Three to read: Samantha Irby, Grace Lavery, Jeremy Botter

This week’s three publications to read are...

Samantha Irby, books/snacks/softcore

What’s it about? Witty commentary on books, food, life, and other amusements from the mind of comedian and author Samantha Irby.

Worth reading: What do you like to read on the toilet?

Key line: “that’s my number one goal with all of my work, to craft a piece of writing that a person can complete in a single trip to a public restroom. to me there is no higher compliment than ‘dude, i finished your whole book while i had the stomach flu’.”

Samantha’s credits: Author of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, Meaty, and New Year, Same Trash; bylines in The Rumpus, Jezebel, and more; former co-host of The Saturday Night Sex Show. 

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Grace Lavery, The Stage Mirror

What’s it about? Victorian literature, psychoanaltyic theory, academic gossip, trans femme style, and scurilous ribaldry.

Worth reading:Seventy-one stories about being trans in school

Key line: “The second conclusion flatly contradicts the commonly-held notion that institutions of higher education are places where teachers have been hammered into compliance by over-mighty Title IX offices and trans-affirming policies. On the contrary: almost all the trans people who wrote to me described the experience of being misgendered by their advisors as absolutely unremarkable and commonplace.”

Grace’s credits: Associate professor of English at UC Berkeley; author of Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan; bylines in the LA Review of Books, Catapult, and many academic journals.  

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Jeremy Botter, Whizzered

What’s it about: Fearless, bullshit-free coverage of MMA.

Worth reading: Weight cutting: the most revolting thing in MMA

Key line: “Every sticky-fingered athletic commission official or doctor who deemed a sickly fighter healthy enough for a cage fight the next day should not just be summarily removed from their positions; they should also, at minimum, be used as an example of the sort of negligent, criminal behavior that is unacceptable in a sport where the margin between life and death is much thinner than anyone involved in it wants you to realize.”

Jeremy’s credits: Former senior writer at Bleacher Report, former combat writer for Houston Chronicle, former managing editor at FloSports. 

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Elements of a successful Substack publication

We pay close attention to what works for writers and how to maximize their success on Substack. What follows is a list of the elements most common to the top money-making Substack publications. We hope you find it useful. 

Get started 

Get a good URL. Settle on a subdomain that is easy to say, easy to spell, and easy to remember. A good test for this is to imagine that you’re on a podcast and asked to tell people how to find your website. You want to make it as easy as possible for the listeners to find you (“Go to Easy Name Dot Substack Dot Com!”). 

Choose a simple, striking logo. The Substack logo format is very small (240 x 240 pixels), so find a design that looks good even in a favicon (that tiny image that sits in the corner of a browser tab). Aim for clear, crisp lines and not too much detail.

Example from Whizzered:

Craft a sentence that succinctly explains the value of subscribing. In your promotional materials (on your welcome page, on your About page, on social media, in your posts), tell people why their lives will be better for reading your newsletter. Rather than describing the content, describe the value

Example from Sinocism: “Get smarter about China.”

Develop an editorial model

Publish multiple posts a week. In most cases, the best financial rewards go to those who treat their newsletters as ongoing publications. You should aim to publish at least one high-quality piece a week that’s free for everyone. You can then publish multiple posts a week that are just for paying subscribers and are more insider-y in tone. Read more here.  

Make your best stuff free to everyone. Your free content is your most important content because it stands the best chance of being shared around. These pieces are the best possible advertising for your publication. They demonstrate your quality of thought, voice, and worldview. Once readers fall in love, they will be happy to pay to subscribe. Read more here

Launch your newsletter 

Tell everyone that you’ve started a newsletter. Email your friends and contacts from your personal email account and tell them you’d love it if they signed up. Post your newsletter URL to your social channels. Put the link in your online bios. Talk about it at events. Don’t just expect people to show up by themselves – they’ve got to be told. 

Example: Emily Atkin’s announcement post and tweet for Heated

Start by publishing everything for free. In the early days, your focus should be on growing your mailing list as large as possible. For a sustained period of time – one to six months – publish everything for free and focus on doing great work. Read more from Judd Legum’s growth masterclass.

