Issue #28

How to create a paid newsletter

Newsletters Commerce
19 min read
In this Article

The year was 1704.

Boston postmaster John Campbell was putting the finishing touches on the first issue of the Boston News-Letter—a single-sheet packed on both sides with the most important news from the time.

The Boston News-Letter would appear weekly for over 70 years, becoming the first continuously published newspaper in America.

(Fun fact: The Boston News-Letter broke the story of Blackbeard the pirate's death in hand-to-hand combat in 1718!)

Since then, newsletters have come a long way. Email and the internet have removed publishers, editors, and gatekeepers from the mix. New technology has opened up paid newsletter subscriptions to creators of all kinds. And swashbuckling pirates are far less common.

Launching a paid email newsletter to share your creativity, attract a devoted following—and generate a healthy revenue—is easier than ever before.


What is a paid newsletter?

A paid newsletter—often also called a subscription newsletter or a premium newsletter—is a type of product where subscribers pay a monthly subscription fee to an independent creator or company in exchange for receiving exclusive content via email.

Most premium newsletters arrive in your inbox at least once every week. Each newsletter focuses on a particular audience, topic, or industry. They can include thought-provoking original writing, as well as curated content, links, and stories from around the web.

What are some good examples of paid newsletters?

Premium newsletters come in all shapes and sizes:

Boasting over 50,000 paying subscribers, Dutch news outlet The Correspondent lets subscribers choose their monthly payment. Image via The Correspondent
Boasting over 50,000 paying subscribers, Dutch news outlet The Correspondent lets subscribers choose their monthly payment. Image via The Correspondent

You don't need to run a full-fledged media operation to make some serious dough, though.

Can you make real money with a paid newsletter?

The short answer: absolutely, but don’t expect it to happen overnight.

Starting a paid newsletter is one of the fastest ways to start turning your knowledge and expertise into sustainable revenue. Newsletters are easy to launch and maintain, even for independent creators or small editorial teams—it's entirely possible to make a healthy independent living from newsletter revenue alone.

Newsletters also offer creators a ton of flexibility around pricing. Many newsletters offer multiple tiers, letting subscribers join for as little as a few dollars each month.

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Are paid newsletters just another fad, or are they here to stay?

While premium newsletters have been around for years, they've recently seen a bit of a renaissance among solo creators and online business owners.

Email inboxes are still a quiet space in a noisy world

Every few months I'll happen across a new article online claiming “email is dead.”

In reality? Email is more alive than ever.

Email has always had far greater reach—many email newsletters boast open rates exceeding 50%, whereas engagement on social media struggles to even reach 1%. Social media, Slack, and other channels are only becoming more crowded, making it difficult to stand out amongst the noise.

But even more important than reach is engagement. Especially as an independent creator, building an email newsletter feels more personal and approachable. The direct connection an email newsletter provides is a stark contrast to ever-more-crowded social feeds, paid ads, and other marketing channels. Producing high-quality content lets you create a more intimate, long-term relationship with your subscribers. And in return they reward you directly by opening their wallets—engaged readers are up to 8 times more likely to convert into paid subscribers.

Newsletters give you freedom to write what you want

After finding herself “bouncing off the boundaries of what was possible … as a staff writer at a major publication,” former Buzzfeed journalist Anne Helen Petersen recently left her staff writer job to go full-time with her independent newsletter, Culture Study. Two or three times a week, she shares a mixture of her signature feature writing, recommendations, interviews, and “good old-fashioned blogging” with her paying subscribers (free subscribers get one newsletter each week).

Anne Helen Petersen sharing her decision to launch a full-time newsletter with her subscribers. Image via Anne Helen Petersen at Culture Study
Anne Helen Petersen sharing her decision to launch a full-time newsletter with her subscribers. Image via Anne Helen Petersen at Culture Study

Her newsletter and audience give Anne complete control over her message. She has the freedom to write about topics she loves, tell stories, and share value without editors, clients, or advertisers peeking over her shoulder.

And the best part? It's far more profitable than “good old-fashioned blogging.”

You can write about nearly anything

When it comes to launching a successful premium newsletter, the riches are in the niches. You can create a newsletter about almost any topic, industry, or interest, and there's a good chance you'll attract a dedicated readership.

