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.

Preemptively Apologizing

I’m publishing a very grumpy article about Substack later this week, and I feel guilty. (Edit: the article is now published, available here)

It is too easy to be mean on the internet, and too hard to actually build something. Even if the target is a company, it’s a company made up of humans, and built by human effort.

So why am I publishing it at all?

First of all, I think I’m right, and in the US, “truth is an absolute defense against defamation”.

But truth alone is not sufficient to justify meanness. As Nietzsche put it years before anyone uttered the words “post-truth”,  “The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it… The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering”.

Thus, the much more important defence is that I think my criticism is important. It may do some small part to ensure our future is filled with interesting writing, and I think it ought to be said.

But still, I feel guilty.

So the next 3 posts will be a kind of extended apology, covering:

  • Why Substack is not the harbinger of end times
  • Why Substack can’t be judged by its top writers
  • Why culture always appears to be decaying, but never actually does

I also plan to think very hard about and enumerate a clear set of standards for civility.

Finally, I will take the time to build something. It will probably be small, and will not set the future direction of the blog, but it’s important to occasionally do purely constructive, creative and generative work simply to remember how painful it is.

MR VS HN

Last night, my earlier post on polymaths was featured on Marginal Revolution. What followed were some of the nicest comments I’ve ever seen on the internet:

Over email

  • I came across your blog after seeing the recommendation in Tyler Cowen’s post. I accidentally read (almost) every post. I admire your writing style.
  • I’m very curious who you are and what you do. I love your blog—it’s brilliant—and would like to work with you in some professional capacity.
  • I enjoy the way you think and the way you write, so you have my email.

And from the comments:

  • Just in case you haven’t clicked on the link above labeled "Beware the Casual Polymath, it takes you to a blog called Applied Divinity Studies that is really terrific. Highly recommended!
  • “From Beware the Casual Polymath (excellent link btw):”

Around 9 hours later, it was reposted to Hacker News where it’s accrued 150 points and 75 comments. Some of them are mean, but the real surprise is that many of them accuse me of being a bot. In other words, I fail the Turing test.

Over email:

  • Can you tell me how you’re doing it? A retrieval-based language model, perhaps?

And from the comments:

  • I’m about 95% certain this article was written with GPT or some similar algorithm.
  • Probably machine generated.
  • Would a human write that crap or are you shouting at a computer generated thingie?
  • It’s absolute rubbish. This is an experiment.
  • This looks like an experiment. Please de-cloak and explain.
  • Assuming this isn’t some GPT-3 garbage, why does any of this matter?
    This is an experiment (I think) along the lines of the Turing test.

I don’t spend enough time on Hacker News to know if this is a common reaction or if there’s something uniquely bot-like about my writing. Maybe the unintended consequence of GPT-3 is that it makes people deeply distrustful of each other.

Upon closer examination, 5 of the 8 comments are from the same user. In one sense, this is comforting, at least there are fewer people. But in another sense, it’s much more worrying. When it comes to negative reactions, I would rather have 8 mild ones than 1 strong one.