How Erik Hoel Went From Professor to Newsletter Creator with 40,000 Subscribers

In April 2021, Erik Hoel started a newsletter called The Intrinsic Perspective.

He didn’t have a huge audience – around 2,900 Twitter followers at the time.

Now, he writes to over 40,000 subscribers each week and his work has been featured in Slate, Politico, and more.

Erik Hoel grew up in his mother’s bookstore in New England. Being surrounded by books and authors, it’s no surprise that he ended up a research professor.

But what is surprising is that while he’s written 2 books at this point, he is extremely bullish on the idea of digital writing:

People will, if given the opportunity, read a 5,000-word essay on their phone. And they’ll do it right there, with their head still on the pillow. In those cases, it’s not terrible; it’s wonderful. And if you can capture that, if you can direct that attention to things worth attending to, it’s incredibly powerful. So if you’re a writer, why not go where the action is?

Erik Hoel

Erik had tried writing on Medium and his own site in the past, but nothing really took off.

Until he started taking advantage of the network effects on Substack. Through the platform, his work got found by Scott Alexander of Astral Codex Ten and Sam Harris, among other big names.

His newsletter and writing has since captured a wide audience of over 40,000 subscribers.

And on November 15, 2022, he left his job at Tufts University to write the newsletter full time.

Let’s take a look at how he was able to grow his audience over the last 36 months to a place of supporting him full-time.

The Growth Timeline of The Intrinsic Perspective

Erik started writing on Substack in April 2021. I put together this timeline to show you the steady upward growth over the last 36 months.

You can see that while his Twitter following has grown, he was many more subscribers to his newsletter than he has Twitter followers.

How Erik Makes Money

Erik is now making a full-time living from his writing. While he does have a few books to supplement it, he makes a majority of that income from his paid newsletter.

Paid Subscriptions

You can sign up as a free subscriber to The Intrinsic Perspective and read some posts, but to get all of them, as well as the ability to comment and see the AMAs, competitions, and threads, you need to pay.

There is a monthly plan for $7/month or $70/year. You can also become a “Patron” for $700+ per year and get a signed copy of his next book.

If we take the standard 4% conversion from free subscribers to paid, I’d estimate that Erik has around 1,600 paying subscribers.

At $70 per year, that’d be $112,000 in gross income. And that’s if no one takes him up on the “Patron plan” at $700 per year.

That is a pretty conservative estimate, but we’ll go with it.

Books

Erik has written two books at this point, The Revelations (2020) and The World Behind the World (2023).

These weren’t major bestsellers or anything, but I’m sure he’s moving more than a few copies at this point.

Sponsors

Occasionally, Erik does include sponsors in his newsletters. It’s not ever week but I did find around 10 or so issues that included them. Here is one example:

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But did you see that second to last line? “It is co-posted on their blog under my name.”

That means he’s getting his writing shown to their audience as well.

This is something I haven’t seen much of anyone doing in terms of sponsorships. It’s not an official growth lever I call out below, but I’m going to have to dig into this more.

The Growth Levers of Erik Hoel

🫶 1. Build community with your readers. Instead of posting his own articles every week and not asking for reader feedback, he does quite the opposite.

🦄 2. Make your content stand out. In a world where AI can write anything we want it to, finding ways to improve your content and make it stand out is crucial. Erik does this in a very methodical way.

🎨 3. Create an aesthetic. Erik has found a very unique way of adding more depth to his writing that other creators tend to skip.

Alright, let’s jump in and see how he does each of these to help grow his audience and keep readers coming back.

1. Build Community With Your Readers 🫶

Can you imagine if your favorite writer asked to read your writing?

Not only that, but what if they offered to publish it in their newsletter as well?

That’s exactly what Erik has done with his audience.

In August of 2023, Erik posted on his Substack that he was looking to read what his subscribers write.

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By itself, that’s fascinating.

But Erik did something really smart with this: he made this restricted to paid subscribers.

First, this cut down the number of submissions he’d get. But second, it also pushed people over the edge to actually become paying subscribers to his newsletter.

“$7 for the chance at being featured in my favorite writer’s newsletter?! Heck yeah!”

How do I know this converted people to paying subscribers? Let’s take a look at the comments:

This person explicitly called out that they were going to become a paid subscriber for this reason alone. Can you imagine how many others did the same, or maybe were thinking of cancelling before they came across this?

Super interesting.

Not only did he ask them for their writing, but he went on to share it a few months later as well.

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Here is how each person’s work was formatted:

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Advice Columns & AMAs

Another way Erik builds community is through AMAs and advice columns. This reminds me of how Lenny Rachitsky answers reader questions with his posts.

Erik answers all of the questions posed in the comments by paid subscribers. This helps create a sense of back and forth instead of a one-way conversation.

2. Make Your Content Stand Out

Erik has done a great job at getting his content to be unique in it’s own ways. I’ve found a few ways he’s done this.

Spend More Time Writing

One of the things I’ve found that makes Erik’s content stand out from others is how well he writes.

Stick with me here.

Erik knows that even just one spelling or grammatical error can turn a reader off. He feels that if a writer can’t get the small things right, how can you expect them to get the big ones right?

This really stuck with me. I have a ton of errors on this website, and while I don’t think they turn people off as much as he implies they do, it’s still something to think about.

