Since its launch in 2017, Substack has quickly drawn attention from the media industry for its potential to launch a new business model for writers.
The platform’s simplest promise — making it easy to set up a subscription and collect payment from readers — has writers’ attention. Is this is the new place we have to be to make money writing?
How writers earn money through Substack
Substack is an email list platform for writers. It helps you do everything other platforms do — accept subscribers, send emails, see analytics, manage an email list — plus, it facilitates a paid subscription model.
It’s one of the easiest business ventures to set up technically: Create an account and a publication with Substack in about five minutes, import your email list if you have one and set up or connect a Stripe account to receive payments.
Readers subscribe monthly or annually, and most publications offer a discount for the annual subscription. Substack also recommends publishing some free editions to let readers test the waters before paying.
A $5-per-month and $50-per-year price level is common. But Bill Bishop’s “Sinocism,” the platform’s first official newsletter, according to Nieman Lab, charges $15 per month and $168 per year. Others charge $60 or $100 per year, so you can land on a price point that works for you and your audience.
If your publication is free, you can use Substack for free. If you charge for a paid subscription, Substack keeps 10 percent of the subscription proceeds plus about 3 percent in processing fees.
Who is Substack for?
Anyone can start a publication on Substack; sign up is free, and you don’t have to meet any requirements.
Early adopters and currently popular newsletters are largely about tech, politics and popular culture, written by journalists in those beats as a side hustle or a career change after leaving a media company.
You don’t need a huge subscriber base to make a paid newsletter worth it — 200 subscribers paying $5 a month means $1,000 (about $870 after fees) each month for writing one to four newsletters per week. Plus, the volume of work doesn’t increase as revenue increases.
However, building that base of paid subscribers can be significantly harder than building one for a free subscription.
For example, tech writer Jared Newman built a base of 17,000 subscribers for his free newsletter, “Cord Cutter Weekly,” largely thanks to his ability to promote it in his tech-industry articles, he writes for Fast Company. From that base, he gained 200 subscribers in a year for a paid spinoff newsletter, “Advisorator.”
Substack says about 10 percent of a newsletter’s subscribers typically become paid subscribers. So if you want 200 to pay, aim for 2,000 total on your free list. (Also consider that Substack’s early newsletters, from which it pulls those stats, are relatively niche or run by authors recruited because of their loyal audiences.)
8 writers who earn money through Substack newsletters
To give you a better idea of who’s using Substack successfully, here are eight writers who earn money through the platform, plus some details about how they do it.
1. Emily Atkin: ‘Heated’
- Topic: Climate science and politics
- Price: $8 per month or $75 per year
Emily Atkin has been a climate reporter since 2013, first at ThinkProgress, then at The New Republic, in addition to contributing to other publications. But she believed climate reporting could be better than it was at traditional publications.
Atkin left her full-time job to launch “Heated” in September 2019 and deliver daily original reporting and analysis on the climate crisis. The newsletter is already among the most popular on Substack, with thousands of subscribers paying $8 per month.
“I’m hoping this will pay for better reporting, so that I can go to more places and talk to more people,” Atkin told Storybench last year.
2. Jacob Cohen Donnelly: ‘A Media Operator’
- Topic: Media business
- Price: $10 per month or $100 per year
Jacob Cohen Donnelly, managing director of audience and growth at cryptocurrency site CoinDesk, created “A Media Operator” in August 2019 to write about the business side of building a media business.
“I believe that, to do a newsletter well, it’s important to think about it as its own standalone product,” Donnelly writes in a recent post for AMO.
Donnelly has worked in media for nearly a decade, as a freelance writer and a marketer. Through AMO, he shares his insight on how the news is covered, plus which trendy tools and products (such as Substack) are worth your time when building a media business.
3. Nicole Cliffe: ‘Nicole Knows’
- Topic: Personal, pop culture
- Price: $5 per month or $50 per year
Nicole Cliffe is a freelance writer who pens Slate’s parenting advice column, “Care and Feeding,” and was the co-founder of the now-defunct site The Toast.
She has been publishing “Nicole Knows,” a potpourri of beauty, pop culture and general life observations and advice since February 2018.
It was among the pilot newsletters for Substack’s “community” feature, launched last year, which supports discussion threads for newsletter subscribers. Whether discussing memes, new movies or parenting quandaries, the “Nicole Knows” community remains engaged.
Substack lists the newsletter among the site’s most popular. “Nicole Knows” is a rare non-niche newsletter that’s killing it on the platform — so take notes if you want to build an audience on the strength of your voice and personal brand.
4. Judd Legum: ‘Popular Information’
- Topic: Politics
- Price: $6 per month or $50 per year
Judd Legum, the founder and editor of political news site ThinkProgress, put together “Popular Information,” a daily newsletter of in-depth information and analysis on government and politics. It’s one of Substack’s most popular, with thousands of subscribers.
As Atkin does with Heated, with “Popular Information,” Legum addresses a weakness in conventional reporting in his niche.
“There’s something fundamentally broken about news delivery as a process,” Legum told Wired ahead of the newsletter’s launch in 2018. “…I’ve felt more and more strongly that I wanted to start something new that could circumvent the system.”
While general and political news publications rely on horserace reporting to draw readers’ attention, Legum uses the subscription model to build trust and loyalty, and curate an audience eager to read more in-depth reporting.
5. Luke O’Neil: ‘Welcome to Hell World’
- Topic: Culture and politics
- Price: $6.66 per month or $69 per year
After 15 years as a journalist, Luke O’Neil launched his newsletter, “Welcome to Hell World,” in 2018 to share reporting and personal essays on a variety of topics, tied together with the theme of the world’s transformation into, in O’Neil’s words, a “pit of despair.”
