How to get 2,000 Substack subscribers in six months
A 2021 retrospective for The Intrinsic Perspective
Its birth year has been an incredible one for this experiment, The Intrinsic Perspective. So with the end of 2021 approaching, here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the growth of this newsletter of literary/scientific essays, what choices I think had an impact, and what the reaction (occasionally quite controversial) was to some of my favorite posts this year. Such a peak into the business and work that goes into writing online like this is of general interest, I think, and also contains a lot of deployable advice for people looking to do something similar. Starting with my suggestion to
emphasize quality over quantity.
If you want to write online, avoid Google. The SEO-stuffed results will tell you that the only way to build an audience is to publish as frequently as possible, multiple times a week. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those in the literary industry often spend months working on a single short essay for a publication—their writing is as slow as Ents. The best path, at least for myself, turned out to be in the middle. When The Intrinsic Perspective started in May of this year, I first scrounged around online to find some of my older essays, just to provide a back catalog. Then for a few weeks I diligently followed the advice of almost every Google-able article to publish multiple times a week.
The problem was that I started losing my writerly voice. For writing is a lot like baking: one works the prose for a certain period of time. You fold the dough, you press against it with your fists, you stretch it with your hands, all hoping for that mysterious alchemical process to take place. With the rapid pace I was finding the result was. . . under-baked.
Now, there’s a surprising amount of people who think that the slow-crafted “literary” voice is basically window-dressing for a list of factual bullet-points. But the literary view of the world is full of ambiguity, complexity, and emotionality, for it has been developed over a millennia of authors, all talking through each other, mouths opening onto mouths. A style that unavoidably seeps into the content of writing. Yet since the effect of aesthetics is a subtle thing, it is therefore easy to sacrifice on the altar of expediency. In order to satisfy what they’ve been told is the rapacious hunger of their audience for more content, online writers often begin stuffing their content with the grapeshot of found things and personal trivialities, not expecting that such practices actually increase the churn rate of unsubscribers. Like the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, they are forced to run faster just to stay in place.
Worried about precisely this effect, as an experiment I halved the frequency with which I was putting out content. Then, when I wasn’t satisfied, I halved it again. My final pace of once-every-other-Wednesday not only didn’t slow subscriber growth, it significantly improved it. For the slower pace also made it easier to
find an aesthetic.
The #1 challenge for any Substack is to have the veneer of quality a professional outlet does, or even of a collection of essays you might pick up in your local bookstore. All independent writing naturally looks “professionalism-starved” and so faces an uphill climb to be taken seriously in the way, say, commentary published in The Atlantic is. But I can say from having previously placed pieces in a number of outlets, including The Atlantic, that there’s nothing separating the two other than the masthead and some last-minute editorial work by the organization (which in many cases can actually make the piece worse).
All to say: good writing relies on a reader’s pool of faith. The larger the pool, the more you can get away with. So online writers need to enlarge a reader’s pool of faith by looking professional. The first way to do so is simply grammar, as online writers (generally) lack the copy-editors of outlets—every grammatical mistake is a chance to shake the reader from what should be a liquid dream. This is also an opportunity to develop your own “house rules” for what grammar you like; consistency (such as how to do pull quotes, or using “s’s” instead of “s’”) matters more than blindly following usage from The New York Times.
The second way to enlarge a reader’s initial pool of faith is in choosing good images for headlining posts. This is a thorny problem, and one I particularly struggled with in early days. Finding random stuff online not only leads to copyright issues, but, more importantly, to an ungainly collage on the homepage, even when the written content itself is good—for we’re writers, not designers.
From working with outlets I knew they often commissioned unique art for their bigger articles. Realizing that an aesthetics of professionalism was going to be critical, I started reaching out to artists and was lucky to stumble across Alexander Naughton, an illustrator in the UK who seemed to me criminally ignored in terms of talent. He and I have been working together ever since (he designed the logo as well). I feed him early drafts of posts weeks in advance, and he reacts with an illustration. I never tell him what to produce, it’s always a direct artistic response (you can even order prints of these here, for which he receives all proceeds). I hope my relationship with Alex lasts a long time as he’s one of those crazy talented people, but if at some point in the future he leaves for greener pastures or due to time commitments, I’ll bring on a different artist. It’d be interesting if that changed something about my writing as well, as his style is always in the back of my mind.
Pools of faith, the aesthetics of professionalism, the frequency of missives—they are indeed meaningful, but there’s no set laws for attracting readers, so
expect nonlinear subscriber growth.
I wish it were possible to not think about promotion, but that is not the time we’ve been born into. Pushing your writing through the traditional publishing industry has its own downsides; when writing online the inescapable downside is the need for self-promotion. A chalky pill to swallow, and with the worst sort of vague and difficult-to-track effects.
