The one where I grow my newsletter by 1,200 subscribers in one summer
I started my newsletter in February of 2021 with the intention that I would spend the summer building up my newsletter subscribers so that I could publish my gothic novel for them in the fall.
As I tried to figure out the best way to publish my novel, I studied traditional publishing methods and non-traditional publishing methods—that’s when I realized my secret pipe dream of becoming a full-time novelist might actually be possible if I serialized my novels via Substack.
Substack is a platform that allows writers to send free newsletters to their readers—and also to send paid newsletters to paying readers—and many newsletter writers make a full-time living doing it. Theoretically, I thought, I could do the same with fiction. I could come out with a new chapter of my novel every week, charge subscribers an annual, average subscription fee of $100, and earn $100,000/year from only 1,000 subscribers.
These thoughts were solidified when I entered my serial book idea into a pitch competition for female creators. I won, but what the competition really did was help me refine my goal and make a plan for how to get there. As I researched the market and put together pitch decks, I was forced to treat my books like a business and create a strategy around how they could be financially successful.
I even had to create a projection plan (which can be found in the “goals” tab of my book plan spreadsheet here) complete with how I would reach $100,000/year over the next one, two, or three years. This really forced me to think it through—could I reach 1,000 paying subscribers in three years? Could I do it in two? I did some research on what I would have to do to make that a reality.
According to Bailey Richardson, head of community at Substack, writers on Substack typically see conversion rates of 5-10 percent when they decide to go paid. If email open rates are 30-50 percent, writers can expect to see a 5 percent conversion rate. If email open rates are greater than 50 percent, writers can expect to see a 10 percent conversion rate.
My open rates hover around 30 percent—which means I can expect to convert about 5 percent of my free subscribers into paid ones. To reach 1,000 paying subscribers then, I’ll need to have at least 20,000 free subscribers. I put this number into my projection plan and worked backward from there. I could reach 20,000 free subscribers, I realized, if I added 654 new subscribers to my list every month for the next three years.
And if I did that, maybe I could achieve my dream of becoming a full-time novelist after all.
My goal: “full-send summer”
I started my newsletter with 1,770 subscribers leftover from a blog I used to write. Because that number felt like a date in American History, these subscribers became my “founding fathers.” I knew the most important thing I could do was start writing a weekly newsletter for them.
But I have a full-time job and I was already spending 6:30am-9am every morning writing novels before work—writing a newsletter on top of all of that felt like a lot. At first, I tried to do both, writing my novel in the mornings and then writing my newsletters after work, but I couldn’t sit at my computer for that long and I was starting to feel exhausted.
Then, at a work conference in May, Rachel Hofstetter spoke about how she left her editor job at Oprah Magazine, started her own business, pitched it to investors, sold it to Chatbooks, and became the CMO of Chatbooks where she has now worked for almost six years. It was an inspiring speech, but the part that really struck me was the idea of a personal challenge.
She told the story of a friend who had been in a dating slump. She wanted to meet someone, but she was getting nowhere with one-off dates. So she created a challenge for herself: For one year she would become a dating machine. She would put herself out there, she would meet people, and if at the end of the year she still hadn’t met that special someone, she was going to let herself off the hook and give herself permission to never search for that someone again. (At the 11-month mark, she wound up meeting her future husband.)
Rachel decided to give herself a similar challenge. She’d already spent 18 months without a paycheck and she couldn’t keep going like this forever. So she decided that she would spend one year putting her all into building her business and pitching it to buyers, and if at the end of the year she didn’t reach her goal and sell it she would move on and do something else. She called it her “year of hustle.” (At the 11-month mark she secured an offer from Chatbooks!)
I was so inspired by this talk—and it came at exactly the right time. It had been no problem for me to write novel chapters every morning before work, in fact my life was very peaceful, but now that I was also writing newsletters every week (and trying to promote them) it was starting to be too much. I didn’t have the time to both write novels and build an audience for them, and I felt like I needed to do both to make it work as a novelist.
