What I've Learned in My First Year on Substack as a Failed Blogger
Can Substack replace traditional blogging? Let's hope so...
Tomorrow will be exactly one year since I published my very first newsletter here on Substack, but it feels a little bit cheaty to describe it as my “anniversary” (Stackiversary? Is that a thing? Can that please be a thing?), because that newsletter went out to exactly zero subscribers, and I only sent one more after it, until over 5 months later, when I decided to import the subscriber list from my blog and start taking this thing seriously.
So this is not really a typical “Substack anniversary” update, in that I’m not sure I’ve really been here long enough to be able to give much insight into my “journey”. (Oh, and I guess it’s also untypical in that I’m not about to reveal any big numbers or runaway successes here, so if you have expectations, I’d suggest lowering them…)
I did want to mark the occasion with some thoughts about the platform, and how it’s working out for me so far, though, so here we go: with a quick caveat to say that this is a really long post, which will probably only be of interest to other Substack creators. I’m always fascinated by articles where writers/bloggers/creators lift the lid on their businesses, which is why I also love writing them, but I know they’re not for everyone, so rest assured, the newsletter will be back to regular programming tomorrow!
Here’s a random photo of my desk, including some shameless product placement of my books!
First, a bit of background for those of you just joining us…
(Quite a bit of this section has been blatantly copied from my ‘about’ page, so feel free to skip this bit if you’ve heard it all before…)
I came to Substack after 15 years of blogging: first as a hobby blogger, then writing for other people, and, finally, as the owner of a very small blog network, which included my personal site, Forever Amber, which used to regularly appear on lists of the Top UK Bloggers, even though it was mostly just about things like that one time I touched an electric fence, or paid £50 for a set of eyelash extensions that made me look like Barbara Cartland.
My blog never made me rich or famous. It did, however, allow me to make a pretty good income by writing about fashion, beauty, travel, and all of the other things I loved, and thought about obsessively: so when the pandemic came along, and everyone decided they didn’t want to read blogs any more when they could just endlessly scroll TikTok instead, I realized I was going to have to try something else.
I might have cried.
OK, I did cry.
The thing is, I had spent well over a decade writing about my life on the internet, and getting paid for it. It was a pretty sweet gig, to be honest, and I loved it. But now my income from it had all but dried up, and instead of being a fashion/beauty blogger best known for her collection of very high heels, I was suddenly a middle-aged mum, who wore leggings every day and didn’t even really like TikTok that much.
Where is the space on the Internet for those of us who don’t like TikTok1, I ask you?
(Oh, and without much money coming in, I was also up to my ears in debt, but with a vast collection of “free” clothes and shoes, most of which I couldn’t even re-sell, because the brands weren’t well-known enough. Yes, that’s a tiny violin you can hear playing in the background…)
In just a few, short years, literally everything had changed: from the world itself (Thanks, Covid), to my career, to the way I now woke up with weird wrinkles on my chest, and had developed something I was to learn were called “hip dips”. Who knew?
I’d heard about Substack from(Whose newsletters are still some of my favourites on here, so go subscribe to them if you haven’t already), but although I’d impulsively signed up for an account, on which I’d re-posted one of the posts from my blog, I couldn’t really imagine what I’d do with it.
Which was a problem, really.
What did I have to say that I wasn’t already saying on either the blog itself, or on social media?
Why would people even CARE?
More importantly: what would my newsletter — which I’d given exactly the same name as my blog, thinking I could always change it later if I wanted to — be ABOUT?
Because, unlike my blog, which has always been about whatever happened to grab my interest at the time, it seemed to me that a newsletter had to be ABOUT something. It had to have a niche. This was where I’d gone wrong with blogging. My blog was about anything and everything. Fashion. Beauty. Parenting. Travel. The international man of mystery who lived next door, and who’d probably have been really creeped out to know I was documenting his every move on the internet. Er, sorry, Nigel.
This newsletter only exists because of the support of its subscribers. It would make my day if you’d consider joining them by signing up below…
I tried to pull all of these various threads together by referring to the site as a “lifestyle” blog, but the truth is that “lifestyle” is such a vague, all-encompassing term that it’s still really hard for people to figure out what the hell your “lifestyle” site is supposed to be about, much less why they should want to follow it.
In my case, the people who’d come for the fashion content were bored rigid by the parenting stuff. The ones who’d arrived looking for product recommendations were outright incensed by my insistence on telling long, rambling stories about my life (“I don’t care about your life,” read one memorable comment. “I just want to see what you’re wearing!”) but the people who DID like those stories didn’t like having them constantly interspersed with photos of all the clothes and shoes I kept buying/being sent. And, honestly, the conclusion of the ‘Nigel’ story was a real anti-climax, even to me.
So I had a lot of readers (Over 70,000 at the height of the blog’s success), but they were all there for vastly different things, which is one of the reasons I never really felt like I’d built a particularly large “following”, even though my site had been around for what felt like forever.
Case in point: when I decided to import my blog’s email list to Substack — which I did in March of this year, when I decided it was time to start taking the newsletter semi-seriously — it had just over 1,000 names on it: which might seem like a lot (And obviously would be if I’d been starting from scratch…), but which, in the context of the amount of traffic my blog had once had, was pretty unimpressive, really.
Importing the email list
So, I imported the list, and decided to commit to sending out a newsletter at least once a week. Here’s where we go behind the paywall, so I can show you some figures…