention, it's very, very difficult to stand out, even if you're publishing the Best Thing Ever. We all get about 2 gazillion emails a day from friends alone saying "Cool! Look at THIS!" that even a personal recommendation isn't worth what it used to be.

In 1994, it took time to build up an email list because there weren't all that many people online. Now, even with many times the population, it's still hard to build a list because you're competing for attention. The bottom line hasn't changed: it takes time to build a list.

JR: Did you do anything significantly different with Stella that you wouldn't have been able to do with This is True or HeroicStories?

RC:The only advantage Stella and HS have over TRUE is that I already have a gigantic audience of people who like my work. Two weeks after I first announced Stella, it had 10,000 subscribers -- and the ad space was sold out for the rest of the month. The second 10,000 will be harder, though!

JR: Your three newsletters are kind of the same but different. Reader contributions are important in all of them, and they all deal with real-life situations, but they speak to different audiences. Do you have a different method for promoting each one, or do you promote them together?

RC:TRUE and Stella are fairly similar; they're about ridiculous things that really happen. They're things that make you laugh -- or cry! -- over their utter stupidity. HS is the other side of the same coin; instead of dumb people doing dumb things in TRUE, HS has cool people doing cool things. They are all, though, interesting stories about people -- what the newspapers used to call "human interest stories."

There's a reason such stories are popular: people like reading about interesting people! If I can make readers laugh or get thoughtful for a few minutes, then I've really got something.

JR: What works best to get people to subscribe to the premium version of This Is True?

RC:Two things: 1. Provide something they WANT to support -- unique content, quality, a publication that makes them laugh or think, or some combination. 2. Wear them down! The reminder of "what you missed by not having a Premium subscription" every week makes them really kick themselves for not having upgraded when they first thought it might be a good idea.

A couple of recent "you missed these stories" teases were, "Man thinks it's 'unsafe' for his buddy to drive after drinking, so he gets his gun -- and ends up killing his friend (can you guess what state the story's in?)" and "South Australia's Premier declares the war has ended -- World War II, that is." Do you wonder what those stories are about? Do you wonder how I made those stories entertaining, even funny?

If not, I did a bad job. If so, you might part with just a few bucks to not only see those stories, but see 4-5 other stories EVERY WEEK that you would have otherwise missed. That's very motivating!"

JR: You publish four newsletters, including True's premium edition. How do you do it without going crazy?

RC:It ain't easy! Most get exasperated trying to run ONE good list. Even though email publishing is what I do for a living, so it doesn't have to compete with a "real" job (but I did do both for two years, while TRUE was gearing up -- there's that long-term growth thing again!), I couldn't do it without help.

In my case, I hired an editor to take over running HeroicStories, and she hired story editors (that I pay) to polish the story submissions.

I'm still the publisher, so I'm pretty deeply involved with it, but I'm not doing the day-to-day work on it. Others may be running a hobby list that doesn't generate income to hire people, but maybe there's another expert in your field that you could partner with to help with writing the zine.

Just have something worked out in advance in case it doesn't work out -- or if it works out so well that it's making good money!

It's also important to choose a topic you truly enjoy writing about. After eight years I'm far from tired of "weird news" -- and I haven't run out of fresh things to say about dumb people. And while I'm not a legal expert, I have plenty to say about dumb lawsuits I'm writing about for the Stella list.

If it's a horrible chore for you, your readers WILL notice. And if you're having a blast writing about your topic, they'll notice THAT, too!

Part Two of this interview in the next Ezine-Tip.

Ezine-Tips for September 18, 2002

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