Why teams of writers will win the newsletter race
The rebundling of unbundled modern media
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Teams rule. As someone who has spent their career building products in fast-paced startups, I live this mantra every day. Give me three great collaborative people who see the world differently than I do and we will move mountains. The superior creative output of great teams vs individuals is so well documented as to be essentially a religion in everything from rock bands to chess.
Teamwork is a differentiator in the quality of the written word as well, despite how much we love imagining writers holed up alone in their mountain cottages. In fact, despite the common narrative about the rise of the solo writers, now is a better time to join a team as a writer than ever before. You can get the best of both worlds, especially as new tools and products crop up to merge the value of owning your audience with the benefit of being part of a reputable brand.
The most common quote people pulled from “The audience grows the creator” was around this concept:
“the most attractive investments come from audience members who are themselves creators or influencers”
I gave the example of Hypehouse or On Deck where multiple creators are connected in a community, serving as audience members for each other, cross-pollinating, and pulling each other up. But that doesn’t mean each creator has to have their own entirely separate brand; in fact creating a visible team has huge benefits.
Last week, that theory got a major new piece of evidence. Nate Baschez, Dan Shipper, and the team at the publication formerly known as “the Everything Bundle” (now Every) left their place on the top 10 paid Substack leaderboard to launch what they call a “writers collective.”
Their publication on Substack was pushing up against the edge of Substack’s capabilities in some areas, and this new custom product turns those “edge cases” into a core capability. Every’s new “collective” gives you a clear sense that you’re subscribing to a single bundle of value, rather than just a bunch of different individual publications. You feel the reputational weight of the collective as a reason to subscribe, and each sub-publication lives neatly under a consistent roof. Nate and Dan’s love letter to the power of teams of writers is simultaneously “just an about page” but also maybe the best article they’ve written. They refer specifically to the value of establishing a higher-level brand, one that means individual writers no longer have to build reputation all on their own. They call it the ability for writers to stop “chasing clout.” For any solo creator looking to gain early traction, the paragraphs that follow about the challenges of writing alone will make you eat your heart out.
“Aiming directly for clout is all about profiting from trends, rather than creating them. It’s about answering questions that have already been asked, not about asking new questions.”
I’ve been working side-by-side hundreds of developing writers in various incubators and fellowships over the past 6 months, and I’ve seen this first-hand. All of a sudden you wake up and you’re racing to get that article out that you know everyone else will write but you still want to write first (hello, the 50 articles on GME I’ve gotten “rapid edit” requests for this week). It can feel zero sum, as if writing isn’t about creating value but instead capturing some percentage of it. Most of us didn’t get in this to become reporters, but the draw to recency and to the “hot topic” is resistible only to those willing to ignore the growth metrics that result when you succumb to what Nate and Dan call “blowing counterclockwise into a hurricane and claiming credit when it reaches a Category 5.”
Teams of writers solve a bunch of other problems in addition to reputation, and you need look no further than “old-world” publications to understand that! Frequency is the obvious one; it’s well known that frequent and constant engagement with your audience is a (the?) key to growth. So much so that Substack encourages writers to experiment with other formats they can “churn out” more quickly, eg lists of other articles or books you like, less-polished thoughts and reflections, and so on. Yes, that’s one reason why you’re seeing so many “open threads” as a format employed by many of the top writers. Don’t get me wrong, I think a lot of those are indeed as valuable as highly polished essays, but the simple fact is that a bunch of writers don’t want to publish more frequently.
To be sure, some writers succeed massively without leveraging frequency to build momentum with their audience. Eugene Wei and Kevin Kwok are so well respected in the community in part for this reason - their articles are so damn good that they can get away with publishing once every few months and still grow massively. But imagine what would happen if Eugene, Kevin, and a few other writers who consistently deliver exceptional value all teamed up together. Would anyone in their right mind not subscribe to that bundle?
Frequency isn’t just about growth, it’s also about delivering consistent value to paid subscribers. A lot of writers with paid lists that I talk to call this having “hungry mouths to feed” and it can be so stressful as to actually inhibit the creative process. It’s a big enough issue that Substack has put some serious product effort behind trying to ease the burden, like letting writers “pause” subscriptions so they can go on a break. But like “going on break” in your relationship, there’s little you can do to keep from having to work hard to rebuild momentum when you return. Teams of writers can deliver consistent and diverse value people are willing to pay for while offering writers the space to be creative and pursue quality over frequency.
