"The Secret of Substack Success" 🤫

No guarantees; but reasons for optimism

Because of the pandemic, everyone is an expert.1 Anyone can apply their intelligence to any subject and say important things about it.2

In that spirit, I'm going to apply the Pareto principle to Substack. Seriously, I am — just take what I say with a grain of salt, two spoonfuls of sugar, or your condiment of choice.3

With this principle and some knowledge and logic, I think we can uncover The Secret of Substack Success.™️4

The Pareto principle (according to Wikipedia) says “roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes” (the “80/20 rule”). Moreover, 80% of the top 20% of consequences (64%) come from 20% of the top 20% of causes (4%) (a “64/4 rule”).

There's no law saying an 80/20 rule must apply to everything. But it seems to show up in many situations. You can see examples in the Wikipedia article.

My guess (again, please use salt, sugar, or condiment) is 20% of Substack writers get 80% of subscriptions. Moreover, 4% may get 64%, and 0.8%5 may get 51.2%.6

If your newsletter is in the top 20%, 4%, or 0.8%, congratulations!7

If not – and in particular if it's in the 64% with a combined 4% of subscribers – what can you do to move up?

I sense that much of the world is hoping to come up with a viral post, a hit song, a million dollar idea. We want the secret to success. I know I do.8

The goal is to get into the top 20%, 4%, 0.8%. It could happen.

But I assume the Pareto principle also applies to posts, ideas, etc. As to Substack, 20% of posts may get 80% of views. I’m guessing popular posts overlap significantly with popular newsletters.

If a brilliant post is seen by few people initially, it could still go viral if the few people tell their friends, and they tell their friends, and so on, and so on.9 But it would be easier for a post, even if not as brilliant, to go viral if the newsletter has a lot of readers to begin with.

Newsletters can break into the top 20% or otherwise move up in the charts. But again, that must be easier with pre-existing popularity or notoriety.

Edward Snowden announces a Substack – boom, it's popular. A newsletter a little outside the top 20% has a great post or promotion – maybe it moves up to the top 20%.

What hope is there for the rest of us?

I'm under no illusion that every Substack publisher who tries hard will succeed. But I believe there's substantial hope, for three reasons:

(1) Time

The Pareto principle applies at any given moment. Every day presents new opportunities. Maybe a newsletter has only a small chance of improving its position much on a particular day. But there are more days to come.

(2) Audience and (3) Brand

I've been counting Substack newsletters (in making lists of Substackers on Twitter). I'm sure there are thousands of active newsletters. Likely tens of thousands. Maybe eventually over a hundred thousand. (Or even more?)

This would be discouraging without a faster-growing audience. But I feel that we're just in early days of Substack's name recognition and popularity. I'll bet you or I could list 100 famous people, any of whom would bring enormous attention to Substack if they joined. And I'll bet some join soon.

Substack is the brand name for newsletters. I think it will become much more so. As, say, Facebook and Twitter established their dominant positions, fewer people had to ask what they were, and instead just signed up. Likewise fewer in the potential audience will ask, “What's a Substack?”

I've noticed several people tweeting that their search results improve if they add the word “Substack” to their search. I think this bodes well for Substack newsletters being a go-to source for a growing audience.

It's in Substack's economic interest to grow the audience to provide enough subscriptions for more writers. As with Facebook, Twitter, and other large entities on the internet, their products will never satisfy everyone but should get increasingly useful for more people.

Whew, I've gone far from the Pareto principle, haven't I? But in a sense, not really: because one challenge for Substack is to overcome the reality or perception that it works mainly for the big guys and not for most publishers.

Neither I nor anyone else, whether expert or me 😉, can prove that a higher percentage of people will succeed on Substack over time. What's I'm trying to do here is give reason for hope.

Prepare for the worst: that you won’t achieve your goals for free or paid subscribers, or will realize that Substack isn't for you. But if you want to and can afford to – and if you share my optimism – then keep making your newsletter interesting to a larger audience.10 You might just succeed.11 🙂


Leave a comment


No, they're not.

I'll state up-front that I'm not (yet?) an expert on Substack success. Because of Sub Pub's focus on Substack, I've learned a lot about Substack and accordingly have some ideas about what works. And I'm happy with Sub Pub's increasing numbers of subscribers and interactions. But I'm not yet where I intend to be.

You might check out Grow Getters, Blogging Guide, and Newsletter Crew for more ideas on Substack and newsletter/blog success. Novelleist (aka Elle Griffin) is exploring issues of success in publishing fiction on Substack and elsewhere.


These things might be valid, invalid, or in between. I try to say only valid things. You can judge whether I succeed.


The Pareto principle is associated with among other subjects, mathematics and economics.

I'm not a mathematician. I was president of the high school math team, primarily because no one else wanted the job.

My college and law school grades in economic subjects were ok at best. In my defense, competition was fierce, and grades were on a curve.


Not really a trademark. But I hereby claim this title for my future book.


In other words, Heather Cox Richardson, Glenn Greenwald, and maybe several dozen more Substackerati.


These numbers look precise. But they're approximations. It's possible that 1% of newsletters get 40% of subscriptions.


I hope that Sub Pub can help you move further up the chart! 😊


I used a GIF from The Office because it's popular. The popularity could transfer to this post! But maybe I shouldn't have chosen Dwight Schrute. 🤔

By the way, I think there's no one “secret” to a successful post or newsletter. Get to know your audience better; learn from popular posts and newsletters; try out ideas; get feedback and advice; have good luck. And be patient.


Fabergé Organics explained it in the 80s.


See footnotes 1 and 8 above (or at least the parts thereof with practical advice).


In some future posts and discussions, Sub Pub will explore issues of newsletter success, ideally with publishers who range from just starting to having reached their goals.