Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

Talk about books — print edition

I’m very pleased with the way the newsletter’s first year has gone, and I’ve been asking myseslf whether there are ways I might make it even better. Almost from the start, I’ve thought that I’d like to be able to send out a material object as well as an electronic one. At the moment, you can read the newsletter in an email client, an RSS reader or on the web archive, but not on paper, unless you print it from one of those three sources.

I find myself returning to the idea that, in addition to these, there should also be a more tangible, durable option. In part, this is a response to Paul Graham’s advice to “do things that won’t scale”. Not that scale is a particular problem at the moment: I could send personally signed, handwritten postcards to everybody who is currently signed up for the newsletter (if I had their/your postal addresses, which of course I don’t) without overstretching my capacity.

But it isn’t just a question of doing something that doesn’t scale. A newsletter issue that exists only in the form of bytes and data inevitably seems more ephemeral, more easily overlooked or forgotten than one that has a substantial existence. It’s also fixed and no longer editable, so there’s a greater incentive to make sure that I get it right first time. It would be a bigger commitment.

In short, I’m thinking about offering subscribers the option of receiving each issue of the newsletter in print. Obviously, that would have to be a paid option: I’d need to cover the cost of postage, paper and printing, as well as the additional time required for layout and editing. It’s quite likely that I wouldn’t find any takers who were willing to pay to receive a printed issue of the newsletter by [snail]mail. That’s fine: I don’t mind if there are no takers but I think it’s important that the option should be available. If nobody wants to pay for it, I won’t have to buy envelopes or stamps, or go to the Post Office. If only a handful of subscribers do, my costs in terms of time and materials will be proportionately small.

In order to print copies of the newsletter, I’ll need to create PDF versions from which to do so. This opens up the possibility of offering an intermediate tier in which readers paying a smaller subscription could get a copy of the PDF with their email, or with a download link in the RSS feed. Substack recently introduced two new features which strike me as perfectly suited for this. First, they made it possible to embed various kinds of documents and files (including PDF) in the newsletter emails. Second, they now allow us to make a newsletter free up to a certain point, while reserving the rest for paid subscribers.

So, what I thought of doing was to keep the body of each issue free, and include an embedded PDF in a paid-only section at the end. In other words, everybody would be able to read the content of every issue, by email, RSS and on the web; subscribers at the lower rate would get the PDF in addition and those (if any) at the top rate would get a printed copy sent to them in the post.

I’m thinking about charging between $10 and $12 a month for the printed version and much less than that for the embedded PDF. I think that the lowest monthly subscription that Substack allows is $5 and the lowest annual amount is $30. It seems to me that $30 a year is quite reasonable, so that’s the level at which I’d set the PDF tier. On the other hand $5 a month comes to twice that sum annually, which is steep by comparison. I saw somewhere a suggestion that it might be possible to offer a discount that would reduce the monthly subscription below $5, so I’ll look into that possibility.

If I’m going to do this, I’ll most likely start in January. It’s not possible to comment on this site (and I don’t intend to change that) but I am very interested to hear what you think. To make your views heard, either comment on this thread or tweet at me look out for a follow-up to this post in the next 10 days or so. I look forward to the discussion.

Posted by Art on 21-Nov-2021, updated 11-Dec-2022.