Grow: How a rejected cookbook proposal became a thriving reader-supported Substack

This is the first in an interview series designed to share the nuts and bolts of how writers have gone independent and grown their audiences on Substack. This interview was originally shared as part of Substack Grow, and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

We invited Caroline Chambers, who writes What to Cook When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking, to share insights on how her Substack has grown to 3,000 paying subscribers.


What’s your Substack about in one sentence?

What to Cook When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking tells you what to cook when you don’t feel like cooking. I did not bury the lead with my title. 

What do you offer readers?

A new recipe every Sunday that is family-friendly, takes under one hour, has less than 15 ingredients, and dirties as few dishes as possible.

Growth by the numbers

  • Started a free newsletter: March 2020

  • Moved to Substack and went paid: December 2020

  • Free subscribers: ~11.5k

  • Paid subscribers: ~3k

Why did you decide to go paid?

I started a weekly newsletter in March 2020 on Squarespace when my recipe development clients stopped all of our projects due to COVID. I began cranking out free content via my Instagram and my newsletter. I was able to grow my following on Instagram pretty quickly. Before I hit 10k Instagram followers and got the “swipe up” option, I would leave a “question box” on my Instagram stories and let people write their email, which I would manually add to my newsletter list. It was laborious, but totally worth it. 

I literally had a lightbulb moment one day in early December 2020 where I thought, “What if I turned that book proposal that got rejected last year into a paid newsletter?” I had considered self-publishing a cookbook, but I just wasn’t excited by the idea. A paid newsletter felt fresh and exciting. I hired someone to design my logo, registered the Substack, and launched a couple weeks later! 

A post shared by @carochambers

Read Caroline’s launch announcement on Substack and Instagram.

Content strategy

  • Schedule: Once a week, but Caroline is considering publishing more often. “I’m giving the audio a shot, answering a question that I prompted people to leave in the comments on this week’s post.” 

  • Paid posts: Weekly recipe that comes out on Sunday. 

  • Free posts: Monthly recipe on the first Sunday of every month.

  • Pricing: $35 annually - the average price of a cookbook. 

What is the sharpest insight you can offer other writers about growing a Substack publication?

Talk about it constantly on social media. I talk about it almost daily on my Instagram stories, sharing a photo of one of the recipes that someone tagged me in, or sharing my creative behind-the-scenes process. The people who don’t want to subscribe can either subscribe, ignore, or unfollow me. If they unfollow you, who cares? They aren’t supporting your work anyway; you don’t need them. 

How do you remind readers that they can subscribe for more paid content? 

When I send the unpaid newsletter on the first Sunday of every month, I usually run a promotion like “summer sale” or “Valentine’s sale.” I get tons of new subscribers every time I run a sale. 

My paid newsletter has a header that I switch between a message like, “If you’re receiving this and you’re not yet a paid subscriber, consider joining to receive a new recipe each week,” and “Need a unique gift for someone? Send ‘em a subscription to my newsletter!” 

Takeaways

  • The paid launch moment is crucial. Caroline’s launch was her largest growth day.

  • Bridge the gap between conventional and new publishing models. When traditional publishers did not sign on to Caroline’s proposal, she struck out on her own and communicated with readers in language they could understand: “Subscribe for $35/year, the price of a cookbook.”

  • Consider markdowns. Caroline found that readers love a bargain: “Anytime I run a sale I see a significant uptick.”

  • Celebrate milestones. Caroline recently earned the same amount of money through her Substack as she did for her first cookbook published through a major publishing house. She celebrated with readers by offering a “who needs a publisher?!” discount and got 99 new paying subscribers in about 12 hours, for just $5 less than the normal annual price. 


To learn more about growing your readership on Substack, take a deep dive into our recaps of Substack Grow, a series of six workshops on everything from developing a strategy to going paid:

  1. Setting goals

  2. Developing a publication strategy

  3. Building a home for your publication

  4. Growing your free list

  5. Launching paid subscriptions

  6. Growing a paid readership