Sunday, January 31, 2021

"Ye olde Substack: publishing’s hot new business model has 17th-century origins"

 "Launching a newsletter today is like launching 
a blog 20 years ago, or a podcast five years ago"

From The Economist's 1843 vertical, January 28:

The gossip sheets of yesteryear have been reborn as email newsletters

As Twitter and Facebook become more acrimonious and less trusted, an older means to get information has made a comeback: the email newsletter. Chances are that newsletters make up a larger part of your media diet than they did a couple of years ago. You may even be paying for some of them.

In recent months several journalists have left jobs at established publications to earn a living by asking their most loyal readers to subscribe to a personal email newsletter instead. Entrepreneurs, cookery writers and academics have also embraced this model. Who needs a publisher if you can sell your writing straight to your readers?

Most of these people are established experts in a particular field. They have chosen to bypass the involvement of advertisers and algorithms in favour of the pleasingly straightforward approach of delivering their thoughts directly to the inboxes of paying subscribers. Writers with large online followings can earn a respectable income even if only a small fraction of their fans sign up (typically for $5 a month, or $50 a year).

Substack, the newsletter-publishing platform that has championed this new model, takes 10% of the proceeds in return for handling distribution and billing. Launching a Substack newsletter today is like launching a blog 20 years ago, or a podcast five years ago, with one important difference: people are actually getting paid.

There are some enviable success stories. Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, is thought to make more than $1m a year from her politics newsletter, “Letters from an American”. The New York Times recently described her as “by accident the most successful independent journalist in America”. Substack paid Matthew Yglesias, co-founder of Vox, an American news website, an advance of $250,000 when he left his job to concentrate on his newsletter, “Slow Boring”. Other journalists who’ve gone solo include Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald and Haley Nahman. In January Twitter bought Revue, a Dutch startup and rival to Substack. Your inbox could soon be stuffed with new newsletters.

Subscription newsletters may be all the rage today, but the idea of readers paying writers directly for information has deep roots. The ancestors of today’s inbox epistles were the handwritten “letters of news” that circulated in England in the 17th century.

These early newsletters were typically compiled by political informants in London and sent to recipients in the countryside who wanted to keep abreast of gossip from the city. Information was picked up in St Paul’s cathedral, at the Royal Exchange, from Thames boatmen (the equivalent of modern taxi drivers), in taverns and from friends in high places.

Initially such information was sent as a favour by those in the city to distant friends or patrons. Then John Pory and Edmund Rossingham, two enterprising news writers, began sending weekly newsletters to paying customers in the 1620s, at a cost of £20 a year. This was an impressive sum at the time (equivalent to about $7,000 today). With a dozen or so subscribers, they and other newsletter writers could make a good living....



"Announcing the next Substack Fellowship for Independent Writers"
"The Substackerati"