The Joys Of Running…A Substack Newsletter By Tom Knighton
It’s been a year for me. As of Friday, I’ve spent a year writing a newsletter on Substack titled Tilting at Windmills. In it, I cover politics that I don’t get to cover in my day job. Just one story a day, most days of the week.
And, in the process, I’ve made more money than I did on any blog I actually attempted previous to this.
Our beloved hostess, beautiful but evil space princess that she is, suggested I write up a guest blog for her on what that year has been like.
Let’s start with looking at how things were before I started with Substack.
Now, let’s understand that I make my living writing for blogs. I’ve written for PJ Media, Townhall, The Daily Caller, as well as a few other sites that no longer exist. Now spend my days as one of the main voices at Bearing Arms.
Writing a blog wasn’t the challenge.
However, actually making money with it was. Google AdSense is generally considered the gold standard for ad services on a blog. It’s the easiest to set up, too. However, AdSense can also cut you off in a heartbeat if it suspects you’re doing anything hinky. Even if it’s not you doing it.
For example, I once owned a newspaper. We went online only due to financial difficulties and used AdSense. Apparently, someone kept clicking the ads. I suspect it was either someone who didn’t like our coverage or, more likely, someone who was trying to help the paper out. Either way, Google yanked our account and all the money we’d earned up to that point.
So yeah, AdSense is less than ideal.
Plus, there’s the fact that you get paid based on traffic, and not a whole lot at that. In fact, the average payout is $2-$3 per thousand hits. Even if you’re getting a thousand hits per day, you’re getting decent traffic compared to a lot of sites, but you’re getting almost no money. You’ll have to do things like affiliate links or create your own products for sale to make any real money.
And I write politics.
Yeah…not the best avenue for money making, especially since I couldn’t think of a course I could really offer.
A year ago, though, I came across Substack in regard to a number of journalists who had exited the sites they wrote for and were now writing their own stories with their own voices and their own editorial control.
Yes, it’s indie publishing, but for news, politics, sports, or whatever someone wanted to write.
I’d thought about talking all about the steps I went through setting things up and really talking about Substack, but that’s really a better topic for another time.
Instead, Sarah suggested I talk about the experience of publishing a Substack newsletter, so I’ll do that instead.
Honestly? It’s not much different than writing a blog. You still write a story, provide links, blockquotes, and all the other stuff you normally associate with writing on a blog.
The difference is that you don’t really have to do a whole lot of backend stuff and monetizing it is ridiculously simple. You just provide some content for people to pay for and they will if they can see that the rest of your stuff is good.
Again, this is really indie publishing, but for more of a journalism flavor. Some newsletters have multiple authors. Some, such as mine, only has one and I do pretty much everything.
Like Amazon, Substack takes a small piece, but they’ve got to eat too, right?
The difference is that you’re essentially writing a blog that gets blasted to people’s email boxes and that they can pay for a portion other people don’t get.
And then you make money!
Now, let’s also be realistic. I’m making more than I did with my blogs, but I’m not making enough to do it full time. I’d love to be in a position where I simply can’t get fired by a company, but I’m not there yet. I need a lot more paid subscribers.
However, I have to be realistic about this first year.
Yes, I’ve written for some of the larger political sites out there, but my profile isn’t that big. Outside of the Second Amendment community, it’s almost non-existent, and the newsletter is for non-Second Amendment things.
There’s actually no reason anyone who didn’t know me personally would have signed up for the newsletter, at least in the early days.
That means I needed to market, which is something I need to get better about doing without being spammy. That last part is always the trick, isn’t it?
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of my stuff posted at Instapundit thanks to a certain someone, and that has been a huge help, but there is probably more I can do.
You have to admit, it sounds a lot like publishing books indie, doesn’t it? That’s because when you go indie, either as an author or a journalist or anything else, it all falls on you. You don’t have a company to promote you. You don’t have people guiding you to do certain things that will sell better. You have none of that.
It all falls on you, but it’s worth it. No one tells you not to cover a certain story because that person is an advertiser. No one tells you not to cover that story because it’s not inclusive enough.
Picking what you write and how you write it? That falls on you too, and it’s great.
