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Thoughts After One Year on Substack (April 2023)
State of the Newsletter
In December of 2019, I had accrued 10K followers on Twitter. I mostly shared excerpts of interesting things I was reading (I still do this). At that point, I seldom shared my thoughts online. As an experiment, I launched a newsletter on Mailchimp in January of 2020. By the end of that year, I had 7 thousand subscribers. By the end of 2021, I had 14 thousand subscribers. A few months later, in April of 2022, I accepted a Substack Pro deal of $100,000 to move to their platform for one year. It looks like I’ll land at around $110,000 by the end of my Substack Pro contract on April 4. I won’t get all of that, as Substack and Stripe will take their cut. Of the more than 1,500 paid subscribers, eight have chosen to become “Founding Members” and pay $500 a year.
At 81%, my subscriber retention rate at 1 year is over-performing relative to my “peer group.”
Throughout building my newsletter, I haven’t implemented much readership growth advice from other people. Growth is not number one on my agenda. This might be why I haven’t received spectacular bursts of attention and subscribers. I’ve seen other writers who share charts indicating rapid and punctuated instances of major subscription increases. My Substack is not that way. Similar to Twitter, my experience with newsletters (both the first Mailchimp version and now Substack) has been one of gradual, reliable growth, brick by brick, fueled primarily by word of mouth. I think growth is important, it’s nice to see, and I’m not shy about sharing my work online and on Twitter. Still, growth has never been my primary goal. I’ve noticed that when I write about topics directly or indirectly related to politics and culture war stuff, it sometimes gets a lot of attention. Still, this hasn’t spurred me to lean in that direction. I’ve never felt susceptible to audience capture. My personal political views aren’t exactly a secret. But I’ve never been particularly interested in politics and have never been a news junkie. I grew up without cable, so no Stewart/Colbert or CNN or Fox News, and in my early adolescence I was raised by working-class Democrats who read the local paper. Politics just wasn’t part of my life and it didn’t really seep into my consciousness until I arrived on campus in 2015. As I’ve written before, I try to avoid (sometimes unsuccessfully) the news. I prefer reading books, academic articles, and longform essays. I’m far more interested in human nature, class, status signaling, relationships, history, philosophy, social science, ideology, and so on.
My newsletter posts average something like 35,000 views each, so this seems to be undercounting. My guess, though, is that it is showing “unique visitors” whereas other Substack metrics count overall “page views.” But I could be misunderstanding how these things are measured. Based on this figure, traffic has been very steady, with infrequent surges of new unique visitors. Likely due to posts shared on Twitter by big accounts or shared on Hacker News or Reddit.
Writing online started as a side hustle when I was in grad school. The original iteration of my newsletter began as a hobby, and I found myself putting more and more work into it. It has become a primary income stream, which was unplanned. Over the past couple of years, I’ve turned down several offers from prominent outlets and magazines. I’ve discovered that few things give me more pleasure than sharing my writing directly with my readers. I’m happy to support other writers I enjoy reading, and I’ve always welcomed subscribers to support me. After the first year of building a newsletter and seeing the extent of its reach, I realized I could potentially earn a living as a writer. Still, I periodically offer free upgrades to readers who are unable to afford a paid subscription. I grew up poor and spent much of my young adulthood broke, so while I enjoy getting paid for my work, I try to make it accessible to everyone.
A year into this project, we are the Number 4 Science Newsletter. Three years ago, I wouldn't have believed I’d be anywhere near people like Scott Alexander or Razib Khan (both of whom I’ve been reading since undergrad) on any writing leaderboard.
Here are some notable posts throughout the past year:
Shortly after launching my Substack, I wrote “No One Expects Young Men To Do Anything and They Are Responding By Doing Nothing” which was widely shared online and on Twitter and remains one of my most-read posts.
In June 2022, I wrote a post titled “Luxury Beliefs are Status Symbols.” It was a transcript of a talk I’d delivered at Nudgestock, the world’s biggest behavioral science festival. It attracted about 400 new subscribers. Also in June, my post “The Logic of Envy” received some attention and netted 300 new subscribers. This was also the post that elicited more reader messages and emails than anything else I’ve written, with the exception of my personal essays.
In September 2022, I wrote a post titled “I Have Yet to Hear a Satisfactory Answer For Why Adults Care What Young People Think” which led to more than 100 new subscribers. By this point I was posting 2-3 times per week, and shared some positive testimonials on my “About Me” page from prominent readers including Naval Ravikant, Jordan Peterson, Dr. Drew Pinsky, and Bari Weiss, among others.
