It took James Clear about nine years to reach a million email subscribers. The Atomic Habits author reached his two millionth subscriber less than 24 months later, achieving a rate of newsletter growth that’s hard for most authors and one-person business owners to fathom.
This is the type of story most of us are used to reading in our newsfeeds. Giant numbers. Colossal wins. Viral success. Victories that are measured in millions. I love reading these epic success stories as much as anyone. But sometimes these stories can also feel a bit daunting.
Like, Is everyone hitting it big except me?
Yes. (Kidding.) No, no they're not. And you can achieve great success without ever becoming a viral sensation. In fact, that's the normal way. For most of us, success is neither fast nor flashy. It happens gradually, through a lot of hard work and mundane consistency.
On that note, I recently crossed 1,000 email subscribers. It took me three years. I’d like to celebrate that slow success while telling you briefly how I did it. Because the slow path is probably more common than the internet would have us believe.
Starting from scratch
I believed in the value of having a newsletter years before I finally created one. I heard many authors and entrepreneurs preach the benefits of starting an email list. I finally launched my newsletter at the end of 2019 and just crossed 1,000 subscribers a few weeks ago in October 2022.
I’ve never relied on my newsletter for business. It’s sort of my hobby writing project that allows me to meet and interact with fellow writers and marketers.
As a writer, building a newsletter seemed practical as well as fun. On the practical side, it was an easy way for people who find value in my blog to stay updated about the latest posts and resources. On the fun side, a newsletter gives me a direct line of communication between myself and my readers. Every time I click publish, people email me their own stories, book and article recommendations, or their thoughts on the latest post.
In the early days, I didn’t give the newsletter much attention. I only had a few dozen subscribers and didn’t send many emails. I began taking the newsletter more seriously after I sponsored a tech conference in Austin, Texas.
As a sponsor, I set up a booth for my copywriting business and gave a small marketing presentation. During the two-day event, I kept a clipboard on the table where passersby could sign up for my email list. I gained 40 or so signups, bumping me close to 100 followers. That’s when I began putting more time and attention into the newsletter.
The focus of my newsletter has gone through multiple iterations. Today — and for the foreseeable future — I write mostly about the craft and business of writing. I share resources and ideas about freelancing, copywriting, marketing, and (of course) the writing process. My readers are a mix of marketers, freelancers, and people who aspire to earn a living through their words.
Over the past three years, I’ve tried various tactics to grow the newsletter. At the end of the day, most of my success can be attributed to simply writing and publishing regularly on the internet. I just keep writing. Put simply: the more articles I publish, the more opportunities people have to discover my stories.
In the earliest days, I averaged about 10–20 new email subscribers per month. About a year ago, that growth accelerated to about 35–45 monthly subscribers. Today, I’m averaging above 60.
Where have all these readers come from? From what I can tell from analytics and interactions with readers, most people find my newsletter through one of two avenues: One-off viral events and incremental growth.
One-off viral events
One of the most exhilarating aspects of writing is the possibility of serendipitous shares and virality.
My largest one-off viral event happened in January 2022. I wrote a long article detailing my year without social media. After clicking publish, I forwarded the article to author Cal Newport, since his work had greatly inspired my break.
A few hours later, Newport emailed me back, “Good timing.” He included a link to his latest blog post, which was a synopsis of my article. Over the next few weeks, thousands of Newport’s readers flocked to my website. I gained over 160 subscribers that month.
The Cal Newport repost was my largest one-off subscriber growth event. Since then, I’ve had a few related (though much smaller) instances. Every few months one of my articles will receive a share from someone with a large readership. The result is usually 20–30 subscribers in a matter of a few days. I’ve written multiple guest posts that have reaped similar results.
But on the whole, my journey to 1,000 subscribers has mostly been thanks to people regularly discovering my website through Google or LinkedIn.
I passively receive somewhere between 1–3 email subscribers per day. Mostly, these new readers find one of my articles on Google and subscribe to receive future posts.
The great thing about Google is that my articles have longevity. One of the disadvantages of social media is its fleeting nature. I put a lot of time into my articles. On social media, even a popular post can lose steam after a day or two. Meanwhile, Google makes it possible for new people to discover my articles every day, even the posts I published years ago.
While I don’t like the short-term nature of social media, I do share every article I publish on LinkedIn. This generates immediate reads and usually some good conversations in the comments. Friends might reshare the post. And once or twice per month, I’ll give my newsletter a shoutout on LinkedIn with a call to action for people to subscribe. Each time I gain a handful of new subscribers.
Sure, the one-off viral events are exciting when they occur. But the vast majority of my readership has found my blog and newsletter through the slow yet consistent path of search engine discovery and LinkedIn shares.
To 1,000 and beyond
I've loved writing since I was seven years old. It’s my craft. There are few things that bring me more joy than simply sitting down to write or revise a story.
At the end of the day, the numbers I've discussed in this article don’t really matter. Sure, hitting a million subs like James Clear would blow my mind. But if I’m honest, even if no one read my work, I would keep writing just for the hell of it.
That said, I’m grateful to make a comfortable living through my writing and to have people who consistently read my stories and essays. What matters most to me are the interactions I receive from readers. So, thanks for reading this article. And if you’re subscribed, thank you for helping me cross this milestone.
Speaking of the newsletter...
Subscribe to The Craft and Business of Writing. You'll receive a once-weekly email from me about freelancing, writing, and marketing.