How Emily Atkin Built Her Newsletter “Heated” to Over $660k Per Year

Emily Atkin has built her newsletter “Heated” to over 89k subscribers in 4 years.

And she’s able to bring in more than $500k+ a year writing about a topic she is extremely passionate about.

In 2013, Emily Aktin began her career as a climate change journalist, becoming a climate reporter at ThinkProgress in Washington, D.C.

After a few years, she went on to write for The New Republic, working there for 2 years until leaving the “traditional” media business behind and starting her own newsletter in 2019.

How Emily Makes Money

Emily has only a few sources of income, and she does that on purpose.

Paid Newsletter

A paid subscription to Heated currently goes for $75 a year, or $8 a month. There are also founder membership for $200 or $800 if you want to support her work.

Paid subscriptions are the only way she makes money from the newsletter at this point.

In October 2021, Emily told The Open Notebook that her free-to-paid conversion rate was 10%, which is very high from what I’ve seen.

At the time, she had 50,000 free subscribers. If we do a little back-of-the-napkin math – that’d be 5,000 paying subscribers.

She currently charges $8 a month or $75 for the year. To be conservative, let’s say everyone pays the cheaper annual price of $75/year.

With 5,000 subscribers paying $75, that’s $375,000.

She now has over 89k subscribers. If those numbers held steady, you could estimate that Heated is bringing in $667k per year. But even if her conversion from free to paid dropped a bit to 8%, that’s still $534k.

Because of the nature of what she talks about, Emily does not accept sponsors because she doesn’t want the content to be swayed in any way. She wants to provide the facts in the most objective way she can, while still adding her own color commentary.

Freelance Writing

Emily has written for a number of other outlets, even after leaving her day job in 2019 to start Heated.

The Growth Timeline

While she got off to a huge start when she launched her newsletter, it’s been slower, more consistent growth ever since.

She deosn’t have a massive following on social media. She’s just been consistently growing over the last 4.5 years, and even hit some bumps along the way, which we’ll talk about.

So how did she grow her newsletter to $650k+ in revenue? Let’s get into it.

The Growth Levers of Emily Atkin

🚀 1. An intentional launch. I found Emily’s exact launch strategy for her newsletter as well as when she launched paid subscriptions. It’s something you can replicate.

🤝 2. Collaborations. Working together with other creators has been a huge growth levers for Emily, and it’s something we most of us ca do a better job of.

💪 3. Share strong opinions. This one strategy has landed her newsletter in Wikipedia, and top Reddit threads.

😷 4. Being open to change. The life of a creator can be hard, but Emily has embraced this and made sustainable changes to keep creating the work she loves.

👋 5. Building community. Emily does a great job including her readers in her work, and it leads to affinity, and getting others to share.

1. The Intentional Launch 🚀

Emily got over 8,000 subscribers in week 1, before she even published her first article article.

This part of the launch isn’t going to be something everyone can do. But there was a built up excitement of people who had been following her work over the years and were happy to support her new venture.

On top of that, she had some help from friends in the space.

Her friend, Judd Legum, retweeted her launch announcement and told his followers to sign up.

Judd had over 350k followers on Twitter, so this almost definitely had an impact on her subscriber count.

We don’t all have supportive friends with 350k followers, but maybe you have friends with a much smaller following who will support you.

I wanted to bring that up just to get your wheels turning, but her paid launch strategy is the juicy part of this, so let’s dive in.

The Paid Newsletter Launch

September 9, 2019 was the day when Emily sent her first email.

She purposefully waited 90 days before launching paid subscriptions. This advice came from Substack, and it was also what her friend Judd had done when he launched his newsletter.

This 90-day period gives the reader time to get a feel for your content, and start including your writing into their routine.

On December 5, three months after launching the free newsletter, Emily told her readers that she would be start paid subscriptions the following week.

But she didn’t just say “I’m going to ask for money next week!” She did something really smart.

Here’s a breakdown of the post:

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She explained what was happening, and then recapped the last three months and the impact it’s already had. She explained what could happen if she’s able to make money and generate income from the newsletter.

After all, her readers are there because they care about climate change. They want to make an impact.

By telling them the kind of an impact they can have by becoming a paid subscriber, they’re much more likely to do so.

Alright, let’s jump into launch week.

Launch Week

During launch week, Emily knew that her content had to be top-notch to continue proving to people that they should become paying subscribers.

The goal of her posts during launch week was to showcase a different reason for people to subscribe each day.

