You’ve Got Mail: The Meteoric Rise of the Email Newsletter

In a ruthless attention economy, the email’s focused, more personalised nature is a rare commodity.

Illustration by Amina Bouajila for Elephant
Illustration by Amina Bouajila for Elephant

This year I reached an uncomfortable milestone. My inbox, Gmail told me, was now 98% full. With a generous yet finite amount of storage, this moment was inevitable, but it didn’t make it any easier to accept. Like many others, I have now been in possession of the same email account for well over a decade. A space for private correspondences, online purchases and domestic bills, these intimate banalities have recently been joined by a growing number of personal newsletter subscriptions.

Once the preserve of e-commerce platforms and cultural institutions, who use the format to easily deliver marketing messages, individuals are increasingly transforming the newsletter into a means of self-publishing their thoughts, ideas and musings. Delivered direct to subscribers’ inboxes, these digital-savvy missives offer a focused alternative to the crowded interfaces of newspapers, magazines and social media feeds. Like reading a message from a friend, with the bonus of no expectation of a reply, they have been a welcome balm in long lockdown days.

In a ruthless attention economy, the email’s focused, more personalised nature is a rare commodity. And there is a remarkable variety on offer, with a slant towards personal essays and niche interests. Looking at Porn by Robin Craig examines various kinds of ‘taboo’ pornography, while historian Andrew Howe’s Age of Invention explores the relationship between capitalism, technology and the Industrial Revolution. Maybe Baby by Haley Nahman, meanwhile, is “a weekly long-form newsletter about hard-to-describe feelings”.

“Delivered direct to subscribers’ inboxes, these digital-savvy missives offer a focused alternative to the crowded interfaces of social media”

Ana Kinsella started the London Review of Looks newsletter in 2016 while working as a fashion journalist. “I’ve always been someone who had blogs and did a lot of online writing outside of work,” she explains. “I missed the personal blog, the early 2010-type thing, and this was an opportunity for me to give myself a challenge of writing for a public audience without constraints.”

Kinsella’s newsletter offers an idiosyncratic take on personal style, describing the thoughts and memories evoked by a stranger’s leather jacket or the cargo shorts worn by a local DPD driver. “I wanted to do something that echoes how we feel as we move through the city and go about our daily lives,” she reflects, adding that she has several blind readers, “who say it’s been very evocative.”

She uses TinyLetter, the free service owned by Mailchimp which caps users at 5,000 subscribers, to send out instalments at roughly monthly intervals. Earlier this year Kinsella signed a deal with Daunt Books for a book titled Look Here, due for release next year. “The book has observational scenes similar to the newsletter, and there are longer chapters that are a little more introspective,” she says. “I’m always trying to remember to put what people seem to like about the newsletter into the book. I want that spirit of it to be translated.”

Kinsella has never charged for London Review of Looks, but Huw Lemmey’s subscribers can pay $5 a month for his newsletter Utopian Drivel. He uses Substack, a service that has gained media attention in recent months for the hefty advances it offered to lure writers away from mainstream publications.

Founded in 2017 and home to thousands of newsletters, Substack now has 500,000 paying subscribers and attracts 12 million users a month. “My initial ambition was to see if it was a financially viable way to make money from writing,” Lemmey explains. Although it didn’t initially pay much compared to Lemmey’s freelance commissions for magazines or newspapers, the regular money from subscribers offered a guaranteed income.

“When you read an email newsletter, it’s halfway between where your bills come in and your parents email you”

Paid subscribers of Utopian Drivel receive weekly essays by Lemmey on everything from heckling politicians to the portrayal of homosexuality in British satirical magazine Private Eye, and can loosely be described as focusing on sex, history, politics and place. He started it two years ago after finding that his writing was often “too personal, or too gay, for the taste of magazine editors”.

Lemmey believes that readers are more comfortable with being challenged in this format. “The email inbox is a very intimate space” he says. “It’s completely different to reading on social media. When you read an email newsletter, it’s halfway between where your bills come in and your parents email you.”