Just look at Neil Cybart. In 2015, he launched Above Avalon, his niche publication sharing exclusive daily updates about Apple. His newsletters aren't pretty, and some of the daily editions take up to 12 hours to create. But to date, he's shared over 1,000 daily updates with subscribers and created a sustainable business model, simply by covering one single topic in agonizing detail.

With the ability to reach a global audience interested in niche topics like Neil's, and new tools making it easier than ever to launch a newsletter, there's never been a better time to launch a paid newsletter and start growing your audience.

Email newsletters are easy to scale

Writing a newsletter doesn't require a big staff or expensive equipment to grow a healthy audience.

You only need to create the content for each newsletter edition once—then you can deliver that newsletter to an unlimited number of subscribers. That means even independent creators can generate a very healthy recurring revenue while keeping expenses low.

Take Emily Atkin, for example. After launching her paid newsletter covering climate change—appropriately named Heated—one year ago, she's currently on track to gross $175,000 from more than 2,500 subscribers, according to a feature in the New York Times. Out of that, she covers her personal costs like health coverage, along with research assistants and the 10% fee charged by Substack.

An example edition from Emily Atkin's paid newsletter, Heated. Image via Emily Atkin and Heated
An example edition from Emily Atkin's paid newsletter, Heated. Image via Emily Atkin and Heated.

The remaining profits are hers to keep—and the opportunities for growth are endless.

How to set up your first paid newsletter

So you've got a killer idea for your email newsletter, and you're ready to start building your audience. Great!

Before you dive headlong into writing your first edition, here's a few important things you need to consider as you launch.

Determine if a paid newsletter is right for you

Email newsletters might be a great business model—but you need to remember you're still running a business.

Just like any other product, your customers will want to know what they’re signing up for before they open their wallets. That means you'll need to maintain a fixed schedule and deliver what you promise, or your hard-earned subscribers will churn.

Start by determining how often you want to send your newsletter. Can you write a new essay every week, or should you stick to curating content that other people create? You need to make sure creating your newsletter content becomes a habit—one that works for you (and balances with your other scheduled tasks) over the long haul.

Remember, though, that you also need to take what you need into account. Even a curated newsletter takes a lot of time and effort to maintain—even when you're having a bad day, you're swamped with client work, or your kids simply won't stop arguing about whose Legos are whose. Trust me, I've been there.

Just ask developer and tech journalist Owen Williams, who stepped back from his daily ReCharged tech briefing after two years:

A paid newsletter can often mean working to a busy schedule, no matter what. Image via @ow on Twitter
A paid newsletter can often mean working to a busy schedule, no matter what. Image via @ow on Twitter.

Make sure you're certain that a paid newsletter is the right business for you before you launch, or consider if other business models like digital products or coaching match your values and work goals more closely.

Find your topic

Choosing the right topic or niche for your newsletter is incredibly important.
Try to pick a topic that your audience is interested in learning about, but also one that you're experienced with and interested in sharing your knowledge. That way, you'll find it far easier to come up with new ideas for each edition without you (or your audience) getting bored.

Now write down a short value proposition for your newsletter. A few (fictional) ideas to inspire you:

  • My daily newsletter curates the best content from the tech world, to save you time and keep you in the loop.
  • My weekly newsletter shares unique essays, stories, and lessons learned from my experience as an independent artist, so you can launch your own indie art career with confidence.
  • My monthly almanac collects essential sports news from Hill Valley, CA, so you can return from the future and get rich.

Remember, you aren't writing your newsletter for yourself—you're writing for your subscribers. You want to make sure every edition entertains, educates, and provides value, so your subscribers will stick with you for the long haul.

Decide on your newsletter content and format

“I feel like I already sell a lot to my audience. Can I really add something else?”

It’s a question I hear from a ton of creators considering adding paid newsletters to their business. Writing a carefully-crafted original essay every week can feel like a lot to put out in addition to other products, content, and offerings that are already filling your time.

But writing a paid newsletter doesn’t mean you need to get stuck on the content treadmill. Try not to think of your newsletter as yet another piece of content you have to create each week. Instead, when you’re deciding on the form your newsletter should take, look for opportunities to add additional value or exclusivity to content you’re already making.

