Grow: How Jonathan Nunn perfected the recipe for Vittles
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. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We invited Jonathan Nunn, who edits and writes for Vittles, to share insights on how he’s grown the U.K.-based publication into a go-to outlet for food writing with a subscriber list of more than 21,000.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
Vittles is a multi-voiced publication that platforms food writing from the U.K. and across the world, particularly from writers who are not normally given space in traditional food media.
What do you offer readers?
I think Vittles is for people who assume they don’t like food writing. People tell me that it makes them reassess what the genre of food writing can actually offer. At the same time, I hope it offers something new for people who consume food writing regularly, and that it leads them onto new writers and other independent publications that are doing something unique.
Growth by the numbers
Started Substack: March 2020 (straight after the pandemic first hit the U.K.)
Launched paid subscriptions: August 2020
Free subscribers: Just over 21,000
Paid subscribers: In the thousands
Why did you decide to go paid?
I decided to go paid because I wanted to be able to pay writers and illustrators more for their work, while also being able to justify the amount of time I was putting into commissioning and editing the newsletter around my usual job and freelancing. I was already taking voluntary donations for the newsletter upkeep via another website, but, as it turned out, the number of paid donations pretty much doubled in the week I turned the paywall on. So extra content outdid altruism in the end.
Schedule: Twice per week, on Monday and Friday.
Originally it was five times a week, when I had nothing else to do and contributors were on furlough and had time to write. That reduced to three times a week when my regular job came back, and now it’s two.
Free vs. paid posts: Monday’s newsletter is for all subscribers; Friday’s is for paid subscribers.
Vittles is a hybrid publication where all the primary content is free (the Vittles mainline, if you will) and my own writing is paywalled. The mainline is made up of long-ish reads by multiple writers and illustrators that adhere to a season topic (e.g. Food production, Hyper-regionalism), while my own writing is anything that's on my mind that week. I almost consider them separate publications: the former is basically a magazine in all but name, and the latter is akin to a blog.
Pricing: £4/month or £30/year.
I price it like a magazine: £12 for a three-month season gives you 12-14 articles around a theme and costs the same as a similarly sized print magazine. People might technically be paying for access to my writing, but I personally view it the other way round: What people are really funding is the production of a series of articles that all undergo rounds of editing as they would at any legacy publication.
What has been a meaningful moment for the growth of your publication? How did that happen?
The hyper-regional chippy guide was the first time a Vittles article went viral on Twitter. I had an inkling the night before I posted it out that it would happen, so I spent hours fretting over it and double checking every word to make sure it was all correct. The article is about chip shop traditions specific to different cities—people can be really protective about their home, so it had to all be factually true and done in a way that was celebratory without being patronizing.
It was wonderful to see the piece being shared with genuine joy by people who never thought they would see something so particular to their towns being written about this way, while for others there was surprise and wonder about other people’s traditions. I think that brought in a lot of new readers who had never seen something of their own lives being represented in a food publication before.
What’s an example of a post that converted a lot of free subscribers to paid subscribers, and why do you think it did so?
I have learnt there is generally a hierarchy of what converts people. Interviews are at the bottom, unless you have someone really famous (which I generally don’t). Then opinion pieces. Then anything which has a function for the reader—a restaurant guide or a recipe, for instance.
But the biggest thing is, unfortunately, controversy—people just seem to love beef. My shortest-ever article, which was just an unordered list of notable food scams, caused the biggest jump in subscribers I’d had to that point; an article on bad-value restaurants in London, which had controversy in spades, converted the most free subscribers to paid. I have noted this phenomenon for future reference, but I think it’s a card that you should only play rarely and with caution, otherwise it could become cynical very quickly.
Ultimately, some of the pieces of writing I’m most proud of and have taken the most thought and care, have not led to any subscriber increases—which is fine.
How do you remind readers that they can subscribe for more paid content?
With a header on my free posts, and I use my own Twitter to promote the paywalled writing. I have a technique which I’ve stolen from a reactionary, right-wing British publication that I know puts its most controversial, headline-grabbing stuff on Twitter for free, lets it percolate, and then paywalls it. It works, but I try to do this with actually good, useful writing.
What is the sharpest insight you can offer other writers about growing a Substack publication?
If you’re trying to grow a publication with many writers, be honest and transparent about the rates you’re offering and what your goals are. If people can see them grow as you grow, then you will earn your readers’ trust.
What advice have you received about growing your publication that didn’t prove to be helpful?
I’ve been told to give people what they want, but I would say don’t be led by what gets subscription jumps, or what you feel appeals to most of your subscriber base. Do the writing you love—after all, isn’t that the whole point of having your own newsletter?
Some people can grow their publications by offering something consistent each week, but I’ve learnt from talking to people that what they value most about the paid newsletter is that the topic seems completely (albeit consistently) unpredictable.
Embrace what’s unpredictable within your niche. Vittles is food writing for people who didn’t know they liked food writing. Jonathan has found that what readers value most about the newsletter is that the angle of each post isn’t predictable. While the writing is eclectic, food is always the focal point.
Be transparent about your goals. Jonathan consistently reinforces the message that paid subscriptions make it possible to compensate contributing writers and illustrators, and their work is a visible representation of the quality that paid subscribers are funding.
Do the writing you love. Controversy may capture eyeballs, but running your own Substack means that you can pursue the writing that you feel is worth doing. The right readers will take notice.
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: