How much can you make with a newsletter?
WITH TRADITIONAL publications still precarious, how can freelance writers make more money? One option is by charging readers directly for newsletters; and one company offering services to do this is Substack. Our speaker at the February meeting of London Freelance Branch was Farrah Storr, who is Head of Writer Partnerships for Substack UK.
Before this Farrah was the award-winning editor of Elle and Cosmopolitan, and was the founding editor of Women's Health. She has been a journalist for over 20 years. She also writes her own newsletter on the platform: Things Worth Knowing.
Farrah noted that Substack launched in 2017 and it "became famous very quickly for big-name journalists who had left well-regarded outlets such as the New York Times or the Atlantic magazine" to self-publish on its newsletter platform.
Substack's audience is still mainly in the US. Farrah joined it in November to lead its efforts to expand into the UK. "What it does," she said, "is connect writers directly with their audiences".
‘The writer owns their audience’
She sees it as a new approach to how writers make a living: "the idea on Substack is that the writer owns their audience: you are paid directly by your readers."
"In the fight for advertising in the traditional media, advertisers want to know how many eyeballs there are on articles," she observed. That fight means that media "brands go for 'outrage content'." In some of her past jobs, "journalists were told to focus on celebrities such as Kim Kardashian. And that's a dead end for journalism."
In contrast, "Substack will never have advertising."
Giving the best away
On many social media channels, Farrah noted, people "spend so long building an audience." When you set up a Substack newsletter you can choose at once to invite free or paid subscribers or to have both in separate groups.
Generally, Substack users "give a little bit away for free," Farrah noted: "we encourage writers to put their best content up for free." That "may seem counter-intuitive, giving the best away… but if you get a conversion rate of 10 per cent for that content" - that is, if one in ten who read the free content subscribe to your paid channel - you're in the money.
Farrah recommends that Substack users "charge for something that's intimate, or offers a service that people cannot get anywhere else."
For example. George Saunders joined Substack in November at the same time as Farrah began work there. "He wanted to offer a service - so he teaches people how to write stories." The offer is: "here are my stories: if you become a paid subscriber to my newsletter I will teach you to write yours better".
There are of course many different kinds of newsletter. There are "efforts that are effectively local papers" and there are "columnists". The musician and performer Patti Smith writes and recites poetry, and holds gigs for subscribers. Substack now offers more than text newsletters: users can publish "podcasts, video, and what we call a 'voice memo' that users can send to their audiences".
"The idea is," Farrah concluded, "that journalists and writers and creators can own their own mini-media-empire. They need never have a piece of journalism spiked again."
Oh, and the bottom line? "We've had cases of writers making six- or seven-figure salaries through Substack" in the US. It's currently much smaller in the UK than the US, "but the growth is exponential".
Branch Vice-chair Deborah Hobson noted that in November Farrah had made:"quite a move - what's the change like?"
It's "not hugely different". Farrah's "job is still dealing with writers day in and day out..." And of course "there are fewer and fewer full-time jobs..."
Phil Sutcliffe asked: what sort of scale of living are you talking about?
"There's every end of the scale," Farrah reported: "there are those seven-figure [dollar] salaries - there are a number of those in the US. Many are making the sort of salary a deputy editor could expect." These are people "treating Substack as a full-time job, which means delivering two or three times a week. It's not a side project for them."
There are others who produce one newsletter piece a week, making $3000 or $10,000: "the more you write, it only ever goes up." A lot of writers in the US are concerned with building up free audience: "they typically announce that they will be turning on a paywall later."
Farrah noted the case of Emily Atkin, who after working at the Atlantic set up the Heated.world newsletter - about climate change - based on Substack. "Emily got to 20,000 free subscribers and then her paid subscribers went to 2000 and then 4000 - of course 2000 at $5 a month is a significant living."
A Branch member asked whether there any specific requirements for joining - can you do so "if you're not well-known in the UK media industry?" And "does your newsletter have to be regular?"
Anyone can join. You just need to register a name and craft an "About" page. Farrah has "found that those who give a manifesto on that page - explaining why they're compelled to do a Substack - do better." When she worked in traditional media "there was a lot that we could never publish - and I want to put that out here..."
She said that "We've worked out that a newsletter appearing twice a week is the sweet spot. Or you can do a weekly column plus a voice memo."
The present author asked about Substack paying retainers to star contributors. Does it still do that? Can one get retainer payments from Substack in the UK?
Farrah observed that Matt Yglesias (who left Vox, which he had co-founded, to become slowboring on Substack) had written about that at length. "They've scaled that back enormously. I haven't given out any retainers."
Another member asked: Who carries the legal can? Does Substack intervene editorially? And has anyone made it to $50,000 a year who wasn't a big-name journalist before they went on Substack?
In answer: You carry the can, because Substack is a platform, not a publisher; it has strong policy on free speech - though if postings are illegal or incite hate crime it has a duty to intervene; and a lot of big writers have big Twitter followings. Emily Atkin, mentioned above, was a jobbing writer on climate change for the Atlantic - and now she's doing very well.
Farrah added that Substack has no "if you like this, you might..." recommendation algorithms: instead "we see giant spikes of interest whenever one writer recommends other writers."
Branch Vice-Chair Deborah Hobson asked about reports in the Press Gazette on criticism of Substack for distributing anti-vaccine misinformation, for example.
Farrah response was "only what I've said - that we have a very strong policy on free speech unless it is illegal or inciting hate."
- There was some talk afterwards about a training session - or a speaker to talk people through getting started. Watch this space.
- Substack's Terms of Service state that "you own what you create. Any original content you post, upload, share, store, or otherwise provide to Substack remains yours and is protected by copyright and any other applicable intellectual property laws."