A few ideas:

  • If you’re a YouTuber, you might release an exclusive video once every other week to your paid subscribers
  • Food bloggers can easily share exclusive weekly recipes and insider looks at how they develop and test each recipe
  • Musicians might give their biggest fans behind-the-scenes footage from the studio or exclusive covers
  • Educators and course creators could use a paid newsletter as a bite-sized down-sell automation designed to hook the customer into wanting a high-priced course

Don’t be afraid to get creative!

Choose the right platform

If you're still set on launching a newsletter, you'll also want to choose the right tools for your newsletter.

In the past, creators have been stuck gluing together email marketing, subscription management, and payment tools from multiple different companies simply to launch a paid newsletter.

Not any more.

Modern email platforms make it a cinch to get started, offering everything from user-friendly subscription management tools to engaging newsletter landing pages. At ConvertKit, you can set up your paid newsletter for free with ConvertKit Commerce. This tool lets creators sell paid newsletter subscriptions right alongside their digital products.

ConvertKit Commerce paid newsletter

ConvertKit Commerce makes selling paid newsletter subscriptions a cinch. Other popular newsletter platforms for creators include dedicated newsletter platforms (like Substack or Revue) or membership platforms (like Memberful or Patreon).

If you already use ConvertKit for your email marketing, though, adding a paid newsletter option only takes a few clicks. We’ll go into more detail on how to set up your paid newsletter in ConvertKit in a moment, but there are a few more details to consider before you dive in.

Set your price (or price tiers)

Like I mentioned earlier, you're running a business here—and that means charging money for your services.

Now I know pricing your own creative work can often feel icky. But the good news with newsletters (see what I did there?) is that you have plenty of options to create a pricing model that's affordable for subscribers, and profitable for you:

  • You could charge only a small fee (for example, $3 per month) to kickstart your audience
  • You could take the premium route and charge a high price (for example, $99 per month) for exclusive and high-value content shared less frequently
  • You might add an annual tier for a small discount (for example, $9 per month or $99 per year)
  • Perhaps offering multiple content access levels (for example, $29 per month gets you exclusive insider content and behind-the-scenes updates) can boost your profits
  • You could offer limited-time discounts to early adopters

The options are endless. Choosing a pricing model that you feel comfortable with, and see what results you get by asking people to subscribe. Remember, you can always change your pricing model later if you aren't comfortable with it.

Kickstart your audience with free newsletter content

Launching a paid newsletter from scratch is no easy feat. Convincing someone to pay for your content—even if it's only a few dollars a month—can be much harder when you haven't yet shown that you can deliver value.

If you don't already have an email list, consider sharing your content for free before adding paid tiers. That way, you can build a loyal subscriber base through your free newsletter content, and those people will be more likely to pay for your subscription once you launch. For example, freelance journalist Sonia Weiser freely shared freelance pitching opportunities in her weekly newsletter for years before she launched her paid newsletter, Opportunities Of The Week.

If you do already have an email list, either through ConvertKit or another tool, take the advantage. Email your existing audience, tell them about your newsletter and why they should subscribe, and link directly to your signup form. Even a small subscriber list can be enough to kickstart your paid newsletter audience.

Don't forget to promote your newsletter

Paid newsletters are inherently less shareable. Your most valuable content is only shared with paying subscribers, so you need to work harder to get the message out about why people should subscribe.

A few ideas for how to promote your newsletter:

  • Share snippets of paid content on your website for free, and prompt readers to unlock the full post by joining
  • Reach out to your existing contacts and audience via email and social media, let them know why they should join your newsletter and share a link to your signup page
  • Cross-post snippets of your best content on online communities like IndieHackers, Reddit, or the ConvertKit Community

Pro tip: Look for opportunities to partner with other newsletter creators and scale both your audiences. Nathan Baschez partnered with Dan Shipper and Tiago Forte to create the Everything bundle, combining their newsletter subscriptions like a magazine to expand their reach (and their bottom line).

How to set up your first paid newsletter in ConvertKit

Now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for—let’s get your paid newsletter up and running!

