Looking Back on Year One of Substack, and Looking Ahead to Year Two
Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the launch of the paid version of my Substack.
A whole bunch of you have probably already gotten the notification about renewing your subscription to the newsletter. I hope you’ll stick around! But in any case, I wanted to take the opportunity to go into the nitty gritty, and explain the things that I feel worked especially well during the first year using the platform like this, and the things that I feel didn’t.
Then I want to get into what subscribers to my newsletter can expect in Year Two.
Let’s dig in.
Let’s flash back to early in the summer of 2021, when I got on a Zoom call and was offered the deal of a lifetime. I would get a very large sum of money, parceled out over the course of one year, in exchange for writing 100 newsletter posts on Substack (effectively two posts per week). Anything I developed on the platform, I would own the rights to, with Substack taking no stake in any of the properties. It is effectively a six-figure no-strings attached investment in the development of my company, Tiny Onion Studios, Inc.
During year one, while the grant was being paid out, Substack would take the lion’s share of the profits from the newsletter. Starting with year two, the ratio would switch to benefit me. I would start taking in the lion’s share of the profits, with Substack only taking a small slice. I was entering this in a privileged position. I had multiple best-selling comic book titles at multiple publishers. I’m also still young, and don’t have any kids to support. I wasn’t looking to save the money I was taking in, I wanted to invest it all into building out a really exciting year on the platform, and build the bedrock of the next chapter of my career.
As I began to strategize, I laid out three primary goals for spending this windfall.
CAPTURE THE COLLECTOR MARKET
Between SIKTC, DOT, and Batman, I had noticed a large community of comic collectors rallying behind my work. Suddenly, I had the upfront cash to fund my own retailer variants, and create the kind of premium offerings that I felt would appeal to that audience, and make my newsletter a central hub for the collectors to follow my work. The Substack Founders Tier system seemed like the perfect way to attract that audience, and I began to work on building what would become THE ONION CLUB.
BUILD A COMPREHENSIVE WEBSTORE
Over the previous year, I had shipped a few thousand Department of Truth logo pins out of my apartment in little dinky bubble mailers. Living in Brooklyn, I didn’t have the space to expand my operations. The only way to expand my offerings was partnering with a company that had warehouses that could handle fulfillment promptly (rather than waiting for me to have a free day on a weekend between deadlines to fulfill the backlog of orders). Beyond that, I had the suspicion that there WAS a market for merchandise based on my original titles, and wanted to force the hand of a few of my publishers by taking on the initial risk with this orders (see the SIKTC Bandanas as the most successful version of this, with Boom! now taking the upfront risk as we continue the bandana program). I needed the upfront cash to pay vendors to make the merchandise, which I knew might not pay itself off quickly. I also needed a team capable of shipping out the variants for my Collector-centric founders tier. So I began the conversations that would lead to my partnership with Third Eye Comics and the creation of the ShopTinyOnion.com storefront.
EXPERIMENT WITH STORYTELLING
This was the most attractive part of the operation. Like I said, I already had a few blockbuster comic series on the stands and I didn’t intend on stepping away from any of them (at least none of the ones I didn’t own a stake in). But I had a few kernels of ideas in the back of my mind that were riskier bets. Through my work on The Department of Truth, I had fallen back in love with the genre of “True Weird” stories - Accounts of people stumbling face to face with the impossible - and in particularly with the history of UFO encounters in the United States. I had the sense, in the back of my mind, that it would be really exciting to make comics that told these stories to bring them to a new generation of readers. This is what would lead to the idea of BLUE BOOK and ultimately the TRUE WEIRD anthology series, as well as the DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH: WILD FICTION feature. I figured that making my newsletter a home for serialized bite-sized curiosities might be interesting for readers, and having the project subsidized by the Substack Grant means that I didn’t need to worry about the projects earning their money back right away. They could afford to be slow-burners.
