September 13, 2023

Or, why I’m writing on Substack and why I hope you’ll join me!

I started writing on the internet in 2009. I’ve told this story before, but my foray into blogging began at the urging of a childhood friend. We were both bored in jobs that didn’t challenge us. We’d graduated from college and AOL instant messenger, but only barely. We spent our work days checking in on each other on G-chat from the relatively far flung places we’d landed. We were twenty-four. I had recently sent out applications to a half dozen graduate programs that I thought might make my life and work more interesting, or at least not terribly boring.

As I waited for what I thought would be answers, I found other women making space for themselves online. Somewhat haltingly, somewhat deliberately, sometimes mostly by accident, I made a place for myself there, too. For a long time, that online placemaking wasn’t really work at all. I’d wake up, I’d power up my white Macbook, I’d open my Google reader and visit with my new-found internet friends. In my offline life, things changed, as they tend to do. I moved. I went to graduate school. I took a position in a non-profit that wasn’t exactly right for me but that got me back to New York City, which is where I most wanted to be. I lived in a tiny apartment. I got married. I wrote about it. 

In my online life, things changed, too. My internet pals began to monetize their websites. I realized I could sell ads. I enrolled in affiliate programs. Slowly, but surely, what started as a diversion became something that I could get paid for. I left my job. I poured myself into building a website and an online community. I took freelance writing assignments and deferred my student loan payments so I could squeak out my monthly rent. When that wasn’t enough, I took a staff editorial position at a much larger website but the pay was still bad and the vibes were worse. I had a baby. I sold a book. I had the extreme good fortune of timely press and youth and a cavalcade of so-called Big Life Changes that meant influencer marketing and sponsorships began to sustain my writing and turn all of the time I spent on the internet into a full-time job. 

At the time, a lot of this felt empowering. I was the one who called the shots. I was choosy about who I worked with and the jobs didn’t feel like they would ever run out. I said no to far too much to ever grow exponentially, but I wasn’t really trying to. I wasn’t striving for a team or a staff or a seven-figure apartment, I just wanted to write about things I cared about and get paid for it. But the media landscape is nothing if not ever-shifting. Ad asks have gotten more elaborate at the same time that budgets have shrunk. Banner ads have gone the way of the dodo. I’ve found myself increasingly unwilling to do most any of the influencing jobs I’m being tapped for. 

This spring, when I imported my list of newsletter subscribers to Substack, I didn’t have any intention of transitioning my writing there, too. I subscribed to a few Substack newsletters from people who I admired, but I mostly saw Substack as a platform where I could host my latent newsletter list without paying for it. 

I don’t mean to come across as sycophantic or overly enamored with a corporate entity, but what became clear almost immediately was that Substack was a place on the internet that’s actually nice to be. The days of Google Reader are long behind us, but when I open my Substack app or browse the site on my computer, I get that same sense of camaraderie I found in my early internet days. 

In July, I took a really deep breath and decided to turn on my paid subscriptions and I’ve been bowled over by the support. Right now, writing on Substack feels like another in a long line of improbably lucky chances for me to do what I love and get paid for it, but this time the support is coming directly from the folks who are reading. I won’t pretend to have all the answers. Despite years of trying, I’ve never been any good at reading my tea leaves. Still, TEA NOTES is where I am now, and I’d be so eternally, ecstatically, entirely grateful if you’d join me.

And now, hopefully, a few specific questions answered:

What’s Substack?

At its simplest, Substack is an online platform that allows writers and podcasters to publish directly to their audiences and get paid through subscriptions. 

How do I sign up?

To sign up to receive my Substack newsletter, called TEA NOTES, you can enter your email below right here.

Once you sign up for my newsletter, you can upgrade to a paid subscription, which is what will keep the lights on and also what will give you access to all of my writing.

How much does a paid subscription cost?

My newsletter is priced at $5 a month. I will not tell you whether this is cheap or extravagant or less than your monthly fancy coffee habit. I don’t even know if you have a fancy coffee habit! Maybe you have debilitating credit card debt! Maybe you have a trust fund! 

I do know that if more of my current subscriber list went paid, I would be a heck of a lot less worried about my own monthly expenses and lack of trust fund and I could redirect the energy I’ve spent writing about and working for corporate sponsors to working on things that excite and trouble and energize me. And hopefully all of you, too.

