How to Become Famous on Substack Overnight (in Ten Years)

Also see How Substack Became Milquetoast.

So go ahead and buy that Java/Ruby/Javascript/PHP book; you’ll probably get some use out of it. But you won’t change your life, or your real overall expertise as a programmer in 24 hours or 21 days. How about working hard to continually improve over 24 months? Well, now you’re starting to get somewhere._

Peter Norvig, Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years

That right there is what it’s all about. Laboring in obscurity. Starving and struggling. The man who embraces his mediocre nothingness shines greater than any.

Keanu Reeves, Always By My Maybe

Top Substack authors are known equally for their prolific writing and meteoric success.

Take a look at the top 25 free publications. The median author joined just 12 months ago (average 17), with The Net Paper (#18) just 4 months old, and Big Technology (#16) just 5 months old. ParentData (#3) launched just 8 months ago. According to legend, Sinocism (#5 Paid) hit six figures of revenue it’s first day. Data here.

Part of this is that Substack itself is young. It’s been around for 3.5 years, so on a normal distribution, the average account would be just 21 months old. Except it’s not normal since the user base is growing quickly, skewing the distribution towards new accounts. If you double every 6 months, the median account will always be just 6 months old.

This is great news if you want to be famous overnight, with one catch: most of the top authors had a decade of experience before starting their newsletters. It’s an overnight success, 10 years in the making.

The Dispatch (#1 Paid) founding editor Jonah Goldberg has been a political pundit so long that he covered the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Even before that, he had been doing political research since at least 1992.

It’s not always this clear cut. Emily Oster (#3 Free) writes about pregnancy and parenting data. She published a book on the same subject in 2013, but completed her Ph.D dissertation in health economics in 2005, and was presumably working on it for a couple years before that. Depending on how you count it, Oster’s been working on her Substack for between 7 and 17 years.

Sometimes it’s more explicit. Bill Bishop joined Substack with 30,000 subscribers on his existing email list, Casey Newton joined with 100k Twitter Followers (historial) and 20,000 subscribers on his previous newsletter.

That’s not to say that every popular Substack author literally migrates an audience. Petition (#8 Paid) was started anonymously, so presumably there was no email list, and I have no idea how many years of expertise they had going in.

Since it’s so ambiguous, you shouldn’t take these numbers too literally, but here’s a first attempt at estimating how many years of experience top authors have, counting writing, research, and media.

Newsletter Years in writing, media or research
BIG 11
Margins 9
ParentData 7 - 17
¡Hola Papi! 6
JoeBlogs 24
The Objective 2 - 5
The Signorile Report 27
Nicole Knows 19
Alex Danco’s Newsletter 7
State of Network N/A

A lot of the numbers feel very hand-wavy, so I’m not going to take an average. Sources here.

Even accounting for the ambiguity, I’m pretty confident saying that these overnight successes tend to take ballpark 10 years, either in building a mailing list, gaining expertise, or struggling in obscurity writing words no one will ever see.

A few takeaways:

You don’t need to be in the top 25 to make a living.
Substack doesn’t share subscriber counts for free newsletters, but the top paid ones are in the thousands and tens of thousands. I’m fairly confident they’re counting only the paid subscribers. Some of these are $5/month, but others are as much as $49!

I don’t know what the drop off curve looks like or what the corresponding ranking is, but if you have relatively humble 500 subscribers paying you $10/month, that’s still $60,000/year, plus significant growth potential.

Substack is probably not the harbinger of end times.
I honestly think this weakens some of my other criticism, and strengthens Substack’s argument that it is genuinely a place for writers to achieve financial stability and own their relationship with readers. This isn’t some horrible new wave distinct from all previous media, it’s just a better format for the same authors.

Tangential experience goes a long way.
The top 10 authors all had substantial experience, but it often wasn’t literally writing a previous newsletter. A lot of Matt Stoller’s work was in policy advising and research. The most inspirational example is The Objective (#6 Free) started by Gabe Schneider. He is a professional journalist, but graduated from college just 2 years ago! When I say he has “5 years” of experience, 3 of those are from editing his school newspaper.

But of course, no matter where you’re writing, the biggest takeaway is to set realistic expectations. You probably won’t became famous overnight, and if you do, it will probably be for a bad reason.

[EDIT 10/17/2020]

In retrospect, here’s the most notable thing I neglected to mention:

  • #1 Paid is The Dispatch, a 15 person full-time publication run by people with decades of experience.
  • #2 Paid is Heather Cox Richardson, a Professor of History who also came out with a new book this year, and is, as far as I can tell, running this $600k+ ARR newsletter as a side project.

That’s mind blowing to me.

I didn’t look into every author’s employment status, but two others jump to mind:

  • Emily Oyster (#3 Free) is also a professor, actively publishes research, and had a new book published last year.
  • Alex Danco (#9 Free) works full-time at Shopify.

The obvious objection is that their full-time roles actually enhance their popularity, but I have a hard time beliving that. If you’re optimizing for newsletter success, I don’t think the distinction between Professor and Former Professor is worth 40+ hours a week.

You could convince me that Oster is just a very alturistic person, but what about Danco? The Dispatch is reportedly doing $2M ARR, and I’m sure it’s growing very quickly. I would be surprised if Danco couldn’t quit his job, write full-time, monetize, and come out ahead within a year.

So either he intrinsically prefers working to writing, or he’s being paid very very well at his day job, or he believes, as I described in Quitting Won’t Save You, that quitting won’t make him much more productive at writing.