In 2019, she was asking “what the f*ck is a newsletter?!”
Now, she has over 1.2 million subscribers.
Heather Cox Richardson writes the “Letters From an American” newsletter, the largest publication on all of Substack.
The newsletter is a daily piece Heather writes where she takes the day’s news, and simplifies it down into layman’s terms around why it matters.
Most of the time, she’s also providing context and stories of when this exact thing has happened in the past and how it played out.
Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of American History at Boston College.
She’s been teaching and writing about history for 30+ years. While she has published a few books, many of them didn’t get a ton of traction among the public.
Her newsletter is a vastly different story.
I say that not to degrade the works she’s done, but to help you let go of the “well she’s been writing forever, of course, she was going to be successful” thoughts you might have. The fact of the matter is many historians never get the distribution she’s had.
In July 2014, she created a Facebook page which seemed to be a place to promote her recently published book “To Make Men Free.”
She went on to share excerpts and stories from that book, along with any press mentions she received for it. This was not her sharing the daily news and writing Letters as she does now.
Over the years between 2014 and 2019, her Facebook page had grown to around 20k followers. Nothing to sneeze at, but definitely not super fast growth over the course of 5 years.
But as the Presidential Election was nearing and things started heating up in 2019, she was sharing more timely news and tying it back to historical events from previous centuries.
As they say, history repeats itself, and Heather Cox Richarson was in a unique place to be able to share when events similar to the ones of today happened in the past.
People ate it up.
She started having more and more people asking her to share these somewhere outside of Facebook. One of her graduate students told her she should create a newsletter, to which she replied:
“What the F*** is a Newsletter?
The last time she heard that word was back in the 70s-80s when referring to a physical News letter.
She quickly got up to speed on what a newsletter was, and what Substack could help with.
She dove in head first on November 5, 2019, and has been writing “Letters From An American” every day since.
A quick excerpt from her “about” page can help us understand the importance of her writing:
The Growth Timeline
I started the growth timeline of Heather Cox Richardson in November of 2017, because it seems like around that time is when she started sharing news and context on her Facebook page.
While she didn’t start the daily newsletter until November 2019, Heather had built up a decent audience before that time so I wanted to showcase that growth as well.
How Heather Makes Money
Heather does not accept sponsorships or brand partnerships, yet from my estimates, she’s pulling in over $1 million per month.
I think she would feel that having sponsors around this kind of message detracts from the authenticity of the message and might bias the message.
While all of the letters she writes are free, she does have a paid option for people to support her work.
At a small $5 per month, or $50/year, it’s accessible to a wide variety of people who want to support the work to be able to contribute.
Substack shares some version of subscriber counts on the signup page for many publications.
Earlier this year, they started showing exact subscriber counts, but until then they would give you an estimate of how many paying subscribers a Substack had.
This screenshot is from January 2023, and says that she had “hundreds of thousands of paid subscribers.”
Was it 100k or 800k? We don’t know the details.
But at $5 per month, with 200k subscribers, she’s likely bringing in at least $1 million per month.
And that doesn’t take into account the growth she’s seen from January until now.
Heather Cox Richardson does take on speaking gigs and charges a good fee for it. The All American Entertainment (AAE) site has her speaking fee listed at $50k-$100k for a live event.
While I have no insight into how much Dr. Richardson makes from her teaching salary, the average for a Professor at Boston College seems to lie somewhere around $190k per year.
With the way she’s making money from the newsletter, there’s no way she’s still teaching for the money. From all the interviews and podcasts I’ve listened to, I think she really enjoys teaching and sharing her knowledge with students.
The 3 Growth Levers
While it might seem like it was inevitable that her publication would be a success, there are a number of things she’s done well that have made it certain.
This deep dive is a little different, because Heather isn’t using a ton of “growth hacks”, but her content is so unique and so good, it’s worth studying.
1. Simplify & tell stories. Instead of simply sharing the news, she’s helping you understand why it’s important and providing context.
2. Become a habit. Not all habits are bad ones. And the way Heather writes makes her readers crave her content on a daily basis. This is a foundation for getting her readers to share and talk about her newsletter.
3. Signal vs. noise. While she writes about the news, she doesn’t write about ALL of the news. Just the stories that will matter in 100 years.
Alright, let’s dive into these growth levers and see how you can implement some of them for yourself.
1. Simplify & Tell Stories
Let’s start off with the pure value of her content because it’s a foundational pillar of getting readers to share your content.
Heather simplifies everyday news into something that the average person can read and understand.
But not only that, in every letter she’ll explain who the characters are so that no matter if it’s your first or 100th time you’ve read her work, you’ll be up to speed.
Heather says that when she’s listening to a lecture in another field, she oftentimes has trouble with jargon or remembering the context of what they’re talking about, so she knows how hard it is to stay up to date.
By giving the context around each person or event every time she writes about it, her readers are able to stay informed without feeling the need to memorize the facts and stories she presents in her letters.
I wish my history professors used to do that! 🙂
Include Facts, Not Bias
While she does have her own political beliefs, she tries to leave those out when she writes the Letters to let the reader come up with their own conclusions.
“I am a historian. When I write, I write as a historian. And I do have political beliefs, but I’m using a different skill set when I do history.”Heather Cox Richardson
This is often cited by readers as one of the big reasons her readers love “Letters From An American.” She’s not trying to steer them in any direction, just simply presenting the facts and tying it back to historical events.
