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A year of Read Max
Our top ten posts + some thoughts about the newsletter business
Greetings from Read Max HQ! Next week, this newsletter turns one year old. For the sake of commemorating the milestone, I’m going run down the top ten posts of the past year. But first I want to write a bit about my experience of running a newsletter, into which I have woven a sappy little tout for paid subscriptions. If you want to skip all of that and simply sign up for a paid subscription, you can just hit the button below.
I quit Twitter in 2020, as I probably have now written about too many times to sound mentally healthy. At the time I quit I had around 50,000 followers, which is not a ton but is certainly useful for self-promotion (and serves as a weird semi-resume for most of the kinds of gigs writers are up for these days), and I’d thought I would just reactivate the account here and there to advertise the stuff I was working on. But at some point I neglected to re-activate during Twitter’s mandated 30-day period, after which the platform erases its record of the account, and the @max_read account I’d wasted a decade cultivating was lost and gone forever. Whoops. There went my Klout score.
This is not, obviously, a life-or-death tragedy, but it meant that I started this newsletter without a safety net, so to speak. At the time, from the outside, the Substack-newsletter economy seemed like an appendage of Twitter, dependent in terms of both content and distribution strategy on the disputes and divisions that the social network is so good at fostering. It’s not just that, for some writers, Substack functions like a fancier Twitlonger -- it’s also that with many big newsletters I sometimes get the sense that subscriptions are driven as much by a writer’s Twitter profile as by the stuff they write or record for their Substack. (This is not just guesswork; I heard from multiple writers that the quickest way to get subscribers was to pick a fight or two on Twitter.) Subscribing to a personality’s Substack in this sense is basically military patronage -- like donating money to a particular Ukrainian tank battalion or whatever, only instead of a cruel and horrible war you’re supporting their assault on whichever group of college-educated professionals you find most annoying.
I’ve been on Substack long enough now to see that even if this describes a (very successful) corner of the service, it’s not a fair description of the entire business. But when I sent out my first post it remained an open question to me whether or not it would be possible to build a sustainable newsletter operation with no Twitter presence at all. The flip side of this conundrum, of course, was whether I’d want to do a newsletter at all if it meant being on Twitter, shoving my Substack down everyone’s throat and mixing it up with various guys named Glen/Glenn. As subscribers know, I’m not above regularly embarrassing myself in front of medium-sized audiences, but there are only two possible outcomes once you become A Social Media Personality: emigration to a country without extradition, or a series of Apology Videos. Could I launch a successful newsletter without being on Twitter? Could I attain the elusive dream of “financially independent content creator with normal brain”?
After a year, the resounding answer is: Probably!
So, let’s talk actual numbers: At the time of publication, Read Max has 13,185 total subscribers, 926 of whom currently pay. (That’s on the lower end in terms of conversion rate so far this year -- generally I’ve had closer to 10 percent of all subscribers pay, but sometimes there’s a lag as the free audience grows.) Once you take into account Substack and Stripe’s cuts, my 900-plus subscriptions net out to around $50,000 in annualized revenue.
This is not, like, Matt Yglesias money, but it’s a pretty incredible figure to me -- certainly, it’s enough money to justify the work I’ve put into the newsletter, if only because it just about covers the 18 months of childcare for my two-year-old that were necessary to make Read Max work. It’s also, and this is the sappy part of what will become a naked tout for subscriptions very soon, quite moving to know that people value my writing in such a direct way. Not to be a freak about it, but having 900 people pay actual money to read my bullshit is not something I take lightly, especially since I’ve spent most of my career writing to the huge audiences that can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which range in attitude from “mostly disinterested” to “actively hostile.” What’s most important to me is that the pleasure I get in writing in this semi-unalienated way -- for an audience that wants to hear what I have to say, even when I’m just writing about some weirdo Linux occultist’s demonological artifact or whatever -- is matched by the pleasure felt by readers at encountering writing that isn’t forced awkwardly into the strictures of institutional or advertising-based digital news production.
