Being a writer is as simple as beginning to write. Being a successful writer takes more investment: honing your voice, finding an audience, using slang without sounding pretentious/annoying/elderly… making money. If you want to succeed on Meta and Google’s internet, you have to adhere to finicky (and often problematic) algorithms. Or you did — until Substack launched in 2017. In this post, we’ll cover how to use Substack to launch your very own newsletter.
Substack is a subscription-based newsletter service. If Mailchimp and Patreon had a baby, its name would be Substack. Writers sign up to produce a newsletter that they can supply for free, or for a monthly fee. The benefit? This allows writers — who have generally relied on media companies to pay their wages — to monetize their ideas without sacrificing quality to appease SEO, establish domain authority, or write clickbait-y headlines. If you do charge your readers, Substack takes 10%, payment company Stripe takes 3%, and the rest goes into the writer’s pocket.
The tricky part of Substack is, poetically, the same as that of becoming a successful writer. Here are our tips for how to monetize your Substack newsletter.
Setting up your Substack
Setting up your Substack is much more of a branding exercise than a technical one. To get started, organize your fundamentals: a name, a URL, a logo, and a short description.
- The name: Should be simple, dynamic, and catchy. A tall order, but hey — you’re a writer.
- The URL: Keep it simple and with intuitive spelling.
- The logo: This is more of an avatar than a logo. Save the tonal gradients for your image bank and choose something with crisp lines that is recognizable. The logo’s sweet spot is 256 x 256 pixels, according to Substack, but can be slightly larger or smaller.
- The short description: This is your elevator pitch. What is this newsletter about, and why should someone read it? The description lives on your “Welcome” page, which appears to new readers.
There’s a bit more to it — choosing and customizing a theme for your site, templating your newsletter, writing some initial posts — but Substack is fiercely dedicated to a tight offering. Do the legwork up front to make sure your basic branding and pitch are clear: if a reader doesn’t make it past your short description, it doesn’t matter how nice the web theme is.
How to grow your Substack
The Substack platform caters to a huge, niche-oriented audience. On the same platform, you can subscribe to a newsletter detailing the underbelly of the NBA marketing machine, get a weekly drop of hyper-regional snack foods from around the world, or read up on trends in rave culture, reported Gonzo-style. Regardless of your cranny, here are the best ways to establish and grow your Substack audience.
- Make your newsletter free… to start
- Even if you do have a considerable presence elsewhere — maybe you’re a TikTok star, popular on Twitter, or have published some best-selling books — your audience will want to assess the value of your work before they decide to pay for it. Keep in mind that when you do decide to put up a paywall, the most likely subscribers will come from your Free list. Emily Atkin, author of climate-change newsletter Heated, estimated 6% of her audience converted from Free to Paid in the first week of her paywall. So get that Free list as big as you can.
- Be consistent
- Consistency builds trust in your audience. It reassures them that a subscription to your content is money well spent. Invest in some content-planning before you start trying to market your material. You’ll thank yourself when you’re hungover or burnt out and have to write something specific, thoughtful, funny, charismatic, insightful… etc.
- Your social accounts, like Instagram or Twitter, are an excellent place to mine email subscribers. Your followers are already invested in what you have to post, and the chances that they’ll want more of you are pretty good. Share your new writing venture with these communities, speaking specifically to what those audiences will gain by reading. If your Twitter followers know you for your in-depth analysis of foreign policy, tempt them with the promise of no character limit. If your Instagram audience loves you for your beautiful and inventive recipes, explain how the newsletter format will expand your offering.
- You may get to a place where it makes sense to begin social accounts that are exclusively about your newsletter. To start, it’s easier to engage with the audience you already have.
- Build a launch plan
- When you’re ready to put up your paywall, building a comprehensive launch plan will give you the structure you need to stay the course. From early-bird discounts to testimonials to personal insights, a launch plan helps you be strategic and thoughtful, and to stay the course when doubt creeps in.
- Keep offering free content
- Once you’ve launched your paid newsletter, don’t forget about the Freemium people that got you here. Make sure you offer a small selection of your work so new people can decide whether they want to invest. Whether that means offering a Free version of your newsletter (like celebrity chef Alison Roman, who’s paid version includes a weekly recipe, while her unpaid is just musings and nice pictures), or publishing an occasional public post for all-subscribers — your Free list is still the lowest-barrier method to grow your subscriber count.
Substack best practices
We’ve covered a lot of Best-Practices by other names in this post. Choosing a simple and memorable title, being consistent with your publishing schedule, writing a content plan, building a big free list before going paid… but for the sake of the header, here are three more best practices to consider as you work to monetize your writing career.
- Know your worth
- No, literally research it. When it comes time to launch the paid version of your newsletter, spend time looking at newsletters similar in form and topic and gauge their price. Aiming too high can put off potential readers (as was the case with trend forecaster Sean Monahan, who originally set the price for his newsletter at $600USD per year). Going too low could risk your ability to sustain your work.
- Remember: You’re setting up a business
- You’re going to have to do a lot of shameless self-promotion. Tax season will be strange and new and may require an accountant. A budget is recommended.
- Stay weird
- The best part about Substack is how it’s empowered a hundred thousand avenues of interest. Trust that your voice has something to add, go find your people, and honor yourself and your reader by keeping it weird.
You’re already doing the groundwork by reading articles like this one. Keep brainstorming your pitch, writing your content plan, and practicing your craft.