This is the continuation of our Grow interview series, designed to share the nuts and bolts of how writers have gone independent and grown their audiences on Substack.
We invited Anne Byrn, author, cook, and baker—who writes Between the Layers—to share how she grew on Substack, from collaborating with other writers to celebrating her publication milestones. Read on for her unique insights.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
A conversation about life through the lens of cooking and baking.
Who reads your Substack?
People who enjoy cooking and baking beyond just getting dinner on the table quickly. Their children might be grown and they’ve got more time to try a new recipe or read the backstory of a recipe than they used to.
Many of them have my book, American Cake, where I examined American history through cake recipes. I am known for my cakes, but my readers appreciate how I can break down seemingly complicated recipes and make them doable, like my post on Tarte Tatin, the classic French upside-down apple pie that can be intimidating.
Besides baking, they come to me for great dinner recipes that work or something new to bring to a party. They know I’ve spent time in the kitchen testing the recipes, and they, too, enjoy the process of baking and cooking so they want to tell me and other readers all about it.
What do you uniquely offer readers?
My voice. I am at a stage in life where I’ve been there and done that and now can talk about it. I don’t mean just about cooking and baking, I mean about life and people not getting along and being so isolated.
My cobbler post is as much about building community as it is about piecing together a fruit cobbler. I don’t care if someone disagrees, and in fact, I welcome disagreement!
Growth by numbers:
Started Substack and paid subscriptions: April 27, 2021
Free subscribers: 21,900
Paid subscribers: 352
Why did you decide to go paid?
Honestly, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. For several months, I’d toyed with the idea of moving my Mailchimp list to Substack and committing to writing weekly.
I stayed up late one night, asked my daughter to design a quick graphic of two lines for “between the layers,’’ and found a photo of myself that I didn’t hate.
I did know that I’d spent 40 years writing about food and knew I could make deadlines because I come from a newspaper background and also have written 15 cookbooks. From the get-go I wanted to monetize. People can just Google me or look in my cookbooks to know they are receiving something of value, right?
Did I have fears? I didn’t know I needed to be scared. I was clueless. But I was definitely excited to launch on Substack and was so busy doing the business side of it that I forgot to tell my friends and family about it! That came later.
What’s your content strategy?
Free posts: A free recipe and story on Tuesdays. Usually, this takes the same format with three blocks of copy, the intro, the backstory, and the how-to, plus a recipe.
Paid posts: A paid post on Thursdays. I change things up, offering an open thread once a month, extra bonus recipes that go with the Tuesday post, my insider shopping lists to Costco and Trader Joe’s, heirloom family recipes, audio of something poignant, like that time I cooked lunch with Julia Child. And I’m trying some video, although I’d rather post a reel on Instagram and drive traffic to my posts.
What’s the sharpest insight you can offer other writers about growing on Substack?
Write content that people want to share with others. It should be content you want to write and read as well, of course. Think about the subject matter—is it trending, is it relevant to our lives today, and is it unique, as in no one else is writing about this.
Everyone in the summertime is writing about peaches, but what makes your peach cobbler different and why should I bake it? Shared posts result in free signups. That is growth, and hopefully you can convert some of those folks to paid.
What advice have you received about growing your publication that didn’t prove to be helpful?
That Twitter was going to help me grow and that social media is the way to market yourself. I do tweet and I do post on Instagram stories, but I get more signups right from Substack, writing for Bon Appétit or being interviewed on Splendid Table, and from collaborating with other Substack writers.
How did you come to collaborate with other Substack writers and what was the result?
I did a roundup last fall of food Substacks I like, and that got a great response from my readers. I could tell they were hungry to read beyond me, and I like to invite other people to the party.
I took it one step further and called Kate McDermott and asked if she wanted to bake a Thanksgiving pie for my people and I’d share my favorite Thanksgiving cake with her—Italian Cream Cake with coconut and pecans. (It’s a yummy and substantial cake and can truly compete with pie!) She wrote her post on apple pie and sent me photos, and I did the same for her. We both just laid them out like we normally do, and we coordinated the same time to publish and linked to each other’s publications.
Then I followed with Emily Nunn at New Year’s. I wrote about ambrosia for her people, and she wrote about a black-eyed pea salad for mine. I really benefited from Emily’s big Twitter presence.
I did another collaboration with Leah Koenig—it was favorite chicken recipes from our moms in advance of Mother’s Day. Two different audiences—my people were accustomed to my cake recipes, and Leah’s were accustomed to kosher Jewish recipes. It was successful, and I got a few paid subscribers. What I learned is that if the swap opens the door to content the reader didn’t know was out there, it’s a win! It does help if you have about the same number of subscribers so it feels mutual.
What advice do you have for getting started with writer collaborations?
For a successful collaboration, it takes two. Not one—two. Two people who are genuinely excited about and respect one another’s work.
Know who you are pitching. It’s completely fine for you to pitch another Substack writer you don’t know well about the possibility of collaborating but get to know their publication first. Understand if they are photo-driven, what kind of vibe and voice they have, and get familiar with their archive so you know what they have already covered.
Another writer’s weaknesses might benefit from your strengths. Your strength is your beat, your angle, and your voice. What is the skillset or knowledge that you uniquely offer that a fellow writer might not have access to?
Category leaders don’t need to collaborate with anyone. They have teams of people who help them write and other perspectives from which to glean. Start by building your collaborations slowly and work with people who have similar numbers to yours. Like guests at the dinner party, you all bring something to the table.
Start with Substack writers. There is a good chance collaboration will happen if you just get to know other Substack writers in a meaningful way. Get involved with Substack events and threads.
What has been a meaningful moment for the growth of your publication?
Absolutely milestones. At six months I made a big deal about that and linked to favorite posts of readers—the most opened and the most shared. Then I added my favorite posts to write and included a comment button encouraging people to talk about their favorites.
It was gratifying to hear what posts people liked. I made a big deal when I hit the one year anniversary too. I think you need to do this because if you’ve been paid for nearly a year, those yearly subscriptions will be coming up for renewal, and it’s an important time to sell yourself so they renew!
Read more: Happy Birthday, Between the Layers! No. 109
Who’s another Substack writer you turn to for guidance and inspiration?
Definitely Emily Nunn and Caroline Chambers. Both are fully committed to converting free subscribers to paid. They have tricks up their sleeves. They are bolder and braver than I. Both promote their publications like crazy. I stand in awe.
Collaborate with other Substack writers. Collaboration with other food writers has had an outsize impact on growing Between the Layers, greater than efforts on social media.
Celebrate milestones. Punctuate key moments in the life of your publication with a roundup of your posts, reflections, and a call to action for your readers. It’s a great way to celebrate with your most dedicated readers and bring casual readers into the fold.
Free content is the main stage, paid content is the backstage pass. Paid posts provide insider knowledge, like shopping lists, personal stories, and family recipes, and allow the format to be fluid.
What questions do you have for Anne that we didn’t ask? Leave them in the comments!
To read more from this series on growing your publication, see our interviews with Nishant Jain, Michael Fritzell, Glenn Loury, Erik Hoel, Jessica DeFino, Mike Sowden, Elizabeth Held, Jonathan Nunn, Polina Pompliano, Michael Williams, Judd Legum, and Caroline Chambers.
Grow: How Anne Byrn collaborated with other writers and unlocked new audiences