Newsletter Biz Q&A
You ask. I answer.
I launched my newsletter in 2020 right before the pandemic, not thinking it would become my job. I didn’t plan out an editorial calendar; I just planned to publish whatever I felt like writing about on Mondays. Eventually, a pattern and voice emerged, and when people were signing up as paid subscribers (I never did a big paid launch), I started to publish interviews for them. Eventually, I decided to publish recipes instead, because people were more interested in those and they align more with my long-term goals. Right now, I have 20K free signups and around 2250 paid subscribers. My open rate is consistently over 50% for free posts and over 60% for paid, and each free essay gets over 20K views in its first week.
My biggest tip for folks who are thinking about starting a newsletter is not to think so long-term that you psych yourself out. You also don’t have to do some big fancy launch, either: Start writing, give yourself a doable schedule, and see where it goes organically. You don’t even have to share your work at the start if you’re not ready.
I call my newsletter the flagship location of my ideas, meaning I put a lot of work into it, it’s how I make most of my living, and it’s where people can always find me, but it’s also a launching pad for other work, whether it’s essays for other outlets, media or speaking appearances, teaching, and (of course!) books. (This is why I think a consistent newsletter can also be good if you don’t plan to monetize.) What I do in the newsletter shows me where my head is and what I’m most interested in doing, and a lot of the writing I do there feeds into longer term work that I’m envisioning. But because I see it as a space for my writing and thinking practice, so to speak, I don’t think of it as something that needs to be perfect all the time. This is freeing.
It makes sense to me that the real bread and butter and purpose of my newsletter, the Monday essays, are free, because this makes them shareable, people can reference them, they get cited in other people’s work, and they build my free audience—and without a free audience, you’re not going to build a paid audience. The work I do for paid subscribers is rigorous, but the voice is also more casual—I write recipes and headnotes the way I talk to my friends, with less profanity.
For past essays on being a creative worker: “On Ideas,” “On Work,” “On Productivity,” “On Online.” And my interview at The Creative Independent. For more background and links to work that’s not in my newsletter, see my website.
Below, I’ve answered some specific questions that folks asked through a call-out in my Instagram Stories. If you have more, please leave them in the comments and I’ll try to periodically update this post.
How do you grow subscribers?
I publish consistently. That’s it. I don’t have a grand social media strategy, either, because I’ve accepted that social media is its own job and it’s not one that serves my work or my life.
What’s your writing schedule like?
I write every day, but I’m also doing lots of other stuff every day: cleaning, cooking, walking the dog, going to the supermarket, and, most of all, reading. Writing comes easily and naturally because I’m doing all the thinking while I’m doing other stuff. When I sit at my laptop or, increasingly, with a legal pad, it’s to synthesize and edit and make it nice.
How to not die while working on a book and a newsletter?
The big question! Let all the work feed each other, if possible, and let the newsletter be a place where you sketch or throw around the ideas that aren’t a fit for the book.
Money Stuff: how to monetize, when to monetize, how not to sell out.
There is no magic wand for this stuff and a lot of it is going to be luck. Capitalism isn’t a meritocracy; it’s a bloodbath. I am lucky that people are willing to pay for what I do, but as noted in the intro, I didn’t plan a launch. I think that’s fine: Have paid subscriptions as an option and see whether people are interested in paying you. But I do think it’s key not to give people sticker shock with the rates (mine are $5 per month or $30 annually) and have clear incentives. They don’t have to be weekly, but they should be clear and they should be consistent.
My free signups see a note at the start of each Monday essay about becoming a paid subscriber, and I always—after the essays—mention what recipe will be coming on Friday with a subscribe button. I don’t talk much about paid subscriptions aside from that, though I’ll mention on social or occasionally write an essay where I’m exasperated by creative work and people subscribe more, which is nice of them! My big advice is to be normal and not ask of people what you wouldn’t want asked of yourself.
How do you balance newsletter writing and other work?
The newsletter is my main job. I take assignments from other outlets, which makes me happy and lets me learn and brings me to new audiences. My work is just really integrated with my life. I have weeks where I want to tear my hair out, of course, and that’s when my husband makes me more martinis than usual.
How do you generate and organize ideas?
Reading, living, and being on the internet is how I generate ideas. I came up with a new recipe idea by just telling my friend over wine what I had been working on that wasn’t working, which let me figure out how to fix it.
I keep all my ideas in my Notes app, and I also write sometimes by talking into the Otter app on my phone because it will transcribe what I am saying.
I think the most important thing is not to think about writing as something you do in front of the computer, but a way of being in the world. Stay engaged and you’ll have things to write about, whenever it is you do get to sit down, and don’t be embarrassed to take notes or speak notes into your phone when inspiration strikes. A writer has to learn how to tell people to shut up sometimes, politely. People who love you will deal.
