January 18, 2022

How writers and journalists can make money with Substack

It feels almost surreal. For decades, freelance writers and journalists have seen print sales plummet and Google and Facebook take the lion’s share of online ad revenue. Consequently, demand for our services has fallen, and the amount we’re paid along with it. But now there’s a small light at the end of the tunnel.

 You know how, when you buy a newspaper or amagazine, you turn to your favourite writer’s page first? Well, some of thesewriters have discovered that, by leaving their publications and writing directlyfor their fans via a subscription newsletter, they can make significantly moremoney. In some cases, we’re talking hundreds of thousands of pounds per year.

While there are many newsletter platforms to choose from, right now Substack seems to be the most successful, attracting high-profile names such as Charlie Warzel, Anne Helen Petersen, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Yglesias and Graham Linehan.

But what if you’re not a high-profile name from the New York Times; just a jobbing freelancer who delivers solid work that keeps your editor and readers happy, but which has never made you a “star” as such?

Well, I’d argue Substack still has a lot to offer. But like any new platform, from Clubhouse to Twitch, you’re going to have do two things: find a niche and put in some work on self-promotion.  

Is it worth it? Well, one benefit of Substack is that it’s free entry. Compare that to the multitude of costs involved in,say, setting up a podcast, such as buying audio equipment, licensing music, paying for editing, and so on. In contrast, you can launch a newsletter on Substack for free. So even if you fail, you’ve only lost time; not cold, hard cash.

You can choose to make your newsletter free or paid-for, or a mix of the two. This is usually the best approach for newbies: lure uncommitted readers in with free newsletters but put your best stuff behind a paywall for subscribers. Then, alter the ratio over time until you have a solid paying audience, and perhaps ultimately remove all free content.  

How much can you make? Substack takes a 10% cut of all subscription revenue, and the platform’s financial service provider, Stripe, takes another 2.9%, plus a 30-cent transaction fee for each subscriber.The maths gets a bit complicated, but basically assume you’ll be paying out about 20 per cent of your revenue.

That means if you reached 2,000 subscribers paying £5 a month, you’d be taking home just under £8,000 a month, or around £96,000 a year. Which let’s face it, is considerably more than most of us have ever imagined earning as a writer or journalist, whether salaried or freelance.

Far-fetched? Perhaps. But think about it. If you’re specialised in a topic that no one else is covering, whether than be TikTok advertising trends or women’s football in Asia, there may well be a couple of thousand people who are willing to pay for a regular, concise, and authoritative update in their inbox.  

Time is money, after all. And if your careful curation helps them stay on top of their interest, without having to navigate the rabbit-holes of the internet or the chaos of social media, you’ll be providing a valuable service.

And just imagine. You’d be working foryourself, with no employer or client to please. You’d have total freedom to write what you like, without any editorial interference. You wouldn’t need to please advertisers or sponsors. There’d be no need to compose link bait, or stress about going viral. Sounds nice, right?

You’d also be freed from snark and backlash on social media, by ill-informed trolls who don’t read the article properly and suck all your time and energy. Indeed, the only people reading your articles would be those who’d actively chosen to. And even if you did get negative feedback, it’s more likely to be the type that’s constructive, and helps you to improve your journalism and serve your readers better in the long term.

Best of all, Substack is super-easy to use,and very quick to set up. Anyone who’s used a publication’s CMS, or a publishing platform like Medium, will find it very familiar and intuitive. Essentially, you can have your first newsletter live in less than an hour if you choose. Alternatively, if you’re completely new to online publishing, you’ll find Substack’s own guide to using the platform very well-written and straightforward to follow.

That said, Substack does have downsides. The flipside of editorial freedom is that you’ll have no editorial support oroversight, and you may be surprised by how many factual errors and spelling mistakes slip through without it. But you do at least have some protection against getting sued. That’s because Substack has recently launched Substack Defender, which offers free legal advice to writers facing legal uncertainty or pressure. 

