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Dispatches from the serial frontier
Reflections on six months of publishing on Substack
I posted my first Substack newsletter on July 12 2021. Those first half dozen newsletters were fumbles in the dark, as I tried to figure out what format best suited Substack.
I’d just shifted over from Mailchimp and it took some mental adjustment to move away from the more corporate-style, over-designed newsletters I used to erratically send towards something more personable and long-form. Substack, it turns out, works more like an old fashioned letter, or a long-form magazine article. It took me a while to figure it out, but Substack takes the communications functionality of Mailchimp, then mixes it with blogging and the simplicity of OG Medium. It’s not quite a blog, it’s not quite a traditional promotional newsletter.
After those early experiments, it wasn’t until September 2021 that I started using Substack in a more strategic manner. I switched to weekly newsletters: one on Mondays for writing tips and one on Fridays for new chapters of my fiction. It was more writing than I’d ever committed to and was more than a little intimidating. Would I be able to keep up the pace?
Six months later, I’m still going. So far, so good. In the interests of transparency and hopefully being useful to other writers, I thought I’d share thoughts on the experience.
I’ve gained subscribers
Fortunately, I’ve gained subscribers while writing on Substack. When I first started writing here I ported over 129 subscribers from my old Mailchimp-powered newsletter, who I’d slowly accumulated over the course of about eight years. In the six months since starting to write on Substack I’ve grown that subscriber base to over 600.
Here’s a handy graph:
You can see the subscribers starting to grow slightly around September 2021, which I began writing and sending out regular newsletters. The sudden leap in October marks the first time I ran a book promo on BookFunnel, which was more of a success than I’d anticipated.
What is BookFunnel and how does it work?
If there’s a definition of a win-win scenario, BookFunnel might be it. It’s good for writers and it’s good for readers. The idea is that authors join group promos, giving away a book, and during the promotional period help to get the word out.
This has a natural amplification effect. During the promo (usually a month), every single writer helps to promote it. For example, I’ll mention the promo in a couple of newsletters and over on Twitter. Given that there are often hundreds of books in the promos, that’s a lot of writers sending the word out to a lot of potential readers.
Readers can then explore the promo and download any freebies they like the look of, the only requirement being that they sign up to the author’s newsletter as part of the process. It’s very transparent, readers can see what they’re getting into, and there’s no need for them to pay or commit to anything else.
No individual author has to spam the promo to their readers, as the promo relies primarly on the cumulative effect of all the writers doing some promo. Readers only download the books they are interested in.
Promos are themed and genre-focused, which works well for the sort of fiction I write. There’s no bait-and-switch going on, which is of course essential. The hope is that after enjoying the free book, those readers will also enjoy my other writing. As they’re now subscribed to the newsletter (hello!), they’ll get my writing into their inboxes. If they change their mind at any time, they can simply unsubscribe.
Like I say, it’s a win-win for everyone.
The cost to authors is minimal. I pay $10 per month, and I always have at least one promo running at any given time. The ROI is significantly better than I’d expect from more traditional forms of advertising, I’d say it’s also more reader-friendly overall and there’s also the opportunity for some networking with other participating writers.
Oh, if you’re reading this before the end of May 2022, you can check out the current promo I’m taking part in, called Addictive Thriller Freebies. Lots of crime thriller material to choose from.
Outside of the BookFunnel-powered subscriber jumps, I’ve had steady increases. After sending out a newsletter I usually see some new subscribers. I’ve had some other fortunate boosts, such as when Kieron Gillen mentioned my newsletter in his considerably bigger newsletter.
That’s an example worth digging into a bit, actually. The reason he linked to me was because of this post:
It’s a particularly hard-working newsletter. It’s useful in itself, providing readers with a list of really good pods to listen to. It’s also a not-so-subtle flex from me: look at all these super talented people I got to speak to! It was also an opportunity to poke those highly successful writing superstars, in the hope that they might return the favour - as Kieron did.
Given that I still tried to make the post as useful as possible, it hopefully wasn’t an entirely cynical and self-serving exercise.
People want the facts, not the fiction
Thus far, the non-fiction writing tips newsletters have received more likes and comments than the chapters of Tales from the Triverse. This is somewhat disappointing, but is also entirely to be expected.
The writing tips and techniques are (hopefully) useful for all writers. The fiction is only of interest to people who like genre fiction and my way of writing it. Inevitably the former has a bigger audience.
It’s easier to promote the writing techniques posts, because they’re designed to have definite value. Read this → get better at writing. The fiction doesn’t have that same equation.
Online serial fiction has always been a slow burn. At least, unless you’re very lucky. Most online fiction builds gradually over time, including all of my previous books on Wattpad. A Day of Faces has over 180,000 reads but for most of its initial run it was closer to 1,000. Patience is needed.
Getting people to pay for fiction is super hard
Obviously nobody in their right mind looks to fiction writing as a way to make a living. However, part of my reason for moving to Substack was to see if I could make the case for my fiction having more than entertainment value, to show that it had more value than a random internet free thing.
So far, it’s an open question. I do have some paid subscribers (THANK YOU. YOU ARE AMAZING) but it’s slow going. That said, I’ve only just got to 600 subscribers, from essentially a standing start. I’ve never really asked people to support my writing financially before, so this is new territory. That some people have so kindly done so is actually amazing.
I have a suspicion that there will be tipping points. When I hit 1,000 subscribers I expect there will begin to be a cumulative effect, with that solid base of subscribers leading to more subscribers as they share and forward the material. And the more free subscribers I have, the more paid subscribers I will also have, even if it’s still a relatively small percentage of the total. I mean, it will always be a small percentage of the total, which is why my focus so far has been on building the list, rather than trying to push the early access subscriber option.
Ultimately, I’m not here to make money. That’s never the primary motivating factor. I write because I want to write and I want people to read and hopefully enjoy the writing. I also want to help other writers by sharing my knowledge. Those are the two primary goals, and that’s working nicely already. People liking the work enough to financially contribute is the next step, and a highly desirable one, but I don’t want it to ever be the primary goal.
I need to think of a way to promote a work-in-progress
An issue I never quite encountered on Wattpad due to it having more of a social share/algorithmic setup is that here on Substack, a serialised novel becomes progressively more difficult to promote. At the beginning, there’s the obvious message of “check out this exciting new book! Get in from the start!”, but this gets more complicated once you get to Chapter 30. If someone isn’t already reading, then there’s little motivation to jump in at #30. Equally, the amount of ‘homework’ required to ‘catch up’ becomes ever larger.
Of course, the need to catch up is largely artificial. People can start from chapter 1 and read at their own pace. But that’s not quite how the human brain tends to work. Rather than thinking “ooh, thirty free chapters of an exciting book? Yes please!” we instead think “wait, I’ve got to wade through 30 chapter to catch up with everyone else? I don’t have time!”
I haven’t quite cracked that one yet. I suspect my efforts should focus on promoting the opening chapter of the book, rather than worrying too much about the latest chapter. Get people in at the start, don’t emphasise the backlog, and let people discover the story in their own time.
There’s obviously more to say here, but this is already sitting around 1,600 words so I’ll park it for now. Next time I’ll delve into where subscribers are coming from (outside of BookFunnel promos) and how different types of posts are received.
I was interviewed for a podcast on Saturday. It was enormous fun to be on the other end of the mic, having spent three years producing The Writing Life. It also made me think that I really need to get my act together and start up my own mini pod. Not that the world needs another podcast: but I think I need another one.
Thanks for reading. Until next time.