75 Comments

But Rob didn't start on Substack. He moved to substack when the they paid him to join. Just like they did with Scott Alexander. You own your biz model but don't rob this silly narrative in our faces. All said, I love what substack represents for indie publishers and happy Rob is able to make income off his ideas.

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as someone who has made millions selling courses i wondered if my “all in” approach to becoming a writer on substack could ever have a chance to have a similar success arc. this post was really motivating and gives me hope that it is at least possible to be full-time here. i am burnt out doing video creation and just have loved writing lately. i really want this to work. thank you for being open and honest about your numbers. more people need to do this.

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More evidence that you cannot really build an audience within SubStack, you need to already be known and have a huge following🤦🏽‍♂️

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It's possible, but it will take longer. These people were gaining their audience long before switching to Substack, it's not an easy journey either. In my opinion, the Substack audience is much higher quality and better than on other platforms. The main thing is not to give up and to persevere towards your goal, even a small success is a success.

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I agree with your comment. I am new to Substack. I did have a small mailing list before starting on Substack. I have imported about 200 from my prior list. Most of my new subscribers are coming from LinkedIn. But I am very encouraged to see new subscribers from Substack network. The most useful metric I think is the number of new subscribers coming from each post. I see that as an important signal.

Right now I am at 500 in two months. So there is definitely new growth above my initial list.

I am still experimenting with the type and format of my posts. Not yet very clear on the who and why they read, hopefully I will find out soon. I think the first year should be dedicated to constant experimenting.

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You are absolutely right, experimentation is necessary. A good piece of advice that Substack writers give is. It's to write about what you are primarily interested in and inspired by. And people will be much more interested in reading your articles. Congratulations on the 500 subscribers mark, those are good numbers in 2 months. You are definitely moving in the right direction.

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Thank you and good luck to you as well.

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I brought a little more than 500 subscribers (that had been following me elsewhere for years) to Substack and in less than a year on this platform, posting consistently, my subscribers are hovering around 1500. Nearly everyone new came from the Substack network.

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I'm actually hoping to grow here first as well, though I've found it difficult on my personal account in the past. I'm sticking with Substack though! I even adapted a card game I was developing into this, a newsletter game! It has built in engagement, because games are fun! Hopefully I can grow here, and also bring new people in and get more eyes on indie writers.

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What a fun, creative idea!

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Authenticity strikes resonant chords in human hearts. History is full of people who came from nowhere to prominence, including if I may say so, Jesus.

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Jesus came from nowhere? Lmfao

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"you cannot really build an audience within SubStack," Its hard work and an uphill struggle certainly, unless you can import a great social media network of 'friends'

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Hard work won't net you an audience. I'd wager that tens of thousands of writers here are working exceptionally hard and struggling to find readers. This platform is designed for writers and not for readers. It's the fundamental problem.

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Rob, thank you for your honest answers to the questions that interest us. It was interesting to read about your childhood, you definitely have an interesting life to write a book about (I think so). Also, to learn about your journey on Substack and how you approached it, Thanks for sharing the basic principles of success in your opinion.

And a couple of questions:

Did you originally plan for writing on Substack to be your primary income? Was that what you were aiming for, or was it not a top priority for you?

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Earning a living as an independent writer was not intentional. My original plan was to be a professor, or potentially a columnist at a legacy media outlet. But found I really enjoyed sharing my writing directly with my readers, which encouraged me to keep at it.

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What I take from this and some comments here is that, as Jubei said below, you can’t build a readership here. But Rob says it’s important to be consistent and this is something for me to pay attention to because I am anything but consistent. I am more self-educated and as such, I don’t have the academic credentials to utilize. I am fascinated by behavior and what makes people gravitate to known personalities or should I say, why one becomes a shepherd or the sheep. I never fully understood Twitter when everyone was supposed to follow someone and I’m not a follower. So that was an exercise in frustration or I just didn’t get it. And how we are all affected by all media. I’m partially self-removed from social media and cable TV but I notice how most people now have shorter attention spans. The behavior of animals, of which we are one, also stimulates my thought processes. I will work on being consistent. I’m a singer/songwriter and I don’t feel the need to write often simply because my older folk/indie style is no longer in demand. Cheers.

