What I've learned from growing oh so close to 2,000 email subscribers
excruciatingly, annoyingly close
It’s getting to be routine. It’s like muscle memory in my fingers when they land on the keyboard.
They mindlessly navigate through this flow:
command+t to open a new tab in Chrome
start typing lyle.blog (it really only takes the first letter to pull it up, though)
and look at the “all subscribers” number
In other words, I’ve been checking my Substack subscriber numbers too much lately.
And I don’t like it one bit.
The thing is, my list was growing at a fairly steady clip basically since March of last year when someone shared my most popular post to date and I gained over 100 subscribers in one day. But now I’ve been within 100 subscribers of the nice, round, beautiful 2,000 number since January 28th. That’s (pulls up a calculator) 71 days.
I’m usually good at not looking at my subscriber numbers. But I’ve been so damn close to 2,000 for so damn long now that it’s become a bad habit. It feels like I just want to get over the 2,000-person hump (sorry, poor choice of words there) so I can move on with my life.
But, here’s the other thing: who cares?!
Clearly, I do. But I know I shouldn’t.
This brings me to my first point.
It’s too easy to see subscribers as numbers on a screen and not, y’know, actual people.
What I should care about is that nearly 2,000 of you are individual humans who have generously allowed me to borrow a small bit of your time each week. That’s remarkable by basically any measure. Like, I couldn’t possibly fit all of you into my house. I can’t even really picture what a group of 2,000 people—sorry, almost 2,000 people—looks like. But I think we can all agree that a group of just about 2,000 people is a lot of people.
Watching and obsessing over subscriber numbers is akin to watching a stock ticker. And like a stock ticker, the graph never goes up and to the right fast enough.
No matter how big your numbers get, there’s always someone else with a bigger number. I happen to know two different Substack writers who were behind me in subscriber counts late last year and they have since passed me this year. They both shall remain
my enemies nameless. The fact that I even know this or care at all is toxic because it can cause me to look at both of them as weird non-human bundles of numbers when, instead, they’re actually awesome people who produce great writing and they deserve every bit of success they can get.
You also never know who’s reading your stuff. Every so often, I’ll hear from people who never leave a like or comment on any of my pieces, and then, seemingly out of the blue, they’ll write a nice email to tell me that they’ve read all my pieces for months and express how big of an impact my writing has had on their lives. Or they upgrade to a paid subscriber. This is not to discount those of you who like and comment, of course. All of those are real, actual, legitimate instances of human connection that mean 1,000% more than an arbitrary round number of total people who receive my posts in their inbox each week.
You don’t need to go viral
Would it be great to have a post of mine go viral? Sure it would. Would I like this post to go viral? Absolutely I would.
I’ve actually never really experienced going viral (not even on Twitter). I guess I’m the perpetual tortoise guy over here—living, breathing, slow-and-steady, proof that you don’t need to go viral to get to approximately 2,000 subscribers. Not sure if I’m winning any races, but only time will tell.
You might be reading this thinking, “Wait, his ‘most popular post’ that he mentioned earlier has over 150 likes on Substack. Isn’t that kinda viral?”
I’d call it more like viral light. I’d bet that most people think that post has way more views than it actually does. I was on a coaching call with a client recently and asked him how many views he thought it had and he guessed around 50,000. The truth? That post has garnered 6,752 views as of this writing. So yeah, not a ton. But the cool part is that it has driven 256 free subscribers and 2 paid subscribers. I also had less than 500 subscribers when I published it, which makes the numbers a bit more outsized and impressive.
The problem with not ever going mega viral is that it can make me doubt how good of a writer I am. It feels like I should be able to produce some combination of words that reach far and wide and burst outside of this tiny bubble of the internet I’ve created here. On the really bad days, usually when I’m tired and feel like I don’t have any ideas to write about, all of this—the slower growth recently, the not going viral, etc.—can make me question if I should even bother to keep writing (this is the part where you leave a comment telling me that I’m crazy and that, of course, I should keep writing).
