Salman Rushdie is posting a running serial, The Seventh Wave on his Sea of Stories newsletter © Alamy
My inbox chimes with the arrival of newsletters from a few favourite authors, and this grey and shivery day is instantly brightened.
On Salman’s Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie has posted another episode of his running serial, The Seventh Wave — 49 chapters about the relationship between Francis, a film director, and his love, Anna, a homage to the great French film-makers Godard and Truffaut. Meanwhile, the memoir writer Nicole Chung has a wry post on I Have Notes on lasting through the drearier bits of the third year of the pandemic, sparking a smile and immediate identification. And Booker winner George Saunders has over 200 reader responses on Story Club to a recent post where he manages to make the craft of escalating the action in a short story sound absolutely gripping.
Newsletters have already become an established part of our general reading lives on subjects ranging from fashion, big tech and political punditry to whimsical travel. Now it is the turn of the literary newsletter to make its mark with readers with a flurry of new material, book recommendations (The Book Satchel, Dear Reader) publishing tips (The Publishing Post, Indie Insider) or just bulletins from the home front of writing life.
The internet has dazzled writers before with big, supposedly lucrative dreams, only for those to fizzle out
For readers like me this brings a light hit of nostalgia for the weblogs in the early 1990s and the more informal spirit of those times. Take Brandon Taylor and his newsletter, “sweater weather”. There the author of Real Life and Filthy Animals posts about writing, literary criticism but also about personal stuff such as his move from Iowa City back to New York. I enjoy many of his posts because of the lack of hustle. “When I sit down to write, I am not always trying to convince people of things,” he writes. “Sometimes, I am just writing down my thoughts, like things I would say to a friend.”
Over the past year, I’ve felt pleasure — but also scepticism — as new cohorts of authors took to newsletters. On platforms such as Substack, Revue (newly acquired by Twitter) and Tiny Letter, writers are experimenting with this old-but-new form, inviting readers to sign up for free in some cases, or to buy a paid subscription, usually priced at $6-10 a month.
They cut through the pandemic monotony. Because newsletters are more free-form than a column or an online discussion, writers can present themselves with their sleeves rolled up, their tone informal and intimate. My old friend Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan was an early convert from blogging, starting her newsletter, The Internet: Personified, in 2016, a year before Substack took newsletters mainstream in 2017. If Reddy Madhavan offers a mix of personal musings and reading advice, shopping and culture suggestions, or her adventures as she moved from New Delhi to Berlin, the bestselling non-fiction author and researcher Caroline Criado Perez shares her “righteous data rage” and pithy thoughts on the gender data gap with over 25,000 subscribers to her Invisible Women newsletter on the online platform Revue.
Yet for all their informal, barrier-free form, newsletters are actually harder work for their authors. Blogs could be fitful and sporadic, but a newsletter must come out on a regular weekly or fortnightly schedule if writers are to build and retain their community of readers. this is especially true when it comes to paying subscribers, which in turn raised the ever-awkward question of money. Platforms take a cut of monthly subscription fees: Substack takes 10 per cent; Revue charges 5 per cent. This can still pay off — for some. Substack Pro reportedly paid Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias $250,000 for one year’s worth of his newsletter, in exchange for 85 per cent of his subscription payments; Rushdie received an undisclosed but substantial fee for his. But emerging writers, under constant pressure to publicise themselves and build a community, are unlikely to find newsletter writing as lucrative.
Still, the pleasure of reading Salman’s Sea of Stories is the unfiltered immediacy as well as the thrill of reading unpublished short stories such as “The Lender of Time”, which Rushdie shared with readers last November. “The point of doing this is to have a closer relationship with readers, to speak freely, without any intermediaries or gatekeepers,” he writes.
The internet has dazzled writers before with big, supposedly lucrative dreams, only for those to fizzle out. So while I enjoy new book recommendations from Roxane Gay (The Audacity) and Deepanjana Pal (Dear Reader), poems from Tyler Knott Gregson (Chasers of the Light) and Rohini Kejriwal (The Alipore Post), I am aware that newsletters too might go through a boom-and-bust cycle. But while they’re here, I’m happy to explore — and enjoy.
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