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How writers and journalists can make money with Substack

Illustration by

James Merritt

Words by

Tom May

May 6, 2021

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.

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