State of the Newsletter, December 2021
first part of end-of-year activities
By the numbers. Here are the numbers as of when I’m writing, though bear in mind that these bounce around a bit. It’s been essentially all growth since March but there have also definitely been some slower and hotter periods. The scale here is a little misleading; the little bumps and dips are a lot more pronounced when viewed at 30 or 90 day scales. Projecting out a little it seems likely that I’ll land somewhere around $200,000 by the end of my Substack Pro contract on March 1. I won’t see a chunk of that as Stripe takes a couple percent, if I remember correctly, and more importantly the terms of my Substack Pro contract gave me an advance of $135,000 (in four quarterly installments) in exchange for me only seeing 15% of subscription revenue. So in pure dollars-and-cents I left money on the table with the Pro program, but taking it was still a very obvious choice, given where my life was at the time. And rather than wish I had simply started a normal Substack at a 90/10 split I’m happy to have rewarded Substack’s faith, particularly after a year of dozens and dozens of job applications and only one $15/hour offer.
Subscribers have the option to pay more for a yearly subscription than the typical price. 101 people are subscribing at higher than the regular $50/year price point, with a high of one subscriber who pays $500 and an average payment of $159/year among that group.
We’ve only ever moved 25 gift subscriptions though, which….
How long will things keep growing? I have no idea. My life has been a series of reversals, good and bad, and I always assume the ground is about to open up in front of me. I’m happy for this good fortune but I’m prepared for it to evaporate. And if it does, I’ll survive.
Your guess is as good as mine on this, honestly. I don’t really know what “new” means here; my main newsletter posts average something like 40,000 views, so this looks like it’s undercounting, but I could easily just not be understanding something. (I guess the people who open the emails count for the views but not the website hits?) The biggest posts here have 160,000+ views; the biggest spike there in November is the highest-trafficked piece, but the second-highest has almost as many views and the spike is not nearly as large, which I suppose means it was a slower burn. As you can see it was pretty fallow in the summer, and subscription growth did slow, but there’s also no major downturn or anything. I don’t think the summer months were any less well-written. I did consciously turn from writing inflammatory things at that point, but I’ve also stuck with that since and there’s been a recovery in the fall. Not sure.
Why? I don’t mistake this for truly grand success, but obviously it’s a lot of money. I am lucky, privileged, and good at what I do, but I write all of this knowing that there is a nontrivial chance that it will be shared in anger among writers in the #content industry, in the typical spirit of “why would you pay for this asshole” etc. I have tried to honestly address this topic several times in the past, though I acknowledge that I can never be fully objective in that task. Unfortunately the broader conversation typically involves taking a very legitimate general question (why do so many writers struggle with inadequate salaries and poor benefits?) and attempts to apply its logic to the idiosyncrasies of individual writers and their success or lack thereof. Tom Ley of Defector said in an interview this year that he felt that people were supporting the work of Bari Weiss and Glenn Greenwald (for example) as a kind of virtue signaling rather than out of genuine appreciation for their work. I find this strange; how many people even share which writers they subscribe to with others? Who are they “affirming which side they are on” to? I suspect my subscribers subscribe because they find value in my writing.
Because journalism, media, and writing are cliquey and conformist professional cultures, it’s common for people to see someone that’s disfavored by their crowd and extrapolate that antagonism towards consumers of writing. (This dynamic is deepened by the fact that those who quietly do like a disfavored person know that there’s no benefit to speaking up about it.) But readers are not much like professional writers, and indeed many readers are very disenchanted by media and its culture. I have said a thousand times that the reason that Substack and Patreon et al are thriving has little to do with technology and everything to do with the stifling conformity that has afflicted media in the past decade. This can certainly be expressed in political terms, but I suspect it has as much to do with the Default Writer Voice found among the staff of newspapers, magazines, and websites - haughty, ironic, disdainful, superior, contemptuous, jokey, disaffected, lol lol lmao lol lol. I think a lot of readers look out at the available options among people writing short-form argumentative nonfiction and find a culture that has adopted a communal affect, for ingroup signaling purposes, which renders its members almost impossibly unpleasant. That many individuals within that culture are talented, sensitive, and hardworking doesn’t change this dynamic, it simply renders it sadder. Another thing I have said many times is that escaping from media social culture is not just necessary for the health of the profession but could present a career advantage for some of those who go first.
