Dan Lewis is the author of the Now I Know newsletter, a daily trivia newsletter filled with interesting anecdotes and factoids. He's been writing the newsletter for over a decade.
Here, Lewis shares what's he's learned about writing, monetization, and growth since starting in 2010.
How did you get started writing?
"I’ve been writing for what seems like forever. After college, I was fortunate to land some freelance sports writing gigs, talking about baseball (which I love) and football (which I was willing to write about in order to get more opportunities to write about baseball). That led nowhere, basically, but I was fortunate enough to come of age during the pre-social media blogging craze, so I just started a blog and kept writing, stopping, restarting, etc.
Ultimately, I decided to start the newsletter back in 2010. The idea then—which I like to think at the time was pretty ahead of things!—was that distribution matters a lot more than people think. So I went with a newsletter over a plain old blog. The first newsletter was basically a fun fact (carrots were originally purple) with a short paragraph about the fact; it went to 20 people. Now, I’m sending 400-800 words a day to a lot more people, north of 100,000."
What strategies have you used to grow your subscriber list?
"I haven’t really focused much on growing the list in a long time. Early on, it was all elbow grease and opportunism—any chance I had to promote the list, I would. It was different then because newsletters weren’t everywhere, so there was a novelty factor. I’m at the point now where word of mouth is doing a decent-enough job keeping my readership where it is."
What is your approach to monetization?
"Monetization—it’s really trial and error. I’ve tried a lot of different things and I don’t think that I’ve perfected it, hardly, but it works well enough. The biggest chunk comes from my readers via a Patron campaign I have running; if you give even $1/month, I send you an ad-free version. I run basically two types of ads—direct sponsorships and remnant ads when I don’t have sponsors. I’ve also turned my past newsletters (and a lot of new content) into three books, so that helps. And I have Google ads on the archives. I think that covers it for now—it’s a good mix.
I’ve had a lot of false starts, though. I ran a Kickstarter to fund a YouTube channel—that worked, but the YouTube channel never took, so it was a lot of work for net-zero in the monetization column. I was doing pretty well with Amazon affiliate ads but apparently, their terms of service don’t allow for links in email newsletters, and they shut me down.
I guess the big lesson is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach."
How do you decide what to write about? How do you edit yourself?
"I write about what strikes me in the moment. I have a huge database of fun facts and strange stories, but you really need to be in the right mindset to make each of them work, so I really take whatever clicks in that instant. And I barely edit. Grammarly is free and does the job."
How do you build trust with your audience?
"Building trust is huge. It’s also really easy. My email inbox is a mess, mostly because decades of strangers have acted selfishly, sending me email that I almost certainly didn’t want and definitely didn’t ask for. I’m sure you and literally everyone else is in the same boat. My attitude, from day one, was that this is wrong. If someone invites my newsletter into their inbox, they do so for a very limited purpose. Going a bit outside that purpose here and there, that’s fine, but beyond that, it’s intrusive at best. I built the newsletter with that premise in mind. If I have something off-topic I want to share—be it a sponsorship or my out-of-left-field theories on Harry Potter—I have a way to do so within the confines of the normal newsletter, so it’s not out of place. That was something I designed at the earliest stage by leading each email with a quick note from me (and later turning Friday’s email into a longer note from me). I also promise to read every reply (and I truly do read them all) and until a few years ago, also replied back almost always. I wish I could still do that, but I think my readers understand that I can’t; it’s just too much."
What's the best writing advice you've ever been given?
"Read a lot. You’ll find styles you like and styles you don’t; styles you can adopt and styles you can’t."
Subscribe to Now I Know here.