Similarly, I had been playing with the idea of THE ODDLY PEDESTRIAN LIFE OF CHRISTOPHER CHAOS for years, and wanted to see if I could effectively “Executive Produce” a comic book series that I wanted to exist in the world, working with creators I loved and trusted to see if I could build a comic that worked without writing it myself. Finally, I wanted to challenge myself to write something a bit smaller and self-contained, without the pressure to make it something larger than life (or a 25 issue series like my brain usually cooks up). I wanted to see what it felt like to turn a comic around from raw idea to execution in under a year, rather than the two plus years of lead time that a comic project usually takes. Those instincts would lead to creation of THE CLOSET.
I originally had another spoke in this particular wheel, which I’ll get to a bit later in this post, but the key thing to understand with all of these projects is that they were the books I wanted to make to push myself and test myself as a writer, while I built the larger Tiny Onion Studios operation.
Beyond that, I wanted to expand my direct mailing list. I know that sounds pretty boring, but having direct contact with fans and retailers who support your work is incredibly, incredibly valuable. Over the course of the last year, I’ve more than doubled the size of my already impressive mailing list. No matter what shape it takes, I think I’ll always have a newsletter to get my thoughts out to my fans and followers.
Overall, I’m extremely happy to say that I consider all of these goals thoroughly met. I’ve been able to build a system that appeals to my most die-hard collector fans with the Onion Club. I’ve been able to build a robust storefront and build an incredible partnership with one of the best comic shops in the country. And most importantly as a creator, I’ve been able to write and produce a whole lot of comic books that I’m extraordinarily proud of.
Beyond that, my numbers have been extremely good. I’m approaching 1000 members of my Onion Club, another nearly 1000 paid subscribers at an annual/monthly rate, and my total mailing list is fast approaching 15,000 paid and unpaid subscribers. I’ve managed to hold onto the #2 position behind 3W3M on the Substack Comics leaderboard since pretty much the week we launched. I couldn’t have done that without all of you, and I want to let you know how much I appreciate your support on this whole endeavor.
What I found encouraging is that I had two big waves of members signing up. The first massive wave came at the start of the whole Substack Comics experiment. The second wave started when I rolled out the plan for the 2022 Onion Club, with the Gold Foil Variant covers, and launched ShopTinyOnion.com and the monthly Onion Drops. This coincided with much more regular releases of my comics and features here on the platform. Once everything was up and running, we ended up adding a huge number of subscribers over the late winter and Spring (with bumps around the time we unveiled each Onion Club exclusive cover). There was a moment in the winter where I had been worried that after an initial burst, we’d never break out of a plateau, and I found it heartening to see real success when the full form of the newsletter revealed itself.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses. I had very publicly stepped away from a DC Exclusive contract, partially because I wanted to explore this opportunity to the fullest, and partially just because that grind had been wearing me down for years. The biggest issue was that I replaced one grind with another grind. It turned out that actually hitting all the benchmarks I had laid out was a huge undertaking.
Suddenly, on top of all of my creator owned work, and Hollywood work, I was responsible for a series of weekly posts that I was writing the large majority of. I was betting that I’d be able to have a lot of success on the platform if I delivered a lot of different types of experiences through my newsletter (and I was right), but it was on me to get all of the machines up and running, write comics, approve designs, oversee other comics, and get into a groove with my small Tiny Onion staff. Most Tiny Updates ended up with me staying up late into the night every Sunday to make sure the post got scheduled. It was a lot of work bringing my vision to life.
Beyond that, I quickly noticed a few speed bumps as I built out this newsletter.
THE READING EXPERIENCE
I’m not sure I ever cracked the ideal reading experience for my comics here on the platform. I’ve experimented with this a few different ways, I’ve run full comics as books you can scroll through, and I’ve delivered them as pure PDFs and CBZs, and I still can’t quite figure out what works best here. As a comics professional, I read a lot of Comics PDFs (that’s the format we do all our lettering notes in, and when a friend wants me to read an advance copy of their book, that’s how they send it to me). But to me, it still doesn’t compete with the experience of reading it on a dedicated comic storefront app, or holding a book in your hand.