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"I never fully understood Twitter when everyone was supposed to follow someone and I’m not a follower. " Hallelujah to that!

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Great spotlight. Rob is an amazing writer and was a big inspiration for me to start a Substack. His articles always have something that surprises me. Awesome newsletter to learn from.

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I completely agree with you.

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Yes, beyond all the other stuff, being an amazing writer or becoming one is core. My favourite writing book is Henry Miller on Writing. It's preposterously humble and "out" about his struggles, very funny. Miller's hard not to love. He shows his inner heart without taking himself too seriously.

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If you enjoy Miller, I suggest going directly to the source and reading Nin, particularly her journals. Henry Miller plagiarized Anaïs Nin’s diaries. They were lovers, and by his own admission, she was his mentor.

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Hi Melissa, I'd heard they were lovers. Henry Miller is so prolific and so much himself I'd be surprised if he bothered with plagiarizing. He's outstandingly honest so I'll stick with that unblemished opinion for now. As for mentoring, as lovers I would help there was good mutual exchange of wisdom. Best!

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She also supported him financially and sadly, sacrificed her own writing career to support him. Others pointed it out to her that he plagerized her writing in Tropic of Cancer, but she idolized him to such an extent that she didn't care. Someone can be prolific and still plagiarise.

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Very interesting ~ subscribed (free) and am looking forward to reading more💕🙏🏻💕

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Consistency in publishing & listening , then doubling down on the signals.

Thanks Rob for sharing

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Love hearing from an academic writer on the Grow series!

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Really appreciate the straightforward, simple advice. Stay steady, is essentially the message. No 'hustle-bro' antics. :)

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This seems very admirable. I’m currently a PhD graduate student. My substack was meant for other graduate students, but grad school admission seekers floored my email list when I announced on LinkedIn. The demand for funded graduate schools admission becomes so much such that my major audience is not admission and funding seekers. I publish twice a week, and even host two webinars a month to assist as many as I could.

Hence, to gather for my initial audience which I could easily benefit from, I created a second publication. I haven’t posted there yet, but recommended it for people who signed up for my major newsletter. In just two weeks free subscription has approached 100. I want to start posting there every two weeks based on my schedule but provide very useful information for graduate students.

How do I avoid burnout for a year, so far I’m able to combine with other things but is every other week a good strategy and does anyone have someone doing that, would want to learn.

Here are my two newsletters:

1. For graduate school admission seekers: https://gradinterface.substack.com/

2. For graduate students: https://gradschoolhacks.substack.com/

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Rob is a legend. The orange to white check jump is the toughest. Great to see substack featuring more emerging writers!

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Okay. Write regularly. Be yourself.

Got it. Done.

Then what? Because those things aren't enough to build a dedicated bunch of readers.

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I feel like there is some gaslighting in these stories, because growth is not strictly meritocratic. #3 is the biggest. Getting readers from Jordan Peterson and other people with social media reach has got to be part of the sauce. Publishing in the NY Times or another high-profile platform is a variation on the same theme. If you're already bringing 14,000 readers and then getting boosted by other heavy hitters (and being featured in Substack Reads), then sure cadence and honesty can help you keep that momentum going. But this is not a story about building from scratch, which I think a lot of us are trying to do.

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May 3, 2023·edited May 3, 2023

You can expect a variety of "how to" stories in these grow interviews. There are lots of ways that writers find success on Substack, and our goal is to bring examples of the most common types of stories to the surface for other writers to find and learn from.

Rob is an example of a writer who (through much hard work) built a following by writing on Mailchimp for years and brought that to Substack. Now he's able to make a living from his writing. We think that's worth celebrating and learning from, and we want to show more people that what he's done is possible who want to not just make content for free - whether that's on mailchimp or Instagram or elsewhere.

