Lessons in newslettering

Send ‘em. (Photo by Johanna Kosinska on Unsplash)

Yo. Welcome to Very Online, issue #8. Yes, I sent out #9 before #8. My bad.

And yes, the newsletter looks… different. It’s not you. It’s me.

The short version of the story is I thought I was done moving homes. But no: turns out I had to do it to my little newsletter as well.

For those interested in moving their newsletters to their own domain and web hosting without going through the wringer, here’s the long version.

Sign up, pack up

Very Online started out on Revue six months ago. I first learned of the (now Twitter-owned) free newsletter service from feminist author and journalist Caroline Criado Perez – she uses it for her Invisible Women newsletter. (Really good read, BTW.) And I went with Revue because everyone was on Substack; I signed up there to read my friends’ newsletters, but I wanted to use something else for my own publication. Pangontra lang, LOL. 

I liked how easy and complicated Revue’s UI is. If all you want is a simple publication with an equally simple interface, this one’s it. You get only the basics. There’s no bloat, no complex options, absolutely nothing that would distract you from writing.

Then the kinks began to show. Revue redirected my newsletter to my own custom domain for free, a feature I have to pay for on Substack and other platforms. However, I couldn’t force HTTPS on it (that padlock icon you see on your browser) as I was on a free account. Basically, that redirected domain wasn’t secure.

Integrating my newsletter with my Twitter and Medium accounts was seamless too, as expected. How about integration with other services? That part wasn’t as easy. I take that back: the answer is no bueno unless I use automation services like Zapier.

Revue also sucks at embedding content like GIFs. I had to download them before embedding them, which isn’t how the world does GIFs these days.

As bearable as those kinks were at first, I began wanting even more out of Revue after a newsletter issue or two. There are only two templates available on the free plan, and the only customizations you can do are to add your own logo and change brand colors.

And while Revue takes only a 5% cut from paid-newsletter subscription fees, it forces users to set up Stripe, a payments platform that’s currently unavailable in the Philippines. There are workarounds to this, but I don’t want to go through that particular hassle.

Round 2

So off I went to Ghost, a snazzier and more flexible newsletter platform highly recommended by people who do paid newsletters.

Man, if I thought Revue was alright, Ghost 5.0 was something else. It prides itself on making your newsletter issues SEO-friendly, so it presents each issue like a blog post with editable URLs and tags.

It also has Markdown support and the drag-and-drop UI I was already used to through WordPress‘ Gutenberg editor. But Ghost’s UI also gives a wealth of options for design, formatting, and embedding content. It feels more intuitive, too – I never struggled with searching for and adding rich media, switching elements around, or making Very Online look super-professional. 

I swear, Ghost 5.0 is fucking beautiful.

It’s so beautiful, it almost made me forget that I had to pay US$11/month for it (or US$108/year on the Starter plan, which brings the monthly fee down to US$9). That translates to ₱620/month or ₱6,100/year at the current exchange rate of ₱56/US$1 – the lowest our humble currency has ever gone against the almighty colonizer dollar.

And again, Stripe is the only option if you want to turn your free newsletter into a paid one. Yeah, no.

As in love as I was with Ghost’s UI, I knew I had to go somewhere else. That beauty literally has a price I can’t pay for or maximize long-term.

Thank you, next

I have used (self-hosted) WordPress for more than a decade, and that free CMS has always been the backbone of my portfolio and book blog. I’ve tried other platforms (Blogspot, Tumblr, Wix, WordPress.com), but I always went back to WordPress.

I mean, it’s pretty hard to go wrong with a CMS that runs 43.3% of all websites and has a flourishing plugin ecosystem that’s now 55,000+ strong. If you want to turn your website into a newsletter, you can probably find a plugin for that.

…Which is exactly what happened in my case.

I found several newsletter plugins made primarily for WordPress, but The Newsletter Plugin (TNP) was the most sensible option for me. It has almost all of the features I need (and would want to use in the future) and I can access those features via plugins and a drag-and-drop UI. I don’t have to install every feature and plugin either, which helps with CMS bloat.

TNP was also running a heavy discount on the day I finally paid for premium features. From US$96, it dropped to US$69, then to US$48 for one day (around ₱2,700). That’s a huge markdown compared to Ghost’s total monthly/annual fees, so the decision was quite easy to make.

(I wonder how it’ll be next year when my annual license expires.)

Missing these guys, though

Gotta admit it, I was spoiled by Revue and Ghost in massive ways. And those ways highlight how WordPress (and TNP) is being and has been left behind.

WordPress’ Gutenberg editor is one good example. For the longest time, WordPress users were saddled by the old Classic Editor, which was getting rusty and complicated compared to other online services that offered simpler and more intuitive UIs. It’s like you still using the ’80s-era Lotus word processor when everyone’s already on Google Docs. Or, for a newer reference, it’s like you’re still on Snapchat when everyone’s already on TikTok.

Gutenberg is WordPress’ way of catching up with the pack and it has gone through significant improvements since its launch. But it still has some ways to go – and it is showing signs of becoming as cluttered as the Classic Editor, this time via third-party content blocks.

Since TNP relies on WordPress for design and functionality, its editor is stuck in an awkward state too, like it can’t leave puberty behind. You can build your newsletter issues via drag-and-drop, but TNP has none of Ghost’s flair or forward-thinking. That means no Markdown support, no content excerpts, no callout text, no subscriber-only content, no toggled or collapsible content, and no downloadable files and product recommendations.

