Newsletters have been around forever. But every couple of years they become the hot new thing.
Thanks to services like Mailchimp then TinyLetter and now Substack, writers who have wanted to reach audiences via email can do so in an easy way. Just sign up and start writing. The services take care of the rest
But just because you can start a newsletter doesn’t mean you should.
I’ve been grappling with the idea of starting a newsletter on and off for years now And through this process, I have investigated and experienced all the advantages and pitfalls of writing one. So I thought it might be time to write down what I have learned.
Why do you want to start a newsletter?
In my endless hours of monitoring writer twitter, I have seen many different reasons why people want to start a newsletter:
“I miss blogging.”
“I need to build an audience in advance of my book release.”
“I have this one weird obsession. Do you think people would be interested in that?”
A combination of a desire or compulsion to write is one of the drivers behind the newsletter talk. But I think a lot of it has to do with the fame and money a handful of newsletter writers have managed to generate.
The really successful newsletters — Morning Brew, NextDraft, BrainPickings, TheSkimm — were all started by regular people with a point of view who made a plan and kept at it. These newsletters have been able to make money through ads and affiliate programs.
Then there are the countless newsletters on Substack, which lets writers charge a subscription fee. Several high-profile journalists have recently left their staff writing gigs to start newsletters on Substack and are already making more than they did at their staff jobs. The once-popular Today in Tabs just announced that it is returning as a subscription fee-based newsletter on Substack.
So what is your motivation to write a newsletter? Do you have the time to write consistently for days, months, weeks, years? Is there a topic that you can write passionately about? Or are you just looking at the successful newsletters and thinking “I can do that, too!”?
You can, of course! But it’s easy to confuse your desire to write with a desire for fame and fortune.
No matter if you want to become a best-selling novelist, a rock star, or a successful newsletter writer, you have to put in the work.
Still, most newsletters fail — even if you do put in the work. Sorry to be a bummer.
Aren’t newsletters just blogs?
As I mentioned above, a lot of people I have seen that love reading and/or writing newsletters also say that they miss blogging. So why not just start a blog?
It occurred to me that many would-be newsletter starters used to have blogs but gave up on them when they became uncool or hard to manage (e.g., constant updates, plugins, crashes, expense). Plus, people started “micro-blogging” — i.e., writing all their deep thoughts on twitter, Facebook, etc. — which led many to abandon their blogs in favor of these free services.
If you still have a blog like I do, I don’t recommend starting a new newsletter. Of course, you can and should continue collecting email addresses from your audience.
But I have found that, for my needs and time constraints, it’s better to continue to write on a platform that I can control (my self-hosted WordPress sites) and let MailChimp send out an RSS newsletter of my posts.
It’s not a sexy answer. And I realize that I am a dinosaur for still having not one but two blogs. But I also realized for myself that I would be stretching myself too thin if I blogged AND wrote a separate newsletter.
(Although I am still thinking about starting a no-context world music/ international hip hop newsletter. Heaven help me.)
Do people really want more email?
A thing that baffles me about the success of newsletters is that most people I know, including myself, are overwhelmed by their inboxes. Do you really want to contribute to the clutter? Or do you think you can rise above?
Email is a platform, explains friend and newsletter expert Annemarie Dooling. I generally love all of Anna’s takes on newsletters and she has proven time and time again that she knows what she is talking about.
With so many things competing for people’s time and attention, alerts and transactional emails that deliver headlines and brief but important information are going to be more useful than ever in crowded inboxes.
One way to combat the creep is to use Unroll, which lets you gather all your newsletters into one email. It also helps you unsubscribe to ones you no longer want.
Substack has also launched its own RSS reader. But it’s only for organizing Substack newsletter subscriptions. If you like RSS readers, Feedly is still out there. And maybe if we pray hard enough, Google Reader will return one day.
I’m going to start a newsletter anyhow, despite your wise words. So what service should I use?
Mailchimp lets you do RSS feeds and design fancy templates. It is a robust marketing machine. Sometimes too robust. Meanwhile, Tiny Letter is more intimate and user-friendly, like writing an email to a friend.
Substack and TinyLetter are easy to use. Both interfaces feel like blogging or emailing, which in turn makes them feel like you are having a conversation with readers. The main difference is that Substack allows writers to charge a subscription fee if they want.
There are a whole host of other newsletter services out there. Constant Contact has been around a while and now offers an integration with WordPress called Creative Mail.
There’s also SendInBlue, Zapier, etc. I’m not going to list them all here. But the bottom line is that you have tons of options, some free and some with a fee.
I use MailChimp almost exclusively for my Italofile newsletter Italy In Your Inbox because, as I mentioned above, it allows me to feed my blog RSS into a template and automatically send out my latest posts in a more visually-appealing way. But, if you are writing a newsletter from scratch, TinyLetter and Substack seem more attractive for their ease of use.
What are some good newsletters to follow?
New newsletters are popping up every day. But there are a few, in addition to the big ones listed above, that I actually open on occasion:
- Statesider, run by my travel writing friends Pam Mandel, Andy Murdock, and Douglas Mack, rounds up the best travel stories about the USA.
- The Media Nut, by Josh Sternberg, looks at the state of the media and advertising.
- The Department of Salad is a newsletter by Emily Nunn and its all about salads and how to make them. It’s much “meatier” than it sounds!
- Craft Talk, by author Jami Attenberg, grew out of her popular motivational newsletter for writers called 1000 Words of Summer.
- The Paris Review has several lovely newsletters to help you keep up with art, poetry, literature, and other high-minded topics featured on its website.
Starting a newsletter can be fun. It may even lead somewhere if you keep at it. At the very least, it can be a great way to begin or maintain a writing practice and get feedback or to share a passion with like-minded individuals.
Figure out what you want to do and do it. Find your voice or marketing angle. And do it consistently. Start a newsletter or go retro and start a blog. Whatever. The tools are there and waiting for you.