The fact that growth has been steady (if not exactly brisk) suggests that I’m on to something, and I feel optimistic about the prospects for the next year. (Assuming no drop-off, I can make enough to pay for at least another year of daycare.) But -- and this is the tout part of the tout -- I need your help! If you’ve been reading and enjoying Read Max, please consider paying to subscribe. Every subscription really does make a difference, even if I won’t ever make enough to send my kid to the fancy French-language pre-school around the corner: The more money I make from the newsletter, the more time I can justify devoting to it, and the better it will be.
If you’re already a paid subscriber, please spread the word and tell other people who you think have a similar brain disease about Read Max. (Consider a gift subscription!) If you’re quite rich, consider subscribing at a higher price tier. (I see a lot of subscribers on my list with .vc email accounts -- I’m keeping my eye on you motherfuckers.)
I’m just using this special caption unit to draw more attention to the actual button below ⤵️⤵️
If you can’t afford it, or you’re not sure yet that you want to pay, I hope you’ll stick around.
So, what have I learned from this past year? I think there are basically four things you can do to have a successful newsletter. Read Max does not really do three of these things, due to self-care, which places a lot of importance on the fourth thing in terms of our overall strategy. The four (overlapping and non-exclusive) paths to success in a newsletter are:
Post constantly: Posting a lot, at consistent intervals, will get you a bigger audience, even if it makes the experience of subscribers worse, and degrades the overall quality of the newsletter. This is not something unique to newsletters; it’s the iron law of internet publishing and one of the top “fucked incentives” on the long list of “fucked incentives in internet publishing.” Yes, you can craft sophisticated audience strategies and produce extremely high-quality, well-packaged content, but in terms of your effort-to-reward ratio, absolutely nothing beats “posting a lot, all the time.”
Read Max publishes relatively frequently (compared to, like, George R.R. Martin), and it’s very clear from my stats that the newsletter grows faster when I publish twice a week. It would almost certainly grow even faster if I published, say, four times a week, even though a lot of readers would complain or just tune it out, simply because I’d be increasing my chances of a given Read Max post reaching a possible new subscriber. I’m not above grinding to hit audience targets (check out my archive from when I was the night blogger at Gawker! Or, actually, don’t), but I try stay away from churning through high-volume newsy blogs here because (1) it makes me miserable (2) the paying audience doesn’t really want it, even if they wouldn’t actively punish me for it, and (3) if that’s how I’m going to spend my time I’d rather go do it somewhere that would give me health insurance and PTO.
Be visible on Twitter: I think I’ve sort of already covered this. It’s clear to me by now that you don’t need to be on Twitter to have a successful Substack, but if you want to grow quickly it definitely helps to constantly self-promote on a website filled with content addicts! And if you can do so in a manner through which subscription to your newsletter is understood as a statement of social-political identity and commitment, all the better.
Read Max has an automated Twitter account that publishes all its posts, and every once in a while I consider making a humiliating and damaging return to the site, just because it would probably help me get more jobs and subscribers. But something that has become very clear to me over the last year is that Twitter isn’t just a waste of time, it’s where good ideas go to die. If I were still on Twitter, many of the most popular posts I’ve written this year would have ended up as an uncompensated, half-thought-through tweet or three -- questions or glib observations fizzling out somewhere in the feed. Instead they became three-quarters-of-the-way-thought-through 1600-word newsletter columns with jokes decent enough to entice new subscribers.
Have a clear value proposition/elevator pitch/identity: If you want to get people to subscribe to your newsletter, it helps to be able to tell them exactly what they’re getting and why they would want to pay for that. “A daily digest of news in [whatever industry you’re in],” e.g., or “investment tips,” or “cutting-edge recommendations for ugly sneakers and other clothing written in a remarkably consistent if sort of inscrutable voice.” Having clear rewards for upgrade -- the ability to comment, say -- helps the newsletter feel “worth it.”(a weekly paid-only reading-recommendations newsletter), and a scope so inconsistent and broad that a description would only qualify as an elevator pitch on the Burj Kalifah. I do actually feel sort of neurotic about this. I spent a long time in my career as the manager of various editorial "verticals," one obligation of which is crafting and re-crafting memos that attempt to outline the purpose and identity of the site, and which are then passed on to the advertising team so it can hone its pitch to American Standard Urinals or whatever; having spent so long doing that I have internalized that it's a useful exercise to think about what is a "Read Max story" and what is not. The problem is that, while cultivating a specific, narrow editorial identity might make subscription sales easier, it also makes it much more difficult to produce a good newsletter, because you have to write about whatever stupid things are on your beat, instead of whatever things out there that are actually interesting.