But my writing does obviously resonate with a lot of people. I know a few writers who have subscriber numbers in the tens and even hundreds of thousands—who also shall remain nameless—and they don’t get nearly the same amount of engagement as I do on my posts. When I pull my head out of the myopic view of have-I-or-haven’t-I-hit-2,000-subscribers-yet, I see everyone who gives my posts a like or leaves a thoughtful comment. Those are gold to me. And a huge part of the reason I show up in your inbox each Saturday at 8:08 am PT.
BTW, I should’ve probably asked you to subscribe or upgrade to a paid plan by this point, so, uhh, yeah, here’s that:
Getting close to a milestone number makes me want to publish more, but also not as much
This is kind of a weird one, but bear with me.
Publishing to an email subscriber base is a double-edged sword. On one side, each post is another swing at the bat—another chance to knock one outta the park. But on the other side, as anyone who has done this before would quickly counter, each post is another invitation for subscribers to click unsubscribe. It’s a weird paradox for those of us who do this regularly.
If you scroll back up to that graph, you’ll see a bunch of dips. Those are all Saturdays. It’s not a super great feeling to spend hours pouring your heart out onto the page to then see like 10 people click a link that, to you, feels like they’re saying, “Cool story, bro. But I’m good.”
Now, other people who have done this for a while will quickly counter by saying unsubscribing is actually a good thing. Because you don’t want your list bloated with people who aren’t opening and engaging with your emails. They might even go into a whole rant about email deliverability and whatnot, at which point I usually start to zone out and think, Yeah, but it still sucks to see people opt out.
In my particular situation, I actually do want to publish more. I want to start the podcast I’ve been thinking about for months now. I’ve considered adding another newsletter during the week that’s more about the writing and creative process (kind of like this one), which would feed into my coaching practice more readily than a memoir piece would. These aspirations have become more challenging recently, ever since I transitioned to doing more of the day-to-day caretaking for my daughter Em—which, as I mentioned in last week’s piece, I swear I’ll be writing more about soon.
At the end of the day, I’m human, which means I suffer from the same human emotions you do, which means I’m fallible, which means I fall into the same traps as any other human being does. That’s probably why, even if you don’t publish long-form writing to the internet, this post resonates with you on some level. Maybe you look at your Instagram following and wish it were higher. Maybe you feel like your latest tweet didn’t get enough likes. Maybe your friends in your group chat didn’t laugh at your funny comment.
We’re all wired similarly. We all want to be seen and loved.
Sharing our thoughts with more than our immediate family on a regular basis is a relatively new thing. It wasn’t all that long ago when a phone call was about the extent to which we could reach someone who didn’t live in the same town as us. Now we can spin up a Substack on a whim and reach 48 US states (yes, I’m staring at you Wyoming and Vermont) and 91 countries just 18 months later.
Our ancient wiring isn’t cut out for this scale of connection yet. We need an upgrade. But the technician won’t be here until sometime between the hours of a decade to several decades from now.
For the time being, we need to take a step back every once in a while and gain some perspective. Because maybe instead of staring at the numbers and trying to will them to go up so we get a fleeting dopamine rush, we need to pull our heads out of our laptops or tablets or phones, refocus them on the physical world around us, turn to the ones we love, and ask them to please like and subscribe. Wait, wait. I mean, tell them you love them, or something like that.
Please subscribe if you haven’t already. I know, I know, I’m shameless.
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There's a handful of people I know in real life that read my stuff, and seeing someone I haven't interacted in years on the street and them starting the catch up with "man, I read all your stuff" really made my day a couple of times. Most of these folk learned about my blog when it was still tame and I'd share it on my socials. Recently, as I've been digging a bit deeper and going a bit weirder, I stopped sharing on social media. I'd love to share it with more people I know, but I don't really want to be in their face with my writing.
It's not the biggest issue, of course, and I'd rather spend more time writing then obsessing about who's reading, but here I am, only human.
Mine hovered just under 1000 (within one or two) for two weeks. Then it finally hit it. It went up a little more and flat-lined for about three weeks. Then it started moving up again. After 2 1/2 years, and only 12 paid subscribers, it is obvious my newsletter is not going to be a significant source of income. So I am not going to think too much about numbers or growing any more and just enjoy the comments from my small group of active readers.