Social media platforms are becoming bigger than ever (Facebook claims 2.4 billion monthly active users),but it’s harder to find any real people on there. Like Yogi Berra said, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.”
To counter this and cut through the noise, small-scale, organic social media is a tiny, but growing trend.
As big internet becomes more threatening, people are turning inwards. How?
First, they’re setting up *ahem* newsletters. Newsletters are, although also a viral risk, strangely intimate. It’s you talking to a single person in their inbox. They’re also longer-form than Twitter. They allow for arguments, for room to think.
The second way people are turning to “small i internet” is chat groups. Facebook and Twitter have become extremely noisy. Where they’ve failed, Telegram, Slack, Whatsapp, and iMessage have stepped in.
The rise of the newsletter has not been an unnoticed phenomenon. There have been a bunch of articles examining the rise of platforms like Tinyletter and the one that this newsletter runs on, Substack.
Mike Isaac (who has a recent book out on Uber that I’ve been eyeing), writes,
Now, when I feel the urge to tweet an idea that I think is worth expounding on, I save it for my newsletter, The Dump (an accurate description of what spills out of my head). It’s much more fun than mediating political fights between relatives on my Facebook page or decoding the latest Twitter dust-up.
There’s been a lot of press around newsletters (Craig Mod’s article particularly comes to mind), but not a lot of pieces breaking down how they work financially.
Since I’ve been working on Normcore for a couple months now (since May) and have a better handle on operations, I thought I’d write about how this newsletter works, and how much money it makes.
A couple of other things recently happened that make me feel it’s interesting to dive into what running Normcore Tech is like:
I read a post by Julia Evans, who is pursuing making money off her side hustle for the next year, and it inspired me to also write about what I’m doing and do a revenue breakdown. Hopefully
Richard McManus, who runs the great newsletter Cybercultural, did an analysis of what newsletter monetization is like.
Substack, the platform that runs this newsletter, has been pretty adamant about small platforms being the future, and recently set up a website for you to calculate how much money you’ll make with a newsletter (on Substack), and has recently raised money from A16Z, bringing significant Silicon Valley attention to the sphere.
Why a newsletter?
I’ve been writing both technical and personal content online for over ten years. However, I got to a point of conflict: some of the stuff I wrote was too personal for my tech blog, and the technical stuff was too dry for a personal blog.
Really, my sweet spot is writing about extremely technical things in a way that brings humanity to that topic, as witnessed by post like “Who is doing this to my internet,” and “the demise of Soundcloud.” I wanted to write more of these kinds of pieces because I enjoy thinking about these issues and researching them.
Second, I wasn’t seeing the kinds of things I was thinking about being written about in the technical press. In 2017, before everyone hated Facebook, I wrote a long article about why you shouldn’t trust Facebook, a topic I’ve been thinking about since 2012. I was surprised to see that the post went viral, because all I’d done in my mind was aggregate what I’d been reading in the news about Facebook into one article. But it turns out people really didn’t know, and weren’t reading this stuff in aggregate, because the media wasn’t presenting it in a cohesive way. I was frustrated, and wanted to write more of these kinds of things for people who think about this kind of stuff.
Third, I was publishing a lot of these thoughts on Twitter, where they kind of goes into the ether. I’m not a fan of threads in general and think they really fracture public discourse.
But I also felt like my tech blog blog is too permanent, and again, doesn’t work for more news-y type topics. Hence the newsletter, a liminal space for intellectual activity.
Finally, around the same time, I saw the debut of Substack on Hacker News. People I already followed, like the voluminously prolific Nicole Cliffe, were already writing on Substack. They mentioned that Substack provided a mechanism to run paid subscriptions, and my interested was piqued. Even though I’m extremely passionate about writing, I’ve never made much more than $1,000 a year for work written for literary publications, tech journals, and more. I was curious to see if I could get to a sustainable amount of revenue - maybe enough to be able to do just the newsletter for a year or two?
Ultimately, in starting the newsletter on Substack, I wanted to see three things:
Were people willing to pay for my writing?
What is it like to run a subscription-based side-business?
Could something like this ever become a full-time thing?
How does Substack work?
Substack handles everything for your newsletter: an editor and writing platform, media content hosting, distribution (aka email delivery, the really hard part), URL, and integrates with Stripe to offer payments.
There is a free portion and a paid portion. You can choose to have your newsletter entirely free, or with a paid subscription. A paid subscription essentially means you send your paid subscribers extra content. Really, this is all semantics: what you’re paying for when you pay for a newsletter is the idea of the newsletter existing.
