For a while, every writer "had to have" a Myspace page, and then you "had to have" a blog, and then I lost track for a while--maybe it was Facebook or Twitter you had to have. Nowadays, a newsletter seems to be the thing to have.
The trouble with these must-have platforms is that they tend to work best for the early adopters. Then the audience becomes saturated, then oversaturated, and people decide something else is the new must-have.
And I suspect that is what will happen with newsletters. More and more writers seem to be doing them. I don't send one out myself, but I do get a few, and I thought I'd share FWIW what I like and don't like as a reader.
I am currently very careful about signing up for any new newsletters. I get a lot of email as it is, and by far the best email falls into two categories: 1) personal messages from people I know; and 2) messages about my writing (fan mail, communications from agent, acceptances from editors, etc.). I get tons and tons of spam, and fundraising requests, and political-action messages, and I'm not eager to add new email to my box unless it's more like categories 1 and 2 than like the spam.
Some of the newsletters I most enjoy getting (not in any particular order) are from: Powell's bookstore; Brent Hartinger; Beth Kephart's Juncture; my local library. There may be a couple of others I'm forgetting at the moment. But here's why I like them:
--I asked for them, either by actively signing up or by initiating contact with the writer. One thing I really dislike is when authors with whom I've had no contact add me to their mailing lists, or when companies start bombarding me with messages when I haven't actively signed up for their lists. A few authors have sent me newsletters that had me scratching my head: Who is this person and why is he announcing his new books in a genre I don't even read?
--They include interesting information beyond just "buy my book!" Powell's has author interviews and essays that are about interesting topics. My library's newsletter lets me know what is going on: upcoming workshops, for example. Beth Kephart invites a conversation with her readers, most of whom are also writers.
--They have a unique flavor and a personality. Beth Kephart and Brent Hartinger both address their readers in tones that are typical of their author voices (Kephart's thoughtful, intimate, poetic; Hartinger's fun and often funny), and that show an awareness of audience. Too many newsletters just seem to be slick, slapped-together commercials that are being flung out into an anonymous universe: an ad for an upcoming book, with perhaps a favorable review quote, and maybe a short, generalized message to readers that could just as easily appear in any other author's newsletter. I like knowing that a favorite author has a new book out; I'm not saying that an author newsletter has to coyly sidestep that fact. But a book ad is not the same thing as a newsletter.
--They are fairly brief; any longer material is click-to-see-more. Nobody can spend all day reading newsletters. The ones I've mentioned are succinct. Powell's is the longest, but it's formatted so that you can see at a glance which features and interviews are of enough personal interest to click through and read the whole thing.
I have absolutely bought or checked out books that I found out about from newsletters. But I still find most of my books in other ways. I think a newsletter can work well for authors who really want to do them (rather than feeling obligated to), who can think of ways to put their own personal spin on them. But I also think newsletters are not "must-haves" for those who'd rather not do them.