Freelance writing can be a great side hustle, but it can also be a massive hassle.
You have to pitch editors, sign contracts and chase invoices — on top of, you know, actually writing. But what if you could skip all that and just… write?
Substack is an email newsletter platform with a twist: It allows you to charge a subscription fee. That means you can write and publish whatever you want while giving your audience a way to pay you.
Writer Jen Billock has been able to use Substack to turn her food-and-witchcraft newsletter, Kitchen Witch, into a way to make some extra cash. In her first month, she gained over 250 subscribers, around 8% of which pay $5 per month for a premium subscription.
Billock recruits other writers to produce one newsletter a week, then sends them out to her subscribers.
“I love writing about witchcraft, but I’m not gonna write about it for free,” she said. “So one of my goals was to provide an outlet for people like me: who are writers, who are witches, who want to write about the topic, but don’t want to spend time writing for nothing.”
Setting up a Substack newsletter is easy and free.
1. Choose a niche.
Many of the top newsletters on Substack focus on a specific topic, like China, climate change or productivity. But if you don’t want to be limited to one topic, don’t worry. Some popular newsletters are writers showcasing their writing.
2. Set up your newsletter.
Once you know what you want to write about, it’s time to set up your Substack. To start, you have to choose a URL where your newsletter archive is hosted. From there, you can mess with various other settings, like who is allowed to comment.
3. Start writing!
Now onto the most important part: writing your newsletter! Substack has an intuitive word processor built in to their website where you can write and format a post. You can also get support for embedding for photo, video and audio in your newsletter. Here’s a quick guide to how to use Substack’s editor.
4. Proofread your work.
This is not optional.
“If I’m reading and things are spelled wrong… I just can’t, it’s too distracting,” Billock said.
Double-check your formatting, too; there are more than enough ugly newsletters in the world. You want to make sure everything looks polished before you schedule your newsletter to go out to your readers.
5. Remember what your audience is there for.
Focus your content around your editorial vision. If your newsletter is about witchcraft, don’t send out a random newsletter about pet care.
6. Stick to a schedule.
Create an editorial calendar and schedule posts in advance. It keeps you honest and gives your readers something to look forward to.
7. Spread the word.
Make sure people know about your newsletter. You can import existing email contacts, like friends and family interested in keeping up with your work, into the platform. You can post it on social media, advertise it online, and connect with other newsletter writers for cross-promotion.
You’ve set up a newsletter, told the whole world about it and — yes! — gained a hundred or so subscribers. Now it’s time to think about getting paid.
By default, all your newsletters are sent out for free, so to make money, you’ll need to earn subscription revenue. There are a few ways to do this:
- Paid subscription with no extra content: If you want to give people the option to support your work but don’t want to keep any of your content behind a paywall, you can allow paid subscriptions as a way to show support.
- All content is exclusive to paying subscribers: On the other end of the spectrum, some newsletters are totally exclusive to paying subscribers. If people want to see your writing, they have to fork out the cash.
- Some content is exclusive to paying subscribers: The middle ground is offering some exclusive content for paying subscribers while still sending out a free newsletter. Most newsletters go this route. The free content acts as an advertisement, attracting more subscribers, some of whom will (hopefully) upgrade to the paid plan later on.
Don’t worry if you don’t get a lot of paid subscribers right away. Substack estimates that only about 5-10% of subscribers choose to go paid.
Now, that may seem small, but those numbers can add up. If you have 500 subscribers, and 50 of them opt to pay $5 per month, that’s $250 gross revenue per month. After Substack’s 10% fee and Stripe’s credit card fee of 2.9% + $.30, that’s around $200.
Depending on where you live, you might have to pay income tax — let’s say 20%. So if you spend 10 hours a month on your paid newsletter, you’re working for about $18 per hour. Not bad.
- A flexible, user-friendly platform: Drag-and-drop tools make it easy to incorporate images and audio files into your newsletter. You can format a professional, attractive newsletter in about 5 minutes on Substack.
- No experience necessary: As a freelance writer, you usually need to convince a client to buy your writing before it ever sees publication. With Substack, the only people you have to convince are your readers, who can subscribe or unsubscribe at will. And for emerging writers, launching a Substack not only gets you clips (writing samples you can use to get more work) but also the potential to get paid right away.
- Write about whatever you want: Substack newsletters cover every niche imaginable, from data to witchcraft. If there isn’t a paying market for what you’re passionate about, create one.
- No audience, no money: Building a mailing list from scratch takes time and effort. Convincing them to fork over extra money is no small ask, either.
- Minimum subscription of $5 per month: It’s particularly tough to get people to spend $5 per month on one newsletter, which is Substack’s minimum monthly price. While it’s possible to set a lower annual price, the relatively high monthly minimum may prevent some subscribers from opting in.
- Fees, fees, and more fees: Substack’s 10% cut, Stripe’s 2.9% and $.30 per transaction fee, and income tax are all coming out of your monthly earnings. That’s quite the chunk of change.
The truth is, Substack isn’t right for everyone. If you’re an established writer making good, steady money already, there’s no need to invest time in building a subscriber list. And if you hate writing, there’s plenty of other side hustles to choose from.
Substack can work well for many people, though, including:
- The emerging writer who doesn’t mind writing for peanuts at first: If you love writing but lack experience, Substack’s not a bad place to begin. If you gain at least a few paying subscribers, it can be like an apprenticeship: You make a little money while you learn the trade. Then you can send your best work to editors when you’re ready to advance.
- The committed hobbyist with a big audience: If you have 10,000 followers on your beekeeping/taxidermy/antique car Instagram, you should absolutely give Substack a try. Fans of niche hobbies are more likely to pay for a subscription.
- The established writer with editing skills: If you have professional writing experience and room in your schedule, Substack can help you make money on your own terms. You can even grow your publication by soliciting other writers’ work.
Don’t forget to have fun! Writing and publishing work you love is a pretty sweet gig.
“I really am enjoying it,” says Billock.
Ciara McLaren is a freelance writer with bylines in HuffPost, Business Insider, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work on — you guessed it — Substack.