For better and worse, email newsletters have become a big deal.
They’re used by news organizations to highlight the best and most important stories of the day, by food websites to share new recipes and mouthwatering photos, by museums to announce new exhibits, and by ecommerce sites to entice you into consuming more schlock.
But for a certain group of writers, researchers, and self-styled curators, the email newsletter is the medium of choice for sharing their thoughts and findings with their personal following. At its best, email newsletters give their writers a platform to share what they know in a way that highlights their unique perspective on a subject.
And although newsletter writers have been able to make money for decades at this point, an emerging group of companies are springing up to help newsletter writers generate sustainable income from subscribers or advertisers.
Building The New Newsletter Stack
The idea of sending out paid email newsletters isn’t new. What is new, however, is the crop of companies providing the publishing and paid subscription infrastructure to writers who want to start a paid newsletter without the hassle of chaining together several platforms to get the job done.
What did the old technology stack look like? In addition to a periodic email sent through a service provider like MailChimp, many newsletter writers also share their content online through a blog built on WordPress or another online content management system. To manage recurring payments, they could use infrastructure from Stripe or PayPal. And to manage membership, there are more full-featured services like Memberful and Podia, or simpler WordPress plugins that restrict content access to members only.
To be clear, all these different tools still work for aspiring newsletter publishers, but it will take a bit of technical know-how (or some good google-fu) to integrate and maintain them as a cohesive tech stack.
For the aspiring newsletter publisher, finding an area of coverage they know a lot about and one they can discuss in a way that’s engaging to an audience is no small challenge. Tying together platforms is an additional hurdle that the following services want to alleviate for writers.
The Rise Of Paid Newsletter Infrastructure-As-A-Service
One such company is Substack, a Y Combinator-backed venture which gives newsletter writers both a publishing platform and infrastructure for registering subscribers and accepting recurring payments. It does so in exchange for ten percent of post-transaction fee proceeds. Substack announced its $2 million seed round at the end of April.
Utrecht-based Revue is another newsletter platform which rolled out paid subscriptions in April. It recently published an in-depth guide to maintaining a successful paid newsletter. The Dutch company has raised just over $775,000 in known equity funding to date.
These are just two of the most-visible startups in the paid newsletter space, and given the general interest and a seemingly endless number of yet-to-emerge product niches to fill, these companies likely won’t be the only full-stack players in the game.
An Old Medium For New Voices
Some of the most successful paid newsletters are focused on niche topic areas. Ben Thompson covers the intersection of technology and business strategy in Stratechery; in Charged, Owen Williams and digests the day’s tech news so you don’t have to; Neil Cybart covers Apple and its financials in depth on Above Avalon; Nick Quah’s HotPod newsletter covers the ins and outs of podcasting and on-demand audio; Mike Fourcher’s The Daily Line covers the machinations of Chicago and Cook County politics; and for $6 per month, you could get tips and workout routines from Julian Smith, a bodybuilder whose newsletter, The Quad Guy, makes a compelling case for never skipping leg day. And there are plenty more besides these.
While many of these newsletter publishers may have written books, or contributed columns to a bigger online media outlet in the past, most cover such narrow topic areas that more traditional publishers wouldn’t give them a platform. That, or the topics they cover are evolving so quickly that their findings would be outdated as soon as it hit the bookshelf or newsstand.
In other words, for certain writers, there may be no better medium than the humble email.
All of this is done in the interest of helping publications and brands to “stay connected” with their audiences. And, since many folks spend their days wading through their inboxes, an emailed missive is a fairly good way to do so. The results? Many publishers who share their content through multiple channels—both on their own sites, via various social media platforms, and via a newsletter—see the highest engagement rates through their newsletters.
The email inbox offers a safe refuge for publishers. Barring the spam filter, email is a medium that’s largely free of algorithmic curation, which so many social media sites implement today. Opt-in permission to send email newsletters is one of the few things a publication or business can “own” in the relationship with readers or customers. That is valuable.
But niche formats have seen booms and busts before. Today’s podcast boom follows a prior podcast bust, which itself came after a podcast bust. The collection of newsletters making real money from subscriptions is growing, but it has a long way to go until it is more than a cottage industry. All the same, if $6 a month is what it takes to not lose another ounce of soul to social, it’s probably worth the cost.
Illustration: Li-Anne Dias