13 min read
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.
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. Premium newsletters come in all shapes and sizes:
You don't need to run a full-fledged media operation to take advantage of paid newsletters, though. 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. They 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.
While premium newsletters have been around for years, they've recently seen a bit of a renaissance, particularly among solo creators and online business owners, for a few different reasons.
ConvertKit Commerce makes it easy for creators to get paid for their work and earn a living online without needing a complicated ecommerce website.Sell digital products with ConvertKit
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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.
The remaining profits are hers to keep—and the opportunities for growth are endless.
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.
Email newsletters might be a great business model—but you need to remember you're still running a business. 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:
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.
This might sound obvious on the surface, but choosing the right topic or niche for your newsletter is incredibly important.
Choose 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:
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.
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 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!
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 for creating a pricing model that's affordable for subscribers, and profitable for you:
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.
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.
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:
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).
Most paid newsletters aren't an overnight success for most creators. 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—a business that fits 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.