I crossed the coveted $5k+ per month in my second year of blogging and became a six-figure earner in my third year. And I can honestly say this: all of this was possible thanks to my amazing email list subscribers!
Email lists are where the money’s at. If you don’t believe me, take it from Marie Forleo — the queen of digital marketing!
In this post:
Why Many Writers Fail to Make Money
Words are more powerful than we give them credit for. Often, a word will create biased expectations, and depending on how you interpret that word, those expectations will either set you free or trap you.
Consider these two words:
Writer vs. blogger.
Technically, a blogger is also a writer. But I often see different expectations attached to these terms.
When I speak to “writers,” their expectation for making money comes down to this: write and do nothing else, and the money will come.
I hate to break it to you, but just writing isn’t really enough to pay the bills.
Writers need to market themselves. Let’s say that you consider yourself a writer. To make money, you have to find a way to reach an audience, and then find a way to reach them at will. (Ring a bell, my fellow bloggers?)
In short, you will need to build an email list, and then continue to make consistent efforts to grow that email list. If you thought you’d just start a Substack account, start writing newsletters, and then like magic, subscribers will start to trickle in, then ho boy, you’re in for a surprise. That’s simply not how the world of online writing works.
On the other hand, the “blogger” has the concept of marketing built into it. When you hear “blogger,” you start to imagine all the marketing efforts associated with it: email list, blog traffic, audience, Pinterest, social media, and so on and so forth.
For folks like me who teach blogging and content marketing, the term “blogger” is a gift! We convey so much with a single word!
But that feels like a disservice to those who consider themselves “writers.”
Because if you’re someone who writes online, you have to think like a blogger and/or a content marketer. If not, you’ll never make money! And let’s be honest, we all need money. Money cannot buy happiness, but it can finance the things you need to be happy, or at least, the things you need to feel safe and content (which are basically prerequisites to happiness!)
In the times we live in, writers cannot be simply writers. They have to be marketers too! They have to learn how to market themselves and build an audience, just as bloggers do.
And the best way to build an audience for writers and bloggers?
It’s by building and growing an email list.
Is there no way to make money without building an email list?
Look, you can do what many other writers do:
- You can get a 9–5 that pays the bills and then write whatever you want in your own time, without care for making money because that stuff is taken care of already.
- You can write novels, find agents, and publish your writing the old-fashioned way. If that’s the case, you better be really, really, really, good! Because to make a living as just a writer who doesn’t do their own marketing, you have to write books that not only sell in heaps but also get picked up for movies and shows.
- You can start cold-pitching potential freelance writing clients. Or, get on LinkedIn and start making some connections. But understand that LinkedIn is just another way to “market” yourself, so…
That 9–5 idea is totally valid. In fact, check out Zulie Rane’s article about overemployment to make sense of how this works.
But I’ll be honest with you. A vast majority of writers can not make it as traditional authors who can live off their book sales. But online writing? Technically, anybody can do that! If you can string sentences together and have a skill or knowledge of something (or things) that you can write about, then you can easily start a blog, build an email list, and start making a full-time income.
The caveat? You’ll have to do more than just write.
You’ll have to promote your writing and build an audience with an email list. At the very least, you’ll need to network on LinkedIn if you’re going the freelance route.
Is LinkedIn enough for freelancers?
In theory, yes.
If you love working with clients, sure. Get on LinkedIn and build that network. Many freelance writers swear by LinkedIn for finding high-ticket clients.
However, I would still recommend building an email list because eventually, it’ll allow you to ease up on freelancing, and create a semi-passive income stream. This is great because imagine what more you will be able to do when you automate your earnings without having to rely on finding clients.
- You can start writing that novel that you haven’t had any time to work on.
- You can pick up a new hobby.
- Read the mountain of books you’ve been meaning to but haven’t had the time for.
And so much more!
So, how do you start building an email list?
The rest of this article focuses on the monetization part (coming up shortly!) but I still want to leave you with some resources in case you’re brand new at this and need some help getting started with that email list.
First things first, you need to sign up for an email service provider or ESP. I recommend ConvertKit.