You can check out our step-by-step guide to creating a paid newsletter in ConvertKit Commerce right here—but I’ll summarize the key steps below as well to save you time.

Set up your paid newsletter product in ConvertKit Commerce

Open your ConvertKit dashboard, click Products in the top menu, then click the red button labeled New Product.

ConvertKit Commerce paid newsletter

Next, under Product Details > Pricing Method, you'll want to select Subscription:

ConvertKit Commerce paid newsletter

You'll be able to select your newsletter’s billing Frequency (either Monthly, Quarterly, or Yearly) and Price (the amount to be charged at each billing interval).

Next, in the Fulfilment section, select A Newsletter:

ConvertKit Commerce paid newsletter

Sending out your paid newsletter

Paid newsletters are sent out as broadcasts, filtered to only send to those who are subscribed to your newsletter product. That way you’ll never accidentally send your premium content to non-paying subscribers.

Start by creating a new Broadcast email and remove the default All Subscribers filter by clicking the X that appears on hover. Next, click Add Filter to add a new filter, then select Subscribed to > Products. Select the name of your paid newsletter product you set up in the previous step.

ConvertKit Commerce paid newsletter

Finally, click Add Filter to finish setting up your filter.

Once the recipient filter is set up, you're free to compose & send (or schedule) your broadcast following the remainder of the normal process.

The product filter will automatically take care of ensuring it only goes out to those who are actively paying for it at the time of sending. That means if a subscriber cancels their subscription, they'll automatically be excluded from that filter — no action required on your part. 🙌

Pro tip: You can offer discounts on your paid newsletter subscriptions just like any other digital products. Click here to find out how to set up a discount code on your paid newsletter!

Promoting your paid newsletter

Now you’ve set up your paid newsletter product, it’s time to share it with the world.

ConvertKit makes it easy to set up a landing page to promote your newsletter. Our fully customizable templates make it easy to introduce your newsletter and convince new customers to sign up—no coding experience required. Subscribers don’t even need to leave our landing page to sign up!

Each paid newsletter comes with a conversion-optimized product page where subscribers can sign up. You can customize every aspect of your page, from the product images and descriptions to the checkout page and receipt emails.

ConvertKit Commerce paid newsletter

When you’re ready to launch, it’s easy to share a link to your newsletter subscription page from your website, emails, or social media. Just click Publish on your product page to grab a direct link to your product:

ConvertKit Commerce paid newsletter

Or you can embed a “Buy Now” button for your product into your website with one line of code:

ConvertKit Commerce paid newsletter

A few suggestions on how to promote your brand-new paid newsletter:

Give readers a taste of what you offer

The best way to demonstrate your newsletter’s value to potential subscribers is to show them. Linking to your past content is a great way to give potential customers a taste of what you offer and encourage them to share your content with their audience!

Once you’ve sent out a few editions of your paid newsletter, you can share links to any of your past newsletter editions (both free and paid). You can also include a web link within the broadcast itself (for example, to include a ‘View in browser' link).

You can also embed a feed of past newsletters in any of your landing pages. This curated selection of your ConvertKit broadcasts is a great way to show off some of your best content—not to mention entice your landing page visitors to become new subscribers!

Here’s an example of how it looks:

Nathan Barry ConvertKit newsletter

Ready to launch your first paid newsletter?

Paid newsletters are a great way for creators of all kinds to share your knowledge and expertise and build a sustainable and predictable revenue stream. The more entertaining, useful, and valuable your newsletter is, the more you’ll be able to make.

But remember, while it might be easy to get started, running a paid newsletter can be an uphill battle. The best premium newsletters took years of nurturing an audience to reach where they are today.

But like John Campbell's Boston News-Letter, I know you're up to the challenge—and the best time to get started is today. The earlier you start, the faster you can build your newsletter into a sustainable business that works for you.

Start small, be patient, and before you know it, you'll have a thriving newsletter subscription business that supports you financially while letting you share what you love.

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Kieran Tie

Kieran Tie is the editor of Tradecraft. When he’s not working on creative content projects for clients, he enjoys making mischief with his two young daughters in his Denver home. You’ll find Kieran with a flat white in hand on Twitter @kieran_tie.

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