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Paid Email Newsletters Are Proving Themselves As A Meaningful Revenue Generator For Writers

As writers gravitate toward paid email newsletters, small audiences translate to meaningful dollars.

Alex Kantrowitz / BuzzFeed News

The headquarters of Substack, a newsletter technology company based in San Francisco.

It seems like everyone’s been starting an email newsletter lately, and there’s indeed been an uptick. Over the past three months, new newsletters created on Substack, a newsletter technology platform that serves individual writers, have been up 40% month over month. And on Patreon, which helps writers, artists, and creators make money via paid subscriptions and other perks, the number of writers doubled between 2017 and 2018.

This movement toward paid email newsletters is the latest attempt among those who write for a living to find a stable method of supporting themselves financially. For many, the road has been long and unfruitful, with each new year seemingly bringing another promising format — blogging, video, podcasts, etc. — that work for some, but not most. Unlike their predecessors, however, paid email newsletters can bring in real money for writers with small, dedicated subscriber bases. The cash is helping some earn a living from emailing, while plenty more are earning substantial additional income.

“The size of the audience you need to make it work is orders of magnitude smaller,” Substack cofounder and CEO Chris Best told BuzzFeed News, comparing newsletters to ad-supported models. “If you charge $10 a month or $5 a month, or $50 a year — if you can get 1,000 or 2,000 people to pay for that, you’ve suddenly got enough to go as an individual.”

Substack’s 12 top-earning writers make an average of more than $160,000 each, the company told BuzzFeed News. And more than 40,000 people are paying for Substack newsletters today. On Revue, another email platform that’s more geared to professional publications, some writers are pulling in up to $1,500 a month, its founder and CEO Martijn de Kuijper told BuzzFeed News.

And on Patreon, some journalists make more than $100,000 per month, Wyatt Jenkins, its senior vice president of product, told BuzzFeed News — though writers on Patreon often offer their audiences perks beyond simply gated content.

“The internet, originally, was supposed to be about, hey, if you could have 1,000 true fans, you could make a great living,” Jenkins said, citing an idea developed by the technology writer Kevin Kelly. “What Patreon and membership represent is the original concept of 1,000 true fans.”

Cash from these newsletters is enabling writers to be more selective about their work. Luke O’Neil, for instance, quit his freelance position with the Boston Globe after the paper removed one of his columns earlier this month that suggested service workers should tamper with Trump administration officials’ food. O’Neil figured he’d make up the lost Globe income via his Substack newsletter, Welcome to Hell World, which debuted in July 2018.

“I was making $350 or $400 week there, but I can make that up very easily by selling a few more subscriptions to my newsletter,” O’Neil said. His newsletter is on track to bring in approximately $50,000 this year, he told BuzzFeed News. And the food tampering controversy, for better or worse, brought more awareness along with it.

The email newsletter itself isn’t exactly new, and its origins even predate the internet, Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, told BuzzFeed News.

“Legacy news organizations have been producing e-newsletters for two decades now, and before that print versions of newsletters were distributed by numerous organizations, including media companies,” she said. “If you look back historically, many newspapers began as little more than daily or weekly ‘newsletters’ — written, produced and distributed by one person (usually called ‘the editor’) using the technology available at the time.”

What’s old is new again. After obsessing over reaching massive audiences to make a living off minuscule online ad rates (which sometimes only pay pennies per thousand readers), individual writers and publications are returning to newsletters to make money directly from their audiences. And it doesn’t hurt that newsletters go directly to people’s inboxes, freeing them from social media's algorithmic whims.

“I just need a few thousand people, and it’s a good model,” Judd Legum, who left his job as the editor-in-chief of the left-leaning political site ThinkProgress to start his newsletter, Popular Information, told BuzzFeed News. “The one where you really need everyone is the ad model where you’ve got to constantly fight for more and more clicks. Because you start every day out basically at zero.”

Petition, an anonymously written newsletter that covers restructuring, distressed investing, and bankruptcy, is making “meaningful six-figures,” one of its founders said. And Exponential View, a tech-focused newsletter written by the investor and adviser Azeem Azhar, is pulling in “well in excess of six figures” between subscriptions and advertising, Azhar said.

“I can write about whatever I want, in the way that I want, and I do it because I have that urge to. And I don’t always feel like it. But I now have an obligation to a trusting audience to do this,” Azhar, once a correspondent for the Economist and the Financial Times, told BuzzFeed News. “I never felt this degree of freedom when I was working as a journalist 25 years ago.”

That freedom will give some a chance to cut ties with their employers, as O’Neil did to the Globe. But more significantly, it may lead to more writers being able to make it — or at least struggle a little less — at a time when support for their craft is hard to come by.

“This conversation has been going for a long time. People who write and want to control the content — how do you do that, and how do you make a living?” Lyz Lenz, who runs the Substack newsletter Men Yell at Me, told BuzzFeed News. “Anytime anything’s been declared the solution, it rarely ever is. It’ll be interesting to see how it bears out. It certainly has surprised me.”

Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.

Contact Alex Kantrowitz at alex.kantrowitz@buzzfeed.com.

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