However, there are differences as well. I can’t write more and more newsletters so I can make more and more money. While some authors advocate cranking out a lot of books to make a living as a writer—not an inaccurate strategy, either, from what I can tell—that doesn’t cross boundaries.
With a Substack, the “thousand true fans” doesn’t necessarily help you out that much. Not without some other way to make revenue off of them or pricing your newsletter higher than I currently do. I can’t count on them buying four or five times as many newsletters per year if I just grind them out. That’s not how it works.
Which means you have to grow your audience beyond a mere 1,000 paying fans, and I’m not even close to even doing that just yet.
Yet let’s also be perfectly honest, marketing is what a lot of indies struggle with regardless of what they’re creating.
So, if I had it to do all over again, would I? Uh…yeah!
I mean, yes, there’s the money thing, to be sure, but there’s also the fact that I’m building something that can, in theory, be carried on after I’ve left this world. See, this newsletter isn’t just me screaming into the void…or tilting at windmills. It’s ultimately a business that can grow and potentially become more.
And there’s the fact that I’m not beholden to anyone except the consumers, the way the free market intended.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve worked for some great companies writing politics and I only regret writing for one of them—one that no longer exists—so I’m not complaining. But I’m also considered a freelancer, which means I can be cut with no recourse. There’s no severance, no unemployment, no nothing.
That can be a scary when you’re the soul breadwinner for a family of four.
And let’s face it, writing a Substack doesn’t take a huge amount of time. I write a post per day during the week, generally, and alternate which are free and which are paid in some manner. I did share the stories on Facebook and Twitter, but since no one ever clicked them from those places, I stopped bothering.
Still, marketing is the hard part, and I’m making it my goal for this next year to figure out some way to get a handle on it and grow even further. With luck, I’ll knock in out of the park well before this time in 2022.
Of course, along those lines, I’d be remiss not to include a link and a humble request to come and check my newsletter out.
61 thoughts on “The Joys Of Running…A Substack Newsletter by Tom Knighton”
I supposed that’s a good thing since I’m the guest author, huh? 😉
One of the slowest AtH days I’ve seen…. I guess the GFM whirlwind has absorbed all excitement for itself.
But Sarah also hasn’t posted this on Facebook yet, so there are a lot of people who may not realize this post exists.
I was out taking a walk and came back to my internet being flaky.
Clearly it should have used a dandruff shampoo, then.
I don’t think I’ll try pouring shampoo into the router or cable modem – yet. If they keep misbehaving, I might consider it.
Yeah, in hindsight, that’s probably not a good Plan “A”.
I get an e-mail notice when she posts it to WordPress.
I suspect a number of folks do, but others probably just look for it on social media.
Personally, I tend to avoid social(ist) media.
I just check the blog every morning. I start with Dilbert, then the ILOH, then the Evil but Beautiful Space Princess. Sometimes I am rewarded for my faithfulness. Sometimes my hopes are cruelly dashed. But I rarely miss a post that way. 🙂
Long days on my end.
Huh. I’d had your old blog in my RSS feed, but of course that’s been dead a while and until today I didn’t know about the Substack column. (It does RSS too, which I prefer because everything autosorts, and it keeps the huge pile of subs out of my inbox.)
Many thanks, Your Tankness 😉 This is interesting. I’d wondered how Substack was working out for you.
I’ll admit that I wish it were working better, but that’s just because I’d love to do nothing but write my newsletter full-time. 🙂
What else do you write?
Sorry, I just saw this.
My “day job” is writing at Bearing Arms, a Second Amendment site that I’ve been contributing to for a little over four years now. 🙂
Glad to see ‘behind the curtain’ so to speak. Thanks for the update, and glad it’s working out *for forms of working out. Marketing sucks… I’m lousy at it too!
That’s seems to be the perpetual problem for writers, isn’t it?
That’s because they’re writers, though, right? If you were into marketing, you’d be doing that somewhere else, instead. Writers write. Then they try to figure out how to get paid for it. Marketing is not a common writer-adjacent skillset.
It’s really not, apparently.
Some are good at it, but I suspect they’re good at marketing and just happen to write as well, versus the other way around, but I can’t confirm that.
Dave Weber apparently had a family background in ad copy.