In November 2022, I summarized several lines of research on “The Male-Warrior Hypothesis” to explain the peculiarities of human male psychology, which drew more than 200 new people to subscribe. I then discussed this essay with my friend Chris Williamson on his Modern Wisdom podcast.
Two additional milestone posts were “Nobody is a Prisoner of Their IQ,” discussing why the preoccupation with intelligence is misguided, and “The Age 30 Crisis and Seasons of a Man's Life,” revisiting a classic book on adult developmental psychology. I began offering 1-on-1 individual meetings at the start of this year. On the first day I announced this option for readers, more than 25 people signed up with 24 hours. Many people understandably wanted to discuss the Seasons book which I was happy to do.
As far as locked/paywalled posts go, “Downplay the Daunting Obstacle,” a very brief synopsis of my life, prompted many kind comments and heartfelt personal emails from readers. People also enjoyed my post about my Big Five personality test scores, and my interpretations of the results. Many readers commented on my Malaysia/Singapore travelogue, which was an assortment of thoughts and observations during my month-long visit to southeast Asia. People also appreciated this post about language games and the pursuit of power, this one about the scam known as “student loan forgiveness,” and “Five Winters in Cambridge,” about what I did during grad school. Paid subscribers have also enjoyed receiving access to my detailed notes and reactions to various lectures and information-dense podcasts. Such as this Jordan Peterson series, this one on the psychology of friendship, this one on anger and hatred, and this one on female mate competition.
Over the past year, there have not been any especially striking inflection points. For me, the key to growth has been communicating authentically and sticking to a disciplined writing schedule. My goal over the next few months is to begin sharing exciting news about my forthcoming book.
For Year 2, I’ll continue to write posts covering research in empirical psychology, cultural commentary informed by data and firsthand experience, and personal reflections about social class and upward mobility. You’ll continue to see essays in which I synthesize useful and interesting information about human nature, drawing from modern empirical psychology, as well as from philosophy, history, and my own unique point of view. Once a week, I’ll continue to post a roundup of links, thought-provoking content, and interesting findings. I also continue to take detailed notes on lectures and information-dense podcasts for paid subscribers. I’ll do some more Ask Me Anything threads, too. One thing I’ve been considering is doing an occasional Q&A or maybe some kind of advice column (I recently learned Brits call advice columnists “agony aunts.” British people have a lot of peculiarities in their language but, as an American, this term truly stands out to me for how weird it is). I’d ask readers to send their questions and then respond to some of them, similar to what Gurwinder has done. At one of my meetups last year, a woman asked me an interesting question: “Do you write for men?” I’d never really thought about it. I write as a man, and issues that relate to men naturally interest me. I ran a survey a while back for paid subscribers and was mildly surprised to learn that about 30% are women. As I’ve noted elsewhere, women are generally more empathic and better at perspective-taking than men, and so my guess is that women are more curious about the male perspective than men are about the female perspective.
Paid subscribers will soon get a sneak preview of my current forthcoming memoir. After multiple delays, we finally have a publication date. I’ll make a formal announcement about the date soon. When I tell people I’m writing a book, I occasionally notice the expression on their face change when they discover it’s a memoir—often amused, sometimes smug. I can see the gears grinding, who is narcissistic enough to write a memoir in their early thirties. Me. To be fair to the people in these situations, they usually don’t know anything about me. I’m glad I wrote this book despite being relatively young. One bestselling author told me that a good memoirist writes from their scars, not from their wounds. Good advice, I think. But even scars can fade if too much time passes. Writing my memories while they were still relatively fresh probably made for a better book. I’m still young enough to have vivid recollections of my childhood and adolescence, and it’s good that I got them down on paper before age sets in and my impressions gradually become more imperfect. My writing on Substack is usually engaging, and my book is likely better since I had an editor and plenty of useful feedback from talented and accomplished writers. If my memoir (which contains a full chapter on luxury beliefs) does well, I plan to write another book devoted to fully exploring my luxury beliefs concept, drawing on signaling theory, the sociology of class, and the psychology of status. I’ve considered serializing chapters on my Substack.
In addition to Substack, I have plenty of other commitments occupying my time. Teaching this summer at UATX. Visiting Miami to film some lectures for Peterson Academy. And other projects I’ll disclose soon. I know how fortunate I am to earn a living this way. I want to spend more time this year helping to unearth other up-and-coming writers. I’ve already been doing this in a haphazard way, sharing links in my weekly roundup posts and posting interesting articles from new writers on Twitter. I want to be more organized about this. Soon I’ll ask readers to share anything you’re working on and want to plug, and I’ll do it. I appreciate you all. Thanks for your support. Thanks for reading.