An influential newsletter goes paid
|Oct 16, 2017||Public post|| 2|
For six years, Bill Bishop has published the best free newsletter about China. Now, to our delight at Substack, he’s making it a business.
Bishop, a former media executive and serial entrepreneur, is Substack’s first customer, and we couldn’t have hoped for better. Today, he launched the paid version of Sinocism, in which he provides commentary and curated links about the most consequential China news of the day.
Since launching the publication in 2011, Bishop has accumulated more than 30,000 subscribers, made up largely of diplomats, policy makers, financial professionals, journalists, and academics. Bishop, who moved back to Washington, DC, in 2015 after a decade in Beijing, has used Sinocism to help the western world makes sense of the Middle Kingdom; the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos has called him “the China Hand’s China Hand.”
Bishop got into the professional newsletter business almost by accident. In 1997, he co-founded the financial news site MarketWatch, which later sold to Dow Jones, and in 2005 he moved to Beijing. He had been there before. In 1989, while studying Chinese at Middlebury College, he went to China on a study-abroad program and was hired to help CBS News report on the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square that culminated in the infamous June 4 massacre. After returning to the US, he graduated with a master’s degree in China Studies from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and went back to China in 2005 to try his luck as an entrepreneur. He co-founded a gaming studio that ultimately found itself on the wrong side of several tech and consumer trends and shut down in 2009. Then, as a side project, he started a blog to bring to light stories from the Chinese internet that weren’t being reflected in the English-language media. After a few months, the Chinese government took issue with the blog and blocked it, so Bishop instead made it a newsletter.
We think Sinocism is the ideal first publication for Substack—and it’s not just because Bishop is a great guy with a keen sense for tech, media, and the future. Following in the mold of Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, Sinocism is a specialized publication with a hardcore following. “I have always thought of [Bishop] as the perfect example of a publisher that was meant to monetize through a niche subscription,” Thompson recently tweeted. “Bill Bishop has been writing the single best newsletter about China for years. Highly differentiated and indispensable for those that care.”
“I wasn’t looking to make money off this,” Bishop says of Sinocism’s beginnings. “I wanted to build an audience, and I felt like I was providing a service to people.” A few years ago, he experimented by asking readers for donations. “I lived in socialist China, so I decided I would take a socialist approach to monetizing,” he jokes. And it worked—for a bit. One year, he made $100,000 through donations, but it was difficult to sustain. “Ultimately, I got sick of begging.”
Now, though, the conditions feel right to turn to paid subscriptions. “You’ve got people like Ben Thompson at Stratechery, people like Substack who make it super easy to get set up, and the market looks like it’s at a point where people want to pay for content they value.”
Bishop chose Substack because it took the slog out of starting a paid publication. He had looked for other tools and considered Patreon and Medium, but they didn’t serve the specific need of integrating payments and publishing for independent writers. “I couldn’t find anybody who could give me a recommendation on a clean, affordable platform for me to use that wasn’t going to require a whole bunch of technical work,” he says. “If you’re a writer or editor—most people don’t want to deal with those hassles. They just want a nice, clean interface that makes it easy to charge money, and then to move on with it.”
While Bishop is nervous about losing some of his audience, he is going to continue publishing a free weekly newsletter so he can still reach his existing subscribers. But in the meantime, the trade-off is a good shot at building a sustainable business that provides a decent living—and maybe he can even hire some people to help out. He’s initially charging $11 a month or $118 a year. After positive early feedback, he’s already wondering if his aim is off. “Lots of people tell me I’m crazy and it’s way too cheap.”
Subscribe to Sinocism and get smarter about China.