And for all their dependence on Stripe to process subscriber payments for paid newsletters, Revue and Ghost make it easy for those in Stripe’s supported countries to do it. TNP does have Locked Content, but it’s only for blog content. There is no way to make subscriber-only newsletter issues. WordPress is still primarily a blogging CMS so blogging will always be the priority here, not newsletters. Or at least until the general public decides blogging should go the way of the dinosaurs.

But… Why put up with all this from TNP and WordPress?

Because I want to avoid digital sharecropping.

I first learned about this term and concept in the early ’00s from Copyblogger founder Brian Clark and his team. They have always encouraged web copywriters and content marketers to own the websites and blogs they publish on, and never to rely on services (free or paid) that promise convenience in exchange for site/content ownership and control.

…anyone can create content on sites like Facebook, but that content effectively belongs to Facebook. The more content we create for free, the more valuable Facebook becomes. We do the work, they reap the profit.

The term sharecropping refers to the farming practices common after the U.S. Civil War, but it’s essentially the same thing as feudalism. A big landholder allows individual farmers to work their land and takes most of the profits generated from the crops.

The landlord has all the control. If he decides to get rid of you, you lose your livelihood. If he decides to raise his fees, you go a little hungrier. You do all the work and the landlord gets most of the profit, leaving you a pittance to eke out a living on.

Sonia Simone, “Digital Sharecropping: The Most Dangerous Threat to Your Content Marketing Strategy“, Copyblogger

A decade later, I see this could have been part of their long-term efforts to get people to buy into Copyblogger’s other services. After all, it used to own StudioPress, which sells WordPress themes and the Genesis framework; and it offers online marketing services through agencies Rainmaker Digital and Digital Commerce.

But I still find its logic sound. Different online services and platforms enforce their rules differently, and their small changes could mean heavy losses on my part. If I’m writing something under my own name and in my free time, it better damn well be published on a platform I own and control.

My wishlist

After six months of newsletter service-hopping, I want to see the following features in one service or platform for a good price.

Comprehensive payment platform support

I do not care about Stripe, and it is taking too long to notice us Filipinos and other Third-World countries because our colonized-people money isn’t good enough for it.

Put PayPal and Wise in the mix. (Given all the complaints against PayPal, I say prioritize Wise – my experience with it has been excellent so far.) If you’re localizing, look into GCash, Maya, PayMongo, and DragonPay. Hell, use even Bayad and AliPay and WeChat Pay if you want!

My point is that Stripe doesn’t cater to everyone and odds are it never will, so don’t hold your breath. If you’re in the newsletter-platform business, you better make it easy for people in countries like mine to monetize, too. Do not exclude us.

Custom pricing

Honestly, everything is expensive these days. And costs of living run differently per country/region. Sometimes, no matter how industrious and foresighted you are, you really are stuck within the bounds of the land you live in and/or were born in.

Things are getting real dicey over here in Asia, people. We’ve got corruption and massive inflation and dictator-families back in power and assassinations and overthrows and territorial disputes/land-grabbing, etcetera etcetera, ad infinitum. Help us out and offer better prices for us. We cannot afford Western pricing anymore.

Newsletter issues import and export

I write and save my newsletter issues somewhere else and just copy + paste them into my UI of choice. So it was easy for me to recreate my archive when I was moving between platforms.

But I still ran into a few problems, even with just seven prior issues to import. Having a built-in import/export function (similar to subscriber imports/exports) that requires minimal editing and formatting afterward would be so damn nice.

Better UIs and more features

Give me something that combines Revue’s uncluttered layout, Ghost’s forward-thinking and love for rich media, and TNP’s features-as-plugins. Throw in subscriber-only newsletter issues, simple but thorough analytics, and built-in SMTP services plus everything mentioned above, and you’ll have me as a customer for life.

Other thoughts

All this also makes me wonder about the true prospects of newsletter writing here in the Philippines as a creative – and financial – venture, not just as a marketing tool for something else.

I write my Very Online issues along the theme of a life being lived online. It’s a personal newsletter and I do it for fun, but I may monetize it in the future. Some friends use their newsletters as personal blogs or offshoots of existing blogs. I also see newsletters from Philippine authors and journalists that skate the thin lines between context provider, blog, and marketing vehicle.

Whatever the form our newsletters take on, there will always be the question of whether Filipino audiences will actually pay for our content. Part of the reason why one of the industries I worked in – tech-magazine publishing – died here is that free blogs utterly decimated it. People get their content for free now, and tech blogs are faster at putting out that free content online than the monthly print mags priced then at ₱150 (US$3) upward. Then the publishers still had to pay annual franchising fees and monthly outlays for distributors and printing presses. Whatever was earned from reader subscriptions, corporate ads, and event and raffle sponsorships dried up real quick until everyone just closed shop and fired all their staff.

Not only are Filipino readers notoriously thrifty, but they’re also condescending and demanding. They will rarely pay for good content, but they want it right now – and how dare you charge money for your writing because writing is easy and anyone can do it! For all the time we spend on arts and entertainment, there is very little respect here for their practitioners and their efforts.

This also partly explains why book piracy is booming here and Filipino-authored books have to stay at certain price ranges to sell locally… But these are for another time and newsletter issue.

I guess I’m just really envious of these Western newsletter writers who can churn out both free and paid issues, and can live off their work to some degree. Maybe that’s the biggest lesson I learned in newslettering: it may be a booming industry abroad, but it looks like we are not there yet. Far from it. Could we get there, though?

Heyyy 👋

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