Should you start a Substack? 5 tips before you launch
To Substack or not to Substack, that is the question. (Plus, a discount code to celebrate my first year on this platform!)
First things first. This newsletter marks my one-year anniversary on Substack! I’ve been having such a good and meaningful time here, and I’m endlessly grateful for your enthusiasm and support around my efforts to make writing and publishing more fun and less opaque. I have big plans for the year ahead and I hope you’ll stay a part of those big plans.
To celebrate my Substack anniversary, I’m offering a special discount to subscribers who haven’t yet made the leap to paid. Click below to redeem!
Now back to our regular programming.
There’s a direct-to-TV film based on an American Girl Doll called “Grace Stirs Up Success” about a pre-teen heralded as a genius baker in her small American town by her friends and family. (She’s especially celebrated for her pineapple upside down cake.) She’s given a chance to go to Paris to further her baking prowess, and guess what? She’s considered a good baker in America, but she’s not considered a good baker in zee country of France.
As Grace gets more frustrated with the burly pastry instructor who does not like her pineapple upside down cake de tout, her grandmother (who is not French, but for some reason lives in Paris and operates a bakery there, a nearly impossible plot point because France is notoriously hostile to brick and mortar entrepreneurship), her grandmother says to her, of the burly pastry chef, “Maybe instead of trying so hard to show him what you can do, you can try to learn from him.” (Emphasis is grandma’s.)
If you want to start a Substack, or start making income from a Substack, you too have to learn from others before showing them what you can do. That is the point of today’s newsletter, but first, let’s keep talking about France a bit.
I lived in France for most of my 20s— in Paris, actually, right above the fragrant smells of Grace’s imaginary American grandparents’ American bakery. When I was there, I was constantly being told by people about all the amazing places I had to go and visit while I was in Europe. Berlin was the big thing back then—everyone was going there. Then it was Lisbon. Next up, it was Sardinia. Then it was Stockholm.
Of all these, Stockholm was the only place I went. Number one, there was a Ryan Air deal at the time that cost the same amount as a movie ticket, and number two, I had something of a personal connection to Sweden. Growing up, my best friend was Swedish. Like, very, very Swedish. They lit candles at each meal (even breakfast, which I think is more of a Danish thing but let’s just call it Scandinavian). They got rowdy at dinner and drank Schnapps and sang Swedish folk songs. And they had connections to Stockholm’s inner circle: there were a few weekends where I slept over at my best friend’s house, and the princess of Sweden was there, too.
I went back to Stockholm (and other Swedish cities) many times when I lived in Paris. I was curious about Sweden. Visiting that country helped me to understand my childhood best friend better, and it was also helping me to understand the grimness of a lot of the playwrights (Strindberg, Ibsen, Bosse) I read as a Comparative Literature major in college. I had a stake in the ground regarding my Swedish visits, if you will.
I didn’t go to Berlin. I didn’t go to Lisbon. I still haven’t been to any of these places that people told me I should visit. These days, I’m living through my twenties again with lots of people insisting where other people absolutely must go. Except now, the places are virtual. They are platforms. They’re online. Berlin is Substack. Lisbon is TikTok. Many people are going to tell you that you must go to these places—that you must be on Substack. But Substack is like Sweden was for me—it will be a more enjoyable experience if you have a reason to go there; some connection to the place. These days—when everyone and their mother (and their mother’s mother) has a newsletter, you can’t just “go to Substack.” You need preparation, you need a purpose, and you need a content calendar. If you don’t have these three things, you are going to sink to the bottom of the Substack pool.
In online forums and in my coaching work with writers, the number one question I’m hearing lately is “Should I start a newsletter?” Accordingly, I’d like to share my top tips for finding success and building readership on Substack. While my advice is specific to Substack, it holds for other newsletter platforms. (I came here from Mailchimp.) As for TikTok, we’ll have to cover that platform in a separate post. TikTok is a place I get a lot of joy from as a content consumer, but I get very little joy from trying to make content there because I don’t have five free hours a day to make cool videos.
So here we go. Lessons from the front line of a Substack ride-or-dier.