What do I get out of this?

Love, gratitude, eternal admiration! And also, regular access to new writing, subscriber conversations, commenting privileges, news, et cetera. 

Truth is, I’m still figuring out what precisely I’m doing on here. For now, it’s an extension of the writing I’ve been doing for the past fourteen years on Reading My Tea Leaves. It’s a place for me to pose questions and try to find solutions. I complain, I delight, I wonder over what it means to be a human in troubling and magical times. I’m trying to send letters a few times a week and also trying to remember that I’m one human being raising three other human beings. Some of my letters are long and rambling, some are short and sweet. Sometimes I write about stuff. Sometimes I don’t.

What if I’m on a tight budget and I can’t afford $5/month?

I hesitated for so long to jump into this model because asking people for money is not comfy! And because there are so many excellent newsletters that I would love to subscribe to if only I had limitless the-cost-of-just-one-fancy-lattes to spend each month on my reading pleasure. Still, there are a few ways to make this more affordable:

+ If you’re able to swing it, signing up for a year’s subscription for $50 gets you a 17% discount per month, so instead of paying $5, the per month rate works out to $4.17.

+ Substack also offers some bundling discounts, so, depending on the letter, if you sign up for more than one paid Substack newsletter at a time, you can get a discounted rate!

+ If you’re the sharing type, I’ve set up a referral system which means that if you share the link to my newsletter with friends or fam or your favorite bodega cat, you can earn free monthly subscriptions! Just three referrals gets you one-month free. (Twenty-five gets you a whole year!) It’s kind of like chain mail except you get more than free pencils in return!

+ At the risk of giving me an anxiety attack, you can also subscribe, unsubscribe, and resubscribe as often as you’d like. Maybe you want to subscribe every few months for a month at a time and use that time to catch up on archived posts and comment threads. Maybe you need to take a few months off and give a latte’s worth to another favorite writer. That works! I get it! You can manage your subscription on the Substack app and/or website.

+ And! I’ll also be offering occasional special discounts! LIKE RIGHT NOW! For the next week (until September 20, 2023), if you sign up for a yearly subscription, you can get 20% off, which means that instead of $50, you’ll pay $40 for the entire year! (And forgive me, but at just $3.33/month this does indeed work out to be significantly less than even a monthly non-fancy latte!)

What if my inbox is really full and I hate getting emails?

If adding one more newsletter to your inbox is competing with your laudable goals of inbox zero, you can send those letters directly to your email archive, skip the email altogether, and visit my Substack homepage directly instead. This is maybe not great for my “open rate,” but I don’t care! Every letter I send is archived and arranged in an easy-to-nagivate homepage that you can visit just like a regular website. Bookmark it! 

Also, in your app settings you can flip the switch for “smart notifications” which means if you read something on the app, you won’t also receive it in your inbox. 

What’s the deal with the app? You seem…enthused…?!

I am not really an app person. I tend not to be an early adopter of anything, and especially nothing technology related, but I have to admit that I really and truly enjoy the Substack App. It reminds me of the early days of Google Reader, where I could log on and see daily musings from all of my favorite internet pals. The Notes feature, which is like a running newsfeed not terribly dissimilar to the site formerly known as Twitter, is chatty and inspiring and gives me lots of food for thought and introductions to new writing, writers, thoughts, and feelings. All the things I love! So many people I admire are currently writing on Substack that I’ve become a bonafide newsletter maximalist, subscribing to new letters with complete abandon. At the risk of sounding like some kind of proselytizing weirdo, it’s just so nice over here!

What’s gonna happen to Reading My Tea Leaves?

For now, she’s gonna stay right here. As long as I can afford to, I’ll keep up with my yearly hosting and server fees to keep the archive open. I might occasionally post something just to the blog. I might decide to scrap everything and start over! Tea leaves! Who can read them?

Are you eschewing all advertising and sponsorships from now ‘til the end of time?

No. At nearly 40, I finally paid off my student loans this summer, but there’s rent to pay and mouths to feed and nary a sugar daddy to be found. If I’m offered one million dollars to make an Instagram ad about the pleasures of reading by candlelight I will not be saying no! You’ve been warned!

Do you love me?

Probably. Yes.

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