Either way, though, I think people will have to eventually grapple with the fact that there are writers they don’t like that are nonetheless market successes. The constantly churning “why is Person X making so much money, they’re an asshole” discourse just isn’t useful. They’re making so much money because enough people want to buy what they’re selling. Your subjective judgements of their worth as people or writers are not undermined by that fact but neither can those judgments change that reality. As for me, well - I am a careful thinker, a diligent researcher, and an uncommonly talented writer. I usually publish four substantive posts a week along with a book club and a weekly wrap-up where I summarize the previous week’s emails and provide a bunch of recommendations for what to read and listen to. About one quarter of my posts have been subscriber only, which is lower than most paid Substacks. This may cost me some subscriptions but helps to build goodwill. I have a thriving commenting community. I have also been diligently cultivating a small but passionate readership for almost 15 years. I also recognize that I am lucky and the beneficiary of structural advantages. For example, when I started in 2008 the big blogging boom was long over, but it was still early enough that it was easier to distinguish yourself than it is today.
At $50/year this is all an attractive proposition for enough people that I can make writing my profession. If it’s not an attractive proposition for you then don’t subscribe. I don’t particularly feel the need to complicate it more than that. I concede, however, that my whole career has been unusual and is not replicable for most.
Moving the line. Many times I have tried and failed to make sense of the rhythms of subscription revenue. I thought I was seeing little dips at the first of every month, but someone told me that Stripe gathers subscription money on the day people subscribed each month rather than on the first, so that may be nothing. (Again, this makes sense if you zoom a little closer up to the trend line.) You can see the little dip in mid-October. That happened to occur right after I took my one (five day) vacation this year. I still had a post and a chapter of the serialized novel that week, for the record. My initial reaction was that people had to have been frustrated by the lack of content that week, although I still probably published more total words that week than most paid Substacks. But over time I’ve come to realize it just isn’t fruitful to try and analyze small wiggles in the line like that. Too many variables.
This consideration of the state of the newsletter arrives at the tenish month mark of my Substack experience. There’s no particular reason why now is an important time to share this stuff with you; I’m doing so only because it’s year’s end and I want to take stock of where I am for that reason. I don’t particularly believe that any of this represents some sort of vindication and I have no idea what level of success this constitutes. Yglesias and Heather Cox Richardson and Roxanne Gay and Greenwald etc. make much more than me, but I’m still easily one of the blessed few in the crowdfunding business to be on the right side of the Pareto distribution. I take no joy in being significantly better paid than most working writers. (I do, I confess, sometimes want to gently point out to the people who theatrically refuse to link to me so that I don’t profit off of the publicity that I’m not exactly hurting for attention.)
I was chatting with another Substacker, a big name, and he said he would never share these numbers like this - it would just invite criticism and could compel some subscribers to think “well, he’s already doing fine, he doesn’t need my money.” Which may be fair enough. But I believe in transparency and have always tried to operate under that banner here. I don’t, however, particularly like too much transparency for myself. Early on I turned off the emails that let me know when people join the mailing list, and I turned off new paid subscriptions and subscription cancellation emails not long after. (I also refuse to check the Substack rankings, which honestly I wish they would just get rid of.) I want to be responsive to my readership, and of course I want this to continue to be a financially sustainable way to earn a living. So I’ve adopted a general strategy of only checking where subscriptions are once a week, absent some particular reason to want to check otherwise. Because that helps me with…
Independence. Look, it’s impossible to not be influenced by money. That’s true of every profession and is certainly true of writers. I hate the whole “grifter” discourse for many reasons - I have never seen a single instance of someone calling their ideological fellow travelers or someone they otherwise like a grifter - and one of the biggest is that it posits some sort of neutral and clean writer who both makes a living writing and is totally independent of monetary concerns. Such a person does not exist. If you take money, then you take money. I find the anti-woke charge pretty weird for me - only half of what I publish here is about politics at all and something like 20% could be forced into an anti-woke frame. (Often incorrectly, as happened with this piece, which has no specific political targets at all.) But it’s also strange because, one, it suggests that the self-interested material benefit lies in being a writer who’s critical of those politics, when of course there is enormous social and professional pressure in media to be publicly supportive of them. (I invite you to consider how friendly the New York Times Slack must be to criticism of social justice politics.) Two, it’s strange because it suggests that the woke themselves, or the anti-anti-woke (a very lucrative and quickly-growing market segment!), are somehow operating out of selflessness. But they’re taking salaries too, if they’re not chumps, and just as with the anti-woke trying to understand and evaluate their arguments by insisting on cynical motives is a road to nowhere. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “If any paid writer is a grifter, they all are.” Or words to that effect.
