We invited Scott Hines, author of Action Cookbook, to host a workshop on how he successfully grew his email list on Substack in less than a year. Scott’s newsletter is a collection of personal essays about life, parenting, sports, and architecture.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. You can watch Scott’s talk in the above video.
Give your newsletter a polished presence. Customize everything you can, from your newsletter’s logo to its description.
Write consistently. Follow a regular schedule, so your readers know what to expect.
Stay engaged with your readers. Promote your work, create image-rich content, and host discussions on your posts.
Share your own story. Talk about the topics you want to talk about, not just what will sell.
I'm the sole writer and creator of the Action Cookbook newsletter. The newsletter publishes three times a week. In terms of subject matter, it's kind of all over the place.
This newsletter was built from scratch – I did not come in with an established email list. I had done some steady freelance work in a few places, from which I had people somewhat familiar with me, but I did not have any sort of list that I was bringing in here. So what I've been able to build on Substack has been truly from the ground up in the last 10 to 11 months.
I don't come from a media background. I don't have a degree in journalism or writing. I'm actually an architect in my primary job, and I live in Louisville, Kentucky right now. So I think my story is proof that if you have something to say, Substack allows you to do this from anywhere, from any start.
I don't come from a media background. I don't have a degree in journalism or writing. I'm an architect and I live in Louisville, Kentucky. So I think my story is proof that if you have something to say, Substack allows you to do this from anywhere, from any start.
Last year, after losing a consistent freelance job that I had had for a few years, I launched this publication as a way of continuing to write the things that I wanted to write about, rather than chasing freelance work and trying to figure out what somebody else wanted. I got used to writing, and I wanted to continue it in a way that I had more ownership over. Substack has been really great for that.
I got my first 1,000 subscribers in about four and a half months. As it stands right now, I'm at about 2,300 free subscribers, and 315 of those have converted to paid subscriptions. I'll discuss some of the ways that I got there and the practices I've adopted.
Build a professional presence
One of the things that I think is most important is having a presence. What's great about Substack is the bones are there. With just a little bit of work, what you're doing, even if it's for 10 people or for 100 people, can look the same as some of their top newsletters that are making six figures a year in income and have tens of thousands of subscribers.
Yours won't look that different from theirs as long as you take a few steps right up front. This is something I failed to do in the first couple of months and had to be coaxed into doing.
When you first set up a newsletter, I encourage you to fill everything in. Pick a name that you're comfortable with and want to work under. I'm the “Action Cookbook” newsletter because I chose a nonsequitur of a name for Twitter eight years ago that was a British cookbook from the '60s. I just thought it was a funny phrase, and now I'm writing under it professionally. So choose a name you like.
Also, give yourself a logo. I created something in about 20 minutes on a Photoshop app on my phone. It's not a fancy logo, but it's identifiable. When I go to Substack’s Discover Writers page, I can pick mine out right away.
In the About Me section – I think a lot of people miss this – talk about what your newsletter is. It's important to professionalize what you're doing. Talk about what you're doing, where people might know you from, or what expertise you're working on. Same with the emails that get sent when somebody signs up and when somebody considers converting. It doesn't take very long to fill that out, but it gives the veneer of something professional, even if you're starting from a very small base.
When I first launched this Substack, it was in support of a sports podcast that I had launched with a friend last summer. I was happy with what we did, but for many reasons, we weren't able to keep doing it. Once that ended, I realized the newsletter was getting a bigger response. So I decided to keep it going, and I changed it from being named after the podcast to being named after what people know me as. That single day that I made that change was my biggest percentage change in followers. I gained probably 20% that day.
Introducing a newsletter as a side project encourages people to think, "Well, I'll see how that goes." Whereas introducing it as you and how they know you, people are like, "Oh, great!" All the people who hadn't signed up when it was in support of the sports podcast, but were familiar with me, signed up that day.
The other thing I would stress is that no one knows your metrics but you. No one can tell if you're only writing for 10 people at the outset. Only you see those numbers. Write like you're writing for 10,000 people from the get-go, because all it takes is one post going viral and you really are writing for 10,000 people. You want to be ready for that. You don't want your newsletter to look like somebody's LiveJournal from 20 years ago. You want it to look like a professional newsletter that people are going to want to continue to support.
No one can tell if you're only writing for 10 people at the outset. Only you see those numbers. Write like you're writing for 10,000 people from the get-go, because all it takes is one post going viral and you really are writing for 10,000 people. You want to be ready for that.
Find a consistent rhythm
Consistency is a big part of how I've been able to succeed. Determine in advance what kind of publishing schedule you're going to want to do and what you can commit to. Maybe that's once a week. Maybe that's twice a week.
For me, I decided, “I'm going to do this three times a week, and I'm going to do it at specific times.” I publish Monday morning, Wednesday morning, and Friday morning between 8:00 and 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, and that does not change. That's not to say that those times are better than any others, but they're consistent. When I've seen people launch Substacks, a lot of times it's, "Check back here soon. I'm going to be publishing when I feel like it," and it fails to catch on.