Signing up, he argues, radically changes the dynamics of the writer-reader relationship. “It’s an unfiltered place, especially if you’re writing about sex from a subaltern position. Usually you have to start with certain principles when writing for a cis queer audience. Here you don’t have to explain, there’s that trust with them.”

For Salome Wagaine, that trust with readers was vital in giving her the confidence to publish opinions and ideas in her newsletter (named Peeled and Portioned after a line from a Louis MacNeice poem) that she wouldn’t have felt comfortable placing elsewhere.

“I’d been doing some theatre reviewing and blogging but I felt as though there was a degree of visibility there that I found a bit overwhelming,” she says. “Here I could have these opinions and test them out, without having the prominence of being one of the few Black theatre critics.” She has sent out sporadic essays of cultural criticism on theatre, film, television and books since 2016, typically discussing contrasting works from a political angle.

Like Lemmey and Kinsella, Wagaine describes her relief at the creative freedom that writing beyond the mainstream has brought her. “I have licence in my own newsletter that I wouldn’t have had if I was reviewing for a publication.” It has also enabled her to distance herself from the racialised dynamics that continue to pervade the media industry, where 92% of journalists are white (a decrease of only 2% from 2017), according to a NCTJ diversity in journalism report released last week. “I’d love to write about Lady Bird,” she admits. “But I’d probably have a better shot at pitching on a film like Rocks, even though in terms of my own girlhood I’d say I have more in common with Lady Bird.”

“I have licence in my own newsletter that I wouldn’t have had if I was reviewing for a publication”

In 2020 there were 16,000 layoffs in the newsrooms of the United States alone, a statistic that is a likely driving force behind the recent newsletter boom. Substack offers an undeniably attractive proposition for journalists who have already built a dedicated audience, giving them an opportunity to monetise their own writing in a way that the blogs of the early 2000s were never able to.

Wagaine, who does not charge for her newsletter, has observed the trend with interest. “It’s been hard for me to remember that I am not trying to make it my living. I’m often thinking, should I be monetising this?” Kinsella is more direct in her frustration at the practice of charging subscribers: “It seems like nothing can be done on the internet now without the goal of monetary gain.”

Kinsella and Wagaine are not alone in keeping their offerings completely free, but they rely on other sources of income to supplement their newsletters. Wagaine describes it as “a hobby that I take seriously”. It is inevitable that they would be joined by salaried journalists eager to experiment without the pressures they face in their day job.

Thessaly La Force is the features director at the New York Times’ style-focused publication T Magazine. She started her newsletter (named Imitation of the Rose, after a Clarice Lispector short story) at the beginning of 2021, just over a year into the pandemic. She has vowed to keep it free for subscribers, and writes on beauty, baking and books from a personal perspective.

“It does feel different to arrive in someone’s inbox as opposed to just being on the internet,” La Force reflects. She describes choosing the exact time to send each newsletter out, eventually settling on Saturday morning: “I imagine that everyone’s in bed, relaxing, reading on their phone. It adds a personal element that surprised me.”

“I imagine that everyone’s in bed, relaxing, reading on their phone. It adds a personal element”

Several people who I spoke to compared the newsletter format to the experience of writing an email to a friend, despite some sending to a subscriber base of thousands. For readers, the experience can be similarly inviting. “You’re not battling with hyperlinks and other distractions, especially advertising. It’s much more like reading something from the London Review of Books, a focused, old-fashioned experience,” suggests Lemmey.

That kind of intimacy is rare to find in the embittered digital realm, where clickbait headlines and reader backlash are par for course. Online publishing is often said to have consumed print media, before social media then devoured digital publishing. Could newsletters offer a viable alternative? Their popularity proves that there is an appetite for less prescriptive and more experimental creative work than mainstream publications settle for. During a lockdown year of gallery, museum, cinema and bookshop closures, they have provided much-needed solace and stimulus.

The dynamics of power will undoubtedly continue to shift, but for now there remains a radical honesty and vulnerability to the many newsletters that I subscribe to. With the ‘ping’ of each new email arriving in my inbox, I am momentarily transported into the private worlds of other people.

Top illustration by Amina Bouajila for Elephant