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I’m About to Make My Substack Newsletter Paid. If You’re a Writer, You’re Going to Want to Read This.

by | Feb 6, 2023 | Writing

Writing is just like any field.

If you don’t change things up and innovate, you get bored and run the risk of giving up. I’ve followed a similar writing strategy for the last 9 years.

Now it’s time to spread my wings a bit.

The experiments that led to this wild growth in readership

The first experiment was messing around with tweets. That’s been an absolute ball, and I’ve found a new audience as a result.

Then I ventured into the world of Substack and racked up 73,000 subscribers.

Screenshot by author

A lot of these readers came organically from the Substack network, much to my fellow writers’ surprise. Recommendations from other Substack newsletter writers have been another massive traffic driver.

I’ve now got to the point where I like not having an algorithm determine my future like it has done for years. I still want to play with algorithms but I just want to rely on them 10x less.

Paid newsletters are a different beast most writers don’t understand

Writing on social media and blogs isn’t the same as a paid newsletter. It’s easy to get stuck in the grind when you follow this path.

Paid newsletters are different because once you have a handful of readers you grow via word of mouth.

One of the most powerful ways I’ve grown my newsletter is by adding silly little in-built share buttons into the body of the content.

I used to put one share button at the start and one at the end.

A few weeks ago, I added a third share button into the middle of my content. The number of new subscribers doubled.

This made me think, maybe it’s time to create a paid version.

Right now I only offer a free Substack. In newsletter land there’s a way to add a paid tier without being called a sellout or pissing people off.

Here’s how…

The secret to a paid Substack offer


Keep running your free Substack. Just publish an extra piece of content every week that’s paid. That way you don’t piss existing people off, and open yourself up to monetizing your Substack.

One paid, one free.

That’s the mantra to glue to your forehead.

Some people go the other route and only offer a paid Substack. The problem with this strategy is that paywalled content isn’t sharable. Think about it. If someone shares an article with you and you click it and it goes straight to $10 a month please do you read it?

Nine times out of ten, no. You click away.

The free tier of a Substack isn’t just a way to keep existing readers happy. It’s also your marketing engine. It’s your try-before you-buy.

From what I’ve seen with other Substack writers, if readers like your free version a good number of them will upgrade to the paid version.

The way to stack your paid offering in everybody’s favor (including yours)

The problem with a lot of paid Substacks is they don’t offer much.

One free and one paid article a week is a common approach. That’ll get you some traction but the newsletter won’t explode in growth and revenue.

The key is to stack your paid tier up with value. Here are some options I’m considering:

  • Q&As
  • Book reviews
  • Group coaching
  • A premium podcast
  • Checklists/templates
  • Premium Zoom calls
  • Video interviews with people I find interesting

A great example of value for a reader is a common request you get. For example, my readers would give their firstborn child to get access to my writer headline templates.

If I put those in my paid Substack tier they’d sell out in 30 seconds.

Another example I love is to bundle your Substack with a book. Maybe you write a book and only paid members get a digital and physical copy. Or maybe they get access before anyone else.

The best way to put together a paid offering is to be creative. An even better way is to survey readers with a google form. I do this every month. I don’t guess.

I ask readers what they want and then give it to them. Probably the dumbest strategy in the world haha … but it works.

The pro way to increase revenue

The beautiful thing with Substack is you can give readers multiple tiers.

The monthly versus annual subscription is a common one. Another way is to create a set of tiers that give people your work, and another set that gives people access to your time.

When it’s your time you can charge 3–5x more money and people will pay.

The one risk I’ve seen with this strategy is there is such thing as too many tiers. I saw one the other day that had 6 tiers and a monthly and annual option for each one. It was a giant clusterf*ck.

Sometimes trying to be too smart isn’t smart.

Why Substack destroyed email software competitors

The underrated reason I like Substack is that they are insanely good at finding clever ways to convert traffic to casual readers then into subscribers.

Their platform acts like a funnel that has an in-built marketing engine. They A/B the crap out of different features that drive subscribers. On my personal website I find it hard to convert traffic into loyal readers.

There are just so many damn buttons, layouts, popups and options.

On Substack the experimentation and tech smarts to convert readers is done for me. That’s worth the 10% commission they charge. Plus the extra readers their network gives me are kind of like a low-cost form of ads.

How much money can you expect to make

The underground world of Substack writers agrees that about 10% of your subscribers will become paid.

The numbers can be higher but it’s always good to be conservative.

The best way to price is to drive people towards the annual option. I will likely go $5 a month or $50 a year for my Substack.

I don’t want short-term readers who can leave whenever. I want at least a one-year relationship with a reader to show how I can help them. Plus annual subscriptions have a lower churn rate than monthly.

The cognitive load of dealing with people canceling their subscriptions is too much for me.

What if you’re starting with a small audience?

Not all of you reading this have 73,000 Substack subscribers.

I get it. But perhaps you still want to enter the paid newsletter world at some point. My advice is to build in multiple places. I recommend Elon’s birdy app and LinkedIn as the best places to find readers.

All you need to do is grow on these platforms and then link to your Substack. At some stage there will be a tipping point where it makes sense to add a paid option. You’ll know once you get there.

Closing Thought

I’m off to dream up a paid Substack option that’s irresistible.

If you’ve thought about writing and making money online, perhaps it might be a path worth investigating for you. With enough time it can become a 6-figure income stream.

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