Casey Newton has been a reporter and writer for 20 years, and he jumped ship from traditional media last year.
It wasn’t an overnight decision. In fact, the paid newsletter platform Substack approached him in 2019 to join their ranks. He was a writer at The Verge at the time and decided to stick with his position.
Then 2020 happened.
Casey shared with OneZero that “the pandemic came along, and it just changed a lot for me. I sort of realized that I could do a ton of my job from inside my house.”
Casey’s decision to strike out on his own and set up a paid newsletter wasn’t a novel concept in 2020. When so much feels uncertain, it’s no surprise when creators start to think, “if not now, then when?”
In particular, paid newsletters gained popularity. ConvertKit started helping creators quickly set up paid newsletters, Substack’s usage doubled, and 30,000 people joined Patreon in March alone. Paid newsletters are so alluring, at least in part, because they make the jump between “growing an audience” and “monetizing it” so small. If you already have an email list, creating a paid version is nearly as simple as flipping a switch.
Platformer isn’t an overnight success story, though. Casey spent years growing his newsletter at The Verge, called The Interface, to 20,000 subscribers. He was able to bring some of his audience with him and has continued to produce quality content that his audience expects. Sure, his growth may be faster than others, but this wasn’t a stroke of luck. It took hard work.
Paid newsletters take time and effort to grow, and putting all of your eggs in this one digital basket might not be a solid long-term strategy.
So should you set up that paid newsletter you’ve been thinking about? And if so, should it be your sole focus? We took a look at the trajectory of five creators to see how paid newsletters fit into their product lineup.
Paid newsletters aren’t without pitfalls
While there’s plenty to love about paid newsletters (for some Patreon writers, there are 100,000 dollars a month to love about them), we want to help creators set realistic goals. So let's talk about the benefits of monetizing your email list, plus some of the challenges to plan for.
You have the freedom to write what you want
With a paid newsletter, you can write about anything that entertains, educates, or empowers your audience. It’s easy to take the type of content that subscribers already love, whether it’s original or curated, and monetize it.
They’re a short bridge to monetization
Since newsletters aren’t a new concept and your free subscribers know to expect quality content from you, they’re straightforward to promote. You can draw people in with free newsletter content and then upsell them for a small monthly price. Plus, writing or curating an email takes the same amount of time whether you’re sending it to 10 or 10,000 people, making it a good payoff if you achieve scale.
And can support an engaged community
Newsletters come with a natural sense of community, and paid newsletters and communities dive even further into that. A space filled with your most enthusiastic subscribers can lead to interesting conversations, higher engagement, and a willingness to give feedback.
Now, let’s cover some of the aspects of paid newsletters that need a bit more planning for. By understanding what you’re getting into, you can better plan for the road ahead.
To hit your income goals, you’re going to need scale
The average price of a paid newsletter is $11 a month, or $10 for simpler math. That low cost is both a blessing and a curse for creators, though. On one hand, attracting new readers is easier when the entry point is so low. On the other hand, you're going to need to scale if you want to bring in the big bucks.
Let’s look at Tom Kuegler, a creator who shared on Medium his plans to make money with a paid newsletter (hosted on ConvertKit!) while he develops paid courses. His goal is to make $10,000 a month, but he suggests having 3,000 free subscribers before launching a paid version.
Let’s do some simple math to help you figure out how many paying subscribers you’ll need to hit a few income milestones.
Assuming you charge $10 a month and have a 10% conversion from your free newsletter to paid:
- To reach $500 a month, you need 500 free subscribers
- To reach $1,000 a month, you need 1,000 free subscribers
- To reach $10,000 a month, you need 10,000 free subscribers
You also need to be mindful of fees on your platform of choice. Substack can cost up to 2.5X more than ConvertKit for successful newsletter creators. A ConvertKit account is free up to 1,000 subscribers, and upgraded plans start at $29. When it’s time to make a sale, you’ll only pay 3.5% + $0.30 for credit card processing on both free and paid plans.
