Discover more from Everything is Liminal
Growth is a long-tail journey
A geeky stat-filled, deep-dive reflection on nearly one year of writing on Substack.
This is part 2, of sorts, of a newsletter I wrote earlier this year about the return to long-form writing, just 2 months after I launched this newsletter on Substack. But first, I want to acknowledge and celebrate all the writers, but in particular—and especially—new and young writers who have chosen this platform as their launching post, the ones who are building their audience from the ground up and trying to find their voice in this growing, crowded space. It isn’t easy. Not when every subscriber gained feels hard won, and not when every subscriber lost feels personal.
To the writers—
It takes guts and trust to put yourself out there week after week. To hit that publish button and feel a momentary flash of panic because you're exposing your vulnerability to your audience, no matter how big or small the numbers. The bouts of writer’s block, the newsletters that get scrapped half-finished, the crippling self-doubt, the internal questions of what the hell am I doing here? Does this sound like you? If the answer is no, please teach me your ways! But if it’s yes, I have been feeling all of these things so hard this past month too, even though blogging has been a “thing” I’ve been doing for the past 20+ years.
Why doesn’t it get easier? Because as humans, we tend to measure ourselves against what is perceived as success, usually defined by the critical mass and the gatekeepers. We may still be in the process of defining what success as a writer means to us, and that can spin us in perpetual self doubt as we compare ourselves to others. It also feels a little more challenging these days when the platform seems to push content from top publications or implements a system of badges that suddenly puts their entire ecosystem of writers in a hierarchy of tiers.
On Monday, Substack announced that blogging was back—and not only was it back, but it was happening right here on this very platform. I get it. From a business perspective, getting big writers (and these are some wonderful people I have interacted with in the past) on board is a huge win, but I was delightfully surprised to see how many bloggers were already on this platform when Substack first came on my radar last year. My main gripe about the good old days of blogging was that it wasn’t a diverse enough collection of voices, so while I love that blogging is back, I also want to see this platform do more. It has an opportunity to champion writers from all corners and perspectives and I hope that newer writers and those with smaller subscriber numbers don’t get lost in the shuffle from less and less reach as more readers are brought in by bigger publications. Finding your footing is a process, and one that often traverses peaks and lows, but if you are struggling with growth, please do not give up. We need your voices here. And for my fellow writers of color, your voice is as important as ever.
I love Substack, but is it still cozy in here?
We can’t forget that Substack is a business first and foremost, regardless of all the warm fuzzies that we may feel from being on a platform that markets itself as the antidote to algorithms. The platform has been pushing out big product releases all year and it seems to be focusing hard on growth. This isn’t the same platform that it was even 10 months ago when I first hit publish.
With the launch of Notes earlier this year, Substack’s own
As a (former??) product designer, and one who has worked on a creator-driven product, I’m really impressed with how frequent and furious the releases of new features have been. Truly. Having been on the product side of the fence, albeit on a much smaller scale, I understand that line and tension between what investors want vs. what users want, so it’s been impressive to watch the feature rollouts come and see this product grow.
As a consumer and writer on this platform, I welcome these changes with a bit of wariness even though it’s meant to help creators understand our data and traffic. I can be a data nerd, so I tend to get hung up on analytics, and having my stats in my face every time I log onto my dashboard has pushed metrics front and center. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that because data is useful, but it reduces our subscribers to metrics and now gives us the data to overanalyze and obsess.
I love data, but I love transparency more
(This is about to get into the weeds. I apologize if shoptalk isn’t your thing and encourage you to skip this part—but please do scroll to the end)
For anyone who’s curious, here’s what my stats look like today 10 months after launch. My subscriber counts are respectable, but not big by any means. I have never pulled in huge numbers for anything that I’ve done on the internet independently, and have never been able to crack algorithm codes that have led to any meaningful growth. Sweet Fine Day at its height of peak traffic did pull in as many as 7,000 visitors a day around 2010-2013, but as you can see, it didn’t translate to big numbers here on Substack, nor did I get any meaningful conversions from my social accounts.
What’s more telling is that aside from the huge bump in subscribers that I gained from being a ‘Featured Substack Publication’ in February, my subscriber count has plateaued and organic growth has been steady, but slow since. Being featured, by the way, was a total surprise at just 3 months in (thank you Substack!) and while it provided a nice boost, it didn’t necessarily bring in my typical demographic—which was expected. My audience overlap, according to data, is still the five other newsletters that I was featured with, so this tells me that people's behavior is to just hit ‘subscribe’ across the board when they see featured publications.
It’s common to see your engagement go down the more you grow—and it did. When I was at 500 subscribers before the feature, my newsletter had an 80% open rate. It went down to 50% after the feature and it hovers around 60% today (I have nothing to measure against, but I think that’s still good?).
Every newsletter push results in a handful of lost subscribers which is also typical. I suspect I’ve been shedding some subscribers who came from the feature after they realized that my content just wasn't interesting or relevant to them—and if you came from that feature, thank you for still being here! This may also contribute to the slower growth—you lose some, you gain some and it’s a cycle that repeats itself every time you publish. Case in point, perhaps: my newsletter about menopause resulted in the most unsubscribes. Lol. This is a good thing. Engagement trumps numbers. I’ve even known a Substack writer reveal that they’ll remove a subscriber who hasn’t opened an email from them, ever, because he valued engagement above everything else. We’re so conditioned to chase after numbers and growth that I thought this was a refreshing take and it made me think about what I value.
So yes, growing your audience through organic growth is a journey and a process. It’s often humbling and fuels the drive to keep going, but I also think it’s important to understand what’s behind that drive. Is this about community, engagement, and discourse? Or is this about a dream of being able to support yourself through paid subscriptions?
Let’s talk about paid subscriptions.
The biggest growth came when I published my first paid newsletter about my brother’s suicide in May. This is sort of embarrassing to me because that wasn’t my intention at all—I put it behind a paywall to protect certain people and because it’s still really a raw topic. I’ve only published one other paid newsletter since, though I’ve archived a few. I hear that the typical conversion rate from unpaid to paid is between 3 and 10 percent. I think I’m around 6% (I can’t math), so percentage-wise it seems to be in line with what is typical. Right after I was featured, someone left a comment asking if I was able to support myself through writing yet. Um….
If I calculate my hourly rate based on the number of paid subscriptions and the hours I spend each week on a newsletter, I’m making a whopping $3 an hour. Yay! But no, really, YAY! Being “paid” for writing still blows my mind and I continue to be humbled by the generosity of readers. While I have zero expectations of earning a living through writing (I think a very small percentage of Substack writers do), it is just enough to encourage me to continue. And sometimes that is all we need in life—a little encouragement to push through our self doubts.
To all my readers and paid subscribers—
Thank you, thank you, thank you. For allowing me into your inbox every week. For opening and reading my newsletters and tolerating the typos that get published occasionally. For all the comments, likes, and the thoughtful emails. I still don’t know how to distinguish between paid and public posts, and I know that I’m not offering anything “extra” yet for those of you who have so generously paid for a subscription (for the love of god, if anyone has any ideas, please let me know), so I continue to be indebted by your support.
Ten months later, writing on Substack still remains my favorite part of this post-career transition in my life. I’ve met some really great new-to-me writers. Some of the connections I’ve made from the early days of blogging are also here and strong. By now, you and I have become old friends. We’ve gone through milestone birthdays together, we’ve grieved together, we’ve raised children together, we’re going through menopause together(!!)
Here’s to growing older, together. This is what community feels like; this is what I value.