Of course we also think the stories of people who did no writing, or had no following, before coming to Substack are incredible, and we celebrate those too. Lots of our grow interviews have told these stories -

https://on.substack.com/p/grow-series-27-perfectly-imperfect

https://on.substack.com/p/grow-series-23-tim-casperson

https://on.substack.com/p/grow-series-20-anne-kadet

https://on.substack.com/p/grow-series-17-justin-gage

https://on.substack.com/p/grow-series-9?s=w

https://on.substack.com/p/grow-series-11-michael-fritzell

https://on.substack.com/p/grow-series-6?utm_source=url

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Thanks for this list -- I'll look forward to browsing it. To clarify, I think there is some truth to the slow growth idea. My own stats graph looks similar to Henderson's -- it just started much lower. The only exception was a viral post that added 300 subscribers almost overnight. I just think some caveats are in order when the idea of self-sustaining income is invoked. If you don't have a platform already and aren't importing a sizable number of preexisting followers to Substack, you probably need at least 3-5 years before you know if you'll get to a livable income from paying subscribers. But if you're starting from scratch, essentially, you're going to need some really big leaps to get from the hundreds to the tens of thousands. And you probably won't be able to afford to do Substack as anything but a side hustle for a really long time. I think people can still be inspired by a story like this even if it's framed with more realism. I've been writing on Substack for a little over a year, and I appreciate the platform for many reasons. I'm just not certain the slow growth model will yield a primary income, except in maybe ten years.

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depends very much on what KIND of Substack....and what kind of audience.

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These interviews understandably start when the writer first joins Substack, with little information about what transpired prior to the move. The interview is not about building from scratch, but I started nearly as close to scratch as is possible in a developed country. Never met my dad, my mom was a drug addict. I grew up in foster homes and had to teach myself how to read. Barely graduated high school. Enlisted in the military at age 17. The connective tissue between those events and my entry to higher ed is lengthy, so I'll skip ahead and note that I spent more than 2 years writing a weekly newsletter on MailChimp (without any sharable links; this was intentional because I was in grad school and didn't want my writing to be shared) before bringing 14K subscribers to Substack. I know not all writers get the readership they should (today I posted a bunch of links from new writers aiming to build an audience), and our ends are always larger than our means. Still, I hope readers can extract something of value from the interview.

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Thanks for replying, Rob. And congrats on what you’ve achieved. 14K followers in two years is impressive. My point is that for most Substack writers who start at zero, 2K followers in two years would be more realistic, even with diligence and consistency. So getting to a primary income is a really long game for most writers, and I feel that needs to be acknowledged more clearly. Most of us believe in the Substack model, but we do want realistic expectations.

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I think it will vary depending on the subject and the extent of promotional activity, and some sectors may be more difficult to grow than others depending on saturation (non-fiction vs fiction). Maybe 500 in 1 year is realistic...

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Congrats Rob and thanks for sharing your journey and insights gained along the way.

I am new to a Substack so this is very useful.

I think there is just too much focus on number of subscribers. Sure I look at my numbers and those of others. But honestly we can’t really compare or have some kind of benchmarks in our minds to reach. We all have a different message and even if we can share it with only a handful of true fans, it is worthwhile.

The question to first think about is why write in the first place. I think we can figure that out only by writing consistently. I am just starting my journey so I have got a lot to figure out!

Best wishes to you for continued success.

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Good call, Joshua.

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Jimmie -

I have seen small growth when I engage in comment sections of newsletters with larger audiences. Provide good insight, supply relevant posts, and people will read and subscriber.

Hope this helps.

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I'd like to know how people promote or get people to pay attention to their Substack?

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A lot of my early growth came from Twitter. Sharing links with high-profile writers (both directly and in the comments) can also be helpful. If readers find the writing interesting, they will often help to share and promote.

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I mainly use LinkedIn for this purpose. But it is very slow in converting. I had a newsletter on LinkedIn that got to about 3800 subscribers in a few months. I thought I will be able to convert just 10% of them to my Substack but it didn’t turn out that way. I think because these 3800 were really not engaging! Now I get a couple of subscribers almost daily from LinkedIn from my twice daily LinkedIn posts which also include an occasional post about my Substack articles.

Best wishes to you. Keep moving.

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I think it definitely helps to already have an established audience. I suppose we can all get there by being consistent and making connections with other large accounts, established media and personalities.

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Really insightful and helpful. Thanks!

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