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How to make money from newsletters

HOW CAN journalists make money from email newsletters? That was the topic of July's London Freelance Branch meeting. We heard from Lauren Ravazi (www.laurenrazavi.com) whose weekly Counterflows newsletter covers "the future of work, creativity and global living".

Lauren Ravazi by Fiona Burrage

Lauren Ravazi

Lauren is a features writer, foreign reporter and a former managing editor for the future of work at Google. She opened with "a bit about my own newsletter journey".

"I've been a freelance and a remote worker for 10 years," Lauren told us, "since I was 18 and left home. As a student I started pitching into the void - having learned a lot from working on a student newsppaer." She did work for the Guardian, Vice, Wired and others. Then she was headhunted by Google - and worked up to be appointed managing editor for the future of work and digital skills for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Now she's "a writer, speaker and strategist". Her newsletter, called Counterflow, is about creativity and global living - "the topics that I drive my other half insane talking about over dinner". (See laurenrazavi.substack.com.)

At first she used the newsletter to share shorter form stuff that didn't make it into writing commissions: "I find that I experienced feelings of guilt that I wasn't publishing enough as a freelance. And I wanted to establish a sustainable writing and publishing habit. I looked at the newsletter as a way of tacking writers block - to form a writing habit."

Exit the soul-cruncher

Also, "in the corporate world you usually get what I call 'client feedback', not editorial feedback. I found it soul-destroying. It may have been well-paid but working with people who didn't really do editorial wasn't fulfilling. And then I had projects kept waiting two years for a legal department to sign off on them..."

The newsletter was "a way to remind myself to write for an audience that was my audience. At first I didn't even share it on social media because I didn't know what it was. It grew organically and by April or May I found I'd rediscovered my voice - not a brand but a voice for me. That gave me the confidence to share it online."

Today's newsletters are the "new blogs," Lauren says: a space in which people can return to the "wild creativity of the days of the Wild West of the internet. You can put anything in one."

But how does anyone find out that you've done that? "There's great value in having cheerleaders and champions. If you can get such people to recommend your newsletter, that is high-impact marketing." A lot of time people feel that you have to have a budget and to master the mysteries of online ads. But "organic" promotion is going strong at the moment. The same applies to podcasts and other forms of creative work. Lauren has managed to double her readership each month since launched the newsletter in January.

"You have to view a newsletter as the core of your work - particularly if you're doing corporate work as well." If you're interviewing people make sure to bring your newsletter in to the conversation. "I find in the world of freelancing you can feel you're jumping from one story to the next or one shift to the next. With the newsletter I feel I'm communicating with people directly - and learning from them." You can publish the same things whether you have 10 or 10,000 readers.

Newsletters are definitely a long-term project. You will not be a "unicorn" with a paying audience in a month. They are a slow-burn and back-burner thing: something to have in your toolkit.

The money side

So how do you make money with a newsletter - or "monetize" it as we seem to have to say nowadays? This can be quite confusing to outside observers. Lauren sees people doing it totally differently.

Have we heard, she asked, of Substack.com? It's been taking advantage of redundancies in our industry by providing a platform for newsletters. You can charge readers a small monthly fee to access some or all of your content. This gets rid of the intermediary. When you write for a newspaper or magazine it's not getting readers for you but for its brand. A newsletter's readers are you readers.

Counterflow on Substack

Lauren's Counterflow newsletter as it appears on Substack

You could also consider Patreon.com - which isn't newsletter-oriented. It allows people to charge small sums for access to all kinds of material.

Both of these are "plug-and-play". You could open up their websites while Lauren was speaking and create an account before she finished. They're "infrastructure" which is to say that they're not trying to sell you anything: they'll make money when you make money. At present Substack takes 10 per cent of what your readers pay.

Substack is, Lauren says, "really dedicated to writers and to building software to make what you do easier - to do things that once upon a time would have been dealt with by someone across the newsroom."

Lots of journalists are, she says, jumping ship from titles such as Rolling Stone. She referred us to Anna Codrea-Rado's newsletter The Professional Freelancer: see theprofessionalfreelancer.substack.com/. Anna uses the Substack fee model - whereas Lauren doesn't have paid subscriptions - "the actual weekly newsletter I never intend to charge for".

So why, we might ask, do we keep doing it? For the "fringe benefits". It "keeps me at the front of people's minds - I find people contacting me as a result of newsletter pieces, offering relevant work - writing commissions or consulting." It "improves my credibility in my niche - editors can see I have ideas."

Soft monetization

And there's "soft monetization - you can tell from such language I've seen in the tech world." What it means in this case is that "I do have a 'buy me a coffee' button on my newsletter from Ko-fi" In a sense Ko-fi now competes with Substack. And "these voluntary micropayments do add up."