Looking out at the rest of the field, I’d say that the person who nails the reading experience of emailed comics best for me is Nate Stevenson, which isn’t a surprise given his start on Tumblr. Those are bite-sized comics, each self contained and powerful pieces in and of themselves, designed to be scrolled through and read online. But that format never felt right for the sort of comics I make. The other successful comic Substackers seem to have intuited the same thing I did. The value of a newsletter service is creating newsletters worth reading. The best comic Substacks are a joy to read as newsletters, and give you access to the process of making these books, and insight to the creator themselves. The comics themselves feel like a sneak peek at a work in progress, more than a finished work in and of itself. A valuable bonus treat, but not what I was coming back for week after week.
I was very happy to see that when THE CLOSET released in stores, it sold very well. Launching at over 75K, with the last issue dipping down to around 25K, which I felt was very strong for a three issue horror novella that mostly consisted of people having conversations, that was going to be coming out in trade just a few months after the last issue hit the stands. But I did find it telling how people talked to me about the book at conventions. Subscribers to my Substack were happy to have gotten an early look at the comic before it’s publication, but the publication itself is the moment it became real to all of them. They had gotten early access to a thing, but didn’t think of the comics’ release online as the release of the comic itself.
And honestly, neither did I.
CROSSING THE STREAMS
There’s probably some handy business major term for what I’m talking about here, but I have found it very difficult to track who has signed up for this newsletter and for what. Part of that is the fact that I have such a range of product offered, and a range of consumer looking to engage with it. I have a large base of collectors following me, and I have a large base of readers following me, but by rolling it all together into one big system, it makes it very difficult to target the specific followers who want specific things from me, when I need different things from them.
There are a lot of folks who I am sure get sick of hearing about the latest variant covers I’m commissioning for my books, and I bet there are a lot of folks who get sick of hearing what movies and books I watched and read in a given week. It’s a one-size fits all system, that by design tries to get to you to hit everybody for everything, rather than being able to better target the different subsects of my followers for the sort of content they’re most interested in.
One of the big things I’m going to be doing to address that in Year Two is reconfiguring my Onion Club tier to better suit my followers in the collector space, and refocus the newsletter to function primarily as a newsletter. It’s going to take a while to get that all in order, but I want to get a better sense of who is in what camp, so I can better and more effectively serve and activate my audience.
THE VOLUME PROBLEM
I think this is what I’ve landed on as my biggest sticking point over the last year. The biggest benefit of having a large email list is being able to tell your most die-hard fans when you have something to sell, and messaging how important what you’re selling is. That was the whole impetus behind building a free Substack Newsletter in the first place, when I launched it in 2019. But I’ve found its utility flattened by the frequency of posts I was contractually obligated to hit, and the constant chase for a larger paid subscriber base.
The constant drive to get more members for the Onion Club, or the paid version of the Substack, or what have you, means that every post was effectively selling the audience something, and the primary thing that I was selling was this newsletter, not my comics, or any other side project I might decide to kick into motion. I am a salesman, and I like banging the drum about projects that I’m excited about. But when your inbox is filled with emails from me trying to sell you things, how are you going to be able to tell what the most important thing I’m selling is?
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
So, I’m just going to be honest about this. I miss my old newsletter. The version of “The Empire of The Tiny Onion” that ran before I kicked off the paid iteration one year ago.
It came out a lot less frequently, but because of that, I was able to use it to dive deep into whatever subject I was interested in on a given month. When I go to conventions and people bring up something I wrote on my newsletter, it’s typically something I wrote before I made the switch, when things were a little less formalized, and I just let myself follow my whims and write what I had on my mind. I think part of it was that at that point in my career, my newsletter was a tool. I was using it to explain my thinking.
But, once we got into a rigid schedule, it stopped becoming a tool, and became a responsibility. Another full-time job on top of my other full-time jobs.
