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You may have heard the hype about Substack, a platform which enables writers to publish – and monetise – their e-newsletters, used by authors such as Salman Rushdie and George Saunders. But what’s it really like gaining financial support from your readers using Substack? We commissioned Bri Lee to share her strategy and learnings.
The story of how I came to write my News & Reviews newsletter is as much about push factors (away from social media) as it is about pull factors (towards a newsletter) and I believe this context is important background information.
I created my Instagram account about ten years ago and it was a crucial tool for promoting the work I did founding and editing an indie lit mag, and then my own work as a freelancer and author. In 2017 when I signed a book deal for my debut I understood that my social media following would be critical to the success of that book. As much as I admire and adore the anti-social media stances of successful authors like Zadie Smith and Sally Rooney, that approach never felt like an option for me. My writing had to pay my rent in 2018. And now, in 2022, it must pay my mortgage. I need to be able to make reliable money for my family. If I want to exercise my artistic freedom in the pages of the books I write, I need to be willing to be strategic and savvy about how they are then sold. Ideally one day I won’t have to do this second job, but that day isn’t here yet.
Gradually over the years I was accumulating followers on social media (mostly on Instagram) but also becoming increasingly frustrated and disillusioned by how the platforms flattened everything. If I wanted to do a call-out for important advocacy-related things, for example, I had to use a photo of my face otherwise the algorithm wouldn’t put my post at the tops of people’s feeds. Also, there’s no way you can have twenty thousand followers without attracting a small but vocal percentage of trolls.
In 2020 I began trying to think of a way that I could maintain a connection with my audience, leave the trolls behind, and be able to create writing and content that honours life’s complexity. Some Australian authors (like Jennifer Down) had been sending out email newsletters using TinyLetter, but Substack was gaining traction in America. I was a subscriber to a couple of Substacks, and started looking into how difficult it might be to start one. The answer was: not difficult at all.
I commissioned my artist friend Rhea Isaacs to do me up a header and illustration, and sent out my first edition in August 2021. Fast-forward to now, just over a year later, and I have almost 5,000 subscribers. In January 2022 I added a paid subscription functionality for ‘special edition’ content, and I now have enough paying subscribers that the newsletter accounts for one out of my five working days per week.
So, what’s my newsletter about?
News & Reviews is a weekly dispatch for stylish nerds. In regular weeks readers will get a round-up of both good and bad news items with some commentary from me. I focus on areas of the news that I have specific interest and expertise in. I also include a short essay: a ‘bad review’ of something I’ve consumed (usually a film, show, or book), and a list of three ‘good reviews’ of a whole range of things. There’s also a giveaway of some kind.
There are two special editions each month which are only for paying subscribers: Nerd News & Reviews and Style News & Reviews. From November onwards I will be paying three other contributors for regular work appearing in both these special editions.
Sound like a lot of work? It is! Fortunately I love it, and I consider building this space to be a strategic part of my long-term readership engagement strategy. I spend less time on Instagram now too, and my profile is less dependent on photos of myself, which is always a good thing.
What have I learned?
My newsletter goes out every week, no matter what. Some specific editions result in ‘spikes’ in subscribers, but as with most things in life, there’s no shortcut for doing the homework. A regular trickle of new readers is what accumulates over the long-term.
Personally I’m also not trying to ‘go viral’. I don’t want a spike in thousands of readers who then rarely open News & Reviews or don’t genuinely care about it. In other words: quality over quantity. I think this attitude has helped shepherd me through quieter months and times when the numbers aren’t ‘growing’. When I ask myself: Why am I doing this? The answer is: For the genuine engagement-with-readers I used to have before social media went to shit. I am doing this because I enjoy drawing connections between news and cultural items, and paying attention to goings-on each week. I enjoy having a place where I know I can publish an essay that won’t ‘fit’ at a normal outlet but which I think is important. I appreciate that my access to my community is no longer reliant on an algorithm.
People who do pay will often be paying to ‘support you and your work’ rather than necessarily paying because they perceive the value of what they get in their inbox is equal to the dollar figure you charge. When I launched the paid section in January 2021 I explicitly told people that I wanted to keep the vast majority of the content freely available, and that anyone who did pay was essentially subsidising the access of the non-paying subscribers.
People still subscribed. About 350 of them subscribed with the one-off 50% discount of $5/month or $50/year. It is now $10/month or $100/year, and I’m considering raising the price in January 2023 for new subscribers. Some extremely successful Substack writers charge much more—these are typically expertise-driven publications. They are finance people or tech industry people who have niche beats that are highly lucrative. On the opposite end of the spectrum, someone like Haley Nahman writes Maybe Baby which is only $5/month but she makes tons of money because she has thousands and thousands of subscribers who came across to her newsletter from her large Instagram presence.
All of which is to say: there are a few different strategies if you’re planning to try to make money from a newsletter. From January 2022 until November 2022 my strategy was closer in ‘vibe’ to a Patreon. Now that I’m bringing in other writers and going a little ‘pro’, it’s going to be more premium, and I’m hoping more people start paying because they see the work is worth it.
What do you need to consider before you begin?
How often can you really commit to this, and for how long? This is especially important if you ever ask for people’s money and offer paid subscriptions. People can sign up for a year: will you still be making this content, at this frequency 12 months from now? I ran News & Reviews for six months solidly before offering paid subscriptions. There was a certain level of earned trust there, and after six months I knew I liked making it enough to make it sustainable.
How will you manage the comments section? I had to ban a TERF very early on. To a certain extent you have created this space and you are responsible for whether or not people are safe there. How will you cultivate calm, generous disagreement?
What are you offering people that they can’t get elsewhere? I think newsletters are beautiful because you can make almost anything. Graphic novels. Recipes and food. Tech and stock market coverage. Location-specific community building. Anything! If you’re an author, for example, will you talk about writing, or will you create a newsletter that covers the sort of subject matter your books cover? Can you clearly articulate what your newsletter is ‘about’ and who it’s ‘for’? I’d say this is a weakness in News & Reviews—it might not make a lot of sense if you don’t know who I am and what I care about. For this reason, I don’t think my nebulous approach would work if I didn’t already have a bit of a profile. If you don’t have a big profile, the strongest thing you can do is have a clear hook or beat.
Do you have an audience somewhere that you can bring to your newsletter, and what’s your plan for doing that? It might be Instagram or Twitter. If so, be prepared to promote yourself there. It could be something else though: a book club, a community hall noticeboard, or a staff room weekly meeting. Who already cares about what you have to say? How will you tell them you’re now saying it in a newsletter?
I have found Substack an extremely user-friendly and intuitive platform. There are tutorials and blogs full of recommendations for how to build your first newsletter. Don’t be afraid to learn-as-you-go and take your audience along for the ride. News & Reviews looks pretty different now to how it did in August 2021. I started with some features I no longer make, and I also do things now I definitely didn’t do before. It grew in response to my learning on-the-job and what people responded to most. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. You’re the only person who can make your newsletter.
Bri Lee is an author, freelance writer, and speaker who lives and works on Gadigal land in Sydney, Australia. She writes investigative journalism, opinion, short fiction, essays and arts criticism and has published three books: Eggshell Skull (2018), Beauty (2019) and Who Gets to be Smart (2021). She also publishes a weekly newsletter, News & Reviews. Bri is currently doing a PhD in law at the University of Sydney where she lectures in media law. She was named the 2020 Copyright Agency x UTS Writer-in-Residence. Together with the Women’s Justice Network Bri runs the ‘Freadom Inside’ project that gets books to women incarcerated in NSW. Find out more about Bri at www.bri-lee.com
Photo credit: Saskia Wilson