Day 1: Announce the Discount & Tease the Rest of the Week

On day 1, Emily shared a timely story about a climate event that was going on and broke down the details of it.

At the end of that post, she teased out what was coming the rest of the week, and offered a 25% discount to sign up for the annual subscription.

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The teaser served to keep people coming back for future content. And of course, at the end of this content she’d ask them to buy an annual membership.

Day 2: Excitement & Reminder that Full Discount is Ending

On day 2, she shared another great story. At the end, she shared a tweet from a reader/friend who had tweeted about the discount ending.

This social proof is much more effective than Emily just telling people to join her thing.

And of course, another call to action, reminding people that the 25% off discount is only valid for that day.

Day 3: Guest Article

On day 3, Emily shares she was at an event about improving her newsletter, and didn’t have a chance to write her own. She brought on a guest writer who was actually at the big climate event we saw on Day 1 of this launch.

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Who knows if this was intentional, but it’s a cool way to show that she has a dynamic set of connections and can get people who are on the ground in cool places to share their ideas too.

At the end of this post, she shares a meme created by a popular account at the time:

This is a fun way to include some social proof via humor. There was’t really a call to action that day, just this meme.

Day 4: AMA

On day 4, Emily opened up an AMA thread letting people know that she would be around to answer their questions for an hour.

This thread ended up with 490 comments. That’s a lot of engagement for an hour-long AMA that wasn’t pre-announced.

The only CTA on this day was that link you can see above. It was a link that auto-applied the launch week discount.

Day 5: Project Launch – Fossil Fuel Ad Anthology

On day 5, Friday, Emily launches a new project she’s been working on called the Fossil Fuel Ad Anthology. Essentially, it’s a compilation of fossil fuel ads.

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With her call to action on this day, she smartly explains that, unlike other publications (like those she called out in the anthology), she doesn’t take fossil fuel ads.

She was reminding people the publication is fully independent, which is why she is asking people to subscribe.

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Day 8: Final Day

Emily didn’t post anything over the weekend, but came back the following Monday with one last call to action.

This is a post where she breaks down everything that Heated has accomplished over the last 3 months. She called this post an icky one because she hates selling, but it works.

This post includes things like where her work had been shared, the impact the writing has had, etc.

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At the end she also explains why she was doing this and apologized, adding a little humor into a post that felt very unnatural to write.

While it felt weird, Emily told Substack that this post worked, really well.

I don’t have numbers around that, but it makes sense.

The Discounts During Launch Week

Emily made an interesting pricing move during launch week.

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She offered 25% off of an annual subscription for the first 2 days of the week.

On the third day, she dropped the discount to 20%.

It might seem subtle, but by taking away a small piece of the discount, she’s showing people that this is in fact ending. And if they wait any longer, they’re going to have to pay full price.

I would love to see the numbers of signups on Monday/Tuesday vs Wednesday. The lurkers who were thinking about it probably signed up ASAP when they saw the discounts dwindling.

2. Collaborations 🤝

Emily has been leveraging her relationships and connections to not only create better content and grow the newsletter.

Emily is friends with Judd Legum, who runs a popular newsletter called Popular.info. Judd’s newsletter covers news that doesn’t get enough airtime, if any. He’s taking the fact-based angle that local newspapers used to provide and providing it to the masses.

Because climate change might not always get enough publicity, it’s a great match for these two to collaborate.

Judd and Emily have jointly written a few articles together:

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They also link to each other’s work where it makes sense.

Emily has done this with other writers as well.

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By collaborating on articles, they’re able to get in front of each other’s audience and hopefully gain some new readers.

This is a great way to build your subscriber based, and breaks up the monotony of the same content being written by only you each week.

Emily has done collaborations like the over and over again. Clearly, it’s working.

These posts get shared on both of their Substack feeds, and each one has a unqieu call to action to join the other persons newsletter.

Here is what one looks like from Emily’s post archive.

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This same article shows up on the Distilled newsletter feed, but with a call to action to join Heated instead:

Because the two newsletters share a simliar audience (climate news), it’s almost a no-brainer for people to check out Emily’s content as well.

3. Share Strong Opinions 💪

This one might not be as relevant on the front-end, but stick with me here.

Emily has strong opinions and feelings about climate and what’s happening. She is not afraid to call out billionaries, presidential candidates, and even past Vice Presidents.

Now, it’s not so much of the calling out that I want to focus on, but more of the rarity of that.

Creators who stand for something and don’t cater to others based on their status is pretty rare.