But you can also look at:
You can even look at using Substack if you do not have funnels and automated sequences that we bloggers and content marketers use for marketing efficiency.
Next, you’ll be building an email list with your content. Bloggers have an advantage here; you can lure in potential subscribers using your blog posts (a.k.a. content,) freebies as incentives, good old SEO, Pinterest, social media, word of mouth, etc. If you’ve never considered yourself a blogger and prefer using the term “writer” instead, it’s a great time for a mental shift.
You may be a “writer,” but start thinking like a blogger.
To learn more about how to build an email list, I recommend you read the following blog posts:
Every bloggers and business owner needs an email list. Here’s a complete guide to growing your email list with your blog.
A comprehensive list of 47 creative methods to grow and maintain an engaged email list, using website, blog, emails, social media, and more.
Can you make money with a small email list?
New bloggers I talk to often wonder: How many subscribers should one have to start making money???
Many ask this question expecting me to say 5k subscribers or 20k subscribers.
The truth is that you can start making money with a small email list. The bigger the list, the more money you’ll make, for sure, but having a smaller list doesn’t mean you cannot make money with it.
The thing is, people don’t willingly subscribe to email lists unless they like a business or creator. And if they like you, many of them will also buy from you.
Here’s a hypothetical scenario:
Let’s say that you have 500 subscribers and you decide to sell a $19 ebook. If only 2% of your subscribers decide to purchase from you, you have 10 people giving you $190 bucks. If you sold a $199 online course to the same 10 subscribers, you’d have made $1,990.
Now here’s a real-life example:
I pre-sold one of my online courses to an email list of around 3k subscribers a couple of years ago for $65. At a little over a 2% conversion rate, I made close to $5k from the pre-sale event alone.
Also, for reference, at that time I’d had my blog for less than two years!
Can you write on Medium to make money and forgo all other marketing efforts?
There was a time, back in 2018–2019, when the blogging platform Medium was still a novel concept and product. A lot of writers there made a fortune then just by writing; Medium took care of the marketing and promoting parts. Some of those writers still continue to reap the benefits that came with being early adopters. But those days are gone. If you start writing on Medium today, chances are that unless you live in a country where living expenses are super low, you won’t be able to live off Medium money anytime soon.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t write on Medium at all, in fact, if you love writing, Medium can still be a viable way to make a few hundred bucks per month. But it probably won’t be enough to make a living.
Basically, you have to have another income stream, or five, on top of writing on Medium.
And that’s where an email list comes into play.
Alright, that was a long intro. Now let’s get to the meat of the post:
How Do Writers Make Money with An Email List
The following methods are tried and tested by many. You don’t have to use all of them, of course. Choose the one(s) that speak to you and feel the most like you.
1. Teach what you know via online courses:
This is for the nonfiction writers, bloggers, and content marketers.
Online courses are a huge part of my total income. I sell them primarily to my subscribers. No ads, nothing! You wouldn’t see any Facebook ads popping up for my products anytime soon. My courses and workshops sell with organic email marketing efforts. Additionally, SEO plays a big part in bringing people to my website.
Here’s how it goes:
- People find my blog via search engines or Pinterest
- Some of them may buy my products right away, but many of them sign up for my email list first and then buy my courses and workshops.
And here’s where I add a little self-promo: if you want to learn more about how to write search engine optimized (SEO) blog posts, sign up for my blog writing workshop!
In this 6-week workshop over Zoom, you'll learn how to research, write, and optimize blog posts for search engines (SEO) that not only make readers love you, but also convert to subscribers and buyers.
Writers who’re skeptical, before you start yawning and rolling your eyes, hear me out.
You started writing because you know something or have a skill that others wish to know more about. If that’s the case, given enough demand, they’ll pay to learn from you.
Building an online course is a bit of work, but it’s not difficult. Turn on your camera and record yourself talking. Or, like me, if you hate showing your face, you can record your voice, or record your voice over your computer screen.
I once signed up for an amazing course where the instructor simply recorded her screen where she was talking through a presentation (made with Powerpoint or Canva or something similar.) Another similarly amazing online course was completely text-based!