By this point, I thought I was going to have to give one of them up—either writing books or writing the newsletter—and I wasn’t about to give up writing books. But giving up the newsletter felt like I was giving up on my book—like I was going to put it up on Amazon and watch it fall into obscurity—three years of hard work down the drain with no one to ever read it.
That felt discouraging to me. I could start writing my next novel just for the love of writing it, I thought, and I would eventually. But the idea that I would spend all this time creating something that I absolutely loved, that I really put my all into, that felt like my own little personal masterpiece, only to have no one else read it felt sad to me.
But when I heard Rachel’s talk it was like a light switch turned on. I didn’t have to do both at the same time, I could do one thing at a time. I could give myself ONE SUMMER to really give it my all—focusing on giving my first book its best chance of survival before I moved on to writing the second one. I stopped writing my second novel immediately and started replacing my morning book writing time with newsletter writing time.
I called it my “full-send summer” and the idea was that, for a limited time (May through August), I would focus on building my newsletter subscribers with the goal that when I finally launched my book in September, I would have at least a handful of people who might want to read it, and then I could start writing novels again.
That time is here—and I could not be more excited about it. I’m so ready to immerse myself in a world of my own imagining. But before I get back to writing fiction, I wanted to recap the results of my full-send summer and how it worked (and didn’t work) for me.
My method: write, pitch, repeat
To achieve my goal of gaining 654 subscribers every month, I created a plan that prioritized what little time I have. In the mornings before work, I wrote my newsletter. In the afternoons after work, I spent an hour answering comments, Twitter messages, Discord conversations, and emails. And on the weekends, I pitched my newsletters.
Writing was the easy part: I work as an editor so I was already researching the publishing industry as if I were writing an exposé—and I did. Each newsletter was an investigation into how I could publish my novel successfully in an industry where fiction novels aren’t typically successful—then I shared those newsletters on Medium, Reddit, Kboards, Discord communities, Y Combinator, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
I also pitched those same newsletters to other writers. On the weekends, I reached out to reporters from The New York Times, Insider, Wired, Rolling Stone, TechCrunch, and similar publications who had already written about Substack or Patreon in the past—or had covered the creator economy before. I pitched them my ideas for fiction and how it could work, including links to my newsletters in the email.
I also advertised those articles in newsletters that catered to freelance writers (Deez Links, Study Hall, Sonia's Newsletter, Ann Friedman's newsletter, etc.) in hopes that one of those writers might pick up the story for another publication. Most of it didn't stick, but that's the point of pitching. You only need one or two of them to work—and they did!
Several of my ads led to podcast interviews and features in other Substack newsletters. A reporter from Insider was interested enough in one of my pitches that he wrote about my newsletter in a story which was then picked up by The Information. One of my articles went viral on Y Combinator and that led to the Substack team reaching out and inviting me to host a Substack workshop for fiction writers.
It was kind of like an avalanche where one thing leads to another, but it took firing off a few cannonballs in a few different directions to trigger it.
My results: From 1,770 newsletter subscribers to 3,060 in one summer
In the end, it was a combination of things that worked. You can see from the chart above that my leaps and bounds came from a combination of paid advertisements, pitches, organic mentions, and pure luck—though if you want to understand how each thing affected my list, I think it’s more helpful to look at the “full send summer results” tab of this spreadsheet to see the breakdown by day.
I don’t remember where I heard it, but I once heard an author say that they “hustled for every reader” and that stuck with me. It was good to focus on the big opportunities that would draw in hundreds of subscribers, and I needed to do that to reach my goals, but it was also good to focus on small opportunities that would draw in five.
So I did a lot of things, starting with paid ads. I was willing to spend $2,000 of my own money on advertisements—but then I won $750 from the pitch competition and earned $700 in freelance projects so I used that too. Overall ads worked pretty well for me—one Deez Links ad gave me a jump start at the very beginning and you can see the lift that provided my previously unchanging list.
Here are all of the ads I’ve placed so far (with links to my actual ads so you can see what they looked like).