Be strategic about introducing paid subscriptions. Announce a launch date for subscriber-only content and build momentum toward that day. Remind people at the top of every post that the subscriber-only content starts soon and they should sign up to not miss anything. Read our detailed paid-launch advice here.  

Explain yourself  

Include the important stuff in your About page. Write your About page as if it’s the only thing a newcomer will see before they decide whether or not to subscribe. Up top, tell them what the newsletter is about, how often you publish, and what paid subscribers get. Include testimonials from happy readers (it’s best if these are in the form of embedded tweets). Write a short bio so readers know who you are and why you are writing this newsletter. Prominently include “Subscribe Now” buttons throughout the page.

Examples: 

Include a short pitch to readers at either the top (e.g. BIG) or bottom (e.g. Shero; see below) of your posts. These work well if they’re integrated into the body of the post, so the messages are almost like they’re part of the normal post. Include a “Subscribe Now” or “Signup” button. People need to know that what they’re reading is part of a newsletter and they can support it if they like by either singing up for the mailing list or paying to subscribe.  

Convert readers into paid subscribers

Focus mainly on driving people to sign up rather than pay right away. Your paid subscriber list will always be a fraction of your general signups, so you should aim to get as many people on your mailing list as possible. That will then give you the chance to repeatedly get your work in front of lots of people, some of whom will fall in love and decide to pay for the full experience. 

Incentivize people to subscribe. Over time, you can tempt people who are on your mailing list but haven’t paid to subscribe yet with special offers and unlocked content. You can publish special posts that go to “only free signups” by email and won’t appear on your site. That way, without bothering existing subscribers, you have the chance to convince people to pay by offering discounts or sending content that was previously only available to paid subscribers.

Get the word out

Some ideas for getting the word out about your Substack publication: 

  • Email everyone in your address book. Tell them that you’ve started a newsletter about something great and you’d be grateful if they signed up. 

  • Pin a tweet to the top of your Twitter timeline. Include your Substack URL, or a link to a post you’re proud of. Example: Heather Havrilesky

  • Put your Substack URL in your Twitter bio. Example: Nicole Cliffe

  • Write Twitter threads that include a homepage link. For posts you’re proud of, summarize them in a Twitter thread where you include a link to your substack and a call to sign up. Example: Judd Legum.  

  • Promote your Substack posts on other social networks. Maybe your audience is mostly on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. Don’t forget them. 

  • Be a guest on relevant podcasts. Email podcasts hosts and ask to appear on their shows to discuss something relevant that you’re smart about. When you’re on the show, be sure to say your Substack URL multiple times: “You can read about it at cool dot substack dot com”. 

  • Spread the links around. Enlist friends to submit links to your best posts to Reddit, Hacker News, and other places where readers gather. 

  • Do some cross-promo. Do a deal with other Substack writers: “If you mention my newsletter to your audience, I’ll mention yours.” 

Other useful resources

Examples of paid Substack publications

List of top paid publications here.

Examples of free Substack publications

List of top free publications here.

Examples of podcasts on Substack
Examples of discussion threads

More details on discussion threads.

Full list of resources

Thanks for publishing with Substack!

Photo by Oli Dale on Unsplash

Three to read: Derek Davison, Richard MacManus, Two Bossy Dames

This week’s three publications to read are... 

Derek Davison, Foreign Exchanges

What’s it about? Lefty perspectives on international affairs, with a daily roundup of what’s going on in the world. 

Worth reading: The roots of Zoroastrianism

Key line: “In this piece, L. C. Nielsen takes us through the ancient roots of Zoroastrianism in the Proto-Indo-European peoples and in contrast to India’s ancient Vedic religion. The Vedas and Zarathusthra’s Gathas seem to be working from a common religious vocabulary but they take that shared heritage in very different directions.”

Derek’s credits: Writer and analyst specializing in Middle East and American foreign policy; bylines in Jacobin, In These Times, and more. 

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Richard MacManus, Cybercultural

What’s it about? News and insights at the intersection of technology and the cultural industries. 