In any event, my goal here is not complicated: write here the same way that I spent so many years blogging for free. And while I can’t say that I’ve perfectly realized that goal, in general I find it pretty easy to just disappear into my mind and pull out whatever’s floating in it, 5-6 times a week, the same as I always have. I can’t pretend that money will never influence what I write about, but I can make sure I stay a weirdo and never avoid writing about a topic just because it makes my readers mad. I write a lot of things knowing they won’t do any good in the metrics but because they’re what I love to write and what a small percentage of my readership loves to read. So long as there are no self-imposed content restrictions I think I’m good. Writing about Israel gets me terrible views, angry commenters, and people huffily writing to say they’ve canceled their subscriptions, so if I ever feel organically moved to write about Israel but decline to do so out of fear of the response I’ll know it’s time to take this newsletter out behind the barn and shoot it.
No staff yet. While I would love to be one of those Substacks that hires staff, I just can’t make it work out yet at the kind of wages I’d feel obligate to pay. I couldn’t hire anyone for less than a certain dollar amount and at a certain number of hours a week, as a matter of conscience. If we move somewhere substantially cheaper than Brooklyn that may be on the table. The other issue, though, is that while I could certainly stand to have someone perform proofreading duties before posts go up, my process is so weird and my hours are so inconsistent that I’m not sure how that would work out logistically. Something like three quarters of what I publish here is written and edited in a three or four hour period late the night before or the morning of its publication. I write via shots of inspiration so it’s hard to know how I could deliver a consistent work experience to someone. But we’ll see. There are other odds and ends. A lot depends on whether those numbers above grow or shrink.
I do have an illustrator, Vika S., who has produced gorgeous illustrations for my serialized novel as well as for some posts on the main newsletter. For the record I agreed to take her on only at five times the fee she was asking per illustration.
Outreach and marketing. It ain’t easy. I think about “business” very little when it comes to this project (which will no doubt hurt at tax time) but in the odd moments that I do think about the business side I mostly just wish I could get my writing out there to more people. (I’ve idly considered buying some Facebook ads. People would probably make fun of them but so what?) Of course, this is a big part of the bargain of a subscription-based newsletter - you trade readership for money. I’m fine with that, in the main. I also have to deal with my reputation and being shut out of conversation in many respectable places (yes, “do not quote” lists are real), which is in many ways a self-inflicted wound and in some ways not. I do often read things that could be enriched by a perspective I’d recently brought to the table and wish that the writer could make that connection, simply for the sake of comprehension. But who doesn’t feel that way?
Not being on Twitter does hurt me some, I’m guessing, in metrics terms. Everyone I talk to and everything I read suggests that Substacks often live or die based on the Twitter pickup of the posts. But my own read of my referrer data, my communications with readers, and my intuition suggests it’s less meaningful for me. Certainly I think that this project is financially successful enough to rebut the claim that you have to have a large Twitter following to make it work here. It’s an academic question for me; I’m never returning to Twitter and I consider whatever hit I take in metrics to be a small price for the personal benefits I derive from not being on the network. There is a feed, controlled by a friend, that simply tweets new posts on the main newsletter, if you would like to follow it. And I of course appreciate anyone who shares my stuff in whatever forum. I concede that I maybe could be more financially successful if I had a Twitter to promote stuff (and start fights), but I’m doing better than I thought I would have at this point and those hypotheticals don’t concern me.
One point about the Twitter thing that I admit is important to me - typically part of the narrative about my work is that I can only generate interest and traffic through being inflammatory towards members of that clique, who then share the pieces and inadvertently help me. But while the biggest posts on this newsletter in terms of views certainly benefitted from that dynamic, it’s pretty dispositively not been the case in general. I consciously moved away from waving the red flag at the media kaffeeklatsch about six months ago, and as you can see I have not paid a financial penalty for doing so. Everybody benefits from culture war and high school stuff - it’s baked into the cake - but I’m doing well without it.
What’s less cool. Here are some things that suck about doing a paid newsletter, with the preemptive caveat that these are all lucky problems to have.
There’s essentially no relationship between what I enjoy writing, the pieces I like the most or mean the most to me, the pieces that generate the best conversation in the comments, the pieces readers seem to react to the best emotionally, etc., and the pieces that perform the best in terms of metrics. This is of course a universal condition of publishing writing on the internet but it remains depressingly true here. I labor over stuff I love and watch it float off into the atmosphere unnoticed; I dash something off without much attachment to it and watch it generate broad conversation. Again, this is not a simplistic dynamic in terms of culture war/media flaming stuff; perfectly random pieces have become hugely successful. But it always makes me sad, even after 15 years of living with the same basic condition.
What readers say they want and what they read and share and favorite are very different. This is human nature, not poor character. But a) it’s very easy for a small group of people vocally requesting a post on a certain topic to mislead me about how many people would be interested in the topic generally, and b) what people say they’ll read is not the same as what they’ll actually read.
It takes a lot of time. I write habitually and reflexively so the amount of time devoted to writing isn’t a problem. But I had planned to be further on both my second nonfiction book and my second novel (neither of which are under contract, btw) at this point and I’m not. My poor agent. Also if kids are in the future I’m going to have to make some changes. But who doesn’t, right.
I miss the prestige factor, yeah. I spent a decade of freelancing pretending I didn’t care about that stuff but I did. Also I do wish I could do more to contribute to publications I respect in a difficult period for the industry, though that’s more about them than me. I’ve published in the New York Times and Washington Post in the past year so that itch can be scratched. I hope to do a little more freelancing in the future, maybe 3-4 pieces in a year, if I can get pubs to put me out there. Right now I’m in a weird spot where I can get into some prestigious places but also where many wouldn’t dream of returning my pitch emails. Again, nice problem to have and I’m privileged.
It’s a little lonely, I’m not gonna lie.
Here’s the good news. Metrics are important in the aggregate, but the beauty of a subscription model is that I don’t need every post to be a hit. I just need enough posts to reach enough readers, new and old, that enough of them are invested in me continuing the project. So far so good.
And I really like what I’m producing. The quality of my prose is as good as it has ever been, and when my head is right I’m thinking clearly. I’m putting out work that I feel good about and never refrain from doing weird or challenging things.
The price point. Many people close to me, including the previously-mentioned Substack heavyweight, have suggested that I switch to a $6/month, $60/year payment tier. I have thought it over and have come down firmly against the idea. The typical sentiment is that this is a very small adjustment for every individual subscriber ($10 or $12 a year) but could theoretically increase my revenue significantly (+20% minus however many people unsubscribe due to the price increase). But, for me… eh. I like the $5/$50 number. It feels like the right price. Barring something unforeseen I’m sticking with it. Maybe I’ll do a reassessment at the half-year mark next year but for now I think this is where I should be. Readers can always pay more if they want.
Comments. Better than I could have expected. I was really worried about turning comments on but they’ve become an essential element around here. I think restricting them to paid subscribers only really really helps. The conversations, while sometimes whacky and occasionally offensive to me and often devolving into increasingly inane argumentative threads, are often thoughtful, funny, and perceptive. For the record I read all of the comments for the first few hours, then only read the ones that start new threads for awhile, then tap out when it gets to be too much.
Here’s my commenting policy: a) you must obey Substack’s guidelines, and if you find someone who does not you can report them to me or Substack, but note that I am very loathe to restrict anything, except b) I insist on a certain level of decorum and kindness in my comments section and maintain my right to be totally imperious and arbitrary about enforcing such an environment. Be kind. Don’t embarrass me.
I’ve only deleted like five comments total I think, and issued temporary bans twice, and I regret most of that. We’re doing good. Keep it up. But be polite.
