51 Comments
Jan 19, 2023Liked by Max Read

Just going to go ahead and say the "just be Posting, like, all the time" opinion coming from a guy named Max Read is nominative determinism

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You win 🏆

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Even after doing it for like 5 years now, reasonably successfully, my main fear is still sending out too many newsletters and annoying people.

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author

I hear you, but in terms of what we're talking about the thing to remember is that (1) very few people really go to the actual trouble of unsubscribing (versus simply ignoring) and (2) every post that comes out is another chance to find new subscribers. And by the numbers the new subs you get from (2) are always more numerous than the churn you create from (1)!

Of course, the unspoken assumption of this entire post is that a newsletter writer wants to create a growing, remunerative business -- if your goal is to create a good publication that you feel proud of, it seems like this calculus might end up in another place.

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Doesn't this churn-churn-churn approach go against the Substack money-making model of two (posts) for me and one (post) for them (paid subscribers)?

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author

I guess it's a matter of balance? I think about it like, the main point of the free posts [in terms of how the business side of the newsletter works] is to travel widely and find new free subscribers, while the main point of the paywalled posts is to turn those free subscribers into paid subscribers. More of the former can't hurt, so long as I'm doing a paywalled post or two a week to keep up conversions. More paywalled posts probably would alienate free subscribers to the point of quitting, though. (Maybe the other key thing is that every single email, free and paid, has a "subscribe" or "upgrade subscription" button near the very top.)

But it probably also depends on your pitch to paid subscribers -- if you make everything free and ask for subscriptions as a gesture of support, like public radio or something, the balance is going to be different.

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I've been blogging since 1996 (translation: I'm old ) and the problem with places like Substack, where you take money from people monthly or yearly, is that you never feel as if you're writing enough to justify people subscribing to you. It's one thing if you have a tip jar on your site or people make a one-time donation, but the math changes when it's a regular payment (and you want them to renew).

It's one of the (many) reasons I left Substack and just went back to my own site. I wrote about it here if you're interested:

https://sassone.wordpress.com/2022/11/05/the-substack-experiment-is-over/

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I write four times a week on Substack and I feel like it's enough.

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I think 4 x a week is extraordinary.

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Jan 19, 2023Liked by Max Read

You can do a lot of testing and monitor feedback to figure out the optimal balance to generate your revenue and professional goals.

There will always be churn – people will drop because they can't afford it, they get bored of your stuff, you piss them off, etc. So you always have to be doing things to acquire new subscribers.

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Jan 19, 2023·edited Jan 19, 2023Liked by Max Read

FWIW, Yglesias probably cost himself me as a subscriber by being too prolific. I subscribed to his substack for about a year (and liked it), but started to feel like I'd kind of heard what he had to say. Reading around 200 (short) essays from someone is a good way to know their opinions pretty well!

I feel like if he had done three essays a week instead of five, I might still be subscribed. I still like his basic approach, just, it feels like a retread of what I've already seen now.

I might be an outlier. And I think Read's larger point stands: posting regularly is a huge asset. One per week is less powerful than five per week, and four per month on no real schedule is less powerful than one per week.

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author

I don't know if you're an outlier, but for every post Yglesias is writing he's probably bringing in more new subscribers than he is losing people like you, so it always makes more sense for him to post. Now, as you say, it probably makes his publication less useful or engaging on the whole for existing subscribers, but as long as he's not alienating them more quickly than he is finding new readers, he doesn't need to worry about it.

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The strategy for readers who read all of his content is to get them to start commenting and then they build community in the comments and they don't want to unsubscribe because they lose those social connections.

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Have you thought of coaching?

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Jan 19, 2023Liked by Max Read

Another example of the rewards of regularity: Marc Maron, a capable but not exceptional interviewer who has been putting out his WTF podcast twice a week every week for 12+ years now.

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I read the first half of this post and was wounded so deep I might be bleeding out. If I survive I’ll return and read the rest. My death rattle might sound like: “but flooding the world with shallow words day after day is eeeeevillllll...”