To me, it does look like there is an overlap in skills.
I do very much find marketing strange and incomprehensible.
I’d say a marketing whiz trying to write would be worse than a writer trying to market.
We expect and desire writers of fiction to “lie” to us.
And we’d like it if marketeers could be bothered to NOT lie.
Personalty I think the whole writing shebang is a 21st century industry running on a late20th century economic track. It’s time to bring back the nickle news.
Shucky darn if I subscribe to you, if I VIP PJMed., subscribe the North Pole weekly and even a few other reads I like and pay my heating bill I’d have nothing left over for essentials like beer and booze.
On the other hand, just read your ‘Why Our Society Is Well And Truly Doomed’, Now if I just had a digital change purse I’da been happy to drop 2 cents, a nickle, maybe even a dime to read it and I’d possibly be back at least twice or thrice a week with my 2 cents, a nickle, maybe even a dime looking for more.
I suspect whoever markets such a change purse, skimming a minuscule fraction of a cent off each exchange, no woke strings attached, would create a sea change in the industry, provide writers a fair return for their efforts and, and, and be able to afford the two masted sailer he always wanted.
Someone today described the paid subscribers at Substack as the superfans, and I think that’s probably not too far off to some degree. While it’s not the money of the “thousand true fans” people talk about, they’re people dedicated to giving you a chunk of change. Most folks aren’t going to want to pay out that much, which is fine.
That’s why I have a good percentage still for free. 🙂
I have noticed that problem, too. Media is getting divided up into dozens of little locked rooms, and before you can open the door you have to pay for everything in the room, even though there are usually only a couple of things you’re interested in.
I got a free preview week of Disney + and after spending half an hour picking through it, there was nothing I wanted to watch even for free.
“What do you want, you moon-faced assassin of joy?”
Reminds me of the cable TV “channel package”, where you pay for all this cruft you don’t want to get what you want. Best thing about Amazon streaming is that you can avoid a lot of that.
The big problem with Microtransactions is the overhead. A single credit card swipe is 35 cents plus a percentage (Depending on the volume of business you do) of 2-5% IIRC. Those fees come out of what the merchant gets, so a small transaction could actually be a negative. Paypal is similar.
One workaround would be having a site like Substack take a large deposit and convert it into Tokens, and awarding them for reads across the whole site. But then you run into the same issue you started with, not wanting to make a big investment for articles.
I wish Substack’s editor was a littttttle bit more feature-rich, but on the whole I find it refreshing to have run into a model that’s so strongly writing-focused. The big winners there definitely appear to be writing nonfiction; I know some people who are experimenting with it for serialized fiction but Patreon still appears to be winning that arena match.
I can see a lot of ways fiction writers can make use of it, but yeah, so far that doesn’t seem to be happening all that much. Still, serialized fiction is an interesting idea there.
I’ve been thinking about it today because I used to make good(ish) money serializing fiction. I gave it up for economic reasons, but I see other authors doing well with it via Patreon now.
(I still think it doesn’t work for my current business model, but I’m always watching to see what other authors are succeeding with.)
Substack might could stand to borrow from Royal Road. It has a decent enough platform for fiction writers. Built in Patreon, PayPal, and Donate buttons, if you want to use them. You can tag your story in several dozen different ways, from fantasy to multiple PoV to romance and so on. You can schedule chapter drops ahead of time. You can add tables and graphics pretty easily. Covers aren’t too hard set up.
Your fans can drop edit suggestions hid by spoiler tags in the comment section, so you can do quick fixes on the fly. The main fiction page for each piece has something similar to the also bot from Amazon- stuff other people who liked this story read and rated. Has a review section similar to Amazon, too, but better: detailed reviews can rate everything from style and story to grammar and characterization within the overall rating.
If your story appears anywhere else, they’ll want you to notify them and submit a request ahead of time. They don’t like plagiarists. If you’re selling your work elsewhere, Amazon is going to be stricter than RR though.
Yeah, I don’t think that’s the model Substack wants. They don’t want ‘reader involvement’ in the way Royal Road does. RR tries to reel people in by making them feel engaged in the creation process, real-time. Substack is more of a ‘finished/polished publication, with stately discussion section’ sort of site. 🙂
Which militates against the episodic style of fiction publication that RR is built on, yeah. Makes sense for them when you put it that way. If Substack wants to define themselves specifically as a publication medium, they’ll want a more magazine/newspaper style.