So yeah, you don’t have to be a tech whiz or multimedia pro to make online courses. Believe me, I ain’t one and yet I have a successful online course. There are plenty of amazing online course software that you can choose from; they’ll take care of the technical parts, including payments and other course facilitations. Consider these third-party online course platforms:
If you have a good, evergreen online course that has demand, then you can continue to sell it for months and years to come, which will enable you to create a passive income stream.
Today, I make close to $5k per month selling my online course to my email list subscribers. No social media ads, no other promos. Just my good old email list.
If you wish to know how I did this, read the following blog post:
A case study detailing why I created my evergreen online course — Side Income with Canva Templates — and how I make money every month from it.
2. Create and sell ebooks
An online course is a deep dive into a topic.
If you’re not quite there yet, feel free to dip your toes into a more accessible form: ebooks. Then sell them to your subscribers.
Ebooks are text-based documents, so they’re likely the easiest things to create as a writer. Ebooks can be anywhere from 20 pages to longer, and you can sell them for 10–30 bucks, depending on how informative and useful the books are. In some rare cases, I’ve seen creators sell ebooks at a much higher price.
Creating ebooks is easy. You can use the following software to format your ebooks:
There are others too, of course. Feel free to read this in-depth guide if you’re interested in creating and selling ebooks.
You can host and sell these ebooks through:
- your website (if your website has e-commerce capabilities such as WooCommerce for WordPress users, Squarespace, etc.)
- on Gumroad
- via Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.
Kourosh Dini, a six-figure ebook seller on Gumroad had this little piece of advice when asked about tips for making more sales:
Make sure to cultivate your mailing list. It is probably your best audience. — Kourosh Dini
Because ebooks are easy to make, consider writing several of them. Then, start selling to your subscribers.
3. Run ads directly in your newsletter
You have worked hard and now your newsletter is growing. How about running ads directly inside your newsletter? Dylan R. wrote a fascinating piece about how he monetizes his relatively small newsletter and makes over $1k in ads per month.
Here’s the gist for beginners:
You can join platforms like Swapstack to find ads for your newsletter. Swapstack is a marketplace for newsletter ads. As the newsletter creator, you can join the platform for free. You can start off by running cheaper campaigns, and as you gain more subscribers and confidence, start charging more per ad.
4. Promote affiliate products within newsletters
If you haven’t had a chance to monetize your newsletters, there’s another way to promote products and services to your newsletter subscribers and make money. It’s called affiliate marketing.
In short, you partner up with brands and companies and share their products or services using a unique affiliate link. When a subscriber clicks that link and makes a purchase, you earn a little commission.
A newsletter is a great way to promote your affiliate products and monetize your email list (as long as you do not overdo the promos; stick to promoting one or two products per email.)
5. Introduce a paywall to your newsletters
Yeah, the good old Substack routine. For writers who do not wish to write separate blog posts and newsletters, but want to treat them as one and the same, Substack can be one way of monetizing your writing.
But if you’re a blogger like myself, you are more likely to have a primary blog and then use your newsletters as a way to update your subscribers on new content, products, etc. If that’s the case, worry not! For example, ConvertKit — my preferred email marketing platform — now allows you to stick your newsletters behind a paywall with just a click. It’s really easy to do, and you can decide which newsletters are free for all, and which go behind a paywall.
But remember, whether you’re using Substack or ConvertKit or something else, you’ll still need to market yourself and build an audience first before you can start monetizing your newsletters.
To that point, I have to refer you back to the beginning of this article where I shared why writers don’t make money (because remember, many of them think they will write, and the readers will just come… which, if you recall, doesn’t happen.)
And these are the five ways a writer (and blogger and creator and small business owner) can monetize their email lists and make a full-time income with often part-time efforts.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this: If you’ve decided to make writing your main gig, build that email list. Even if you can’t decide right away exactly how you’ll monetize your list, build it anyway. The monetization part will come eventually. And one day, you’ll thank yourself for one of the best decisions of your life!
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