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You think like i think but better

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I think you are too hard on Yglesias. I think his rise to Substack coincided with a narrowing of viewpoint among liberal publications, which made his writing more interesting. I admit he writes a stinker from time to time (especially on international topics imho), but overall he raises good points, especially on effective political strategy. He also checks his predictions every January and calls himself out.

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author

I wonder if Yglesias would even think I'm being hard on him! But having been reading his work for a long time, I know that he's been posting regularly -- and quite successfully -- well before he made the move to Substack.

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I mean, it's a jokey snarky disrespectful tone but that's what we come for at the Max Read Substack and I think it's a pretty faithful recounting of exactly what I was saying to Dan Zak.

It used to be that the ad sales guys would sell a certain amount of ads. Then the number of ads sold would determine the number of pages (magazine) or column-inches (newspaper) of editorial that you needed to run. Then writers and editors would need to fight with each other for the privilege of getting more space in which to put their ideas. In that economy of scarce pages, you would "win" by being able to produce a really really really really good article if given plenty of time and resources to work on it.

The internet doesn't work like that, you can always just publish more stuff. So you "win" on the internet by being able to produce pretty good articles in a short span of time with meagre resources.

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This fits nicely with a few corollary bits about the substackification of media, which seems to largely reward opinion havers and take providers (“analysts”) over what the rest of the media offers, like actual reporting. It’s hard to find a day or a week to do much of that reporting when you don’t have colleagues to put the news out that day.

I mean this less critically than I’m coming off here — I love a good take and subscribe to far too many substacks. Back when Yglesias was getting his start, there was this dream that blogs and new media were going to empower citizen journalists (remember “platypus” reporters??) to rise up and speak truth to power without gate keepers. Two decades later, we’ve mostly got David Brooks or Tom Friedman as a service.

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author

Yes -- though I increasingly think it's not even the substance "takes" that matter so much as the regularity of a particular voice and perspective. At some point my job is probably closer to "YouTuber for Gen X/Elder Millennials" than it is to "reporter" (in the same way that David Brooks and Tom Friedman's job is, more or less, YouTuber for Boomers). I shouldn't say this out loud but siloed individual newsletters/channels/streams is almost certainly a dead end for good reporting -- seems like what would work better is packaging up a lot of reporting with columnizing with criticism in, I don't know, a daily or weekly format, for a subscription fee subsidized by ads. Hmm.

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His rise also coincides nicely with a heightened interest in national politics + the fall of local newspaper columns.

As a content marketer for B2B software brands, i've also found value in consistency & regularity

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It's true that "post consistently" is both good advice and part of why Matt is so successful, but the Washington Post profile and this item utterly fail to grasp the several ways that his writing is much better than most of what is published on the subjects that he writes about. By "better" I do not mean "asserts opinions that I agree with." I disagree with Matt a lot about various values questions and policy questions. What I mean is that is he much better versed in the nuances of policy debates than the vast majority of policy writers; that his arguments are logically sound and internally consistent much more than most pundits; that he tends to offer evidence for assertions that he makes; and that he is more willing than most people to follow his ideas where they lead and to be forthright about the critiques that he is making even though, as a consequence, lots of people who are unable to distinguish between *disagrees with me* and *is writing in bad faith* or *should feel shame* yell at him online. It is not entirely surprising that these strengths of Matt go unmentioned in the Washington Post profile because as a piece it possesses none of them.

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Conor gets it exactly right here. Max and the Post profile are both absolutely right about the importance of regular, frequent posting, but Matt isn't successful simply because he posts so often. He is so successful because he posts incredibly high quality content (along all the dimensions Conor names) AND because he posts so frequently. It's really quite astounding.

A great comparison is Jonathan Chait, who I think writes content that is of similar quality to Matt's. And while both of them are folks I agree with a lot, Chait is someone who I generally enjoy more for a few reasons (he's closer to my age, is an actual sports fan, shares my understanding for why charters are so important, and has a better sense of humor). Having said all that, if I had to choose to read only one or the other, there is no doubt that it would be Matt. Because as much as I like Chait, I'm guessing he writes only a quarter as often.