Emily is willing to call out people like Vivek Ramaswamy, presidential candidate, for pretty much lying in public.

And these strong opinions get shared around because they are so rare.

This tweet got her a ton of traffic from Reddit, and other places.

She also did this when calling out Michael Moore, who is typically a strong producer, by calling him out on his “laziness” with this one.

And it landed her a backlink from Wikipedia:

I guess you could say it got her two backlinks, but one was just to another article, not her website.

If you’re not familar, getting a link from Wikipedia is a big deal.

Her work gets shared a lot on Reddit as well, and not by her. Others include her work in posts and according to Similar Web, is one of the largest traffic source to her website:

By being willing to share ideas others are afraid to, she’s creating waves and getting media attention from it.

4. Be Open to Change 😷

Emily had the best of intentions when she started the newsletter promising coverage 4 days a week.

But over time, things started to fall apart.

On July 22, 2021, she announced that she was changing the newsletter from daily to weekly.

While this helped, it wasn’t enough. On February 22, 2022, Emily burned out and went on an indefinite hiatus.

She paused all of her paid subscriptions to the newsletter, and let everyone know what was happening.

Her readers gave great feedback and were super supportive.

She didn’t come back to writing until July 2022, marking almost 5 months without a regular cadence.

The one thing she did post during that time was a feature she had been working on for GQ that was months in the making.

But she took 5 months off. You never hear about stuff like this in the creator space. Everyone talks about how great it is and how you have to be consistent to no end.

But sometimes, that’s not realistic. And Emily was open and honest about what happened. She took time for herself and it worked out.

Trust is the most important currency you have as a journalist. And I think we forget that. I think that sometimes, in mainstream media, objectivity is prioritized over building trust with your reader base.”

Emily Atkin

5. Build Community

Emily has done a great job of not just talking at people, but including her audience in discussions and even content. Here are a few ways she’s done that.

Open Threads

Emily started creating “open threads” where her readers could interact with her and each other around a specific topic.

We saw this with Hunter Harris as well, and it’s a great way to build commnity.

These weren’t done super regularly, but when she did, they got a good bit of engagement.

Heated Chats

Emily announced Heated live chats in December 2022. She had been using Substack’s threads feature until this point, but embraced this new format.

She made the first chat of the month free for every subscriber, but you had to pay to be part of the other ones.

I love this. It’s a great way to give free subscribers a taste of what they’re missing out on. And then hook people in so they end up paying to be included in these.

Sharing Reader Insights

Emily has also taken reader suggestions from the comments section, and these threads above and created content around them.

Here is a tweet promoting one of these “curation” of reader ideas.

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In this series of posts, she specifically calls out some of her readers for their great suggestions.

In the climate space, people are always wondering “what can I do?” The problem feels so big and small actions don’t feel as impactful.

By showcasing what her readers are doing, she’s giving others ideas on how they can help, as well as making her readers feel good for contributing.

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How You Can Replicate Emily’s Success

Emily has a different type of content than many of us reading, but the growth levers she used can still be applicable.

Be Intentional About Your Launch

I went back and forth on whether to include this, because I know a lot of people are already struggling to get started.

But I think this is valuable for people who have already started something but want to take it to the next level.

By being intentional about launching her paid newsletter, she’s been able to convert a high percentage of subscribers. Of course, it wasn’t just the launch that got people to sign up. But I think her sitting down and thinking through how she could provide value for people has served her well.

Instead of just throwing up a paywall one day because she needed money, she waited 3 months to do it.

That’s 90 days for people to see the value in the newsletter.

Emily has said that you should wait as long as possible to turn on paid subscriptions.

The reason? People rarely sign up for the newsletter and become paying members right away.

It takes time for them to convert over to deciding to support you with dollars.

Include Your Readers

While you might not write about a topic so widespread, you can still make your readers feel like they’re part of something.

A few ways you can do this:

  • Sharing comments from social media
  • Create content around questions people ask, and then thank them for asking the question
  • Share their ideas
  • Share their testimonials

If people see their name in a piece of content, they’re more likely to become a fan of yours for life, in addition to potentially sharing that with their own following.

Building community takes time, but it’s the one thing that AI can’t take away from you.

chenell basilio

Chenell Basilio

Chenell is the head writer and reverse engineer at Growth In Reverse. She spends her days researching newsletters, audience growth, and generally figuring out how to help others create better content.

She has an almost useless Bachelor's Degree in Geography, enjoys running, listening to podcasts, and eating guacamole. 🥑

Where I hang out on social media: