What I know about running a paid newsletter for 9 months
Normcore grows up
Art: Writing Desk, Olga Rozanova, 1914
It’s been about nine months since I started Normcore Tech, and four months since the last time I talked about revenue. So, I thought I’d do a check-in about how I put together Normcore, how much money I’m making as an indie newsletter, and how the quickly-shifting paid newsletter landscape has changed in the past year. Let’s talk about how the newsletter gets made first, and then I’ll go into financials.
I write two newsletters a week, and have every week since I started the newsletter (even, somehow, when I had my son in July), one for the entire subscriber base, and one for paid subs.
I’m always “on” in the sense that I’m thinking about the newsletter, but it’s not any different than when I used to write primarily blog posts: I love writing, thinking about ideas, and sharing those ideas in long-form. This was especially important to me during maternity leave, when I needed an outlet for my brain. The fact that I make money from it now is a very nice bonus.
The good news is that there is always something to write about. My week of brainstorming starts usually after I release the latest free newsletter, on Tuesday-ish. My main news source is Twitter, where I follow a lot of people in data, tech, news and on the fringes of those fields. I’ll scroll through a couple times a day, which I’m doing anyway, so it’s not an extra cognitive load. My primary method of communication with myself across devices are Telegram, my favorite messaging platform, Google docs, where I start my drafts, and the Substack editor, where I paste them in once I’m done.
When I see interesting tweets, I add them to my Telegram Saved Messages, which is basically a neat way of DMing yourself. They could be tweets about a given topic, links to interesting papers, or just random story ideas with the “tag” story idea. For example, here’s what my saved messages look like right now after this weekend.
You can tell that I saved a bunch of tweets that are related to the recent conversation around tech salaries, a story idea about dropshipped baby formula (which will probably actually happen on Friday), and a link to an HN thread discussing questions to ask in a 1:1 meeting with your boss.
The related tweets on salary might become something, or they might become nothing. Remember that Normcore’s M.O. is to generally not cover things as they happen, unless they’re related to other things. The goal is to dig deeper. So we’ll see where these go.
I get ideas mainly from Twitter, but also from Hacker News, Reddit, private chat groups I’m in, talking to people at work -basically anywhere. The idea is to just be open and receptive to anything that might be interesting. For example, last week, I met with a friend who works in ad tech who was explaining to me why it won’t go away anytime soon. It could turn into something, or it could fizzle.
I paste a bunch of stuff into Telegram and it’ll marinate in my brain until some kind of interesting idea comes out, and then, usually spurred on by my self-imposed deadline, I start to write. I write in spurts, since I’m mostly either at work or spending time with my kids. My son goes to sleep around 6, and my daughter goes to sleep around 9:30, so I can usually steal half an hour, depending on whether I feel like I was run over by a truck or not, or so after she goes to bed on Wednesday or Thursday, I start with a clean Google Doc.
I crank away at it in these half hour increments during nap time and after bed, and usually have the semblance of a draft done on Monday, which I’ll edit and finish for Tuesday. I have my husband read it for a technical and tone sanity check, and if I have time, I send it to my editor before it goes out. It takes me about 3 hours to write a long post and about 40 minutes to write a short one.
On Tuesday, I read feedback and answer emails. I love getting reader emails and reactions to posts. They’re one of my favorite parts about running Normcore. Then, I’ll write a smaller, shorter, more personal post for Fridays for subscribers. These usually don’t involve as much research, but are about an issue in tech that I’ve personally faced. Then the process starts all over again.
In a post back in October, I talked about my financials,
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
Today, I’m up to 4k free subs and 300+ paid. I’ve made a little over $11k net (after Stripe and Substack take their cut. For more on how it works, check out my last post on the topic.)
For comparison, here are the numbers, as of last Friday:
This seems like a pretty fair amount of growth to me, but I have no idea what other newsletters do, so I can’t compare. The only other point of comparison I have is an article about how something called Morning Brew has over a million subscribers. And I think this is one of the major points I’m finding: it’s impossible to find any metrics about how much paid newsletters make, what their average monthly subscription rate is, how many independent ones versus ones run by media outlets there are, and all the regular info.