Judd Legum, who has one of the biggest newsletters on the platform, did a fantastic interview with Hamish, the co-founder of Substack, on how newsletter subscriptions work, and one thing he noted is that, as with public radio, when you subscribe, you’re not paying for access to a specific piece of writing. Instead, you’re supporting the author and the idea of the newsletter. The more monetary support the newsletter has, the more time the author can devote to it.
My Stripe payments go directly to my consulting LLC (it was really, really easy to set up and now I’m a Stripe fan for life.)
How much do you make?
Substack charges 10%. Stripe charges 2.9% plus 30 cents a transaction.
I have two subscription levels: $5/month, or $50/year.
That means, for every $5, I make ~ $4. For every $50, I make ~ $43.
Right now, I have a little under 2k total subscribers and 137 paid subscriptions.
So far this year, as a result, I’ve made $4,630.14 gross (the total amount, without any of the Substack/Stripe fees), and $3,942.35 net.
So essentially, I’ve made $4k writing newsletters, since the end of May. (The first one went out on May 20th.)
This is both a lot and not a lot. From my personal perspective, it’s more than I’ve ever made writing in a year consistently, and I keep getting new subscribers, so I’m pretty happy with it. What I also love is that people send me emails and tweets responding to the newsletters, either as a clarification of something I wrote, or confirmation, or news, so it’s like a conversation I never would have had otherwise.
From the business perspective of a publication, it’s a really tiny amount of money. The metric that’s most important for a subscription business is monthly recurring revenue, and mine as of right now is hovering around $575, which is a nice supplement, but not really enough to be able to make writing newsletters a full-time thing.
How many subscribers would be sustainable for me to be able to work on Normcore full-time?
A good amount of money in annual revenue would be somewhere around $50k. That comes down to $4k a month in recurring revenue, or about 8 times the amount of volume I’m doing now. $4k a month at $4/subscription is 1,000 subscribers.
When I talked to Hamish, he explained that 10% of subscribers of any given newsletter usually convert to paid. (Right now my conversion rate is about 8.5% on average.) So I’d need 10,000 free subscribers in order to generate 1,000 paid subscriptions to make that much. And don’t forget a margin to account for churn. Remember how I said every company always cares about churn?
This problem is also known as churn, and I’ve encountered it at every single job and client I’ve ever worked for, including even companies that have near-monopolistic holds on their respective industries.
Churn is really, really important for organizations that rely on month-to-month revenue accrual, like most of SaaS companies. But it’s just as important in retail, entertainment, finance, and on and on and on.
I care about churn, too (when paid subscribers cancel), and right now mine is about 4%, so I’d probably need closer to 1100 (rounded up) to pad for the difference.
All of this is the kind of ballpark math you want to do if you’re thinking of running a profitable, paid newsletter.
Where to go from here?
Luckily, right now this is just a (very enjoyable) side project for me, so while I’d love to get to the point where the writing pays for itself, right now it definitely doesn’t, and Normcore is a labor of love where my rewards are, yes, money, but also knowing that people read and enjoy my work!
I think it’s important to understand my motivations for looking at these metrics. I’m not a corporation. I glance at them and make sure they’re vaguely going up, but I don’t optimize for them. If I have a popular post, I might follow up on it, but I’m absolutely not going to write every newsletter about Silicon Valley/Saudi Arabia or Kafka, even if it gets me more subscribers and revenue.
I’m also very cognizant of my own mantra, that good things don’t scale, and I’m in no rush to see <VC voice> astronomical hockey-stick growth</VC voice>.
Ultimately, I write about the topics that are interesting to me, and hopefully, to others, too, at a cadence that works both for me and readers. That’s the beauty of independent media that’s not beholden to optimizing for clickbait, but instead is supported by crowdfunding.
What’s the catch?
I’m very happy with the Substack platform, the Substack ethos, and Normcore.
There is, however, one catch that I’m concerned about: A16Z, the company run by this guy (Ben Horowitz), has gotten involved:
As you may know from my previous posts about anything related to VC, I’m not exactly optimistic about VC-run businesses. But, in the spirit of Normcore, I’m trying to keep an open mind. Here’s what I wrote on the announcement post in response to the acquisition:
It goes without saying, but the more people that read this newsletter, the more free subscribers there are, and the more possibilities for paid conversion$. If you enjoy this newsletter, please tell your friends about it, and send any questions/comments my way.
Art: Woman Writing, Picasso, 1934
What I’m reading lately:
Super cool project extrapolating data from a trend:
The cost of cooking dinner is a lot more than just the actual cooking
Going down this rabbit hole (Thanks for the tip, Neil!)
A reading list on content moderation
How to make money from a war
This post on putting machine learning into production.
About the Author and Newsletter
I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. This newsletter is about issues in tech that I’m not seeing covered in the media or blogs and want to read about. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a newborn, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.
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