Worth reading:How blogs, newsletters & Tumblr can fight back against social media

Key line: “In my view, there’s potential to build a significant new form of networking with blogs, Tumblr and email newsletters, this time built around cultural content.”

Richard’s credits: Founder of ReadWriteWeb, a pioneering tech blog. 

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Margaret Willison & Sophie Brookover, Two Bossy Dames

What’s it about? Cultural recommendations and commentary every Friday night, delivered with impeccable discernment and insouciant charm. Expect lots of Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, and Tony Award coverage.

Worth reading: Bossy Shouting: The Harold Herald

Key line: “I continue to want everything for Harry Styles as a person and as an artist, and I also want for him to be subjected to a more skeptical writer’s gaze the next time he sits for a major interview. He’s dazzling, and I’d love to know how that looks to someone impervious to being dazzled.”

Margaret & Sophie’s credits: Librarians, podcasters, and pop culture mavens.

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New on Substack: Self-serve special offers

We’ve just released a new feature that lets writers set special offers for readers. If you have paid subscriptions enabled for your publication, you can now offer free trials or percentage discounts right from your Substack dashboard.

This feature can be helpful if you want to offer prospective subscribers a special price for, say, Christmas, or if you want to encourage new readers to see what it’s like to be a subscriber for a while. We’ve seen that special offers can be highly effective for converting casual readers into paying subscribers, so we wanted to make it as easy as possible for writers to issue them.

To set up a special offer, go to Section 3 of your Settings page and click “Manage Special Offers”. Then:

  • Click “New special offer”.

  • Pick a percentage or free trial and stipulate the desired time period.

You can share special offers via a customizable link or a button in a post (find it in the “Buttons” dropdown list in the Substack editor). Or you can set it so that anyone who subscribes via your site during a given time period will get the special price.

Thanks to the Substack publishers who have helped us figure out the best way to implement this feature, and for the feedback from those of you who have been requesting something like this. We will continue to improve the product and welcome your input.

Three to read: Sasha Frere-Jones, Mara Wilson, and Sarah Bohl

This week’s three publications to read are... 

Sasha Frere-Jones, S/FJ

What’s it about? Memories, theories, stories, playlists, photos, and interviews, by former New Yorker music critic

Worth reading: Robyn + Brenda

Key line: “Brenda is not someone I think of lightly. She was close to my center and we didn’t do anything wrong other than be young and think we had to get married. (We didn’t.) Watching Robyn at Barclays Center a month ago, I thought of Brenda. I didn’t feel uncontrolled surges of raw sentiment. I felt warm, familiar and cared for, held in a strong and calibrated middle.”

Sasha’s credits: Former staff writer for New Yorker, has also written for the Village Voice, LA Times, New York Times, Slate, Spin, and others.

Sasha Frere-Jones is not on Twitter.

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Mara Wilson, Shan’t We Tell the Vicar? 

What’s it about? Thoughts, stories, and imaginary BBC shows, including spoken vignettes by the former child actor, now author and storyteller.

Worth reading:Proust’s Madeleine, but for people who grew up with a single dad” 

Key line: “Sometimes people will tell me of their food memories, of the thing that sends them into a Proust-ian flood of memories, of their dad’s bolognese or their mom’s curry and how it was the best thing in the world and how they wish they could make it themselves. When they do, I’ll nod politely but say nothing, because I can’t relate.”

Mara’s credits: Starring roles in Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Miracle on 34th Street; voice of Jill Pill on BoJack Horseman, author of Where Am I Now?

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Sarah Bohl, The Civilian 

What’s it about? Bias-free breakdowns of complicated political issues in an easy-to-understand, non-partisan format, featuring illustrated flow charts.

Worth reading: The one that might get me in trouble

Key line: “Today, I want to talk about something that's been happening for a long time: political parties throwing emotionally charged assumptions and condemnations at each other. We have become a nation that assumes intent, believes our way is superior, and forces everyone to pick a side.”

Sarah’s credits: Host of the Everyday Etiquette podcast, calligrapher, and interior designer.

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