Consistency—is it important?
To me, yes, because I like my readers to know when to expect to receive my work and it helps me to stay organized. Some people can publish randomly. I can’t. The best schedule for publishing is one that you can keep up with consistently!
How do you figure out your niche?
I’ve been a freelance writer since 2015 and had worked as a copy editor since I graduated from college in 2007. I started to write about food because I had a vegan microbakery on Long Island in the early ’10s. My niche found me!
What is your advice for someone who’s newsletter is growing steadily in paid and free subscribers, but who can’t seem to get anyone to engage with the writing on social media, in comments, etc.? Asking for a friend ;)
I’m going to say that I think some newsletters are big for social and community engagement and others aren’t. This could change as you keep going, but I think the important things to pay attention to are views and open rates. I’ve found that some pieces will be hits on social and others won’t, but the views and open rates will still be the same.
However you share, it needs to be authentic to you. When I did text posts or Reels on Instagram to share, it was a failure. Basically: I don’t have a good answer for this! I’d just say if your audience is growing, you’re doing the right thing. We’ve been trained to consider engagement like this as a really significant metric, but I don’t think it is as important in newsletters as it is for traditional media.
Recently on Twitter you mentioned that you’d like to see people offering windows into what they’re actually writing instead of talking about what their newsletter is all about. Could you expand a bit more on ways newsletter writers can do this online, on Twitter, and on Instagram?
I think that people tend to be conscious about being independent and so share their work or newsletter with caveats or demands or embarrassment. I think it’s important to share work consistently in a voice that makes sense and do so authoritatively. I don’t focus too much on sharing my newsletter or promoting subscriptions, and maybe I could grow more if I did, just because it’s more important to me to grow organically and sustainably—and to not be annoying! I just find the, ‘please read and subscribe’ vibe unappealing; I’d always rather hear about the work and the behind the scenes of the work.
You’ve built a newsletter that examines food, food systems, care, the pleasure of cooking, attention, among so many other things, in routinely complex ways. As you’ve risen in visibility, do you have/how do you deal with fears about people with more power and institutional support misrepresenting your work?
This is an interesting question and I’m not sure I know how to answer it! I am not aware of every discussion of my work, of course, and I have been called a blogger many times by academics (lol) but I do not see food writers picking up my ideas and running with them.
Kind of as the flip side of the previous question: when you were just starting out, did you encounter others in the writing, publishing, or academic industries who were largely dismissive of your work? If so, how did you navigate the feelings of that? How did you address those people?
Yes, lots of people have been dismissive! I used to get very, very upset about it and had a lot of anger, frustration, and feelings of inferiority—like I would just never break through or be taken seriously by people in power, and I did not handle it well at all! Now, I’m good, but it was a process to no longer want to be seen by mainstream food media, specifically. Probably more of an an ongoing process.
Do you think it’s stupid for someone to be trying to build their career off a newsletter at this point? Do you have a sense that the Substack wave has crested and passed for those who aren’t already established?
Don’t think of it as “Substack” and some kind of trend, but as your business. This is just the host that facilitates it. If you use it to your ends, there’s no sort of wave or limit to how to cultivate an audience and build from there!
Thanks so much for creating this space! I have several questions as I’ve reflected on your insights here—sorry in advance for the length!
1. What is your advice for someone who’s newsletter is growing steadily in paid and free subscribers, but who can’t seem to get anyone to engage with the writing on social media, in comments, etc.? Asking for a friend ;)
2. Recently on Twitter you mentioned that you’d like to see people offering windows into what they’re actually writing instead of talking about what their newsletter is all about. Could you expand a bit more on ways newsletter writers can do this online, on Twitter, and on Instagram?
3. You’ve built a newsletter that examines food, food systems, care, the pleasure of cooking, attention, among so many other things, in routinely complex ways. As you’ve risen in visibility, do you have/how do you deal with fears about people with more power and institutional support misrepresenting your work?
4. Kind of as the flip side of the previous question: when you were just starting out, did you encounter others in the writing, publishing, or academic industries who were largely dismissive of your work? If so, how did you navigate the feelings of that? How did you address those people?
5. Do you think it’s stupid for someone to be trying to build their career off a newsletter at this point? Do you have a sense that the Substack wave has crested and passed for those who aren’t already established?
6. Finally, I love the way you write about eating, vegetarianism, and pleasure. I also really admire how un-self-conscious you seem about making your own “self” visible and accessible, in a spirit of sincerity but also not taking yourself too seriously. I don’t think many people have achieved this well! Maybe not really a question so much as an observation and a thank you!!
I love the advice of seeing where things go organically… it’s so easy to box yourself into a grand master plan that, inevitably, does not go, well, according to plan 🤷🏼♀️