Is Starting A Newsletter Your Passport To Riches?

Hamish McKenzie Headshot

The internet is a noisy place, particularly for creators who want to build relationships with readers and fans. It’s hard to earn a living when so much great content is available for free. If you’re facing these types of challenges, consider starting a newsletter.

Hamish McKenzie is cofounder and chief operating officer of Substack, a service that enables anyone to set up free and premium newsletters. According to McKenzie, the service claims thousands of newsletter writers and millions of readers. 

McKenzie, Christopher Best and Jairaj Sethi set up Substack in 2017. Headquartered in San Francisco, the company raised $15.3 million in funding this past July. 

Substack’s mission is to “Make it simple to start a publication that makes money from subscriptions.” The service’s homepage cites the example of a newsletter writer with 800 paying subscribers. If subscribers paid just $7 a month, the newsletter writer could earn $4,400 a month.

“The audience doesn’t have to be huge,” McKenzie says. “You can be appealing just to a small group of people. If they’re paying you some money, then that small group can actually support a pretty healthy income pretty quickly. So it’s not like the old world where you have to reach an audience of millions in the hope of getting some advertising revenue.”

Popular Substack newsletters cover a diverse range of topics including cryptocurrency, reading recommendations, comedy writing, women in sports, happiness, climate change, journalism, faith, progressive news from China and lots more. 

“There are millions of editorial niches that can flourish on Substack and make money for the writers,” McKenzie says. “Things that are on a single subject and very focused tend to be more shareable, because then people can say on Twitter for example, ‘Hey look at this great post about Brexit or about the climate crisis.’”

Starting And Growing A Newsletter

I set up a newsletter on Substack to see how easy it is to use. It took about five minutes to upload a list of subscribers and send a newsletter. I found the Substack chart of newsletters helpful, as it offers a feel for what people read and pay for.

“In a lot of cases, the [newsletter writers] have some kind of a platform or audience gathered somewhere else like on a mailing list that they import into Substack,” says McKenzie. “Or they’ve been writing a blog for many years or they’ve got a large Twitter following. The game becomes converting that following into a dedicated mailing list.”

No tool, regardless of how intuitive, will create content on behalf of the writer. He or she still faces the age-old problem of turning up, doing and promoting their work.

“Schedule an hour into your calendar each week to write and just make yourself do it and start putting down the groundwork for what could be your future media business,” McKenzie says.

Setting up a newsletter reminded me of the popular 2008 essay by Kevin Kelly, founding executive editor of Wired magazine. Popularising the idea of 1,000 true fans, he wrote, “A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the ‘best-of’ DVD version of your free YouTube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month.”

Encouraging friends and family to subscribe to your newsletter is a good start on the road toward 1,000 true fans, but building a popular paid newsletter is a long-term creative project. That said, a tool that enables a direct relationship between creators and fans is worth considering.

“Even if there are only a hundred-thousand people who even care remotely about esoteric interests you have, that’s still a good enough audience,” McKenzie says. “If you can get 10,000 people to pay you money for a subscription newsletter, then you can not only support yourself, but you can get pretty wealthy.”

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