Four ads placed in LitHub Daily / 200,000 subscribers / $1,500 total
The Sample / 3,700 subscribers / $15 each
Twitter ads / $300
I also did a lot of trades with other newsletter writers—which function similarly to ads. Essentially, we would meet in the #cross-promitions channel of our Discord server for Substack writers, fill out this spreadsheet if we were interested in trading mentions with other newsletter writers, and then share each other’s work in our newsletters. I met a lot of really great writers this way.
One day, I saw a huge spike in my traffic for no apparent reason. When I checked my stats it turned out that 10,000 people had visited one of my articles from news.ycombinator.com. Someone had shared the one where no one will read your book on the platform and people were interested in it. So I started sharing my articles there every time I published one.
Most of the articles I post there get no hits, but one time I struck it big. My article about whether the creator economy could work for fiction authors struck a nerve and saw more than 60,000 reads, 600 comments, and hundreds of newsletter subscribers in one day. I wound up taking a personal day from work so I could answer all of the comments. You can see from the image below that my site visitors that day far surpass anything I have done prior or since.
The effect of this sudden spike was that people started sharing my work around the internet which led to several organic newsletter mentions and a couple of podcast interviews. Daniel Wallace, for one, generously invited me to speak at his Find Your Next Reader Summit—where I spoke on serializing a novel using Patreon, Substack, Wattpad, and Kindle Vella—and I met a lot of really amazing people there.
The sudden spike in web traffic also drew the attention of Substack, which led to their co-founder Hamish McKenzie reaching out to me to ask how we could make the platform a better place for fiction. He introduced me to the community team, Bailey and Katie, who helped me host a Substack workshop for fiction writers and that led to even more opportunities—like Nick Barron, author of Writerly, writing a recap of my presentation on Medium!
I think it’s really tempting to look at all of this as luck—a viral post followed by lots of very generous organic mentions and features—but I don’t see it that way. First, I was putting myself out there enough that it was possible for luck to happen, and second, that article struck a nerve for a reason: because it contained information that did not exist on the internet before I wrote it.
Amazon and the Big Four publishing houses famously do not share publishing data. But I needed to understand the market—in fact, the pitch competition I was part of required me to understand it. I was presenting my serial book idea to a team of angel investors and venture capitalists, and none of them would invest in a product entering a blind market with no way to understand how it will earn money and recoup their investments.
So I reached out to hundreds of people, spent hours on the phone with a dozen of them, and eventually was introduced to Paul Abbassi, CEO of Bookstat, who emailed back and forth with me for months on end, running reports on book sales to get me the stats I needed to be able to understand the industry at large. Some of his reports took more than 24 hours to run because there were so many millions of books to sort through and still, he helped me find, download, and make sense of the data.
It all comes off pretty simple on the page—a couple of stats about how books sold in 2020 and some quotes from insiders on how the industry works—but that information was hard-won, and it blew the whole thing wide open. I finally had a grasp on the industry and what it would take to be successful in it—and when I shared that information in a couple of articles it resonated with other writers who were trying to understand the very same thing.
So yes I had an article that “went viral”—but only because it contained very helpful information for writers just like myself.
I should also mention that though the above strategies worked for me, most of the strategies I tried didn’t. At the beginning of the summer, I had an idea that I would offer group discounts to book clubs in exchange for them featuring my novel and following it with their book clubs. I probably reached out to several dozen book clubs, and even sent the first few chapters of my novel to a few of them so they could see if it was a good fit for their readers—no one was interested.
This was true of a lot of my pitches. Most of the people I emailed didn’t email me back. Twitter and Twitter ads also didn’t work for me at all and were a complete waste of money. Even the Insider article, which I thought would drive a lot of traffic, didn’t drive any—which makes me wonder if they don’t see a lot of traffic because their content is gated.
In the end, all of it was experimentation. Some of it didn’t work. But some did!
My priority: community over audience
I do want to mention one thing that can’t be calculated on a spreadsheet but is perhaps more valuable than anything else I’ve mentioned so far: building a community.
When I decided to serialize my novel on Substack, I reached out to everyone else I could find who was writing fiction on Substack and invited them to a Twitter-chat-turned-Discord-community so we could have some community around our work. There were only about 10 of us at first—now there are more than 800! I can’t even begin to tell you how helpful it is to have 800 likeminded individuals together in a (chat)room, all working together to refine our craft and share our best practices.