Teams are more than the sum of their parts because they provide diverse viewpoints on the same issue. That’s true of writers as well, but with increased diversity also comes a need to allow readers to focus just on the topics they care about. That’s why when I was young everyone in my family loved The Washington Post and their diverse group of quality writers, but when we got the newspaper we’d immediately split it apart: my Dad and I took the sports, Mom got the front page, and my little brother got the comics. Diversity of views on a single topic is sorely needed in modern media, and the evolution of teams of newsletters will also need to build ways for readers to trust the larger group but focus their gaze on specific areas. Every’s new product is a view towards how this is developing; they have “collections” (aka “beats”) which are essentially posts from multiple writers grouped around a certain theme. Right now you can’t subscribe to a collection, but you could imagine that in the future if you really only follow Every for their juicy takes on the future of email, you could do that.
Isn’t this….what we said we were leaving behind?
The obvious counterargument to a bullish take on teams of writers is something like “that’s old-world media, and the rise of Substack shows that solo publications are the future.” It’s true that collectives like Every will start looking more like traditional publishers — they will have sections, editors, producers, and they will control the pot of cash that flows to the writers. Some big writers who left because they were tired of being “controlled” by those things will never look back. But consider the fact that as of a few months ago 7 of the top 10 earning publications on Substack had multiple writers. Leaning on each other in a team allows writers to succeed, even in these new platforms where they have much more control.
Perhaps the most important difference between new collectives vs old-world publishers is the relative power of the individual writer. While huge names like Matt Yglesias have shown you can leave a publisher and whip up a few thousand subscribers overnight, many writers for “traditional” media would be starting essentially from scratch if they went to Substack. But when writers join a team like Every, they can jumpstart their reach via Every’s brand, and all the while be building a list of subscribers that they own forever! It’s a killer value to writers, and one that makes it much more attractive to join a team as an up and coming writer. You could very well imagine that a smart writer will start looking like a tech employee - bouncing from one team/collective to the next every two to three years.
What are we waiting for?!
So what’s stopping everyone from teaming up already? Why isn’t the Product Kitchen full of ten writers if this is such a killer value? The answer is that it’s not so simple. There are a couple of specific challenges, and given the huge value that does indeed exist here you can bet that new products and services will crop up in all of these spaces.
Teams don’t just win by being together. They win by being better than their sum, and that often means they’re more complementary than similar. They’re Shaq and Kobe, Simon and Garfunkel. One look at how much money good companies pour into recruiting tells you how hard this is to get right. Efforts like collab.party can help bring creators together, and other matchmaking services will likely arise. Community-first writers programs like On Deck or Compound would also be good bets to go even deeper in this value. They already understand the value of content, which is why they have continued to hire vocal thought leaders in all of the spaces they care about — an On Deck collective could go a long way to surfacing the quality and diversity of those voices. You can bet that’s one reason why Andreesen Horowitz is making such a vocal move towards creating their own publishing company. In both cases bringing diverse thought leaders under one roof elevates the brand, and builds a platform that can deliver the values I outlined in this piece to new companies or entrepreneurs who join their portfolios.
Upfront cost of building
The simple fact that Every built this fully custom solution and hired an engineer and a few different firms to make that happen is telling. Right now it requires a lot of manual work to do things like bundle and unbundle publications, deal with analytics and rev share, etc. But help is on the way - companies like Check, an API based platform for building payroll infrastructure which just got 40M investment from Stripe and others. Other tools that lower the upfront cost Every went through will build on top of new services like Check and make launching an Every-type platform something that smaller writers can feasibly do without writing lots of code.
These writer collectives look a whole lot like startups, albeit with a decidedly decentralized flare. How will they distribute ownership amongst the founders, those willing to take a risk in the hopes that one day the publication is a big brand? When a publication is big, should founding writers split the revenue with new writers 1:1 based on engagement? Probably not, but you can imagine how complex this could get. This is where the intersection with the decentralized crypto communities minting their own coins starts sounding a lot less crazy and a lot more “holy shit that solves all of my problems.” Early experiments are already underway - the first “community owned essay” is now being crowdfunded on Ethereum.
We think the writing is on the wall, and we’re not just talking about it. We’ve got some exciting stuff in this direction to launch over the next few months, and we’re actively looking to build our own unstoppable team. If this article spoke to you, don’t just hit that like or share button - reach out and let’s join forces. But also… go ahead and hit the like and share buttons too.