The celebrated Canadian author Margaret Atwood recently announced that she had created a newsletter on Substack called In the Writing Burrow. Having recently taken her Masterclass course and read several of her novels, I promptly accepted her invitation to join.
Only a few hours later I received another email from her, this time a post with her musings on “Practical Utopias” and what these mean for society. A few hours later? Atwood’s take on the art of writing. While these may not be related topics, Atwood can afford to share her thoughts on just about anything and have her audience listen.
The winner of two Booker prizes and author of 18 novels and 11 non-fiction books may not be interested in monetizing her free newsletter, but an increasing number of creators are turning Substack into their primary source of income for good reason
Not only do writers get to keep 90% of the revenue they generate through the platform, but they also have full ownership of their email list and the freedom to create away from the hustle and bustle of social media. The allure is understandable. But how valuable can a newsletter be for someone of smaller stature than Atwood?
A New Model for Writers
In the past four years, Substack has experienced incredible growth in paid subscribers — from 11,000 in 2018 to 1 million by November 2021. Bari Weiss, a former New York Times journalist, used her pedigree to launch Common Sense in January 2021 and has built a community of over 250,000 subscribers. With 16,500 of those paying $50 per year, she’s already making over $800,000 annually just from her newsletter.
“I’ve made a lot more money than I ever thought was possible in journalism,” Weiss told the Reliable Sources podcast.
The platform goes further than just allowing creators to charge for their writing. In March 2021, Substack launched its Substack Pro program, which aims to support writers in their first year on the platform with a sizable upfront payment. The idea is that this advance will replace the need for a full-time job, allowing writers to dedicate themselves totally to their newsletters.
This is how Anne Helen Peterson was able to leave her full-time job as a culture writer for BuzzFeed News and work on her Culture Study newsletter, charging tens of thousands of subscribers $5 per month or $50 for an annual subscription.
Not only does this approach lift the financial burden for creators, but it also liberates them from needing to perform or compete against ever-changing algorithms. “The beauty of a newsletter is that I can still write about things even if I can’t think of a headline that will perform well on Facebook, and you can decide — instead of a Facebook algorithm — whether or not it’s interesting to you,” Peterson says.
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The Battle of Platforms
Substack’s success has given entrepreneurs, writers, and other creators the proof-of-concept they needed that the model works. Provided they have something interesting to say, people are willing to pay for it. In 2021, Benjamin Hargett and Tyler Denk, a former product manager for Google, launched their newsletter platform, Beehiiv. While creators are free to monetize their newsletters there, they also have to pay a monthly subscription fee if they want to benefit from all the features.
Another tool, Typeshare, was launched in April 2021 and comes with ready-made templates writers can use to publish across different platforms. Sam Shore, one of its founders, said the idea for Typeshare emerged from his frustration with how difficult it was to share his thoughts across social media.
“I found myself taking screenshots of my notes app then trying to crop it and it always looked like garbage,” Shore says.
While still relatively new, Typeshare has attracted a lot of attention. Justin Welsh, a solopreneur who has made over $3 million from his creator business venture, swears by it. “Typeshare helps me draft my newsletter in 45 minutes,” he posted on Twitter to his almost 250,000 followers.
Typeshare users pay a monthly fee to use its templates and analytics, but they can’t charge subscribers for access to their content. Instead, many creators use the amplification power of Typeshare to promote other products and services across LinkedIn, Twitter, and their websites.
Other content producers are striking out on their own. After amassing over 750,000 readers and 2,400 paid subscribers for their Everything Bundle newsletter on Substack, founders Dan Shipper and Nathan Eliason moved the newsletter to their very own platform, Every.to. Instead of leaving writers to build an audience on their own, they have brought together thought leaders in business and technology to give subscribers high-quality, curated content from different voices.
Don’t Wait to Create
Most of the writers who have found success on these platforms are established writers or entrepreneurs. Many of the most successful Substack newsletters have university professors, Pulitzer prize-winning journalists, and well-known authors as their creators. However, creators don’t need to be world-renowned to benefit from Substack. Success depends on a clear niche, defined message, and consistent publishing schedule.
Margaret Atwood’s first newsletter post had already amassed 189 likes and 69 comments within 24 hours but will take time to build. For entrepreneurs and creators, having a platform where they can connect with their audience, whatever its size, without outside interference is a benefit in itself. As the full owner of your content and contact list, you can decide how you engage with your community and where you take it. Having that in your back pocket is worth its weight in gold.