Unlike on social media, in a Discord community, the conversation is back-and-forth. It’s less of a “me-to-you” thing and more of a “we” thing—which is much more my style. And being part of a community is greater than being on a list. There are plenty of writers who have 20,000 newsletter subscribers but don’t have any comments on their posts. If people do comment, the author doesn't respond to them, nor do they return emails or reply to tweets. After a while, I start to unfollow—they just feel untouchable.
I only have 3,000 newsletter subscribers, but I see 30-50 comments per post—and I love replying to every single one of them because, at this point, I know most of them! We’ve met on Discord, or even in the comments section on each other’s newsletters, I follow their newsletters too and we are excited to see each other succeed. In fact, the only authors I pay to subscribe to are the ones I’ve read for a while, gotten to know online, and wanted to support.
And I think being part of a community does benefit authors when they go paid. I once heard a Hachette editor say that she’d rather offer an advance to an author who has only 10 followers on Twitter but has conversations with each and every one of them, than an author who has 10,000 followers on Twitter but just posts links to their work and doesn’t respond to replies. The difference, she said, is that one has 10 devoted fans who will be willing to purchase their book. The other has zero.
I’m also thinking of that quote: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Recently I’ve been rewatching all of Wes Anderson’s films and, in a Wikipedia rabbit hole, I discovered that Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson were college roommates. Their first film together was a flop, but they have made many dozens more since then, and invented a new film genre while they were at it. They didn’t try to break into the movie business alone, they did it together. And brought up their brothers (Luke Wilson) and buddies with them while they were at it.
In any case, I think we are so much more powerful as a community of writers who are serializing our books on Substack, than we are as lone rangers writing our own novels in our own corners of the internet. We will rise together, learning from each other and encouraging each other and sharing each other’s work along the way. And that is a far greater thing, in my opinion, than just having a big list.
My next step: pivoting to fiction
Now, my full-send summer is over and I am on track to reach my goals—which means it’s time for me to get back to writing fiction!
So I’m changing my strategy. I’ll still be writing in the mornings before work—only now I’ll be writing fiction chapters instead of non-fiction articles. I’ll still respond to emails/Discord/Twitter in the afternoons, but now I’ll also have a private server for book subscribers. I’ll still send out a bunch of pitches on the weekends—only now I’ll be promoting the first four chapters of my book instead of my newsletters about writing them.
I’ll be taking this newsletter down to two issues per month—one newsletter by me plus one interview with another author—so I can focus my time on writing weekly novel chapters. My now bi-monthly newsletter will continue to be free, but to subscribe to my weekly novel chapters, you’ll have to become a paying subscriber.
And my novel chapters start… IN THREE WEEKS! In fact, this is my last newsletter before you receive the prologue to Obscurity on Friday, September 3rd at midnight. After that, you’ll receive new chapter drops every Friday night at midnight until October when chapters officially lock down to paying subscribers only.
I’m so excited to get back to writing fiction—and to share my first novel with you in a few weeks! In the meantime, I’m off to the Alps and will be offline for a couple weeks before this whole thing starts. But I so look forward to seeing you in my book pages when I return.
I hope you’re ready for something rather pleasantly haunting this fall.
See you soon.
Countdown to Obscurity: THREE WEEKS
My gothic novel, Obscurity, debuts right here in THREE WEEKS.
Obscurity is a piece of lush, atmospheric noir. It reads like a wandering through apothecary shelves, each step revealing a vignette more dark and mercurial than the last.
Set amidst the wild palms of 1790s Louisiana, the widow St. Vincent appears in the wake of her husband’s death the most wealthy plantation owner in the South. But strange occurrences ensue in her wake and the town becomes obsessed with their superstitions about her. As they attempt to unravel the widow’s secrets, we find she knows something of their secrets as well and the philosophical underpinnings of their pasts all surface to haunt them all.
The prologue is coming for you Friday, September 3rd at midnight. See you then.