Grow: How Erik Hoel welcomed thousands of subscribers by making topics roomier
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.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
Intellectual investigations that merge the arts and the sciences, or, in one word, “consilience.”
Why did you start The Intrinsic Perspective?
I grew up in my mother’s independent bookstore, so I love books. I sold books for a living. I’ve written books. But a huge number of readers have migrated to reading mostly online. People don’t wake up and pick up a book; they wake up and pick up their phones.
That may sound terrible, but it’s worth remembering that people will, if given the opportunity, read a 5,000-word essay on their phone. And they’ll do it right there, with their head still on the pillow. In those cases, it’s not terrible; it’s wonderful. And if you can capture that, if you can direct that attention to things worth attending to, it’s incredibly powerful. So if you’re a writer, why not go where the action is?
It’s worth remembering that people will, if given the opportunity, read a 5,000-word essay on their phone. And they’ll do it right there, with their head still on the pillow. In those cases, it’s not terrible; it’s wonderful.
What do you offer readers?
My background as both a scientist and a fiction author allows me to cover a lot of ground. Some days I’ll write about the publishing industry, others about artificial intelligence.
I spend a lot of time polishing each post, such that hopefully everyone reading feels it’s worth their time and they look forward to the next piece. I want people to feel the quality they’re getting rivals that of big think pieces in traditional media outlets, like The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or Aeon. But unlike those places, I can be idiosyncratic and take risks, in terms of both style and subject matter.
Growth by numbers
Started Substack: April 2021
Free subscribers: 4,000+
What’s your content strategy?
I post once every other week: A snail’s pace compared to some. I may speed that up in the future, but it’s doubtful I’ll ever go above once a week.
There are a number of topics I return to again and again, but I make sure to move from one to another in order to keep the content fresh. These include takes on artificial intelligence, philosophy, futurism, the neuroscience of consciousness and dreams, and also literature, art, video games, education. A wide net.
What has been a meaningful moment for the growth of your publication?
Recently, I published Why we stopped making Einsteins, on the decline of genius in the modern day. I did a lot of historical research for the post, and its topic (the nature of genius) is something pretty much everyone finds interesting. It triggered a gain of over 1,000 subscribers from it alone.
More generally, the vast majority of growth has been from posts going viral or getting lots of shares.
Other writers vouching for you also helps a lot. When I was still under 1,500 subscribers, Scott Alexander over at the Astral Codex Ten Substack said that The Intrinsic Perspective was one of the few new Substacks he’s really excited about, which led to a boost.
Do you have thoughts on how something “goes viral”?
The thing about virality is it’s always obvious in hindsight but impossible to see ahead of time. However, a big part of something going viral is giving people the opportunity to react: both readers and other online writers who might pen a response piece, and so on. The subject has to be “roomy” enough for multiple opinions. The nature of genius—how people become geniuses, what counts as a genius, and so on—that’s something it’s possible to have a lot of opinions about. If your piece is just an open-and-shut case where there’s an obvious right answer, virality is impossible.
In the case of “Why we stopped making Einsteins,” the virality occurred on Twitter at first but had a second wave wherein a lot of bloggers and other online writers responded to it. People want to interact, they want to speculate, and, of course, it’s interesting on my end to hear their thoughts, since it often helps clarify my own thinking about an issue.
People want to interact, they want to speculate, and, of course, it’s interesting on my end to hear their thoughts, since it often helps clarify my own thinking about an issue.
What is the sharpest insight you can offer other writers about growing a Substack publication?
Find an aesthetic. I collaborate with an artist who creates a unique illustration for each post. I never know what they’ll be; they’re his artistic reactions to the drafts he reads. This creates an aesthetic for the entire newsletter, which in turn makes everything look more professional, which in turn builds the reader’s faith that you’re going to lead them somewhere interesting.
There’s all sorts of ways to create an aesthetic without having an artist collaborator, though, for example using black-and-white photographs, or cartoons, or old paintings, or frames from movies.
What advice have you received about growing your publication that didn’t prove to be helpful?
If you didn’t publish often enough, you’d lose subscribers. I found the opposite to be true. My experience is some people unsubscribe when they get a reminder they’re on the list, which is some email you sent. It’s my opinion that too many people publish too often and create subscriber churn. I post every other week, and that works for me.
Who’s another Substack writer you’ve turned to for guidance or inspiration?
Good writing is the best source of growth. A good post demonstrates your unique perspective and abilities. It’s the best possible marketing, and it shows in Erik’s case by being shared widely.
Go where readers are. Erik grew up around books and decided to write online because, today, that’s where many readers spend their time.
Develop a visual identity. Visual elements like unique illustrations communicate an overarching message to readers about what to expect from your publication. You don’t have to be an artist or designer to make your publication stand out. There are simple things you can do even from within Substack.
What questions do you have for Erik that we didn’t ask? Leave them in the comments!
To read more from this series on growing your publication, see our interviews with Jessica DeFino, Mike Sowden, Elizabeth Held, Jonathan Nunn, Polina Pompliano, Michael Williams, Judd Legum, and Caroline Chambers.