Through the newsletter, he wanted to cut through the niceties of traditional news writing and get the opportunity to speak about how upsetting things like “baby jails” are to him, even as he’s reporting on them.
Creating a direct relationship with readers through the newsletter subscription lets him do that in a way he never could when he wrote for publications like Esquire, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.
“It’s kind of cool, instead of working for f—ing Hearst, which is a billion-dollar company with thousands of middle managers, just working for the people who read my newsletter,” O’Neil told WBUR last year.
In addition to revenue from the newsletter — 1,100 paid subscribers out of 7,000 total as of July 2019 — the newsletter garnered O’Neil a book deal. Indie publisher OR Books approached him to turn his essays into a book, and it released “Welcome to Hell World” (the book) in September 2019.
6: Heather Havrilesky: ‘Ask Molly’
- Topic: Personal
- Price: $5 per month or $50 per year
Heather Havrilesky is an essayist who writes the relationship and lifestyle advice column “Ask Polly” for “New York” magazine’s “The Cut.” Molly is “Polly’s evil twin,” Havrilesky’s outlet for all the things polite and uplifting Polly can’t say.
Despite its parallel to the advice column’s name, Ask Molly isn’t strictly advice. Newsletters include Havrilesky’s personal essays on life and culture in addition to responses to reader questions.
Havrilesky has been dolling out advice professionally since the mid-90s, starting with a now-defunct online magazine called “Suck,” and she’s a pioneer in online media.
She kept the advice going at her own blog for about 10 years after “Suck” shuttered in 2001, pitched it to “The Awl” and finally caught the eye of “New York” magazine, which invited her to write the column’s current iteration.
With the “evil twin” lens in “Ask Molly,” Havrilesky has found a clever way to spin off a personal brand on the shoulders of her popularity in traditional media.
7. Sophie Brookover and Margaret Willison: ‘Two Bossy Dames’
- Topic: Pop culture
- Price: $7 per month or $70 per year
The pop culture–obsessed publication “Two Bossy Dames” is a case study in emerging platforms over the past half decade.
It started as a Tumblr blog, launched subscriptions on Tinyletter, garnered supporters on Patreon and, in 2018, migrated to Substack to put publishing and revenue in one place. Its content has shown up on Medium, and it has a relatively small but engaged Twitter following.
According to Substack, Two Bossy Dames makes the authors a significant side income, but isn’t their full-time job. Each of the writers, Sophie Brookover and Margaret Willison, keeps busy with other work, as librarians and culture writers.
8. Ryan O’Hanlon: ‘No Grass in the Clouds’
- Topic: Soccer analysis
- Price: $7 per month or $70 per year
Ryan O’Hanlon is another creator Substack notes as a successful side hustler on the platform, and his newsletter, “No Grass in the Clouds,” is a good example of finding success in a narrow niche: soccer through an analytics lens.
O’Hanlon is a freelance writer and host of the soccer podcast “Infinite Football,” previously a senior editor at sports and culture site The Ringer, where he hosted a (different) soccer podcast. He’s also a former collegiate soccer player — he’s well-suited for his niche.
Launched in December 2018, “No Grass in the Clouds” promotes O’Hanlon’s podcast, shares his essays on the sport, and publishes analysis and news for paying subscribers.
Alternatives to Substack
Substack is often the first brand we connect with paid newsletters, but it has competitors and alternatives.
- Campaignzee is MailChimp’s built-in way to sell subscriptions that integrates your MailChimp and Stripe accounts. It charges 10 percent of subscription fees, plus processing fees and MailChimp’s regularly monthly cost if you have more than 2,000 subscribers.
- Patreon lets supporters subscribe for exclusive perks and updates from creators across media — from video producers and podcasts to authors and visual artists. Study Hall is an example of how to use the platform to create a paid newsletter.
- Buy Me A Coffee lets writers and creators start a page and add buttons to your website or newsletter. It has a Patreon vibe, but it lets supporters make one-time donations instead of requiring recurring subscriptions.
- Revue is an email marketing service that, like Substack, gives you the option to add a paid version of your newsletter. It’s a lot more expensive, though, and designed more for publishing teams than individuals.
- Or you can DIY. For “Advisorator,” for example, Newman simply collects email and payment information through Stripe. You could use a service like PayPal or e-junkie to do the same and send emails though your preferred service. It’d require a little more heavy lifting, but you’d keep more of what subscribers pay.
The challenge to a successful paid newsletter
The ability to make money as a writer feels increasingly threatened by shuttering media companies, rolling layoffs and growing competition.
Many experts laud the (re)emerging subscription model as a way for writers to take success into their own hands, cut out the intermediary and make money directly from readers.
But — like profiles of early successes in blogging — promises of the logistical ease ignore a serious barrier to a lucrative subscription business: building an audience.
“Directly singing for your supper to readers is always going to prioritize people who already have an audience, who already have a certain amount of privilege, or who are speaking to an audience that has a certain amount of money,” newsletter pioneer Ann Friedman told Vanity Fair’s Claire Landsbaum.
Many successful Substack writers built audiences by writing for traditional publications first — many in a very different media landscape. It might be wishful thinking for a new writer to try to follow their example when the path has already shifted so much.
Similarly, while a platform like Substack ostensibly helps with discovery, the company benefits most by supporting the most successful creators. It grew by recruiting writers with large audiences, and it would be wise to continue to nurture those brands.
Can writers make money on Substack?
Like media platforms before it — see: Medium, YouTube, Patreon, Kindle — Substack eliminates incredible tech barriers for creators, allowing you to focus on creating while delivering your content where your audience wants it.
Ultimately, however, your success on these platforms depends on your ability to develop your own brand and cultivate a loyal audience.
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