A lot of this boils down to something that I feel pretty strongly about. I think that a newsletter is an incredibly powerful tool that I want to keep and wield effectively. But the goal of wielding it is not to expand the footprint of my newsletter. It is to engage with my readers to better sell my comic books, and any other project that I might undertake. I am not a professional newsletter writer. I am a professional comic book writer. The way I use this platform must always be in service of that fact.
All of my refocusing in Year Two seeks to solve for the speed bumps I laid out above. I want to keep the useful and interesting parts of my newsletter. Having a run-down of what I have coming out in stores each month is useful. Continuing the comic projects I’ve started is fun and feels like a great bonus feature for those who want to keep paying, before their ultimate release in comic shops. But first and foremost, I want to recenter this newsletter into a messaging engine where you can find out what I am selling, where I am selling it, and why I am excited about it.
WHAT’S COMING IN YEAR TWO?
All that said… In a lot of ways, the experience of Year Two is shaping up to look a lot like what you’ve come to expect over the last six months here on the Empire of The Tiny Onion. But I do want to shake a few things up, to address some of the issues I laid out above.
RETHINKING TINY UPDATES
My Tiny Updates haven’t been Tiny since I launched this fucking thing, and they hold a LOT of information every single month (or week, when I was running it weekly). At the start of every month, there will still be a big “This is what I have in stores this month”, that will be more about practical information, and I’m probably going to farm that out to Mr. Greg Lockard (my stalwart Substack editor).
Then, at some other point in the month, I’ll put out a newsletter more in the classic form, written by me, with a bunch of my thoughts about my life and comics, and what’s going on in my career. Some months might be too busy for me to knock out a personal essay, but I’m going to do what I can to make the ones I do post worthwhile. I want to get back to the sort of posts I used to do before the paid iteration of this Substack, and separating these features feels like the way to do it.
COMICS ON SUBSTACK
Paid Subscribers will continue to get the incredible comics we’ve been cooking here on the site. We’ve got Season Two of BLUE BOOK by me and Michael Avon Oeming launching later this month, and that will be running at 10 pages a month through the next year. We’ve got a lot of TRUE WEIRD shorts coming your way from a whole host of incredibly talented writers and artists, with us releasing one 10 page chapter chapter per month. DEPARTMENT OF TRUTH: WILD FICTIONS will continue through the end of this year, and we’re talking about an equivalent feature in a similar format to start running in early 2023. And additionally, paid and unpaid subscribers alike will be able to follow the rest of the first book of THE ODDLY PEDESTRIAN LIFE OF CHRISTOPHER CHAOS, which will continue to release every other month until the first book’s conclusion with Issue #5.
COMICS OFF SUBSTACK
That said, my next round of original comic series will be debuting in print. I have two original creator owned comics launching in 2023. I think both of them have the ingredients to be big hits in the direct market, and I am going to be banging the drum to make that happen. Like in the before times, I am going to be using this newsletter as my primary outlet to bang that drum, so this is still the best place to find out about those books, and I’ll be providing sneak peeks to my subscribers here. Additionally, the rest of my Substack comics from Year One will start to make their way to print in 2023, and the best place to follow all of that news is by reading this newsletter.
THE ONION CLUB
I got into this a bit last week, but we’re going to be overhauling how we approach the Onion Club for 2023. There’s going to be more on this as we get closer to the date of the overhaul in question, but effectively we’re going to have limited memberships on sale, and when they sell out, you won’t be able to jump onboard until we open up membership for 2024. Membership is still open right now, but I intend to lock the current iteration Onion Club either once we hit 1000 members, OR one week from today (August 15th). Signing up right now will give you early access to the Onion Club’s 2023 iteration at the current preferred rates. I intend to start charging for shipping (particularly international shipping), because I’m no longer in a position where I can subsidize those costs. So, if you want to get in on the current terms, you should sign up right now.
