Your guide to going paid
|Mar 27|| 19|
You’re writing on Substack, you’ve attracted a following; now you’re thinking about adding paid subscriptions. What’s next? Here’s how to figure out whether to go paid and make the most of your launch.
Do a self-assessment
If you’re trying to decide whether to go paid, start by taking a look at your numbers.
The most important factors in determining a successful paid launch are your reach and engagement. Assessing these factors will help you make informed decisions and feel more confident when you do go paid.
Reach refers to the total audience of people who might see your newsletter. This is mostly your email list size, but you may want to consider other factors, like how many of your posts have been widely shared, whether you have a significant following elsewhere, and whether or not you have friends with bigger audiences who can amplify your work.
If your reach is still small, focus on growing your email list first. Your paying subscribers are a function of your overall list size, because people often sign up for your free list before switching to paid subscriptions.
Think about growing your free list as the first step to going paid. Your free list is the audience you’ll be “pitching” paid subscriptions to, so putting yourself in a strong position here will expand your opportunities later.
Check out how Delia grew her email list from zero to 2,000+ signups.
There’s no specific number you need to attain for your list size, but you can come up with a target based on your revenue goals. For example, if you’re hoping to make $50,000 per year charging $5/month, you’d need about 1,000 paying subscribers. That means you should aim to get at least 10,000 people on your mailing list, since a good performance would see 10% of your free list convert into paid subscriptions. (See the next few sections for more on how to calculate these numbers.)
Engagement is just as important as reach, including open rates and post shares, as well as likes, comments, and replies to your posts. If you have a big email list, but your open rates are low and you’re not getting a lot of feedback, focus on improving your engagement before asking people to pay.
Use our analytics guide to better understand your numbers.
Also, don’t forget to consider the qualitative feedback you’ve received:
Do people seem really into what you’re doing?
Do you feel like your audience pays attention to the things you write and do?
Have they already offered to pay you?
Many writers say that they knew to go paid when it just “felt” right: their readers had a lot of energy, momentum was building, and they knew they were ready for more.
No set of numbers will guarantee a successful paid launch. The right level of reach and engagement depends on what you write about, what you’re charging for, and who your audience is. We’ve seen writers with total email lists of just a few hundred readers make six figures in recurring revenue, while others find that they need thousands of paying subscribers.
Decide what you’re going to offer
Next, decide what you’re going to offer paying subscribers.
Some writers worry that adding paid subscriptions will seem like they’re taking something away. Instead, think about the additional value you’re going to provide your readers. Give them more of what they already love!
Adding paid subscriptions doesn’t necessarily mean turning off your free posts. Most writers with paid subscriptions continue to write a mix of free and paid content. Some writers have paid subscriptions for extra-supportive readers, but make all their posts free.
Think about your free content as the writing that draws new people into your orbit. While it seems counterintuitive, your free content should be your best work, effectively serving as an advertisement for your paid work.
Write free content that you hope others will share based on its quality and appeal to a broad audience. It should show off what you’re about and entice new readers to sign up for more.
By contrast, your paid content is for readers who already know who you are. This is your place to share your more unfiltered, experimental self.
Generally speaking, readers subscribe to paid newsletters because they want a closer connection. They’re hoping for more of your unique insights that they can’t get anywhere else. Perhaps it’s your analysis of and commentary on the news, personal stories about your daily life, or access to members-only discussions with other subscribers.
Here are a few examples of what Substack writers offer to paying subscribers:
1:X ratio of free-to-paid posts: Judd Legum of Popular Information publishes four days a week, Monday through Thursday: 1 free post and 3 paid posts.
Weekly paid posts with free previews: Richard Rushfield of The Ankler writes an insiders’ newsletter about the entertainment industry. He publishes paid posts 1-2x/week and occasional free posts (1x/month), as well as a free preview version of his paid posts.
Private member community: Nadia Bolz-Weber of The Corners publishes occasional free posts (1-2x/month). Paying subscribers get behind-the-scenes access to Q&As, community discussion threads, quarterly book clubs, and guest posts.
Serial books: Alex Danco publishes a serial book called Scarcity in the Software Century, released in segments exclusively through paid posts.
Exclusive bonus material: Flow State publishes free good-for-working-to music recommendations every weekday. Paying subscribers get access to curated Spotify playlists.
For more ideas, check out how Walt Hickey of Numlock News launched multiple newsletters, where he discusses different possible pricing strategies.
Set a price
After you’ve figured out what you’d like to offer, it’s time to set a price.
Start by asking yourself: “Who’s paying for my work?” If you expect to have business customers who can expense their subscription, you can charge more.
We often see writers charge $5/month for newsletters in the personal interest category and $10/month for those in a business category, but challenge yourself to charge more than you think is possible. Set your price 20% higher than you normally would; you can always offer a 20% discount for your earliest subscribers.
You can also add a special “Supporters” tier for readers who’d like to pay even more than the regular plan. This will appear on your Subscribe page next to your annual and monthly plans. You can enable it from your Settings page.
Here are a few pricing examples from Substack writers, across categories:
Business and finance: PETITION charges $49/month or $499/year
Personal productivity: Superorganizers charges $15/month or $150/year
Sports: TrueHoop charges $10/month or $100/year
Interest-specific journalism: Heated charges $8/month or $75/year
Professional community: The Professional Freelancer charges £9/month or £90/year
Personal: Ask Molly charges $5 month or $50/year
If your plan is to go full-time, or you otherwise have a revenue target in mind, calculate how much money you’d need to make in order to reach your goal.
Start with a revenue target that feels right to you. Remember to adjust for income tax, as well as Substack’s and Stripe’s fees (10% + 2.9% plus 30 cents per transaction, respectively).
Estimate your number of paying subscribers, based on the size of your free list. We commonly see conversion rates of 5–10%.
Divide your revenue target by your number of paying subscribers to get to your annual price, then work backwards to a monthly price.
Based on your financial goals, does your pricing plan seem reasonable? If you’re not quite there yet, focus on growing your reach and engagement before launching paid subscriptions.
It’s time for launch!
If you’re feeling good about all of the above, get ready for your paid launch.
Set a date. You could launch tomorrow if you’d like, especially if you’re already publishing free content to your audience. For an extra boost, try picking a launch date that’s 1-3 weeks into the future, then use the time leading up to it to promote your paid offering.
Update your Substack. On your publication’s Settings page, connect your Stripe account and set a price. Now’s a good time to refresh your one-line description, logo, and About page (see our “Setting up your Substack” guide for more advice).
Write an announcement post that explains what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what you think your readers will get out of it. If you’d like to offer early bird discounts or free trials, you can manage these from the “Special offers” section of your Settings page. After you publish your announcement, make sure you link to it from other channels, such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn.
If you’re doing a dedicated launch week or pre-launch period, here are some ideas to make the most of it:
Publish something new every day. Use every chance you can get to remind your readers about your launch! This can be a fun time to experiment with special longform pieces or new types of messaging. Make sure your free posts have “Subscribe” buttons to remind people to sign up (and make it easy for them to do so).
Ask friends to share and retweet your announcement post. Collect the nice things your new subscribers are saying and share them as testimonials.
The day before you switch over, make one final pitch to subscribe. Tease the paid content that’s coming that week and remind your readers of the benefits of subscribing.
The right launch format depends on your audience and what you write about. Go with what feels right to you, but don’t be afraid to sell why your newsletter will help improve your readers’ lives.
Here’s how a few different Substack writers launched their paid newsletters:
Byrne Hobart of The Diff started out by teasing a paid subscription launch, then made a more formal pitch at the end of the week. One week after launching paid subscriptions, he published a “What You Missed This Week” post, which gave a preview of his paid content to free subscribers.
Emily Atkin of Heated focused on quickly growing her free list to nearly 20,000 subscribers before she added paid subscriptions. She then did a dedicated launch week where she published something new every day, including a special research project and an AMA, before making one final pitch. Read her full story here.
Kevin Muir of The MacroTourist spent years building his email list. When he decided to go paid, he made just one announcement post explaining his transition to a completely paid newsletter. He didn’t do any additional marketing or promotion, because he felt that his readers wanted him to respect their time.
Clara Parkes of The Daily Respite launched from the start with paid subscriptions, but keeps her posts free. Her email list came from her existing following on Instagram, and she added “paid memberships” as a way for her readers to show extra support.
Keep the momentum going
Congratulations! You’ve launched. Keep the momentum going by growing your free list and building a subscriber community.
Use your conversion rate as a diagnostic tool to figure out where to focus your efforts:
If your conversion rate is below 10%, focus on improving conversions from your free list. Make it clear that you have paid subscriptions, add a “Subscribe” button to your free posts, and convey the value of signing up.
If your conversion rate is above 10%, you’ve likely got something that people are happy to pay for, so focus on growing your overall free list. Advertise your Substack everywhere you can. Cross-promote your work with other people and publications by regularly sharing out your free posts, mentioning your Substack in interviews, and asking your friends to share your posts, too.
As you keep writing, continue to experiment with your messaging, as well as what you offer paying subscribers, to find what works.
Don’t be afraid to ask your readers for feedback. Encourage them to leave comments and reply to your posts. You can even send out a short survey with a service like Google Forms or Typeform. Over time, you’ll gain better insight into what your subscribers like and what they want more of.