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Organising My Substack Publication
Ideas, publishing and planning
In talking to some of my fellow Substack writers the other day, I happened to mention that I had booked out my interviews calendar six months ahead. A couple of people were amazed.
It got me to thinking about my Substack publishing strategy, and how that’s evolved since I launched Sharon’s Anti-Racism Newsletter (SARN) in August 2020.
This is my attempt to capture some of that (and may be a useful guide for anyone helping me with the publication in the future).
Why I have a content calendar
I was a journalist for many years. During that time I worked as a writer, sub-editor and editor, and we always had a content calendar where we planned in detail two months or more ahead, and also had an annual calendar to guide us.
When I moved to freelancing, I continued to plan ahead, which is why, to some people’s frustration, I was hardly ever available for last minute jobs. By the start of each month, and sometimes by the middle of the previous month, I’d know what I’d be working on for the entire month. So it was a no brainer for me to have a content calendar for my anti-racism newsletter. (I don’t keep a content calendar for this Substack, since I only publish occasionally here.)
I use Notion to help me keep organised. I mostly default to the kanban view, with visible columns for the different production stages (ideas, in progress, scheduled, published), hidden archive columns for each year, and a hidden spiked column for ideas I’ve mostly given up on. This works pretty well, though I’ve experienced a few glitches lately so I’m starting to investigate additional options.
Finding my publishing rhythm
When I launched SARN, my publishing cadence was all over the place. In part, that’s because I had a bank of content I was moving over from Medium, and was also writing furiously. I’d publish several times a week (I think one week I got up to 5 pieces!)
But I soon realised that if I put myself in a reader’s shoes, that was way too often, at least for the topics I cover. I think people need time to think and let them sink in, and Black and Global Majority readers may also need to take a breath before diving back into experiences similar to the ones they’ve had.
So at the end of 2020 I decided I’d start 2021 with a new approach, publishing twice a week, with 25% of my content reserved for paid subscribers. My initial schedule looked like this.
1st Monday - Update from Sharon (paywalled)
1st Wednesday - article
2nd Monday - article
2nd Wednesday - interview
3rd Monday - article (paywalled)
3rd Wednesday - interview
Penultimate publishing day - article
Last publishing day - reading list
Tweaking the content mix
With any publication, it can take a while to hit the content sweet spot, plus things may change. In 2020, I experimented a lot so see what resonated with readers. I learned that in addition to the articles, they enjoyed my reading list curations (a sort of done for you guide to anti-racism reading), as well as the interviews featuring activists and writers.
In 2022 I decided to extend the interview approach to feature Black founders and changemakers - the Building Our Own Table series.
(Side note: I started doing interviews when I had about 100 subscribers total, and they have always been popular. Now that I’m closing in on 5,000 they’re a good value proposition for people wanting to be in front of an audience like mine.)
Deciding what to offer paid subscribers
I offered paid subscriptions from the start, thanks to a friend who advised me to make it possible for people who wanted to support SARN to do so. That left me with the issue of how much content should be reserved for paid subscribers, and what to offer them as a thank-you for their support.
On the first question, I decided that because of the larger goal of educating on racism, about 75% of the content would be free each month. Then I started experimenting: I tried a couple of paid subscriber events. Take up was small, though those who attended loved them. I tried threads - very little interest. It’s been the same more recently with the chat function. In the end, I settled on a behind-the-scenes letter once a month, one permanently paywalled article, and early access to an article that will later be free.
And then, when Substack introduct podcast functionality, I knew that this was a way to give my financial supporters some additional value. So I added a mini-podcast (most episodes are under 5 minutes) into the publishing cadence. Now it looks like this:
1st Monday - Update from Sharon (paywalled)
1st Wednesday - article (free)
2nd Monday - article (paywalled)
2nd Wednesday - interview or article (free)
2nd Friday - audio - (paywalled)
3rd Monday - article (early access for paid subscribers)
3rd Wednesday - interview (free)
Penultimate publishing day - article (free)
Last publishing day - reading list (free)
Last Friday - audio - (paywalled)
This means that around 60% of the content is free to read.
Where possible, I try to coincide the open release of the early access article with the update article, so that all subscribers get something at the start of the month. This feels right to me.
And recently, thanks to new functionality from Substack, I’ve been experimenting with paywalling my archives. So everything that’s free currently stays free for about six months, then goes behind the paywall. That makes access to the full archives a true benefit for paid subscribers. So far, it doesn’t seem to have hurt subscriptions. Reading lists and interviews are always free, as it makes no sense to me to paywall content that’s promoting others.
Using writing sprints to fill the content bank
I’m sure many writers on Substack can relate to that “wth should I publish in my next edition” moment. Once I’d exhausted my Medium content bank, it was sometimes difficult to stay ahead.
I have a bunch of ideas (about 50) at last count, but many of those are just in note form. So last September I set myself the challenge of writing a piece every day. I didn’t stop to edit; the point was to have something closer to being publishable than a two-line note.
While I didn’t quite manage to write daily, I ended up with 25 pieces. I’ve been using those to supplement the pieces I’ve composed this year, and I’ve got a couple I’m holding back for my next book. As I write, I’ve still got about 10 of those left. I’m gearing up for another writing sprint soon to fill up the content bank again.
Filling my interview calendar
Last year, I converted my interview questions to Google Forms, which include information about the publication, and allow people to indicate their consent for me to publish and promote the interviews. This has worked pretty well, though I wish there were an easy way to export form content to Google Docs. In spite of that, the combination of form answers with the template I’ve now set up in Substack means the production time for interviews is shorter. That’s useful, as I’m still a one-woman band with a day job.
But I realised that it was taking a while to actually get my interview pipeline filled, so I decided to put out a call on LinkedIn to see if I could fill the 20 slots left for the year. Within two days, I had 20 DMs from people wanting to be interviewed. In addition, several people were tagged in my post, so I have a head start on next year’s calendar. Best of all, within three days, the first four interviews had been submitted.
Working on the newsletter
During the month, I open a document for my monthly reading list curation, and drop links in till I get to 10, at which point I start another one. I’ll also draft articles if they occur to me.
Now that I’m better organised, I can do the rest of the work to put out 8 articles and 2 podcasts in a couple of days each month, with the aim of having the next month’s content scheduled a week before the start of the month. (No, I don’t always achieve this.)
That process includes:
looking at what I have in the content bank and picking out what I’m going to finalise, then making sure this is in the right place in Notion
deciding on the interviews, which are mostly first come, first served
finishing up the reading list
doing the behind the scenes letter
recording two podcast episodes
creating graphics in Canva (I have a template so it doesn’t take too long, plus I use the same graphic for regular features)
How this all works and what’s next
For the future, I have one idea which will make things even more organised - to finalise more pieces in the content bank and save them as Substack drafts (complete with graphics) so that the person whom I’ve nominated as an admin can go in and publish them on schedule if needed. I may need to do an editing sprint to make that happen.
What I love about this approach is that it removes the stress, while still leaving the flexibility to change what I’m publishing if something urgent comes up. It also means that if I’m unwell or busy or simply don’t have any inspiration in the moment, I know the content is taken care of so I don’t let subscribers and supporters down.
Fellow Substackers (and others), I’m interested to hear how you plan your publications. And if you have any questions I haven’t answered about the process, feel free to drop them in the comments.
Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2023. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.