SHOP TINY ONION
We might roll out some tweaks to our Onion Drop system when we revise how we operate the Onion Club, but paid membership will get you special access to the incredible merchandise and variant covers we put on sale at our ShopTinyOnion.com site!
There is one BIG caveat to all of the above.
I no longer have the Substack Grant to subsidize all of this, which is the key reason I am looking to maintain and focus what I have rather than expand on it. I have a pretty healthy cushion, and I expect I’ll be able to hit everything I’ve outlined above, but the continuation of all paid content on the newsletter is contingent on me having a subscriber base willing to pay for it. So, if a whole bunch of you decide the last year was fun, but you’re out, I might need to rethink my plans heading into 2023. In general I’ll be constantly re-evaluating how this whole system works.
Despite all of that, I intend to spend significantly less time trying to upsell you on the newsletter itself. That doesn’t mean I won’t be trying to bang the drum and sell you things. You all know me well enough at this point that if I have something I want to sell to you guys, I’m going to bang every drum, and ring every bell I have at my disposal. But I want to be able to turn up the volume at the moments the volume deserves to be turned up, and that means not having the volume all the way up all the time.
And finally… I promise that if I make any more big changes to how I run this newsletter, you’ll hear from me directly about how and why I’m making those changes, in a big rambly post like this.
If that all sounds good to you, you should make sure your payment information is up to date on the Substack website (Log-in on your web browser and open the menu at the top right of the page to manage your subscription). If all this makes you decide to sign up for a paid subscription for the first time, here’s a handy button right here.
WHAT ELSE ARE YOU UP TO, JAMES?
Hoo boy. You mean that’s NOT ENOUGH?!
Well, I’ve still got a killer slate of comic books coming out in stores every month, I’m working on adapting one of my own comics for television, overseeing a few more adaptations on top of that, and like I mentioned above, I’ve got a few exciting new projects in the works coming out over the next couple years. They might not be debuting here on Substack, but I’ll sure be talking a lot about them here over the next year.
OPERATION ROOM KEY
So, this is not a comic book project per se, but it is a project I am developing with some of my favorite comic book people. I knocked out the writing side of it earlier in the year, and I think you’re all going to find out more about it in the next couple of months. So stay tuned.
OPERATION DIAL UP
Back at the beginning of the Substack experiment, I was overly ambitious about how quickly I was going to be able to kick this project into gear. It’s grown significantly, and in that growth, I decided to redirect the whole project into a print-first ordeal. That decision was actually a big part of the reason I launched the TRUE WEIRD feature here on Substack, because I knew this was going to be a longer gestation, and one that was going to thrive best outside of the Substack ecosystem. This is my next BIG comic book series, my first long-form creator owned launch since Nice House on the Lake last summer. It’s an ambitious SF/Horror story that’s been in my head for years, and I’ve lined up an incredible roster of talented collaborators to bring it to life. You’ll find out more about this before the end of the year, and if everything goes as planned, it’ll launch in comic shops in Q2.
OPERATION BAD SANTA
I think I probably brought this bad-boy up before with a different Operation name, but Matt Rosenberg keeps calling it “Bad Santa” when I chat about it with him. This is another horror comic, smaller in scope, but not smaller in ambition. It’s different from anything I’ve written so far, and might just be the most frightening comic I’ve ever worked on. This one is already being drawn, and the pages are fucking incredible. This is probably going to be a Q4 launch next year.
The last year has been an incredibly fascinating experiment. The Substack Grant let me expand my business in ways I would never have been able to otherwise, and it’s given me an incredible ground on which to build the next few years of my career. I’m extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity. With this as my bedrock, my eyes are firmly set on the future. The crazy thing about the long gestational period in comics is that I spent my time in San Diego meeting with publishers about my 2024 plans. The next phase is coming together nicely.
The Empire of the Tiny Onion marches on. Thank you all for marching with me. I can’t wait for you to see what’s next.
James Tynion IV
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