Counterflow on Substack

Lauren's Counterflow newsletter appeals for (voluntary) support

"I didn't want to launch a paid Substack offering that forced people to make a decision to pay or go," Lauren says. "The softer route has been useful to me. It has allowed me to offer that route to the audience without losing anybody so early in my journey. Ann did her newsletter for a whole year before she launched the paid offering."

Also, Lauren "has offered Amazon affiliate links - when I recommend a book and people click through, I get something less than 50p per sale." She does not, however, recommend "planning a newsletter around affiliates. If you go into full-on marketing mode that can set you up for misery and failure."

Syndicating yourself

It turns out that some of Lauren's earliest readers are editors who are keen to licence content for their publications - which are regional or trade titles. "I had hoped that the newsletter would lead to commissions for fresh work, and I was a bit surprised to get people wanting to pay to re-use what I'd already written."

And Lauren does paid online events - talks and masterclasses. Perhaps as a result of having done Guardian masterclasses, soon after she started the newsletter she got "people looking for me to be their mentor or coach.". But ". I didn't want to build a revenue stream from one-to-one mentoring. I don't know how I feel about putting my time into that space... I find one-on-one very draining."

So instead "I launched events online when there were 5 or 10 people interested. I see the masterclasses as part of my newsletter project - as part of starting to reconnect with the industry. I have found they're a more valuable way to get people to pay into and fund my work."

Takeaways

Lauren offered a list of points to take away:

  • There is no secret magic formula for a newsletter.
  • The potential of the model is as strong as your creativity.
  • The most important part of the project is the reflection time at the beginning - what's it going to be about, then?
  • Competition is increasing very rapidly. You have to earn your place in someone's inbox - you don't have an editor putting you on a front page.
  • There are huge opportunities for niche and regional reporting. "I grew up in a village of 1000 people and if I was a teenager there now I would start a newsletter."
  • There a lot of space for experimentation and creating new niches.

She concluded with a quote from the musician Brian Eno, launching one of his projects: "get cooking; recipe to follow." You start doing it and find your feet as you go.

And of course Lauren ended with a plug: she has a freelance masterclass the Thursday after the meeting, on developing your personal brand - with a 10 per cent discount for Branch members who use code NUJ10 for The Art of Freelancing Masterclasses. There's another at the end of July.

And if your humble scribe missed any links, they're all in a Twitter thread.

Questions

One member asked: "I have newsletter based on an online mag - could I have just done the newsletter alone?"

"One of the most challenging things is to define your own journey... you need to have a vision for what you're trying to do - found intimidating when I started. The important thing is that you do your business your way." We were referred to an essay, "The Rise of the Full-Stack Freelancer.

Branch Committee member Phil Sutcliffe asked: what sort of fees do you get for licensing your newsletter items?

The answer is that it's happened two or three times - three different editors wanted piece piece - and they've paid $200 to $400 per piece. Lauren added that she's "had offers - a bit less - to run direct ads in the newsletter - but I feel a bit weird about that. But as a writer, to do something and have people come to you saying 'hey, let me pay you to use that!'... it's the dream."

Angus Batey asked what the platforms do in terms of rights (copyright) and demanding indemnities? "We often find companies seek to put all responsibility on us..."

"Platforms such as Substack are infrastructure," Lauren responded - "you're the publisher." Compare them to older platforms such as Medium.com. That now seems like part of the last generation of digital publication platforms. It commissions content from some contributors, sometimes at good rates - but if you want to make money from Medium it demands that you sign over the rights, at least in some circumstances...

With Substack, though, you're fully responsible and they don't take rights at the moment. Of course, "keep a critical eye on them, on that..." One "key thing about Substack is that you can download all your content and all your subscribers - whereas with Medium if you build up 5000 followers and then get booted off the platform for any reason, you lose everything."

We've seen the same shift in online teaching, with Masterclass insisting that everything belongs to them - and now Teachable "offers the infrastructure to start your own school".

As a newsletter grows, of course, "you have to think more like a publisher. If you don't have professional indemnity insurance you could be in trouble - if you're going to do investigatory pieces that'll piss off powerful people, you'd better get that stuff sorted upfront."

Pierre Alozie asked: how do you engage with your readers?

Each edition of the newsletter says somewhere "hit reply". That's Lauren's favourite method. "Substack offers commenting - readers can see a version of the newsletter and can leave comments. I've personally not been too enthusiastic about comments - email reply really works for me. I suppose for industry or community stuff where there's a natural conversation to he had among commenters, that it can be useful."