If he wrote less often, I'm sure Matt could raise the average quality of his pieces a bit. What's extraordinary about Matt is that he's able to keep his quality at such a high bar despite writing as often as he does.

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Just one more point. The only blogger I have read that is comparable to Matt in terms of being able to write incredibly frequently while maintaining a high bar for quality was Andrew Sullivan at the height of the Daily Dish.

Having said that, comparing the two is instructive. Andrew is the more gifted writer, and his abillity to speak personally and from the heart takes his writing at times to a height that I don't think Matt has ever reached. But Andrew is also all over the place depending on his mood, gets things genuinely wrong in a way that Matt does not, and ended up having to retire from regular writing for a long time (and now writes far less frequently with more vacations from ever) because he couldn't sustain that pace. And yet Matt keeps going year after year after year without the quality of his work ever faltering. It really is impressive.

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Smarter people than me have talked about how Twitter and other social media feeds engage our brains much like a slot machine—every pull to refresh gives a small chance of hitting the jackpot—rage, dunks, laughs!—but most of the time just offer low-grade tedium. And yet we keep pulling down. Yglesias strikes me as a sort of micro version of this same addiction model—most of the time he gives us pablum, but there’s always a small chance of a big payoff! The repetition is definitely part of the formula, but so is the chance of serendipity.

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author

It's funny, I sometimes use a slot-machine metaphor from the reverse direction to explain why it makes sense to just keep posting -- it's like every pull of the arm is a chance for a payout (in this case, going viral). The more you pull, the better your chance is. (Though for the metaphor to work, it has to be a free-to-play slot machine, so it's not a great metaphor.)

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This is the equivalent advice I keep hearing about writing a book - just get it done and damn the consequences. Don't worry about plot holes or bad writing or anything. Just get a book done and you will be amazed at how good it feels, probably leading to another book, maybe even better. I write every day (for myself) and keep thinking I should expand it publicly. Maybe even write a book...

Thanks for the encouragement!

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Jan 19, 2023·edited Jan 19, 2023

But Yglesias writes for dorks in DC, all of us here are sophisticated and different (better) and consume only the Best content. Surely we are above mere distraction.

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Yes, you like the content where I make self-deprecating jokes every paragraph or two and include several footnotes

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I mean, this whole thing is just...business? We all need to get paid so we offer stuff of value? Yglesias puts out a product people some people like and pay for. Sometimes people will subscribe, sometimes they will unsubscribe. He can see when subscriptions go up or down vs the topics or length of his posts, and then adjust to make more money if he wants.

I was doing a lot of email marketing newsletters for a while and we made 3 groups with 3 frequencies, did them for 6 months and looked at the click-thru and unsubscribe rates. We decided to go with the frequency with the best combination. Is this a secret technique?

And there's a lot of dragging him because he doesn't get it right all the time? Who does?

Is being a writer or journalist or a content creator supposed to be above creating things people like and will pay for?

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I’m curious if there is data out there about the benefits of posting consistently? My personal anecdotal experience is the opposite: I have unfollowed several substacks because they post too frequently or low quality articles. But maybe I’m unusual in this regard?

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I have done this as well. Frequent posting of low-quality content is just spam. I'd much rather hear less frequently from people, but hear really interesting things when they do publish.

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I guess my point is, it seems like there is an ideal (albeit relatively high) posting frequency, and there *are* consequences to going way above it.

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author

Probably you're right. I think you can see this kind of ceiling pretty clearly on Twitter, where it's much easier to post at an absurd velocity AND much easier to unfollow someone who posts too much. But with a format like email, assuming a single-author set-up, I think it's probably physically quite difficult to publish so many posts that you actually compel more people to actively unsubscribe than you do find new readers.

In terms of data, I can only share my experience without hard numbers, but the more frequently I post, the more quickly I grow and the more quickly I make money. I don't think you're unusual, so much as there are not enough people like you (compelled to unsubscribe over quality/frequency) to outweigh the new readers who come in through new posts.

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