Since Medium started getting minimum, I started my own newsletter. Almost a year later, I make $213 a month. I’ll walk you through my exact numbers and setup here, because I think this newsletter stuff is hyped up. It’s cool, but it’s a long-slog to make a buck.
First options, you can start a newsletter with Substack, with Twitter (Revue), and presumably other options I don’t know and can’t comment on. These are nice because you don’t have to worry about stuff, but the company might be evil (like Substack) or you might not like giving a percentage up.
I don’t know the answer to this for anyone besides myself, or if I even got the answer right. I went with Ghost Pro because it seems like a not-evil non-profit, I have complete control over members and billing, and they take 0% (which is not as magic as it seems, we’ll get into that). They also have self-hosting, so I’m not stuck on a platform per se, I’m just using one.
What should you use? I don’t know. Search around and consider this one anecdotal point in the dark. This is my experience with Ghost.
I spent $348 for a year’s service (equivalent of $29 a month). For that I get hosting for a website (which is largely irrelevant) but also the ability to send unlimited email (to a limited number of people), which is, as you will find, otherwise a cost.
I also got their help transferring the 538 pieces I published on Medium (!) and all the drafts, which would have otherwise been a pain in the butt. For me this was all worth it, but it’s still a lot up front. But you’ll always end up paying somehow, or becoming the product.
That’s how I got my presence setup on my 15 year old domain, indi.ca.
From there I started slowly growing from initial import of a few hundred subscribers, mainly from appeals on my Medium articles. The initial import was from Medium subscribers and I still copy people over manually if they use that to sign up.
Growth is currently like 15% a month, which if kept up makes me a billionaire in 10 years. Let me show you:
This is of course just a function of doubling anything over and over (behold Omicron), and growth like this won’t hold up. If the growth rate was just 10% monthly (120% yearly) I’m suddenly making $23 million a month in 2031 instead of $4.8 billion (how would I survive?). This lets you see the absurdity of compounding interest more than anything useful.
These growth rates obviously slow down and this particular projection is useless after a few years. If you assume that the growth rate slows by 50% every year, you end up with a doable $7,700 a month in 10 years, which may be worth an irradiated can of beans for all I know.
For reference, my conversion of paid to free members is around 5.6%. I send all of my content to anyone that subscribes, I simply ask people to pay if they want to support me (like shareware). This isn’t a well-thought out business decision or anything, it’s just the reason I pay writers and creatives myself. I want to support them. For me that’s good enough.
I’ll return to growth in a minute, but before that, costs.
There’s this illusion that email is free, but it’s not free. Sending it costs $0.80 per thousand (on Mailgun).That seems like a lot of email, but with 1,000 subscribers and sending 20 emails a month, you’re looking at $16 a month. So all of a sudden the Ghost pricing makes sense.
This is a reason you’d save money on the platforms. However, know that the money will be made somewhere, either here or in some deal with the devil.
My Ghost plan tops out at 1,000 members, after which it becomes $480 a year, which to me is a metric fuckton. Knowing this I actually thought of going self-hosted (free!) but alas, nothing is free. Behold the complicated costing I have done:
You don’t need to understand this, I barely do, but the basic result is on the right. From 800–1,700 members it’s cheaper for me to self-host, but just barely. I save only between $1–13 a month. Hardly worth it for the potential fuckery of maintaining anything on a server.
Note, however, that if you send very few (or perhaps a normal amount) of free emails, self-hosted is much cheaper. If I sent just weekly free emails I’d be saving like $30 a month. Mileage varies depending on what you drive. I seem to be driving a Hummer.
Hence I’ll probably end up sucking it up and sticking with Pro, even though it effectively dents my earnings by 16% a month. I’d be paying the same in other ways doing it myself, hence the commission from Substack, etc are actually a VC subsidized deal. But to me that’s blood money and I’ll pay to not touch it.
Oh, I should also add that with Ghost you process your own payments directly with subscribers through Stripe. Not that you have to do anything, it just integrates, but the relationship is completely yours. This is cool, but you also get Stripe fees and minimum payments. So on a $5 subscription I actually only clear $4.57 (Stripe taking effectively 9%).
As you can see, even 0% fees on Ghost is still effectively 25% still somehow blowing out as costs. I say this not as a criticism of Ghost. What they offer is actually a good deal over sending email yourself (especially in terms of ass-painery) and the money is all clear and paid upfront. I still prefer this to getting shit for free and becoming the product.
I’m old enough that I’ve gotten screwed that way before, subject to the whims and moral vacancy of Silicon Valley spreadsheets. This way I pay, but I own my own shit and control my own destiny. For me that’s worth 25%, but I’m an old duck.
So, back to growing. I’m unusual in that I write a lot. I try to publish every day. This makes growth relatively easy though it is still, in my opinion, slow as fuck. And yet somehow, for the 400 times I refresh my dashboard, often subscribers go up, and maybe once someone tosses me a few bucks.
When I step back and think about it, nearly 50 people pay me like half a Netflix for my writing and I really appreciate it. I try to put the work in to make it worth it. I mean, obviously the capitalist equation makes more sense, but there’s still some direct communication of value between me and these human beings and I appreciate it.
Also, being an email that comes from my email address, subscribers often email me back, and I love it. I don’t use social media (besides Twitter, which I’d classify as anti-social media) and so I check email a lot. These are usually the only humans that email and I like it a lot. They have interesting ideas and different lives and sometimes they’re just appreciative and it’s great.
Every writer wants to be read, and yet it’s too often a lonely profession. Newsletters are actually very good for making it more of a social one.
Anyways, that’s my experience of running a paid newsletter. This is not to encourage or discourage you. If you’re a writer it’s sort of like a drug addiction. Do I need to market heroin to you? Not if you’re already hooked. If you’re going to do the stupid thing of trying to make a living writing on the Internet newsletters are one of the less stupid ways of doing it, but I still wouldn’t call it smart.
What I would say is that unlike the daily grind of Medium (where you’re only as funky as your last cut), you can actually build a newsletter. People drop off, for sure, but it’s still money that comes regardless of whether some shit went viral. You can focus on quality and just grinding it out steadily and your (meagre) earnings can grow with that.
The upside is that if you hit a growth rate of 15% per month you’re fucking rich in a decade, but I don’t know the possibility of that. Probably impossible, but I can be third worldly inshallah. Last month, for example, I made $660 off Medium and an effective $250 off subscriptions (I have a vestigial Patreon as well). So nearly 40% of my income is now from subscriptions. It only took almost a year and my income is still shit, but nevermind. The percentages look good!
So, in short, that’s how easy it is making money from a newsletter. For me, it’s fucking not, but it’s not impossible. Should you do this? I mean, not for the money lol, but if you’re a writer and you can’t do anything else, this is another junkie telling you how I shoot up.