What self-promotion ended up being for me was mostly posting either on Twitter or Reddit (such as occasionally linking a piece on a relevant subreddit that would allow it). I even tried some Facebook targeted ads. A complete waste of money. Also, I learned a depressing fact you may be able to guess: often the number of comments on a Facebook thread would exceed the click-through rate of the article itself.
It took five months to go from zero to 1,000 subscribers, and essentially only one month to go from 1,000 to 2,000. How did this happen? Thousands of little inexplicable coincidences, obviously. But a couple lucky shares by people with big audiences drove a significant chunk of it.
It’d be easy to, at this point in giving “advice,” to spout platitudes like:
Growth is a matter of chances, you need to be optimizing the number of chances you have.
Setting a consistent schedule is really important, not just for the audience, but for you.
Write as if you already have a big readership and you’ll rise to the occasion.
And so on. But perhaps the non-obvious thing I’d like to emphasize is that I did not have a large online platform to start with. Yet I didn’t have no platform either. I had a middling platform, which was, in retrospect, basically the minimum one necessary: at the start only an ancient email list of less than 200 people, and a Twitter account with a couple thousand followers. So you don’t need a huge platform to start writing online, but you do need some kind of platform—some way to share or promote, some way to create a cycle of growth, some mechanism for an intellectual rotor to turn—for abstract engines operate with the same inhalation and exhalation as physical ones.
But, ultimately, growth came from people being kind enough to share links. And such shares mostly came from my
top 5 essays of 2021.
#1. “Writing for outlets isn't worth it anymore” was an early manifesto in which I gave my best justification for what I’m up to here.
Why write essays online like this? The truth is most people wake up and the first thing they do is look at their phone and read. What they read is not a book. Neither fiction nor nonfiction tomes, nor poetry nor autobiography, no, nothing like that at all. They’ll read social media posts, they’ll read news articles, their emails, sports summaries, they’ll browse Instagram posts or go through comment threads. But they’ll also read an essay. Right away, right with their head still on the pillow. Do you know how powerful—really powerful—that is? This fact is somehow both common knowledge yet woefully unacknowledged. The essay is the native written artform of the internet.
One subscriber emailed me to tell me his head was literally on the pillow when he read this! My point being: If you’re a writer, why not go where the action is?
#2. “We need a Butlerian Jihad against AI” in which I contended AI-safety advocates need to stop arguing from dry utilitarianism (which has all sorts of problems anyways) and need to start arguing from good-ol’-fashioned human-centric morality. Sam Harris ended up tweeting it out, which led to a surge of new subscribers.
#3. “Futurists have their heads in the clouds” was an exploration of what 2050 might look like if we put aside the over-the-top sci-fi predictions of futurists. It ended up being shared widely, including on aggregator websites like Arts & Letters Daily. Tyler Cowen, despite criticism of some of his own predictions in it, was kind enough to share it on his own blog, Marginal Revolutions, a move I greatly respect. One of the best-known online writers, Scott Alexander, also shared the piece on his substack Astral Codex Ten, and helped out with growth by graciously saying that:
I’ve been looking for really good new substacks, by people I hadn’t already been reading for years on another platform, and this is one of the few I’ve found that I’m really excited about.
#4. “How the MFA swallowed literature” was on how the sequestering of fiction authors into academia has led to a loss of cultural cachet for literature as whole, and also led to defensive prose in contemporary novels. The piece triggered a wave of “discourse” on Twitter, some of it vitriolic toward me personally, which surprised me as it’s not a strident piece and I constantly hedge my statements throughout (e.g., I literally wrote “I’m not saying MFAs made all novels terrible or that all contemporary writing sucks.”). But boy, a lot of people sure were tripping over themselves to defend multi-billion dollar institutions. Total strangers (often university professors who make their living teaching in MFA programs) started harassment campaigns against me. Seeing the disproportionate backlash made it clear I’d touched a nerve by saying something true.
#5. “Publish and perish” was on the scientific pressures that drive gain-of-function research, the sort of research that may have (the jury is still out) given us Covid. It was my first post to go viral, making it to the top of Hacker News, which meant my views at the time looked like this:
There were plenty others I’m happy with, but these stood out to me as the kind of in-depth diverse pieces I’d like to keep emulating. Which brings me to
plans for 2022.
Some of the upcoming pieces, ideas, and topics have been in the works for years, from how social media traps us in an ancient dilemma that dates back to the early days of human evolution, to how neuroscience needs a theory of consciousness to stop being preparadigmatic, to why IQ is less important than the data shows at first glance, to the growing scientific understanding of emergence, to historical techniques of raising genius children, to how the best video games are stealing literary techniques, to what art and aesthetics have to offer the sciences.
But for now, I’ll think not of such things. With the holidays arriving, I’ll be skipping the next post, the one that would normally go out December 29th, so the next piece will come January. It’s important for family to come first this time of year. As Charles Dickens has a character opine in A Christmas Carol:
“. . . I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”