Perhaps the biggest negative, though, is that you’ll have to put a LOT of work into chasing subscribers, particularly paid ones. Substack is not a platform where people just discover you by chance, as on YouTube, and there isn’t really much of a recommendation mechanism either. So, while you will get most of the money, you’ll need to do ALL of the work in promoting yourself. 

For starters, you’ll want to harness your social media followers. You’ll want to draw on all the friends, colleagues, contacts, PRs and past interviewees in your virtual black book to spread the word. And it’s also a good idea to post in forums appropriate to your specialty, sharing your expertise and slipping in a subtle link to your Substack along the way.

Another stratagem is to offer yourself as an expert interviewee, to influencers operating in the same space but on different channels – such as podcasts, YouTube, Twitch or Clubhouse. Give the latter they want (free content) while weaving in an appropriate plug for your newsletter.

 In short, you’re going to need to hustle. And the biggest risk is ultimately, your newsletter may fail.

But the bottom line is, you really don’t have a lot to lose. And you might ask yourself: is it riskier NOT to try?

Right now, the future of even the biggest media publications is precarious, to say the least. Only the biggest optimist doesn’t expect journalist salaries to continue falling over the 2020s. And the pandemic has showed that even in-demand freelancers can lose their income overnight, for reasons beyond our control.

Conversely, during the pandemic, we’ve all seen freelancers with an independent media base – whether that be a newsletter, a podcast, or a YouTube channel – grow their audience. So why not join them? 

I don’t say this idly. While researching this article, I did my due diligence and set up a dummy Substack account to check everything works like it’s supposed to. Ultimately, I liked the platform somuch, I decided to go ahead and launch a free newsletter of my own, called Unreported News: as not seen on TV. Feel free to subscribe, and I’ll happily share my Substack experiences and tips with you going forward.

Learn how you can turn your freelance gig into a money making business. It’s FREE!

Free 15 min freelancing consultation call
Advice and practical steps to level up your business
Learn how to consistently find work
Get tips for finding your niche

Recommended Reading

It isn’t you. Really!

Let’s face it. Freelancing is still a pioneering career choice. As a career path we’rebeyond Ferrari-speed, and closer to Apollo 11. Twenty years ago, freelancing hardlyregistered, and the closest thing to Upwork.com or Freelancer.com was...

How to survive freelancer interviews and chats

You may have gone into freelancing to avoid ever having to do interviews. Well, sadly, in same cases you may have to. So here's a guide to interviewing as a freelancer.

How to detach your self-worth from your work

When you wear every hat needed for your business to succeed, it's difficult to let your head get a rest. This is only made worse if you are defined by your KPI's. So how do...

How to onboard new clients as a freelancer

How to onboard new clients as a freelancer

If you’re signing new clients, that’s fantastic. But the first and second steps of the relationship are vital to keeping things positive. Having a consistent onboarding system can get your started in the right place.

How to tackle portfolio procrastination

How to tackle portfolio procrastination

Making good portfolios is crucial for your freelance business, but it can be tempting to procrastinate. Check out UnderPinned’s Virtual Office for portfolio templates to fill and send to clients!

The difference between Portfolios and Proposals

The difference between Portfolios and Proposals

So you’re hunting for freelance work? Well, what do you say when a potential client asks for a proposal rather than a portfolio? Have a read to see.

Freelancing with ADHD

Freelancing with ADHD

Freelancing is for everyone. But a job that requires skills you struggle with can make freelancing with ADHD difficult. Hear from an expert and a freelancer with ADHD about how she makes it work.

Freelancing with ADHD

Freelancing with ADHD

Freelancing is for everyone. But a job that requires skills you struggle with can make freelancing with ADHD difficult. Hear from an expert and a freelancer with ADHD about how she makes it work.

How to go freelance straight after uni

How to go freelance straight after uni

How do you go freelance straight after uni? You honestly ask yourself if you’re ready, and then you just lean into it 100%. And you read this article to find out more.

How to go freelance straight after uni

How to go freelance straight after uni

How do you go freelance straight after uni? You honestly ask yourself if you’re ready, and then you just lean into it 100%. And you read this article to find out more.

