Is your newsletter fully yours? Before starting one, consider how independent you want to be

May 8, 2020

Substack on a screen

I love newsletters. I have five subscribers to the 29 Sunset newsletter as of this writing, and, as a writer, I love that this message goes directly to your inbox, where you’re notified of its existence and can read it at your leisure on the device of your choosing.

There’s something about email newsletters that feels more personal than when I choose to visit a website and browse its offerings, perhaps because email is a deeply personal medium, a platform where I’ve been trained to think of every message as being specifically for me, because that’s how it was in 1995 when I got my first email address. Of course, I get messages from companies trying to get me to buy things, my doctors’ health network sends me updates that I can’t figure out how to stop, and I know that all the newsletters to which I’m subscribed go to many other people, too. But this feeling that each email I receive was meant for me persists.

Newsletters have been having a moment the past couple years. At a time when the journalism industry has hemorrhaged money and jobs, a whole bunch of professional writers seemed to realize at the same time that instead of trying to start independent blogs, they could cut out most of their administrative costs and energy (or take a pass on learning a new medium like podcasting) by promoting and publishing personal email newsletters that allowed them to send messages directly to readers on an ubiquitous and stable platform.

More attractive, though, is that sites like Substack and Patreon have created simple ways for individuals to charge for access, and a few people have, so far, managed to make a living on those subscription fees. Others, like Dave Pell, whose NextDraft newsletter predates the current boom, and other, more corporate-inclined publications, have sponsors for their content.

But there’s one big problem with where independent newsletters are going that I think those publishers would be well-advised to consider: Right now, under the model most of them are using, their content lives on another entity’s URL and their design is so limited as to be effectively branded by the platform. Yes, the decentralized nature of email newsletters means archives are less important because the content also lives in multiple Gmail inboxes and archives, and sharing is as easy as forwarding. However, don’t you want your publication to be as unique as you are?

Looking even further ahead, we’ve seen a major problem emerge with Facebook, and now Medium, where universal design across a given platform stifles signals about which sources are authoritative and which are not. I can envision a world where one or two newsletter services become preferred choices for both individuals with tiny followings and large organizations, flattening the playing field but also doing readers a disservice by making it harder to discern which publications are built upon what kinds of trust.

29 Sunset lives on a URL I pay less than $20 per year to own, and every post is fully available on the public web because I’m aiming for maximum discoverability and access. If a reader want to treat it like a blog, they can.

The newsletter portion is powered by Mailchimp and simply pulls the blog’s RSS feed. I chose it because its free tier provides a lot of simple customization options while allowing me to put all my writing on my own URL, with the Blogger CMS. If you’re reading this via email, you see the header with subscription information and the footer with links to recent missives. That said, while it looks different enough from other publications using Mailchimp, I’m no designer and so I haven’t built a unique branding system, thus, I still think there’s an essential similarity akin to that of sports team uniforms made by the same manufacturer in the same template. Ideally, newsletter design would be as varied as website design, with as many different looks as there are purposes for newsletters. For what it’s worth, NextDraft uses (used?) a bespoke WordPress and Mailchimp integration, which is more sophisticated than my setup, but is still, at core, similar in that Pell posts once and distribution processes take care of the rest.

As best I can tell, if I wanted to put up a paywall on my own site, I’d probably use WordPress. But it would probably make more sense to simply post snippets to the public website and make the newsletter a paid product. Mailchimp has integrations that allow publishers to run a paid newsletter, which costs the same 10% of subscription fees that Substack charges, though once a publisher gains more than 2,000 subscribers, it’s necessary to move to a paid tier that starts at $10 per month, which I think of as the cost of customization. If I wanted to monetize, I could also keep everything totally free and simply ask for money through Memberful or another patronage system, which is how the membership system works.

Knowing what little I do about web design and management, I suspect it would be a massive project for, say, Substack to build the kind of design options Mailchimp has. At the same time, Mailchimp has a super-simplified newsletter product, TinyLetter, and while it seems natural that they’d allow people to charge for access to those newsletters, that might also be a massive job to implement. Thus, there’s no obvious choice for people who want more customization options, and simplicity of use, and to charge for access.

All that’s to say that if you’re an individual looking to start your own newsletter right now, and you care about owning every element of your publication, it’s neither hard nor expensive to set up a blog that feeds a free newsletter distributor. If you want to get paid, that’s also not all that hard, since at that point you’d simply convert your website to a landing page that pushes subscriptions and switch to publishing directly in your Mailchimp template, or whatever other service you use.

In the end, I encourage newsletter publishers to think about the long-term effects of punting on the bulk of their publications’ branding. Put as much as you can into making your publication more fully yours, and not just another offering in the [insert platform name] galaxy of newsletters.