Personally, the reason I made this commitment is that I write well when I'm under a deadline. A lot of times, I'll get to a Tuesday night and think, "Oh, no. I have to write something for tomorrow," and sometimes it's my best work.
Now, that may not be transferable. Not everyone writes out of panic like I do, but committing to that schedule helps people anticipate it. Your newsletter could be the thing that reminds somebody that today is Thursday, and it's 2:30 p.m. "There's Sarah's newsletter. I'm looking forward to that. Great."
I write well when I'm under a deadline. A lot of times, I'll get to a Tuesday night and think, "Oh, no. I have to write something for tomorrow," and sometimes it's my best work.
One pushback I got from people unfamiliar with the newsletter model is, "Oh, I already have enough email. I don't need more emails coming in." I get that. We all get a lot of email. But I think if you commit to a dedicated, regular schedule of putting these out, it becomes more of an event in people's week. When it comes in unexpectedly, it's like another task. It's, "Oh, I have to read this now," and then they don't. So that's been really important both for encouraging me to be consistent with writing and getting readers used to the regular flow of things.
Staying on that schedule also has allowed me some flexibility, because they know when to expect the email even if they may not know what I'm doing in there, which is great because I change my topics a lot. I do this with one of my three weekly emails – the one I send out Friday morning - which has a consistent format of recommending seven good things a week. I'll have a recipe, a cocktail, a book recommendation, a musician that I recommend, a couple of other things that change from week to week, and pictures of dogs – because it's the most base-level Internet way to get people to read your thing. What the recommendations are each week changes, but that format is the same every Friday.
The reason I do that is if people don't read the other stuff as consistently, having one regular thing that they can expect to be the same keeps them coming back. The essays that I do on the other days may not necessarily connect with people from week to week, but knowing there's that Friday event gives them something to look forward to.
I've found this bears out. I've tracked my metrics obsessively - Substack gives you great metrics to tell how you're doing in terms of how people are opening emails, how many people are viewing through the web, all of that - and the Friday email is always my most consistent. It's got the lowest floor. Then, in my other ones I take a lot more liberties, a lot more flexibility in what I'm doing.
I write on a lot of topics. When I first started out, I came from a freelance sports blogging background. But I got tired about writing about sports all the time. So I just started writing about other things. I have two young children, and I write about that. I come from an architecture background, and I write about architecture, and also distance running or cycling or whatever I'm feeling like talking about. If I plant a garden, I want to talk about planting the garden that week. What the Friday emails buy me is the flexibility to write about these topics.
For example, I had a post back in January. I planned to try and make homemade soup dumplings for my recipe on Friday, and I completely botched it. I did a terrible job. I tried to make 40, and I came out with 7. It was an absolute disaster. So, instead, I wrote about that disaster. I wrote a post that was very successful: The Simple Joy of Effing Up in the Kitchen. That got caught by a prominent food writer on a much larger blog, and suddenly it was my most-viewed post by a factor of 10.
That wasn't part of any editorial consistency that I had, but I've been allowed that flexibility to take shots like these. Have some consistent things, and then take some chances. If you balance the two, you can gain new readers on the chances while keeping the regular readers with the consistent content.
Keep your readers engaged
You have to give your readers a reason to stay interested and feel involved, with content that feeds into their lives. I started sharing recipes because when somebody makes that recipe, they're thinking about me and my writing when they're not at their screen.
Think about how you can engage with your readers beyond just lecturing at them. I started sharing recipes because when somebody makes that recipe, they're thinking about me and my writing when they're not at their screen.
Whatever form that takes, provide some kind of content that gets people thinking about you more than just the five minutes of scrolling by the email on your phone when they first get it. Something that sticks with people will get them coming back. Think about how you can engage with your readers beyond just lecturing at them.
Substack provides tools for that. You can host discussion threads, which I think are great. Sometimes in between pieces of writing, do a talk-back on it. “I talked about this subject on Wednesday. On Thursday, let's have a discussion about how this relates to your life.”
Encourage people to comment on your posts. The comment function is always there, but I realize when I tell people in the post, "Comments are below," I get more engagement. And I try to engage with their comments. When I see a comment, I respond to it as long as it's not a negative or abusive comment. The Internet is the way it is, but people are very supportive and love engaging with writers. I think Substack allows that really well.
Another simple thing is giving your readers some ownership to contribute something in whatever small way. I started off, in these Friday emails, ending with a picture of my dog. I have a very photogenic Welsh corgi. I know how the Internet works. I share pictures of her, and people respond to them. But I've gotten tired of doing that, too. So I started asking people to send me pictures of their dogs. It got people more engaged, because instead of just sharing myself, there's a dialogue back and forth.
One of the biggest things that I've really had to be talked into is promotion: not being afraid to yell about my work all the time. There's a tendency to create something and want to drop a link on social media, then say, "Here, I wrote a thing," and almost apologize for it.
