A good newsletter exit strategy is hard to find

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Not a week goes by on this still somehow habitable Earth that I don’t think about it this 2017 Evan Williams profile, in which Business stone, his fellow Twitter co-founder perfectly roasts Williams’ ambition to make the publication profitable: “I was like, ‘Yeah, everyone else does.’ Where are we at? Somewhere between zero and half percent. “In the long span of human civilization’s struggle with artistic patronage, the Internet-scale problem of digital content monetization that Williams-like believers still graciously attempt to crack at various turns of Rumple code remains the most fascinating chapter, only because every few years, it feels like a brand new holy grail: native advertising! short-form video! “Engagement metrics!” – appears on the scene, promising to finally connect good writing with money forever.

Subscription newsletters are no exception. In the wake of the Sottostack summer, the novelty of launching a newsletter where readers pay directly for your work has given way to the reality of, well, keeping that newsletter going and keeping those readers happy. And find new ones when, inevitably, some of those readers decide that they are a little above you (well defined as “churn”). Inevitably, a writer freed from the constraints of annoying editors and SEO dictates must become a writer Other a one-person PR / circulation / audience development strategist all at once. (Turns out media companies had those things for a reason?)

Layer in progress Great energy of resignation (and like, a worldwide pandemic), and it’s no wonder that tiredness of the newsletter writer It started when writers start navigating the logistical implications of signing up as a subscription product for one person: How do you keep up with your editorial cadence? How do you make sure your readers are continually getting their money’s “value”? Is it okay to take a few weeks off when people pay for a monthly pass?

And, if for any reason you need to stop, how do you get off this ride?

The past few weeks news from The AtlanticThe new stable of newsletter writers could be read as a potential answer to this last question, or at least as a sign towards mainstream media recognition of (Oscar Isaac voice) power of the newsletter and the inevitable packaging to come. Charlie Warzel, who originally left The New York Times to write the “Galaxy Brain” tech newsletter, he was one of the writers who introduced an existing newsletter in The Atlantic fold. His announcement of the move it took some time to explain some of the sobering realities about solo Substacking: namely, that it was all less profitable than he had hoped for, and involved a strange dynamic in which some subscribers felt empowered to keep in mind. hostage their $ 6 a month unless Warzel works in line with their expectations.

There was also the issue of refunds: because “Galaxy Brain” would now be a subscriber-only product The Atlantic, Readers who already paid upfront for a year of the newsletter would receive prorated refunds, which Warzel said he would issue himself. I asked Warzel how much money those refunds would entail and he estimated it was “probably tens of thousands of dollars”.

For anyone looking to quit the game without a Atlantic–Landing pad-sized – or those who don’t have enough budget to be able to issue refunds for season tickets – the cost of quitting could be prohibitive. Casey Lewis, who writes the “After School” youth culture newsletter, told me that she once tried to suspend her paid newsletter during a freelance period and calculated the potential amount she would repay. “You’re talking about $ 5,000 to $ 7,000, and you’re talking about writers who live paycheck for paycheck,” he told me. “I ended up talking to myself from that cliff.”

(Alternatively, of course, we agreed that you might as well be just a jerk and like, Not pay people back. As a spokesperson for Substack told me, “Readers are considered the writer’s clients, not ours, so the writer decides how they want to handle a breakup.”)

From my point of view – both meta and biased as it will be for a former Substack poster child who has never dabbled in paid subscription matters – the cleanest newsletter release by far is the one performed by Nick Quah, who sold his “Hot Pod” podcast commercial newsletter to The Verge this summer and joined the Vox Mediaverse himself as Vulture’s podcast critic. (Disclosure: Warzel, Quah, and I were part of the Sidechannel Discord newsletter together.) Quah got the best of both worlds: great full-time media work Other the ability to see his newsletter brand live – without the messy work of having to issue prorated refunds, as Warzel did, because The Verge just took the “Hot Pod” subscription (they didn’t have an existing paid product to merge with).

When I called Quah to ask him how, exactly, he figured out how to avoid the newsletter rush, Quah laughed and said, “it’s harder to stay”. Earlier this year, he had been writing “Hot Pod” for nearly seven years and felt incredibly exhausted. Write directly for subscribers: “Hot Pod” was priced at $ 7 per month, a figure based solely on Quah Ben Thompsonthen the $ 10 per month rate at “Stratechery” (now $ 12) – started to feel like a “psychological trap” that only got worse with the expectations of some overly licensed subscribers and the dark magic of email to be able to watch about who, exactly, was actually reading and paying.

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