Are you a writer looking to strike out on your own? Or maybe you’re just looking for an outlet for more casual thoughts and ideas. After all, who really wants to maintain a personal blog these days?
Fortunately there are a ton of platforms and services out there to help you start a newsletter, but there are also quite a few nuances to consider. Will you eventually monetize? What if your newsletter blows up and suddenly you have to pay for a billion outgoing emails? What if you just want to tap away at the keyboard without worrying about business nonsense?
These and many other considerations make starting a newsletter a dizzying prospect, but we’re going to lay out the options and break down the nuances and strategies so that we can all go back to writing.
Define the product
Not every newsletter needs to be a monetizable product, but for the sake of this guide we’re going to assume you’re a writer that wants to get something started on the side. There are lots of good reasons why you’d want to do this, and creative control is often high on that list. But the flip side of that autonomy means being your own editor. So how do you make it happen?
The big, obvious question lurking in the distance is how to get people to subscribe to your newsletter, and we’ll get there, but the first thing you’ll need to do is decide on what it is you want to make. It sounds easy, but ask yourself if you’ve really nailed down all the details.
What do you want your topic base to be? What is the best format for your type of material? How often are you planning on publishing? How will you engage with your readers to keep them coming back? Is there an existing market for your type of writing? And if so, how will you compete in a saturated space?
There is also merit in just going for it, even if you don’t feel 100 percent ready.
There is also merit in just going for it, even if you don’t feel 100 percent ready. I asked a couple of writers about how they took their newsletter from conception to publication and found this — somewhat unexpectedly — to be a common thread. Safy-Hallan Farah, creator of Hip To Waste, tells me that she wishes she’d done more planning before actually launching her newsletter. “I just winged it,” she said, “which I don’t recommend.”
Terry Ngueyn thought up the basic premise of her newsletter, Gen Yeet, in the shower two years ago. She had two main priorities: exercising her writing voice and keeping the newsletter free. Other than that she just sort of went for it, allowing Gen Yeet to become an outline of her writing life. She recently published a thoughtful meditation on what she’s learned about newsletter-writing for the second anniversary of her Substack.
Writer P.E. Moskowitz, creator of the newsletter Mental Hellth, has also found success in simply going for it. She says she dove right into her Substack after conceiving of its idea, and now she just posts about once per week without stressing too much about it.
There’s merit, then, in trusting yourself — in allowing your publication to shape itself as you learn on the job. Do some planning, but don’t let outlining get in the way of the actual product.
Choose a platform
Not all of these new platforms are created equally. Here’s the rundown on the best newsletter-writing software we’ve seen:
The newest of these platforms, Buttondown’s most intriguing feature is the ability to use Markdown language. Everything Buttondown is open-source. And the company takes none of your newsletter profits. Instead, you can choose to pay $29/month for premium features like custom domains and API support.
Ghost is expansive. It’s still very much centered on newsletters, but there’s a full business operation around it. It’s a full software program, with a massive dashboard, detailed analytics, and rich-text editing. Ghost doesn’t take a cut of revenue and instead operates on a monthly fee model with four graduated tiers.
If you just want to play around — Check out Tinyletter or Buttondown. It’s super easy to get started on each, and the focus on minimalism means you won’t spend hours troubleshooting obscure formatting issues.
If you want to launch a full-scale business — Check out Ghost or Substack. Both offer robust business tools and significant room for expansion.
If you already have a big social media following — Twitter’s Revue is perfect for you. It’s already fully integrated with Twitter’s main feed, so your existing audience will be directed to your every monetized thought.
If you want to minimize overhead — Buttondown and Twitter’s Revue offer the lowest costs to the newsletter owner. Revue skims only 5 percent off your profits — half of Substack’s 10 percent — while Buttondown offers monetization options at no cost at all.
Find your audience
Your newsletter is nothing without readers. That’s what journals and blogs are for. You’ll want to consider whose inbox you’d like to reach and how, exactly, you’re going to reach them. Social media is your best friend here — and, thankfully, just about every platform mentioned above has dedicated social media integration. Use those tools to your advantage.
Moskowitz says her Substack-hosted newsletter has grown more quickly than she expected — and that a huge portion of that can be attributed to spreading the word on Twitter. Word of mouth has also been important to Mental Hellth’s slow-building success.