Providing Historical Context
In many of her letters, Heather will tie the current events back to something that happened in history.
This is a huge selling point for readers, as it helps them see the gravity of the current situation and reframe the events going on in the world today.
As she said in her About section:
Like I say, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure rhymes.Heather Cox Richardson
Here’s a recent example from one of her June 2023 letters:
Not only is she sharing context from past centuries, but also ties it into recent events of the past few years.
Because of the way she shares this information, it’s almost like having a personal historian help explain why the day’s events are important and tell you how it all played out in the end.
She’s helping the reader draw throughlines between the way events are playing out today and a time in history when very similar events were taking place.
2. Become a Habit
Not only is great content important, but creating a habit around that content can really help solidify your place in a reader’s inbox.
Many newsletters share their writing weekly or even less frequently. While you can build habits around a specific day of the week, a daily cadence will build up an audience faster as long as the content is good.
Heather writes every single day.
And I’m not sure how exactly she makes that happen because she’s still an active professor at Boston College, creating videos, and writing books.
So how does she get it all done?
She’s said in a number of interviews that she sits down after dinner and starts reading the day’s news. She’ll end up falling asleep for an hour or two at her desk, and then wake up and somehow cranks out the Letter for that day.
That means that she’s written almost 1,400 letters since the beginning of her newsletter.
This is definitely not easy for others to replicate. And that’s the point. Most people aren’t willing to write every single day.
This cadence of writing even makes me feel like I’m slacking as she’s almost double my age and is still “hustling” every single day to get her letters out into the world.
Sometimes, even staying up until 4 a.m. to make sure it gets out to subscribers:
While this routine doesn’t sound like a sustainable way of living, it works for her.
And even on the days she “takes off,” which doesn’t happen that often, she publishes something to let people know they shouldn’t wait around for that evening’s post.
Here’s a recent one:
Writing every day creates a habit her readers can stick to.
And the content she’s writing makes it even more “sticky.”
I can imagine readers going through their day and experiencing the news and thinking “I can’t wait to hear what Heather has to say about this!”
She’s giving them some level of peace in their everyday life but helping them explain the wild world we live in.
It’s also built up so much “social capital” of her giving something for free every day for the last 4 years, that people are more willing to pay $5 a month to support her work.
3. Signal vs. Noise
While there are a number of events going on every day, Heather is carefully curating the stories she’ll write about.
She doesn’t share every single piece of news, just the stuff that matters.
Heather says that she knows Americans are being bombarded every day with the 24/7 news cycle, and she doesn’t want to add to that noise.
In a podcast episode of Now and Then, Heather and her cohost, Joanne Freeman, said they would frame each story based on 2 questions:
- So what?
- Who cares?
These might seem like simple questions, but they’re the basis of making sure they are talking about a story people care about.
The first helps make sure this an important topic, and if so, who cares about that story?
It’s a simple way to get back to the heart of the mission, which is to share the important stories that will matter 100 years or more from now.
And that’s the basis of what Heather has set out to do with her newsletter.
She wants it to be a set of documents someone can read in 100 or 200 years and get to experience what it’s like being an American during this period in history.
Curation Mixed With Deep Dives
This almost makes her Letters a combination of 2 main types of newsletters:
- Deep dives
- Curated newsletters
Heather Cox Richardson is curating the most important stories of the day in terms of a historical context, but she also explains them in a deeper format.
Most newsletters only hit on one of these types, but by having two of them, she’s able to stand out as being even more unique.
How You Can Replicate Some of Her Success 🗺️
While Heather is writing for a broad audience, there are a number of ways you can incorporate her growth into your own.
A. Become a Habit for Your Readers
Newsletters are able to grow faster when their readers associate them with a specific day or time of day.
The Morning Brew does this really well by showing up in your inbox with the latest news every morning. They have a specific style and outlook on the news.
Heather Cox Richardson sends her newsletter out in the evening for North Americans. She chooses just a few stories that happened that day and ties them back to historical events.
Thankfully, a lot of my own readers have told me they set aside time on Sundays to read these deep dives. It’s become part of their ritual.
In fact, as I’m finishing this, one of my readers just tagged me in this post on Twitter:
Make your content so good that people crave it every time you publish.
Is there a time of day, or day of week you can “claim” and create a habit around your own newsletter?
B. Simplify Ideas & Tell Stories
Heather takes news stories and simplifies them down into a way other people can understand.
How can you simplify the ideas and concepts behind your niche?
Adding context is a great start.
By making sure that every time you bring up a “jargon” phrase or word you explain it to people who might not know (or remember) what that means.
You can also relate those stories to another event that’s taken place that will help people understand what’s going on.
Stories are a big part of life in all facets. They keep people engaged in whatever you’re sharing and help them retain information.
C. Include the Important Stuff
Instead of sharing every single thing that’s going on, you can do your readers a big service by only sharing the important stuff.
In this deep dive, I could have shared every class Heather has taught. And while the list is interesting, it’s not necessarily going to help you grow your newsletter.
While you want to share just enough to give the reader the full picture, they don’t need every detail if it’s not relevant.
If this was a post about Heather’s qualifications and what makes her a great teacher, maybe that information would be helpful.
While you’re not going to be writing the same content Heather does every day, you can take some of her learnings and apply them to your own newsletter….with context that makes sense.
If you want to read another story about a successful daily newsletter, you might enjoy the deep dive I wrote about the TLDR Newsletter.