One of the biggest things that I've had to be talked into is promotion. There's a tendency to create something and drop a link on social media, then say, "Here, I wrote a thing," and almost apologize for it. You can't do that. You have to be convinced of the work.
You can't do that. You have to be convinced of the work. You have to sell the work, and you have to do it more than you think you need to. You might think that announcing that you've started a Substack and that you wrote a newsletter will be enough, and that the people who like you and follow you will get on board. But it's really easy for people to miss things, or it's easy for people to see those announcements and think, "Yeah, I should do that," and then they don't.
Repetition is important. You're going to feel like you're being annoying. But it may take five, six, seven times of somebody seeing something for them to think, "Yeah, I should get on that. I should subscribe to that." I feel like I'm being incessant when I tweet over and over again about my newsletter, but every time I do it, I gain views and subscriptions.
Repetition is important. You're going to feel like you're being annoying. But it may take five, six, seven times of somebody seeing something for them to think, "Yeah, I should subscribe to that.”
You have to bring people to your work. Once you do and once they get hooked in, the great thing about Substack is they'll stay. I have very little churn in my newsletter. It's getting them in the door in the first place.
One other way to increase engagement that I've found: when you’re sharing on social media, instead of just dropping a link, give them a preview.
I always try to have a block of text that I can screenshot and put in an image when I post an article. If you say, "I wrote about cycling," maybe they'll read it. But you want people to realize it's more than that. Scrolling past and seeing a paragraph, you're likely to stop and look at it. Well, now you're already 20% of the way into an article, and you're going to click through and read it. That has made a huge difference.
Another thing you're going to want is to have images in every post, even if it's just a cover image. I wrote an essay about cycling, and I found an old picture of me on my bike and put it in there. Even if it doesn't specifically serve the writing, if somebody else shares your link on social, that image will pop up. It's more engaging if it looks like richer content. It could be a photo you create yourself, or you can go to Creative Commons and find license-free media that you can use.
Going back to what I said about presence, I think about something that one of my freelance editors once told me. I sent in a pitch that I thought was weird. We were familiar with each other. So I prefaced the pitch by saying, "Listen, I know this is kind of weird, but here's my idea." And in rejecting the pitch, which she did, she was very kind enough to say, "Don't apologize for your work. If you're not convinced of it, nobody's going to be convinced of it. You need to come in believing in it." I know that's sort of rah-rah, but it's true. Sell it, sell it, sell it. Be convinced of your work. Be convinced that people need to read it. They just haven't seen it yet.
Be convinced of your work. Be convinced that people need to read it. They just haven't seen it yet.
Write about what you believe in
You should write your own story. I am a big believer of what Substack is doing right now – I think this is the future of online writing. The beauty of the Substack model is the lack of editorial and advertising mandates. You're not writing what someone else thinks they can sell. You're writing what you believe in, and it may be a very esoteric topic. It may be something that you think doesn't have a large audience, but you don't need a large audience at first. You need a devoted audience.
You can write what you believe in if only 10 people like it. Those 10 people are finding something that they're not going to find anywhere else because no editor would pick something up that would only get read by 10 people. But those people will stay. They will share it. You will find more, and that's important.
I've had so many freelance pitches that I've put out to an editor, and maybe they're being kind, but I've gotten the response so many times of, "I love the idea. I can't sell it, but if you publish it somewhere, tell me where to find it." Well, this is where I'm publishing it now. All those things that were entertaining and engaging but not able to be sold by a media outlet – I'm putting those out now, and people are really responding to them.
Substack gives writers a chance to connect with readers. It's important to write about what you believe in – don't dilute it. Don't try to write it like you're writing for a large media organization. Write what you believe in. Find a small audience. They will be the first people to sign up as a free subscriber. And later on, if you choose to go the paid route, those people will be the first to sign up as paying subscribers.
If you have a small contingent of believers, then you've really got something. Substack allows you to keep growing. My first couple of months doing this, I had very few people reading, but I kept doing it, hoping people would show up – and they did.
Find a small audience. They will be the first people to sign up as a free subscriber. And later on, if you choose to go the paid route, those people will be the first to sign up as paying subscribers.
Finally, on the note of writing what you believe in, I have an example that I wanted to share. I wrote a post a few months ago about my children's stuffed animals. I have a four-year-old and a three-year-old, and they each have a beloved stuffed animal: a stuffed panda and a stuffed monkey. In my late 30s, I didn't expect that I would be so emotionally involved with two stuffed animals. But I am constantly concerned about them, about them not getting lost, about where they are.
This is a pitch that no editor would take. There's no way to sell this post about me getting sentimental about my children's stuffed animals. But the amount of reaction that I got to this post was amazing. I probably had a dozen people email me directly about that post saying, "My kids are the same age. I feel the same way right now," or, "My kids are your age now, but I remember this when they were little." Being able to write something like that, which would not get published anywhere else but makes an emotional connection, that's remarkable.
For more advice on growing your subscriber base, check out “How Delia Cai grew Deez Links from zero to 2,000+ signups.”