Signs of a weak freelance portfolio that clients spot at once

Signs of a weak freelance portfolio that clients spot at once

What signs in your portfolio are you hoping that clients see? And what are you hoping will be good filler? Make sure you’re only putting things in there that you can defend

Signs of a weak freelance portfolio that clients spot at once

Signs of a weak freelance portfolio that clients spot at once

What signs in your portfolio are you hoping that clients see? And what are you hoping will be good filler? Make sure you’re only putting things in there that you can defend

Ten actionable tips for freelancers to relieve their WFH fatigue

Ten actionable tips for freelancers to relieve their WFH fatigue

WFH has been tough. But, a year into the change for many people, there are still learnings to be had. Zoom past fatigue with our tips

Ten things you should never say to a freelancer

Ten things you should never say to a freelancer

Vent your client frustrations through us! A must read for anyone that hires/knows/ever talks to a freelancer, here’s ten things never to say to a freelancer

Kill The Boss In Your Head: Freelancing and Creativity

Kill The Boss In Your Head: Freelancing and Creativity

Through the tension and anxiety at the heart of all paid freelance work, what are the conditions that best support the free-flowing of creativity?

One year ago I turned to freelancing to save my mental health: Here’s what happened

One year ago I turned to freelancing to save my mental health: Here’s what happened

Fiona Thomas writes on her switch to freelancing pushed by her mental health, and how someone in a similar scenario can benefit from the change

A guide to being a creative freelancer without social media

A guide to being a creative freelancer without social media

We could all do with a break from social media. But how do you continue to run your creative freelance business without your Instagram? Here’s a guide.

An extension of your arm: Must-have tools for freelance content creators

An extension of your arm: Must-have tools for freelance content creators

Want an aresenal of tools in your pocket that can make your freelance life expontentially easier? Look no further

The role of the creative brief and why it’s so vital to get right

The role of the creative brief and why it’s so vital to get right

Here’s how to be clear with clients about what you need from their brief, and what they should expect from you too in the beginnings of the conversation

Building it alone; Freelancing when you’re single

Building it alone; Freelancing when you’re single

Being freelance is tough enough. But doing it all alone can make it a lot more complicated. Here’s how to take some steps to make it easier on you.

A guide to juggling multiple freelance clients

A guide to juggling multiple freelance clients

You want freelance success? You probably will need more than one client. Finding them is one thing, but keeping them organised? Oh boy. Luckily we have a guide just for you.

Freelance journalists, here’s how to make ALCS work for you

Freelance journalists, here’s how to make ALCS work for you

If you’re a freelance journalist, you might have a chance at passive income from the ALCS that you didn’t know about.

How to Position Yourself as an Expert in your Field

How to Position Yourself as an Expert in your Field

Want to learn how to position yourself as an expert in your field as a freelancer? Rachel White of House of DIF walks you through all the steps you need to take.

The Rise of NFTs and ‘Crypto-art’

The Rise of NFTs and ‘Crypto-art’

Want to learn what all the fuss is about? NFTs have been around for awhile, but how can freelancers use them in their business? Well, there’s a couple of ways.

HELP! I’M A RECENT ARTS GRADUATE

HELP! I’M A RECENT ARTS GRADUATE

Jody Mulvey of SADGRADS writes on how recent art graduates can surpass the problems posed by moving into the world of work during this difficult year

A step-by-step guide to handling difficult clients

A step-by-step guide to handling difficult clients

We all have that annoying client that we’re unsure how to work with. So here’s a step by step guide to handling difficult freelance clients.

A step-by-step guide to handling difficult clients

A step-by-step guide to handling difficult clients

We all have that annoying client that we’re unsure how to work with. So here’s a step by step guide to handling difficult freelance clients.

Nine ways to maternity proof your freelance business

Nine ways to maternity proof your freelance business

Pregnant and a freelancer? We can’t wait to hear more. But make sure you know how to maternity proof your freelance business before you start parenthood.