Just as there’s no real guide on how to run these things (other than Judd Legum’s awesome interview with Substack, which I recommend to everyone looking to do newsletters), most of the content around newsletters is qualitative.
Here are some things I’ve picked up:
A 20% open rate is good
Usually 10% of your subscribers will be paid (Mine has steadily hovered between 7 and 8% in any given month
Substack has “thousands” of newsletters, with “hundreds” that are monetized. Based on the “paid newsletters” tab, the top 18 newsletters have 1k or more subscribers, everything below that is “hundreds.” Judd Legum makes six figures off his newsletter. There are people making “$10,000 a month.” Ben Thompson of Stratechery is making “ $2 million - $3 million a year.” That’s pretty much all I know.
100 True Fans
If I were in fact a small business entirely dependent on newsletter revenue, I’d be somewhat disappointed with the lack of tangible business guidance, even though A16Z, which has put over $15 million into Substack, which I use to run Normcore, says that newsletters are the future. There is also this mythical metric theory that’s been floating around for a long time, about 1,000 true fans, as Li Jin recaps in at A16Z:
More than a decade ago, Wired editor Kevin Kelly wrote an essay called “1,000 True Fans,” predicting that the internet would allow large swaths of people to make a living off their creations, whether an artist, musician, author, or entrepreneur. Rather than pursuing widespread celebrity, he argued, creators only needed to engage a modest base of “true fans”—those who will “buy anything you produce”—to the tune of $100 per fan, per year (for a total annual income of $100,000). By embracing online networks, he believed creators could bypass traditional gatekeepers and middlemen, get paid directly by a smaller base of fans, and live comfortably off the spoils.
She takes it a step further and theorizes that the real model is for even less than that:
As the Passion Economy grows, more people are monetizing what they love. The global adoption of social platforms like Facebook and YouTube, the mainstreaming of the influencer model, and the rise of new creator tools has shifted the threshold for success. I believe that creators need to amass only 100 True Fans—not 1,000—paying them $1,000 a year, not $100. Today, creators can effectively make more money off fewer fans.
I genuinely don’t believe that, because I think there’s a limit to how much people are going to pay to subscribe to various newsletters. I personally subscribe to four, which is costs $20 a month. (I used to also pay for Stratechery, which is the gold standard for tech/business newsletters, but it was too high volume and a bit too pro-Silicon Valley to offer me value personally, although I think it’s important that it and newsletters like it exist, but at this point $2 million a year into the game, Ben Thomspon doesn’t need my help.)
Now, I don’t mind! They’re good newsletters! But it is wholly unrealistic to expect people to pay upwards of $100 to get their news and opinion fix on a monthly basis from 5 or 6 different sources.
The other bad thing from the writer’s perspective that happens when you start offering paid newsletters is that you become NPR. You have to constantly advertise that you’re selling subscriptions and remind people of the value you bring. You start sending out emails that your newsletter is on sale, or that you just published a new post for subscribers that people should subscribe to. You start creating a really long preamble to your newsletter about how people should support your content. I’m all about hustle as much as the next person, but this pressure to sell yourself really ruins the reader experience, in my opinion.
Which makes me think there is something to fix this that’s around the corner. That something is going to be newsletter bundling. Chris Best, the CEO of Substack, has already alluded to this in an interview with Jason Calacanis from January. (Side note: Jason is also an investor in newsletters.) This interview if a fantastic one to watch if you want to understand the newsletter industry today. In lieu of a 10K, it’s also the best way to understand Substack’s strategy.
They get to talking about Netflix, and say that the direct relationship between the writer and the reader is the fundamental building block, but that eventually, people aren’t going to be able to pay for as many newsletters as you want. Chris mentions potentially, possibly experimenting with bundling in the future.
This is already happening to some extent: Substack recently launched the ability to write a single newsletter with more than one writer.
We’d love to see the creation of subscription publications that follow the example set by The Athletic, The Information, and The Dispatch, all of which demonstrate that it is possible to build strong media businesses in what is supposed to be the worst economic climate for news since the advent of the penny paper.
It’s a natural conclusion that independent newsletters can start to be bundled, as well. For example, I can see a future Substack that wants to offer, I don’t know, Normcore, The Margins, Alex Danco, and Oversharing as a bundled package for, say, $20 a month.