Twitter’s Revue is, as you might expect, the platform with the most intertwined social media outreach feature. For this reason alone, Revue is the no-brainer choice for those with large Twitter followings — there’s really no easier way to direct your followers to each new iteration of your newsletter and build a readership. Every other service on our list offers the ability to push notifications out over social media; you’ll just need to ensure you set them up fully.
Other writers, like Brandon Taylor, award-winning author of Real Life, prefers to use as little tech as possible for his newsletter, Sweater Weather. “I write it and then I send it out and then I just tweet the link myself,” he tells Input. His focus is on the newsletter’s content — metrics are secondary. That focus has worked out well for him, with plenty of chatter about his newsletter on social media.
Tell everyone you know about your newsletter. Add a link to the newsletter in your social media bios, to your email signature. If someone’s not interested in subscribing, no big. You’ll never find an audience if you don’t put the message out there.
Lastly — but by no means least — there’s money to consider. A newsletter written with the goal of monetizing your writing is a very different project than life updates you want to send to your closest friends. My biggest piece of advice here is to weigh each platform’s rates alongside its product. Are you willing to give Substack 10 percent — plus plenty of fees — of your profits? With just a few paying subscribers this could amount to a few dollars per month; with a larger audience you’ll end up with much more significant fees. The same goes for Revue, albeit at a 5 percent rate.
Platforms like Ghost and Buttondown, meanwhile, offer options for monetization that don’t involve skimming a percent of your sales at all. Buttondown allows for monetization with its free tier, making it the only established service where you can theoretically make a profit without any monetary overhead at all. Buttondown Pro — which includes custom domains and API support — is $29 per month, no matter how much you’re bringing in from subscriptions.
Ghost operates on a similar monthly fee model, with options ranging from $9/month all the way up to $199/month, with scaled features to match each tier. These fees might seem steep at first, before you’ve attracted much of an audience, but the fixed fee is much more appealing when you have a crowd of paying subscribers. Ghost is actually a nonprofit, with no shareholders at all, which means all of your payments actually go right back into the improving the product itself.
There’s only really one platform on our list you’ll want to stay away from if monetization is your ultimate goal, and that’s Tinyletter. The site is completely free for both writers and readers.
The Substack Drama
Substack has largely been the reason for the Newsletter Renaissance, with its user base growing immensely in 2020 and into this year as well. Hence the company’s latest $65 million round of funding.
The company is also proving to be a liability to itself. Substack prides itself on being a “neutral” publishing platform, free of executive influence, and it’s this promise — of editorial power and money — that’s drawn so many writers to the site.
That neutrality has proven to be much less solid than Substack anticipated, and the platform’s users are ready to talk about it. As of late, Substack has faced serious backlash for hosting writers with hateful tendencies, especially those who are transphobic.
Glenn Greenwald, co-founding editor of The Intercept, is the most prominent instance of this ethical disparity. Greenwald left The Intercept in October 2020, claiming unfair censorship by his co-editors, and chose Substack as his new publishing platform for the editorial freedom it offered. He is now profiting off his hateful rants with the help of Substack’s platform.
Substack also hosts Jesse Singal, a high-profile supporter of anti-trans conversion therapy; it hosts Graham Lineham, a television writer with such horrifically transphobic views he’s been permanently banned from Twitter; it gave Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias, who left his publication for similar reasons as Greenwald, a $250,000 signing bonus.
This has sent high-profile writers like Jude Doyle fleeing the platform in pursuit of kinder grounds. Doyle and others have noted that Substack isn’t just letting users make money through self-publishing anymore — the company is also striking high-paying deals with popular writers. And, you guessed it, some of the best-paid writers on the platform are the hateful ones.
Allowing writers known for their hateful rhetoric and penchant toward disinformation was bad enough. Now the company is bankrolling them out of its own pockets. There is no neutrality in that.
Then there’s the company’s co-founder, Chris Best, who has been hit with criticism for tweets that trivialize Black-led movements for community safety (and that explicitly reference racist firestarters like Candace Owens).
The Substack Discourse is extensive. This Vox piece does a great job of exploring the intricacies of Substack’s business model, and I’d highly recommend reading it if you’re considering a move to the platform.
Anyway, that’s the dish on Substack. But what are you still doing here? Don’t you have a newsletter to write?