For the record, there’s no relationship between the number of comments on a post and views, while there is a fairly strong relationship between likes and views.
The future. Last day of my contract with Substack is February 28th. After that I will roll over and be a regular Substacker and collect 90% of subscription revenue minus whatever percentage Stripe takes. I have stopped teaching and, while I’m doing a little ghostwriting and laboriously working on those books, this is my only real source of income at present. I occasionally get the urge to quit doing this when my contract is up, but that’s typically part of a broader fantasy in which I walk directly into the sea and exist as an anemone in dark and tranquil waters. So it’s probably not going to happen. Whether the newsletter continues is like a 95% certainty. Whether it continues on Subtack is like a 90% certainty. They’ve been very good to me, and I’m grateful to them; I really like the CMS, with a couple of exceptions; the integration of payments and the email system etc. is dirt simple and I’m a very lazy person; I’d hate to switch to a different URL; I make enough that I’m not sensitive to a few percentage points here or there. So it’s very hard to imagine leaving Substack.
That being said, this is business for me and for them, and it seems to be the case that I could potentially leave for Ghost or roll my own with Mailchimp or something and get a little better deal than I’m getting from Substack. I have no context with which to ascertain such things but some people argue that 10% is too much and undercounts the actual costs, although several people I know with big followings say that the referenced Financial Times estimate substantially overstates the amount lost to fees. I don’t know, I know nothing about business and returns and such. I do feel compelled to think about them though.
One of the best things about Substack is also a vulnerability as a platform: the lock-in is much looser. I can download my mailing list at any time and, since my financial relationship is technically with Stripe, I could potentially decamp without asking subscribers to reup, seamlessly for them if not frictionlessly for me. Contrast this with Patreon, where if you leave you’re starting from scratch and have to rely on the goodwill of your subscribers to rededicate themselves. I guess this is technically a small business and I should be dispassionate about things. I feel compelled to at least kick the tires, kind of? Which will probably take the form of idly browsing the Ghost website for 15 minutes and then giving up and sticking with Substack. I’m happy here.
Like everyone I would like to secure the bag with one big payday and then retire to the woods and raise children. But unless I can auction this newsletter as an NFT that’s probably not happening anytime soon.
Plans! So my big 2022 resolution (and I know resolutions are hard to keep) is to better structure and schedule. I need to be more intentional about where my time goes. I walk every morning in Prospect Park and spend an hour in the weight room five days a week, I was taking a class for a couple hours every Monday night and will again starting in mid-January, I answer phones for my tenant union every Tuesday night and spend another 4-6 hours a week on housing activism, and I have my regular psychiatrist etc. appointments to keep. That’s really it for inherent structure in my week. I know, I’m privileged. But having a lot of unstructured time and having a lot of free time are separate things. One of the things I’m really unhappy with is that my reading time (as in reading books) has seriously declined this year. I have never structured reading time, even in grad school, as I never needed to; reading just always happened. (Especially in grad school; all I did for six years was read. And drink.) But lately I’ve found that I just haven’t invested as much time in books as I want, which is a big deal to me. And in general I constantly wonder where the days go.
So I intend to be more structured with my time and to keep track of it, including having several hours blocked off a day for reading books. It won’t be difficult to prioritize reading; the problem currently is that I don’t prioritize anything. In general I just want to recognize where the time goes and make decisions about it.
For the newsletter, the plan is
Switch from typically three public posts and one subscriber-only post to two of each, perhaps with a fairly substantial free preview on one of the latter
Finish the serialized novel
Keep going with the book clubs
Do another subscriber writing contest similar to the book review contest, but this time recruit more judges so that I find the process less difficult
More original illustrations, fewer stock photos
Maybe actually hire some freelancers to write a post here once or twice a month. I tried to throw money at people I like early in this process and almost none of the half-dozen or so of them even wrote me back to say no lol, so maybe people feel the (quite good, I think) money I offered isn’t worth the professional hit of associating with me, but I’ll keep trying
Potentially figure out some sort of reader writing section on the website; I have very strict rules about not asking people to do creative things for free, but people keep asking for something like that, so I’ll chew on it
Can I keep up this pace? Yes. It’s always hard not to write. It’s never hard to write.