And a commitment to consistency for the long haul
Once you set the flywheel of a paid newsletter in motion, there’s pressure to keep going indefinitely. You don’t want to let down paying subscribers, and there’s no clear conclusion to work towards. Lenny Rachitsky, the creator of Lenny’s Newsletter, shared that the need to write every week is a downside to paid newsletters he didn’t foresee:
I don’t know how you stop [a paid newsletter], unless you shut it all down and just refund everybody their money, which is hard to do, psychologically.
But here’s the good news: The challenges associated with paid newsletters—namely the need for scale and consistency—aren’t reasons to avoid these revenue streams. They’re merely reasons why you need to be strategic about how paid newsletters fit into your business’ ecosystem.
Rather than hoping your newsletter will take off overnight or that you’ll have an endless fountain of writing inspiration, you should diversify. If you take a closer look at some of the savviest paid newsletter writers, you’ll notice that they rely on a few income streams.
6 creators who have expanded their product line
If paid newsletters are great, but shouldn’t take up 100% of your business, then what’s a creator to do? Add more products to the mix to expand your reach, and decrease your reliance on a single product.
Let’s take a look at how five creators have turned their writing into an empire.
Austin Channing Brown
At a Glance:
- Topics: Racial justice, Black dignity
- Products: Two paid newsletters, book, speaking events, video web series
Austin Channing Brown uses multiple mediums to share lessons on racial justice in America, and captivates in every one of them. Kirsten Powers of USA Today and CNN called Austin “one of the most important voices in America.”
She has lent this voice to her book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, which shot to the top of Amazon’s bestsellers list upon its release in 2018. Since then, she captivated audiences at speaking events and through her Twitter community of nearly 90,000 people.
Austin also produces a web series called The Next Question along with Jenny Booth Potter and Chi Chi Okwu about racial justice. The video series has an 8-part season 1, a merch store, and a paid newsletter to support the cause.
Sometimes you will find my musings on the world, on politics, on Christianity, on social justice. Sometimes you will find a fiction story I'm writing for the first time. You might just get a list or a book recommendation or poem. This is my playground. The place where I can be goofy and serious, bold and unsure, thoughtful but still change my mind as soon as I push publish.
Austin Channing Brown
What to learn from Austin:
There are no bounds to the mediums you can use to tell your story, educate, and empower. Austin Channing Brown works across text, video, and speaking events to spark conversation and change. If there’s a product you’ve been thinking of creating or a format you want to play with, then go for it! You don't have to be perfect on the first try (or the 1,000th try). Just show up, authentically, for your audience.
At a Glance:
- Topics: Doctor, productivity, and tech
- Products: YouTube videos with ads, affiliate revenue, sponsorships, self-paced courses, cohort-based courses, paid community, and podcast
His creator journey started in 2017 with a YouTube channel. Ali consistently posted two times a week about his medical school experience and then as a doctor. He’s grown the channel to more than 1.3 million subscribers in those few years and added various other products to the lineup.
His course, Part-Time Youtuber Academy, teaches creators how to grow their channel to 100,000 subscribers and monetize content. While Ali doesn’t have a paid newsletter, he does have a free newsletter called Sunday Snippets that has 50,000+ subscribers. You’ll also find Ali’s content on Skillshare and in his courses for medical students.
Ali started a temporary hiatus from practicing medicine in 2020 and can continue his journey as a doctor without having to do it for money. In his video about his last day as a doctor, Ali reflected:
Over the last couple of years, the YouTube channel has really taken off. As I’ve started making more courses, classes on Skillshare, affiliate products, and different streams of income, I feel I’ve gotten to a point where I really don’t need to rely on medicine to make money. And that feels like a really good position because when I’m doing medicine, I’m doing it for fun.
What to learn from Ali:
Ali’s growth on YouTube and beyond can at least partly be attributed to his deep understanding and care for his audience. Choosing topics that your audience loves, getting them involved in directing the future of your projects, and showing up consistently for them are all vital.
Anne Helen Petersen
At a Glance:
- Topics: Pop culture and lifestyle
- Products: Paid newsletter, book
Anne Helen Petersen left Buzzfeed in 2020 and launched her paid newsletter, Culture Study. She didn’t just wake up one morning to a successful Substack with more than 2,000 paying subscribers, though. Anne began writing a free newsletter in 2016, and approached the idea of a paid product carefully. She noted that she was “very wary of monetizing a side gig or leisure activity.”