The real issue here is that margins on individual newsletters that are not high performers are slim. For example, if Substack is taking 10% of my revenue, that’s only $1,000 for them a year. Let’s say optimistically that there are 500 people also generating $10k a year for Substack. (In the interview with Jason, Chris mentions that there are “a number” of people making $10k a month, but my assumption - and it may be a poor one, just like this entire calculation - is that that number is 15 or less.) That’s half a million altogether in gross revenue for Substack, maybe $750k for a very generous calculation. But the AWS bills and other expenses are ostensibly rising as the platform grows. And Substack promised A16Z that they’d make a lot more.
Substack says they’re going to be careful about it,
“We’re conscious of the writers depending on a reliable and stable Substack for their income,” McKenzie said. “We don’t want to go out there and do a bunch of crazy startup stuff.”
and so far they have been. But the future remains hazy.
What is success?
So far, it does seem like I’ve been successful, since revenue is up. I ’m mainly happiest that I’ve put out good things that make people think and talk about them (and that people vote with their money to keep it going - thank you subscribers!)
I love all my newsleter children, but here are the ones that I’m proudest of since October:
“I spent $1 billion and all I got was this Rubik’s cube”, about OpenAI, which I covered four months ahead of the Technology Review piece this week
“Neural nets are just people all the way down”, about datasets put together by hand
“Keybase and the chaos of crypto”, which Keybase responded in part directly to by changing their app moderation policies, and which I wrote about before mainstream tech media picked it up
“The highest-interest bank account”, about parenting and YouTube (for paid subs)
“Leaving the Bardo”, about the end of my maternity leave and technology (for paid subs)
I mostly gauge how I’m doing based on how many people subscribe after a given post, and how many new paid subscribers I get. I don’t really try to do anything to game the number of subscriptions other than continue to write about stuff that interests me.
Something that’s really helped me with this is turning off notifications about people who unsubscribe. For all the faults Twitter has, this is one of the things it gets absolutely right: you should never know who unfollows you and when. It makes you too self-conscious.
However, I know exactly when my growth inflection points were, and every time, it’s been because someone with a lot of Twitter followers recommended me. Can you tell where those places are?
Here they are:
The last big bump, last week, was after I put out what I guess was a particularly resonative post, about FindFace. And, there was another smaller bump in January, and that’s when I was offering free stickers for buying a subscription. People LOVE stickers, it turns out.
Stickers were an experiment I tried for fun was creating Normcore merchandise. Just like starting the newsletter, I had no concrete plan for them - I wanted to see how the process worked and how much everything cost.
I’ve made a negligible amount of money on these stickers. To order a sticker from Stickermule and ship it with the correct shipping, buying envelopes, mailing labels, and stamps, cost about $1.25 per sticker. My stickers cost $3, so I make $1.75 per sticker. So far, I’ve made about $125 and change.
However, I had SO much fun mailing them to people all around the world, and seeing where people put them, (bottom of the post here) that they were well worth it.
What’s next for Normcore
Last year, it seemed like everyone was writing about how wonderful newsletters are, how they’re heralding the rise of independent media, how they’re going to save everything, etc. Now that venture capital is involved, I’m a little more uneasy, but still optimistic.
What’s the end game with Normcore for me? Who knows? Most of my freelance revenue still does not come from this newsletter. The majority has been my data courses that I’ve developed for various platforms and paid pieces that I’ve written. I’ve been thinking of various ideas, just to see where they take me, but mostly, I’m content to just let Normcore grow organically. I don’t know that it would ever get to the point where it makes up most of my freelance revenue and justify how much time I spend on it, but I’d love to see it get there.
Ultimately, the bottom line is that, like every newsletter creator, I love my newsletter, and hope it continues to flourish, but we’ll see what both the macroeconomic climate and my personal time/energy constraints have in store for it.
What I’m reading lately:
Marketing yourself as a scientist on Twitter
I’m Obsessed with the Pet Squirrel in This Peculiar Early-American Portrait
This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out once a week to free subscribers, and once more to paid subscribers. If you like it, forward it to friends and tell them to subscribe!