Grow: How Anne Kadet grew her paid list without a paywall
The Grow interview series is designed to share the nuts and bolts of how writers have gone independent and grown their audiences on Substack. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
CAFÉ ANNE is a weekly mini-magazine with a focus on New York City that takes a fresh look at the everyday, delights in the absurd, and profiles remarkable people who do things their way.
Who reads your Substack?
Smart, curious people who like to have fun.
What do you uniquely offer readers?
Profiles of NYC’s most original and least famous citizens. Pictures of weird trash heaps; interviews with overly opinionated pigeons; food experiments; a running account of the exploits of Eric Adams, the city’s super-weird mayor; an opinion-free, politics-free, controversy-free zone of fun.
Growth by numbers
Started Substack: October 2021
Launched paid subscriptions: From the start, in October 2021
Free subscribers: 4,103
Paid subscribers: Today I’ve got 178 paying subscribers. I’m very proud of that.
Meaningful growth moments
A story with great resonance. After the Rob Walker plug, my subscriber base was flat for nearly three months. I felt worried! Then I had my first sort-of viral story: a series of interviews with NYC Chess Hustlers. I posted the issue on the r/nyc subreddit, and it spread from there. My subscriber base doubled to 1,800 in less than a month.
Why did you start on Substack?
I’d spent a decade covering business for the Wall Street Journal’s NYC section. In July 2021, the paper folded the section, and that was the end of my gig. I wanted to keep writing about NYC, but I wanted to do it my way for a change, and I knew that no mainstream outlet would publish the stories I wanted to write. Substack was really the only option. It never occurred to me to not go paid. I’ve always been paid for my work, and I know I’m a good reporter and writer.
I had no real following or mailing list to start with—I just emailed a link to my first issue to about 200 people, mostly friends and family. That won me my first 61 subscribers—including 16 paid. Things grew from there. You don’t need an established following to do well on Substack!
It never occurred to me to not go paid. I’ve always been paid for my work, and I know I’m a good reporter and writer.
What’s your content strategy?
Schedule: Mondays at 11 a.m.
Involve readers: Half my ideas come from readers. Once they realized I’d investigate anything they were curious about, they had me interviewing NYC chess hustlers, tracking down an obscure donut factory in Queens, and launching an investigation into a mysterious billboard from the 1970s. I also get lots of material by requesting reader submissions. One of the newsletter’s most popular recurring features is “Weird Trash Heap.” Readers from around the world submit photos of odd trash piles they spotted on the street.
Free vs. paid: I wanted my newsletter to be free because the CAFÉ ANNE vibe is, “Everyone Welcome!” The newsletter’s fundamental premise is that people in general are decent and kind, not to mention generous. My hope is that those who can afford to support CAFÉ ANNE will voluntarily pay to keep it free for those who cannot—like public radio!
What’s the sharpest insight you can offer other writers about growing a Substack publication?
My observation is that the most successful newsletter writers combine an original and highly idiosyncratic point of view with a disciplined, consistent format and publishing schedule. The freedom expresses itself in the content, not the container.
Readers value writers who have a unique voice and follow their own vision, but they also want us to be trustworthy and professional. My newsletter really started growing after I adopted a consistent schedule and format while doubling down on my commitment to create the newsletter I’d want to read—rather than trying to please others.
My newsletter really started growing after I adopted a consistent schedule and format while doubling down on my commitment to create the newsletter I’d want to read—rather than trying to please others.
What advice have you received about growing your publication that didn’t prove to be helpful?
Littering my newsletter early on with multiple comment and subscribe buttons felt desperate. Also, it did not work. These days I typically eschew the comment buttons and stick with one subscribe button at the bottom. I get better results without annoying readers.
What surprised you about writing on Substack?
There is truly a community of thoughtful, inspiring, and supportive writers on Substack. Publishing and growing a newsletter can feel challenging, but I never feel I’m facing this challenge alone.
I’ve gotten several of my largest growth surges after fellow Substackers recommended CAFÉ ANNE. Check out the chart!
Who’s another Substack writer you turn to for guidance and inspiration?
I started reading Michael Estrin’s Situation Normal newsletter early on. I loved that he writes about everyday things—like an absurd conversation with an Uber driver—in a funny and insightful way. I wrote him a note to say hi, and he’s been very supportive ever since. I feel like I have a counterpart in LA!
Consistency is key. While Anne’s posts differ in topic, sticking with a consistent Monday posting schedule and staying true to creating the newsletter she wanted to read unlocked growth.
Write with your readers. Anne treats her readers like collaborators, soliciting photos of odd trash and drawing inspiration from their correspondence.
People pay for work they love. Anne offers all CAFÉ ANNE posts for free and pitches paid subscriptions as a way to support her work. Great writing is valuable, and true fans are excited to support Anne’s work, even if they don’t get anything extra. She has maintained about a 4.5% conversion of free to paid subscribers.
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 Category Pirates, BowTiedBull, Justin Gage, Noah Smith, Carissa Potter, Jørgen Veisdal, Anne Byrn, 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.