Ultimately, she recognized that taking control of her own paid publication would give her more creative freedom.
I’ve also found myself bouncing off the boundaries of what was possible, in this particular economic moment, as a staff writer at a major publication, whether in terms of format, headlines, speed, or control over intellectual property. I wanted more control, but I also knew I’d need resources and help.
Anne Helen Petersen
So a paid version of Culture Study launched alongside her free email list. Paid subscribers get access to exclusive content, Q&As, moderated discussion boards, and behind-the-scenes content.
Anne has also penned five books about millennial life in her career, with her latest being, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation. She’s currently drafting another book about working from home with an expected publication date of August 2021. Her Twitter following is also more than 100,000 strong.
What to learn from Anne:
Anne began writing her newsletter just for fun, and has since found a perspective that rings true to her audience. Her most recent books deal with Millennial burnout, and she’s made space on her newsletter for others to share their experience living alone during a pandemic. Everyone has a unique outlook on life and experiences that they can use to make their content stand out, even in popular niches.
At a Glance:
- Topic: Writing
- Products: Two newsletters, two podcasts, online course
David Perell’s two free newsletters, Monday Musings and Friday Finds, reach over 45,000 subscribers every week, and his writing course has alumni from Google, Facebook, Twitter, and more. He wasn’t born a gifted writer, though.
While David’s newsletters aren’t paid, they are the engine that drives his business model. He’s shared that colleagues at an ad agency told him his writing was a “glaring weakness” which set him down this path. After being laid off, he realized he needed to take job security into his own hands and began writing more.
Since then, he’s built his business into an entire ecosystem of writing content and resources. David hosts the Write of Passage and The North Star podcasts, and sells a Write of Passage course. His YouTube channel and Twitter following also feed his business. In the future, he plans to write a book.
What to learn from David:
There’s no one way to create content. David Perell has both short stories and essays, and uses two formats for his newsletters. You can take inspiration from other creators, but don’t feel like you need to march to the beat of someone else’s drum.
Nathan Baschez and Dan Shipper
At a Glance:
- Topics: Business strategy, productivity
- Products: Paid publication turned writer collective
In 2020, Nathan Baschez combined his Substack Divinations with Dan Shipper’s Superorganizers to create Everything. The bundle subscription grew from 600 to 1,000 subscribers in the first month, and transformed into a publication with 10 bundled newsletters. The newsletter’s estimated earnings for 2020 after Substack’s 10% commission were upwards of $648,000 a year.
Now, Dan and Nathan’s vision has evolved into a writer collective called Every. In a letter to the community after Every’s launch in January 2021, Dan and Nathan announced that the bundle had a new home with a renewed outlook. The pair left Substack to create a platform specifically for Every, and had created a “way to write that’s somewhere between starting a Substack and working for The New York Times.”
Every still releases occasional free content, but the most in-depth reporting is available for $1 for 30 days, and then $200 a year. While the Every writer collective is Dan and Nathan’s core product, having more contributors lifts some of the weight of continual content from their shoulders.
What to learn from Nathan and Dan:
Creators tend to wear many hats, but you’re definitely not in this journey alone. Finding like-minded creators opens the doors for collaborations and partnerships, and using two minds could grow your audience quicker.
Creating more products amplifies your impact and income
It can be tough to make 100% of your income from a paid newsletter alone, but the good news is that you can lean on multiple income streams. There’s no shortage of products or engagements to share with your audience to deliver more value and get paid for it.
Building a paid community is a labor of love, and one you can pursue alongside other ventures. Managing a whole host of products is easier than you think. That is, as long as you power your email marketing and commerce with ConvertKit.
ConvertKit Commerce lets you manage your email marketing, paid newsletter, and digital products in a single tool. Seeing all of your sales data on a single dashboard makes it easy to add new income streams and create a seamless subscriber experience.
Sign up for a free ConvertKit account today to start growing your online community.