How many newsletters did you delete from your inbox this morning? No judgement. We all do it. You subscribe to someone’s newsletter and then…eh.
It’s a vital part of marketing in almost any industry, and it’s a massive sales driver for most authors.
But did you know that there are writers out there who are making an actual living from writing newsletters, separate from any book revenue?
It got even more popular during the pandemic, when a lot of writers felt pressured to hustle and the publishing industry slowed. I’ve heard from a lot of you over the last year or so: what about Substack?
So let’s get into it! What about Substack for authors?
What’s Substack anyway?
Substack is simply an email list platform, but it’s built specifically as a monetized subscription model. It has all the traditional things a decent email platform has – analytics, list management tools. And yes, you can have a free newsletter on Substack. But the model is built to make taking payment easier.
Writers set the price, but most subscriptions run about $5 per month, or $50 per year if you pay at once. But there’s also quite a few niche topics (investment advice, etc.) that command higher subscription costs. It’s not a huge amount of money on its face, but the most successful people on the platform – most of whom aren’t exactly Kardashian-level famous, but more cultural figures, academics, authors and journalists – have thousands of subscribers, so it does add up, even after Substack takes about 10% of the revenue for their fees.
There are other services that do similar things like Ghost (an open-source, nonprofit version that’s very interesting to me), Patreon, Campaignzee (part of MailChimp’s products) and Buy Me a Coffee. But right now, Substack has a lot of momentum with authors.
I polled my team to see if they were Substack subscribers.
Nancy: I have been reading Roxanne Gay’s newsletter for a long time, and I get it on Substack. She’s amazing, and it’s one of my very favorite emails to open. I also subscribe to Book Post, which is a really smart book review account.
Sarah: I’m a longtime subscriber to author/The Toast co-founder Daniel Lavery’s content, and he recently moved from Patreon (another subscription service that isn’t specifically for writers) to Substack. I also get Agents and Books, which is about publishing and working with agents.
Why are writers using it?
The idea here is that monetizing a newsletter is an attractive option for folks who want to produce content that is wholly independent.
For journalists, it’s become a refuge from the corporatized newsrooms with low salaries and overwhelming workloads. A newsperson can do longform reporting in an environment that isn’t worried about appealing to broad audiences or offending advertisers…and they can also write with a strong point of view.
For authors, it’s a place to share work that’s personal, outside your usual genre, bonus scenes you’ve worked on, character sketches. It could even be a place to try out serialized writing. In a team chat about the serialized opportunities presented by Amazon Vella (read our blog post about that here), Nancy pointed out that author Katie Conrad has been using Substack to write a cozy story about a witch and her cat, Saffron and Bear.
Plus, you’ve probably noticed that social media has gotten a whole lot noisier lately. People are tuning out, and passive reach has been declining for years. You have to pay to get people to look at your content, and when you spend the money on an ad, you want to know that ad is going to a place that’s going to contribute to your bottom line. So why not send your ad to a paid product like Substack?
What does it take to do well on Substack?
The biggest challenge for anyone who’s interested in making Substack a true revenue stream is that it requires a huge amount of list building, just like any other email marketing you’d do.
Sure, the reward is more direct here – getting subscribers is going to immediately pay off, you don’t need to wait for them to buy your book! – but if you’re not known to your audience, they’re not going to pay $5 a month to get to know you.
Even if you already have a good email list with engaged readers, stats suggest that about 10% of them will convert to paying subscribers. And Substack doesn’t really help you find new subscribers through the platform unless you are already a top performer.
So my advice to anyone looking to try Substack out is:
- Keep offering your free newsletter because it remains one of your best marketing tools; these folks already love you. Consistently messaging the fun you’re having on Substack with your subscribers, but also continuing to provide value to your free subscribers is a great way to convert more and more to your paid model. You can do both on the Substack platform.
- Develop a strategy to promote your Substack on social media. This model doesn’t let you step away from social media, friends – in fact, it's one of the best ways to grow your audience. Think of social media as being a customer funnel bringing folks into your subscription.
- Make this work your best. When you ask people to pay for your newsletter, it needs to be as good as a newsletter as your book is as a book.
- Even though your work needs to be “worth it,” one of the main things people like about paid content like this is that it’s giving them access to something special. Being personal or casual is something many subscribers enjoy and look forward to seeing in their Substack subscriptions.
- Make sure you’re publishing regularly. Weekly is ideal, but some writers do a few short pieces a week.
So should I start a Substack?
If you already have a big email list OR if you’re willing to spend the time, effort and money (especially ad spend) towards growing your email list, go for it!
If you’re looking to Substack to be a supplemental income at most, and you’d like to connect with your readers in a new way or with new material, go for it!
There’s really no downside…unless it takes you away from your other writing goal of publishing your books, of course!