Why Are Newsletters So Hot Right Now?

It’s all about the direct connection

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook is planning a competitor to the Substack newsletter service.
  • Newsletters allow a direct connection between writer and audience—just like blogs used to.
  • Big venture-capital-backed companies aren’t the only way to make money from indie writers.
person sitting on a bench and reading a newspaper
Roman Kraft / Unsplash

As soon as anything gets popular, Facebook either buys it or copies it. This time, it’s copying paid newsletter service Substack. But why are newsletters so popular right now?

Newsletters were the OG form of internet publishing. After all, everyone has email. Recently, though, newsletters have gotten big again, and people are paying to read them. What’s the appeal? It all starts with a direct connection.

"I think newsletters are popular now in part for what they are, and for what they are not," Ryan Singel, Stanford fellow and founder and CEO of Contextly and Outpost, told Lifewire via email. "They aren't the terrible experience we all get on the web and social platforms, and they are a way to actually support writers and artists people care about, which I think has become important to a growing number of people."

Why Newsletters?

These days, we read and write on Twitter and Facebook. These platforms are limited to short snippets of text, not long, considered articles. They’re also poor places to publish long-form text. Readers don’t go to Twitter when they want a long read, and it’s so fast-moving that the good stuff just slips past.

So, writers have turned to newsletters. They’re easy to set up, and they’re speaking directly to their audience, who never misses a post.

"I think the publishing world underestimates how much loyalty readers actually have to bylines (somehow they think only columnists have followings)," says Singel.

They are a way to actually support writers and artists people care about, which I think has become important to a growing number of people.

Substack has both driven, and hopped aboard, this trend. If you set up a newsletter with Substack, you can publish for free; if you start a paid newsletter, Substack takes a 10% cut. That doesn’t seem like much if you’re just starting out, but it soon adds up.

Why, then, are writers so keen to use Substack? It could just be desperation.

"A 10% cut is hefty," journalist Sharon Geltner told Lifewire via email. "But when a reporter's income has declined to zero because she was laid off, or her publication closed; she's probably focusing on the 90% of new income she hopes to make from her own online newsletter."

"These services get away with taking big cuts of revenue because it’s easy," says Singel, "but I think their pricing models are predatory and driven by the fact these companies have billionaire investors that own large percentages of the companies and want to make their billions into more billions."

How Can Writers Make Money?

Writers want a direct connection to their audience, and they want the audience to pay them. Giving Substack a percentage is one way to do that. Another is to sign up for Patreon, a service that lets you pay a monthly fee to support an artist of any kind, and get regular articles, videos, or songs in return. But Patreon, too, is a middleperson taking a cut from what could be a direct relationship.

It's almost like the world has forgotten about blogs. Before Facebook and Twitter, we posted to blogs, and people followed us using Google Reader or another RSS reading app. The concept of blogs got usurped by big publishers, but if blogs never return, there needs to be another way to reach audiences.

person sitting on a bench writing in a notebook
Brad Neathery / Unsplash

Outpost is an upcoming service for indie creators, founded by Singel, who believes "indies should make money for indies, not billionaires." 

There are two things in the way of that, though. One is that "current tech for running a small media business is janky and unimaginative." The other is that VC-funded companies are seldom ethical, and are built to do one thing: make money for investors.

I think the publishing world underestimates how much loyalty readers actually have to bylines.

"Having built media tech for a decade now, I’ve been frustrated at how bad media tools are and how little imagination media companies have shown," said Singel. "Even in the turn to subscriptions, media companies have built out their publishing systems by gluing chopsticks to Legos. People who write and create for a living deserve better."

Everybody reads stuff on the internet. Ideally, we’d pay the writers we most enjoy directly, but who wants to do that. Some kind of intermediary will probably be required, but if it’s as predatory as Facebook, or as profit-focused as Substack, it probably won’t be good for readers or writers. Hopefully, Singel’s Outpost can fill the gap.

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