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In late March as the UK was preparing to enter lockdown, food writer Jonathan Nunn decided to start a newsletter. Nunn was about to be furloughed from his day job at the London-based tea company Postcard Teas, and wanted to find a creative outlet not only for himself, but for the many food writers and restaurant workers left jobless during the pandemic. So he signed up to the newsletter platform Substack and launched Vittles, which three times a week publishes new writing from a diverse stable of food writers, on subjects ranging from cooking in care homes to black erasure in the food industry.
“It was chaotic and super ad hoc in the beginning,” Nunn says, “and I actually haven’t gotten much better at it.” Still, Vittles was a hit. With so many people at home taking comfort in food, Vittles found a passionate audience, many of whom signed up to donate money via Patreon. Vittles now brings in £1,900 a month through the platform, allowing Nunn to pay contributors a small fee (now £110 per post, and £50 per illustration).
Vittles, is partly a reaction to the flaws of the traditional food writing industry, which include poor pay and even worse diversity. “Food writing is elitist, and it’s extremely badly paid,” Nunn says. (Some food magazines don’t pay writers at all.) In July, as the newsletter began to take up more of his time, Nunn launched a paid tier on Substack; premium subscribers get an extra post per week, written by Nunn, and the money goes towards commissioning and editing the newsletter. While Vittles doesn’t yet earn much – “not even a living wage,” Nunn explains – the audience is growing, and it’s helping to give a voice to writers who might otherwise be unpublished or working for free. “The feedback has been really encouraging,” Nunn says.
Newsletters are booming right now: since the pandemic started, the number of readers and ‘active writers’ on Substack have both doubled, and other providers such as Mailchimp have seen similar spikes in users. Newsletter platforms are attracting big names: Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, New York Magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan and Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen have all recently quit high profile publishers to launch publications on Substack. With the traditional media industry cutting budgets and making mass layoffs, individual writers are turning to newsletters to, in effect, become media brands themselves.
“The thing about newsletters is that you have control over the relationship with your audience,” says Dan Oshinsky, founder of the New York-based newsletter consultancy Inbox Collective. “If you’re building entirely around Google or Facebook or Twitter, at the end of the day, they have control over who sees what. With email, you have a little more control in the relationship.” While traditional publishers remain at the mercy of the display advertising market and social media algorithms (entire media startups now rise and fall with a few tweaks to the Facebook NewsFeed), newsletters instead rely on reader loyalty and old-fashioned word of mouth.
“This whole trend is part of a larger shift away from our reliance on excessive amounts of display advertising, overwhelming the reader and making the whole experience unpleasant,” says Douglas McCabe, CEO of media research company Enders Analysis.
Newsletter businesses are by no means new: Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness empire, started as a newsletter back in 2008; Morning Brew, which launched in 2015, now brings in more than $20million in revenue. Business analysts such as Ben Thompson of Stratechery and Bill Bishop of Sinocism have built substantial readerships around their insightful takes on business news, and reportedly earn their creators six figure salaries. Now, thanks to subscription services (Substack, Revue, Ghost) and patronage platforms (Patreon, Ko-Fi) it’s easier than ever for writers to forgo traditional publications and monetise their own writing directly.
“Substack has made it so that if you want it to go that route, launching a paid newsletter, they made it incredibly easy to do so,” says Oshinsky. Substack, launched by Christopher Best, Hamish McKenzie, and Jairaj Sethi in 2017, lets anyone launch a free newsletter, while also offering a premium tier, typically starting from $5 a month. Substack takes a ten per cent fee on subscription revenues, three per cent goes to Stripe, which handles payments; and the writer receives the other 87 per cent. The service has seen some notable hits, including the climate change newsletter Heated and The Dispatch, a conservative news publication which launched on Substack in October 2019, now makes more than $1million per year.
Whereas the economics of social media can often prioritise volume – and clickbait – the economics of newsletters reward those producing high quality content or those serving a specific niche. “It’s just nice knowing that your words have value,” says Sian Meades-Williams, an editor and writer who runs the newsletters Freelance Writing Jobs and Domestic Sluttery. That value is also rewarding for the reader, who then funds a superior product. “One of the important things to consider about newsletters is just how scalable they are,” says Meades-Williams. “The amount of work is the same no matter whether you’ve got ten subscribers or 10,000. It doesn’t matter how many are reading it, the work is still the same, and that’s a really valuable thing for writers.”
While Substack is gaining press attention, premium newsletters are still a relatively small part of the market. And, as Kaitlyn Tiffany has written for The Atlantic, most recent histories of the newsletter ignore that many of the medium’s biggest successes have been written by women. “If you were to put together a list of the ten biggest emails written by creators, reporters, storytellers – none would be on Substack, and only a handful like Ben Thompson are actually paid newsletter products,” Oshinsky says. The majority of these newsletter creators are actually monetising in other ways,” such as advertising, sponsored content, or acting as leads for other businesses.
While launching a premium newsletter might sound appealing for writers, it can also take a long time for creators to attract enough paying readers to make it financially sustainable. “The two types of people who seem to be making it work right now. They either have an existing kind of audience – Andrew Sullivan is certainly one – who can jump in and convert that audience from Facebook or Twitter to their newsletter, or they’re people who are coming in with really niche kinds of products,” says Oshinsky.
To help solve that challenge, Substack recently announced a suite of new features to make it easier for writers to make money on the platform, including legal support, and a system of grants ranging from $3,000 to $100,000. Selected writers have also received financial support that act a bit like book advances, in order to give them time to build a profitable audience.
The next step for newsletters might actually be even more traditional: writers coming together to form something that looks an awful lot like magazines. Earlier this summer, a group of newsletter writers – Adam Keesling, Dan Shipper, Li Jin, Nathan Baschez and Tiago Forte – launched Everything, a bundle of newsletters around work and productivity. “We started the bundle because we noticed that the rise of newsletters resulted in a situation where we ended up paying $5-$20 per month for newsletters,” says Keesling. “Bundling them together allows the reader to pay one price for everything they want to read, while it also increases the reach of every individual newsletter that we bring in.”
Bundles are the answer to one of the challenges facing premium newsletters: they’re expensive. A subscription to a premium Substack can cost $50 per year, more than subscriptions to many magazines (including, ahem, WIRED), raising the fear of what is sometimes known as subscription fatigue. “I do think there will be subscription fatigue, but I think the bundle is what solves that,” Keesling says.
Bundling in many ways mirrors similar developments from TikTok influencers to podcast studios: niche creators banding together to offer strength in numbers. “There’s nothing they’re doing that’s magical,” says Oshinsky. “Creating a publication is far from new, they’re just packaging it together with a different sort of medium.”
For writers buffeted by the media industry in the last decade, the newsletter boom offers more than just a financial lifeline: it’s a reassurance that their craft has value.
“I think writers have always realized their own value; there just weren’t a lot of options in the post-2008 recession for how to make good on it,” says Anne Helen Peterson, who writes the newsletter Culture Study. “But all of this feels very cyclical to me. The economy tanks, writers get laid off from their publications, writers go freelance, writers find success with scrappy publications, mainstream publications hire those writers, scrappy publications die, mainstream publications get big, then the economy tanks again. So I’m trying to find something akin to stability, which is certainly a shared sentiment amongst the other journalists I know.”
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