Read Max, right now, has one clear upgrade enticement
Write about stuff you’re obsessed with and make your readers not wish they were dead: OK, so, I don’t post super consistently, I’m not picking fights on Twitter, and I don’t have a clear value proposition or even really a “predictable content category” for the newsletter. What, then, does Read Max have to offer? This is where my theory of newsletters shifts from a relatively empirical analysis of what “works” and what doesn’t and into a pure-vibes philosophy of media. Basically, and I recognize how lame this sounds, I think people respond enthusiasm and joy. Readers want to learn stuff, and to be made to laugh, and to have their weird feelings articulated for them artfully, but, especially when it we’re talking about a publication that arrives in their email inboxes, they want to read something that sounds like it was written by and for living human beings. If you can stick to topics you’re genuinely interested in, and convey your obsession in even just a non-deadening manner, you are streets ahead of 99 percent of writing that exists online, and probably off it as well.
This is, most of the time, what Read Max strives to do. And I think it’s actually kind of reflected below, in …
…the Top Ten Read Max Posts of Its First Year
“What's the deal with all those weird wrong-number texts?"
Total views: 289,760
Paid subscriptions: 9
Free subscriptions: 593
“Mapping the Celebrity-NFT Complex”
Total views: 144,107
Paid subscriptions: 26
Free subscriptions: 881
“‘90s Dad Thrillers: a list”
Total views: 110,561
Paid subscriptions: 39
Free subscriptions: 794
“The man who bought Pine Bluff, Arkansas”
Total views: 73,312
Paid subscriptions: 4
Free subscriptions: 123
“‘Dune’ (the movie), annotated”
Total views: 62,796
Paid subscriptions: 28
Free subscriptions: 639
“Is web3 bullshit?”
Total views: 41,861
Paid subscriptions: 27
Free subscriptions: 565
“How to have a career as a journalist in 2022”
Total views: 31,823
Paid subscriptions: 38
Free subscriptions: 683
“The most influential man on the internet”
Total views: 22,442
Paid subscriptions: 9
Free subscriptions: 160
“Loab: an AI horror story”
Total views: 20,797
Paid subscriptions: 4
Free subscriptions: 98
“Did the internet ruin culture?”
Total views: 18,449
Paid subscriptions: 4
Free subscriptions: 100
I mean, that’s a pretty good mix of things I’m ethusiastic about: weird internet, fake internet, scam internet, scary internet, historical internet, with a big dose of writing about culture, conspiracy, media, and, of course, action movies.
I feel like a more responsible small-business owner would, at this point, announce some big new plan for the next year. Like maybe I would hire some deluded intern or do a Read Max podcast or, like, introduce a Discord for subscribers or something. But -- while I’m not saying I’ll never do those things -- there are no big new initiatives for Read Max for the next year. The plan is the same as the plan has always been, which is to wake up every Monday morning in a panic about what I’m going to write about, and then find myself that afternoon chatting with an internet eccentric on the phone, or trying to start a conversation with a possible bot, or signing up for a new Lucidchart trial with a new fake email in an effort to create an even worse diagram than the last one. There will be experiments, and new ideas, but for the most part if you want to know what’s in store for Read Max over the next year, all I can promise is weird mysteries, vague discomfort, internet sociology, ill-advised diagrams, action-movie recommendations, and some very strongly held pointless opinions. I hope you will join us. Sincerely, from the bottom of my heart: Thank you for reading.
I briefly had the idea that I’d start doing these quarterly-or-so “Read Max Reports” -- comprehensive and funny explainers about tech/internet trends and phenomena -- for paying subscribers, but the only one I did (about web3) didn’t seem to entice many new paying subscribers, very few of whom read it anyway. (Maybe the timing was just bad). Since that kind of thing takes a lot of time, and growth was just as easily accessible via normal posting, I’ve put the Read Max Report concept on the back burner.