Am I getting ripped off writing at Every?

Screenshots of my contract and the financial model I used to decide

When I announced that I had joined Every, a so-called “writer collective,” there was a flood of messages from readers. My mom was kind, “Congratulations, you are my favorite son!” (I’m an only child). My friends were incredulous, “Why did they pick you?” (thanks guys). But the response I got from most internet/media people was “Why are you doing this and what are they paying you?” (a little intrusive).

In response to this, I would like to do something a little...radical. In today’s newsletter, I’ll be sharing screenshots of my contract with Every and the financial model I built to see if I was getting ripped off or not. Yes, this is real.

I’ll talk about how Every’s deal terms work: how much I’m currently being paid, what creative rights I gave up, and why my Napkin Math™ (sorry) said this was the right call. I’ll also share a model you can use so you can do the math to figure out the best online writing option for you. Following that, I’ll also bring in fellow bundle writer Fadeke to discuss why she decided to sign up. Her reasons are very different from mine and equally compelling. You’ll want to make it to the end!

So let’s do a little bit of building in public and dive in.

Content creation is not for the short term

When I first got started in the writing world, the most shocking thing to me was how underpaid writers are. I assumed that a top New York Times reporter would be making equal to that of a top Google Engineer. Both of these high-quality professionals spend their days typing into text editors, are important to society’s function, and are just hard to find. They possess uncommon skills! Arguably, unlike Google engineers, Times writers are less commodified because they have a greater degree of specialization and a brand with audience members. Instead, if you are a normal, non-superstar journalist of 20 years you may hit ~$150k salary. And at the bottom end of the spectrum, the starting salary for many writers in the U.S. is in the $30k range. As a comparison, I have friends who are earning more than that whose job is to pick the color of buttons on apps (they are also less than 3 years out of college). Now you may or may not feel that it is right. But we can universally agree that relative to their amount of private and public influence, writers tend to make very little. 

Platforms like Substack and Ghost are succeeding because they let writers go directly to their fans and own their own distribution and payment channels. Thus, writers capture the means of creation and also more of the profit they generate. There are now dozens and dozens of prominently independent writers who are making far north of $500k! (More power to them and may God bless me with similar levels of bread). 

But of course, there are a lot of challenges with going the independent route. It is not for the faint of heart:

First, the chicken and egg of audience development. If you are popular for something that transfers well to the written word you can probably port that audience into a newsletter. Everyone from MegaChurch Pastor Jimmy Evans to Nightly Newscaster Dan Rather were able to successfully transfer their fame towards lots of subscriptions. But what if you don’t quite have the fire and brimstone style of speaking that fills stadiums? Or don’t have the authoritative, silky, sexy voice that Dan has? Well you are kinda in trouble. There just isn’t a really great way to have an instant fanbase in the competitive world of newsletters. Yes, there are the occasional previously unknown people that break out, like the wonderful economics writer Nathan Tankus, but the reason we are familiar with these stories is because they are rare! Typically, it is an effort of many months and years to build a profitable media business. Most people can’t invest that amount of time into something as uncertain as writing online. Substack has pursued a strategy of going after whale writers because there is a direct marketing funnel from their popularity. Demand gen is simply difficult when monetization is far away and uncertain. Disclosure, I worked at Substack for a few months last year, before they got as popular as they are and before they started the Pro Program in earnest. 

Second, this stuff is hard. Like really, really hard. Producing quality work, week after week, is exhausting. When you start a newsletter you think you are becoming a writer - wrong! Wrong wrong wrong! You are actually becoming a one person media company and are thus responsible for marketing, finance, all operations, and oh yea, writing something worth clicking on a couple of times a week. Keeping that pace up without any external support is taxing. Especially if you are trying to work full-time, it means working every weekend and most nights (trust me on this one). Since so much of this business is momentum, if you take a week off you can watch your growth stall. Yes, you can automate things and yes once you reach a certain level you can coast somewhat—but it is hard to get there. 

Third, the business side is complicated. Knowing which tools to select (Substack or Ghost or Mailchimp or ConvertKit or or or) is only half the battle. Understanding your audience, developing a sustainable growth engine, each of these things could easily be a full time job but instead all those jobs are yours. Many top writers end up hiring and managing a small team to enable them to run the business, but that’s only possible once they’re swimming in cash. When they were just getting started and most desperately needed the help, they couldn’t afford it. And like, this isn’t why most writers started this to begin with. They just wanted to write!

So into this competitive world of tools for writers and writers who can be tools, you must birth your fledging publication. So what do you do if you are not well-known, don’t have any influential friends, and are terrible at Twitter? Note: I am describing myself.

Enter Every and their contract

This was the circumstance I found myself in. I had been writing my own newsletter on Substack for about 6 months and was looking to take the next step. My list was growing quickly and I felt like I had product-market fit. Despite not having payment options available, readers tracked down my Venmo account and paid me anyway. I was onto something! But all the problems that I described above were hitting me—I was burnt out. As an intellectual break, I did a freelance piece for Napkin Math about revenue that went well. Because the previous writer Adam was moving on, Every needed someone to take it over. They asked me to hop on a call and Dan opened it with a question...


Cliffhanger! I know, it sucks. But hey, here I am, once again, asking for you to become a paid subscriber to Napkin Math through Every :)

If you do, you'll get to finish this piece and learn what Dan asked me, what’s in my contract, and what my financial model said that made me decide it was a good deal. You’ll also learn some subtle-yet-important generalizable principles for making paid subscription models work and deciding between various options for where you can publish. As an extra bonus, you'll get a copy of my model so you can decide for yourself what platform to use.

But also, you’ll get access to all my future work breaking down businesses from a quantitative-but-funny-and-understandable perspective. Not to mention, everything else in the bundle. In particular, you might love Divinations, which has a ton of great stuff behind the bundle paywall on business strategy, or Means of Creation, which focuses on the passion economy and is written by Li Jin, who literally invented that term.

Plus, for every new subscriber I get my Mom says, "Are you sure you are doing the right thing?" one less time. Please subscribe to assist in fixing my relationship with my parents and help me make rent.

Anyway, that’s enough pitching for today. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to hit the reply button.

—e

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