Let’s just email in the now.

Photo by Mike Palmowski

This week I moved my newsletter to Substack. On first glance there’s nothing particularly notable about switching email providers. People look like they’re having fun there! I’d like to go have fun over there too! 

As writer-artist Edith Zimmerman told The New York Times, “People (are) creating these spaces for themselves to be goofy and a little protected from the turbulence of just throwing yourself at the entire internet.” Here in the magical Substack forest, nothing is search-engine optimized or sensationalized for maximum virality. It is a time of innocence. Let's take a deep breath and enjoy each other's company. 

None of this can last. Can it? 

Substack is having a moment right now. A lot of journalists are breaking up with their employers (either on their own terms, or because they’re forced into new directions as the industry craters), and they’ve decided to build their own independent businesses, starting with a paid newsletter. 

I fully support this (says the person whose newsletter you’re reading) with the caveat that it takes a long time to grow an email list, let alone get some percentage of that audience to pay you. It might be enough cash to pay your phone bill, or buy a few weeks of groceries. But these people represent your most loyal community. If you’re a freelance writer or journalist or artist, there’s no time like now to get started. 

Substack has built something I would have loved for Longreads back when we were first trying to figure out the subscription puzzle. They've taken much of the complexity out of letting people pay you for your work. Just as importantly, they’re helping normalize the idea (like Patreon and Kickstarter before it) that it's okay to even ask in the first place. There are many great places to learn about newsletter strategies  — Dan Oshinsky’s Not a Newsletter is a terrific resource — but Substack right now is mostly devoid of strategy. There is no recommendation algorithm. There are no tips for growth hacking or writing headlines that increase engagement. So instead of Optimized Content, we get diary entries and sketches, occasional poetry, snippets from people's lives inside the pandemic fog. 

They’re unfocused and deeply personal — everything we once loved about blogs. And they’re working. As Alicia Kennedy writes

"I launched this newsletter because my once-stable income from contributing editor and writer gigs had all but dried up at the start of the pandemic. My guaranteed monthly payments dropped 80 percent from the start of 2020 to May. I thought the newsletter would just be an outlet for personal or weirder writing while I figured out my next move, but it became something more. Through subscriptions, I’ve been able to do a lot less other writing and am only taking assignments I really care about while I also work on my book." 

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This all flies in the face of traditional email marketing. Email is important for companies building engagement with their customers, and it’s a mature space with many expensive analytics tools to help you measure the effectiveness of your subject lines and how that impacts open rates and click rates. As a result, we are inundated with urgent fundraising pleas from political candidates and marketers who say, “Hey Mark, it’s Mike. I need your help,” and then fool me into thinking a friend actually needs my help. Turns out I don’t know a Michael Veenstra. 

Substack could offer tools like that. It could get deeper into the discovery game. Or it could go in another direction entirely. Their approach already differs a bit from Medium, which was trying to create a new social network with a bundled subscription. Substack instead gives writers control over their own paid monthly and yearly subscriptions, which makes the possibility of stable income much more straightforward. And newsletters are more of a movement than a proprietary walled garden, so they’re trying to disrupt an old familiar thing — the inbox — that’s desperately in need of love. They’ve come to visit me in this dreary old place, and just like Bobby Berk they’re buying new furniture and painting my cabinets black. Maybe they can find a way to make my entire email experience more enjoyable. 

I was initially wondering, Why does the world need more email? But it turns out we just want better email. My friends and I don’t send each other long, personal emails anymore — it’s a lost art, disappearing right behind letter-writing. But when I see dispatches from Zimmerman, Kara Cutruzzula, Delia Cai, Matthew Ogle, Haley Bryant, or Dana Snitzky, it’s that same feeling, a welcome visit from an old friend. 

So, yes. Send me more email. The good kind. Reply to this email and tell me your favorite newsletters. I’ll share your picks in an upcoming installment.

-Mark

5 Stories 

  1. “The first time around, your kid screams and cries and tries to run into traffic; you catch her. … But then your kid starts doing it again, a dozen years later, making forays into independence, pursuing near-death experiences, throwing tantrums at horrible times.” This Elizabeth Weil story on raising a teenage daughter, annotated by her daughter, is just one of the many memorable stories that came from California Sunday, which announced this week it is shutting down. A terrible year for great journalism going away. 

  2. After many years away from the internet, Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half has returned with a new book and a story about her childhood — specifically, the time she broke into her neighbor's house to steal a cat. 

  3. “Birdie.” A short story by Lauren Groff about love, regret, and forgiveness during a reunion to grieve a dying friend.  

  4. "The central error of our system has been attaching our health care to where we work."

  5. "You Are (A Comedy) Special." Over on Audible, Maria Bamford released a delightful… audiobook? Podcast?... about doing the thing that scares you the most, failing at it, but also not failing at it. 

About this Newsletter

Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, currently working on something new. Every week (or so), this newsletter will feature writing about work and creativity, plus five stories that are worth your time.