Here is his workflow, simplified from the full “How to Write an Essay That Doesn’t Suck” piece.

In that essay, he breaks down the 5 mistakes writers make all the time:

Think About the Reader

Writers write for themselves, it’s mostly a selfish act, “but the whole point of writing is to communicate with others.” You need to keep this in mind as you go.

He says one of the best ways to make sure you’re including enough context and telling an interesting enough story:

Once you write a piece, don’t publish it for at least a week. A month is ideal, but that’s not exactly ideal as a creator publishing regularly.

After a week, re-read it and make your edits. This helps put you in the position of the reader:

“You literally no longer remember the exact mental context in which you penned each sentence, and you’re left with the text itself.Use the power of your stupid forgetful human brain to your advantage.

Erik Hoel

There are four other ways he includes in this piece about making your writing better, but they all circle back to that first one. If you do that, the rest of them seem to fall into place.

“Roomy” Content Topics

Erik likes to write articles around what he calls “roomy” topics.

The idea is that he’s not trying to write an article that only has one outcome. He wants to give the reader some space to formulate their own opinions and share those with him.

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That last line is really interesting. And it makes you think about the types of content that go viral on social platforms. Much of it is broader topics and ideas that people can share and discuss with friends.

People want to interact, they want to speculate, and, of course, it’s interesting on my end to hear their thoughts, since it often helps clarify my own thinking about an issue.

Erik Hoel

While I think this concept of roomy topics works well for “thought pieces” that Erik creates, I’m not sure of its place in other content topics.

A deep dive like the one I’m writing is hard to make “roomy” when I’m just sharing my findings and research, but maybe I’m wrong. However, I think this roomy concept is something that writers of thought pieces and broader topics can take note of.

Although, I’m often proven wrong 🙂

3. Create an Aesthetic 🎨

This could go into the above section, but I think it deserves its own.

One of the big differentiators in terms of his content is the beautiful illustrations that Erik includes with each piece of writing.

Take a look at how his Substack looks with those unique pieces on every article:

While it looks great in the Substack feed, it also looks amazing when his links show up on social media:

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So how does he get these incredible pieces of art for every piece?

He went out and and hired someone named Alexander Naughton to create the illustrations for his work.

This is one of the first times I’ve heard of someone hiring an illustrator to create all of their images.

Hiring an Illustrator

Erik deliberately went searching around for illustrators and came across Alexander’s work.

“I spent like a week just browsing through illustrators I could find online, and then when I found him I cold emailed him with the pitch to come on.”

Erik Hoel

Erik sends him the draft each week with around a week of lead time.

Alexander reads the piece and will come up with an image based on his own interpretation. Erik doesn’t give him any creative direction, he just trusts him to create a piece that fits.

Could he have just used AI for these images? Sure.

Would it have been as clean and impactful as this? Definitely not.

While this isn’t a typical “growth lever” in terms of getting traffic to his website, it’s one of those components that probably leads to a higher conversion rate from a website visitor to a subscriber.

When someone cares about those small things like having great images to supplement the written word, it makes you more intrigued to read what he has to say.

Erik spends time making sure the “little things” are done well.

Do you need to go hire someone to create amazing images for each piece? Definitely not. There are a number of ways to create an “aesthetic” for your newsletter and website.

“There’s all sorts of ways to create an aesthetic without having an artist collaborator, though, for example using black-and-white photographs, or cartoons, or old paintings, or frames from movies.”

Fonts, colors, images, graphs and more can all add to the “aesthetic” of your writing.

Consider this article you’re reading right now. I include small things to “brand” each image I include in the articles like the orange outline of each screenshot. Or the font used on each image.

Katelyn Bourgoin does this really well with her writing and marketing. The punchy colors and fonts let you know exactly who’s work you’re reading without having to look at the URL bar.

How You Can Replicate Erik’s Success 🗺️

Erik has built up a substantial audience around his ideas and writing, but there are ways to do the same for your own community.

Build Community With Your Readers

One of the ways Erik has been able to build retention with readers is by creating more community elements with his writing.

Sharing their writing and giving them ways to express their own ideas via comments and AMAs helps build in “rituals” with his audience.

There are tons of creators putting out “one-way” content with not much room for interpretation or sharing their thoughts.

By giving your readers a way to interact with you and your writing is really interesting. I think this is one of the best ways to build something that AI can’t replace.

Substack makes this really easy to do, but there are ways to incorporate these elements without being on Substack.

Encouraging replies to your emails can be a great way to start this. But I think that adding comments on your articles and even a text-based community, like Slack, can be another way to incorporate your readers and encourage them to share.

A side benefit of this is getting even more content ideas and articles to create for them.

Level Up Your Content

If I’m taking one thing away from Erik’s story, it’s that I need to get better at writing my work before it gets sent out.

Right now, I rush to get these published every Sunday.

It’s not a great workflow and it’s something I’ve been wanting to change. Reading Erik’s workflow and the reasoning behind it makes me realize how much I am sacrificing in terms of quality and fluidity by doing this.

Sure, there is a time and a place where publishing something you just wrote in one sitting makes sense. But in a world where AI can practically write anything we want it to, finding ways you can help your content stand out is something I’d be paying attention to.

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. 🥑

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