Full disclosure, I hated working for newspapers and magazines and got away from it as fast as I could back in my twenties. Journalists especially back twenty some odd years ago. Knowing how the sausage is made even a little bit put me off anything that even smells of the same structure, so maybe Substack shouldn’t take my advice after all! *grin*
I use it for my newsletter.
I have been thinking about moving my newsletter off its current platform too, and substack was one of the choices. (How nice is that? Go from ‘pay to send a newsletter’ to ‘get paid to send a newsletter.’)
well, I don’t get paid, because I haven’t activated paid subscriptions, but it was easy and free.
Heh, I miss your LiveJournal….
Livejournal was a great platform. It’s a pity almost no one’s on it anymore.
LJ did a fantastic job of shooting themselves in all feet with issues not of reliability, but of simply telling the truth. Then the sale to a Russin organization, and the Russian “we can censor you or worse if we don’t like what you say about us” law, well, is anyone surprised people fled? And so many fell for that FB thing (Nuke it. Nuke it again. Then get SERIOUS about ridding the earth of the infested area), alas.
And it’s one of those platforms that’s very vulnerable to ‘if there isn’t a critical mass, no one stays.’ LJ’s great strength was its comment section. Once you lose the people to have lively conversations with, it’s done.
Have you looked into Amazon’s fiction serializing platform? (Vellum??)
Thought that was Mac only? I believe Atticus would be the one you want for PC if you like Vellum and don’t write on a Mac, but Amanda would probably be the one to ask that.
Not Vellum. I don’t remember what it is.
Vella. A friend has been having some success with serializing a novel on it. I haven’t asked her about details (she’s in the middle of a move from California to Arizona), but her experience has been positive enough that I’ve seriously considered serializing one or another novels I have sitting around in various states of revision.
Nah, the economics of it are not compelling.
Oh, is THAT what Vella is? They promote it endlessly but fail to say WHAT IT IS!
And also… Amazon. Yeah, I know, but I don’t need to hand them ALL the power!
I can see an author who writes a lot about the craft of writing doing pretty well with Substack, though. But as for serials, I really do think it can work, but no one has made it yet, so like you, I’m watching.
tbh, i had to make myself read this because the title made me not want to… to me, running is pain and is reserved for emergencies (like, omg if i don’t run a little that car will it me)
I actually like running, but cut me some slack. I needed to have some fun with it. 😛
I’m one of your subscribers but I didn’t know you were on substack. You show up in my mail box.
I read several people on substack- irregularly. Haven’t subscribed to any. For a reasonable fee- I would subscribe to substack, then they could split my money up to each author I read. let’s say $!0 a month. I read 2 columns of yours, two of Alex Berenson. You each get $5 minus their skim. Let’s say I read one by Thomas Wictor. (He’s not on substack- haven’t found him lately…) You each get $4, he gets $2. The programming for that should be comparatively easy. Popular colum nists make a bunch, not so popular, not so much. With the booty decided only by PAID substack members viewing.
About $25 a month for the daily newspaper, delivered. $50. for 6 months (full price) for digital only. And I get what they want to show me. I don’t subscribe. So $10. a month would be reasonable. Don’t know if substack is going to change it’s model, but if they did- I’d go for it.
I have one paid digital subscription- to comics.com. Daily comics delivered to my inbox? Yeah, worth it! $14.99 a year for the comics I want.
Thank you, I was happy to see this article today. I’m looking toward retirement in a couple of years but my earlier attempts have failed because I didn’t have anything useful to do. I was thinking on writing an economics newsletter and substack had shown up in my research. Good to get a view of how it works.
There are real possibilities, to say the least. This isn’t horribly in-depth on how it works, of course, but it’s not overly difficult.
I say give it a try. 🙂
“I did share the stories on Facebook and Twitter, but since no one ever clicked them from those places, I stopped bothering.” Made my day. I stopped using Facebook a long time ago, and I never ‘connected’ with Twitter, so I feel so validated right now.
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