Start a Public Domain Substack Newsletter
And One Reason Why You Shouldn't
I have two serial Substacks. One is active () and the other is coming in 2024 (). In both cases, the reason these exist is 100% for my own selfish reasons. I want to read these books for my own personal research. I have a vested interest in reading these. But I also want to go deeper into the text. I don’t just want to read them. I want to engage in dialog with others who are reading along with me. I could think of no better vessel than Substack to bridge these two things that are true together. But before I share with you how I did it so that you could maybe do it yourself, I want to share one reason why you shouldn’t start a Public Domain Serial:
You want to get thousands of free subscribers like Dracula Daily.
First of all, they have been the only one able to replicate that model. It’s not easy to do and unless you have a further goal than “get tons of subscribers” then it won’t work. One thing I notice with a lot of these Public Domain newsletters that start is they will simply stop when the book is finished and then it’s just there, laying dormant, with no more communication or interaction with however many subscribers they got. The lead-up is great but nothing ever comes of it. If you want to recreate a success you have to be willing to put in more work than just copy/paste the chapter into an email and hit send. And sometimes that begins by simply wanting to read the work yourself.
Allow me to burst your bubble now. You won’t ever be just like Dracula Daily. But with enough commitment you can find other like-minded people who want to read that public domain book with you. All you have to do is be smart about your plan and make it as easy as possible for them to find you.
WHERE TO START
First, I wanted to see for myself if there might already be someone else who’d already started a serial specifically for reading all of the Oz books. If so, it meant I could potentially just tag along and let someone else do the heavy lifting. I could only find one other Substack but they stopped after the first book. This meant there might be at least some interest from others who wanted to read beyond the first book.
This is where my brain went thinking of a name. I didn’t want to call it “The Wizard of Oz” because the whole point was to read all of the books and they don’t all revolve around the wizard (that much I was certain of). The idea of calling it “Beyond the Wizard” was truly an epiphany moment. When the name came I quickly did a few things. Keep in mind, you don’t need to start with a name for your Substack but it is best to have one that you like and are willing to stick with for as long as you plan on keeping it active. Also, these steps I do for any new name of something I come up with just because you never know what you might need in the future:
Get the publication started on Substack and set it to PRIVATE. This makes it so no one can see it exists while I’m working on creating it behind the scenes.
Check BlueHost to see if the URL for that name is available and purchase it. Depending on how lucrative that name is considered to the “algorithm” it can costs anywhere from $.99/yr to $24.99/yr.
Create an email address of the same name. Gmail is usually NOT the route I would take. Instead, I’ll create one from the URL I acquired and point to “@urlnamehere.com” so that it looks a bit more professional. If you don’t want the hassle of owning a URL then by all means, create a Gmail account that is free. There is another reason why you might want this that I’ll discuss later.
Get the handle on all social media platforms. The usual suspects are: Twitter/X, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, etc. Why? Just in case you want to share your work on social media, it’s not a bad idea to use a handle that is associated with the Substack you created. Oh, and use that email to create all these accounts so any notification emails go there and not to your personal email address.
Once I have the Substack publication created, the URL and email address sorted, as well as my social media handles created, then I’m off to the next vital steps.
When I plan nowadays, I think about Austen Kleon and I “Steal Like an Artist.” What that basically means is, I do my research by hunting down other serials that are already in existence, doing what I hope to do, and see how they do it? What do they offer? How often? Etc.
There are plenty of great Public Domain Serial Substack Newsletters out there already and I recommend checking out my personal list of them here (just go to the Public Domain Serials tab).
Some questions you should definitely have an answer to once you’ve started but before you go public:
What is your Substack serial going to be about? Will you be releasing just one book? A series by the same author in the same world? All books by one author? All books from a specific genre?
REMINDER: Whatever your answer, they should all be in the public domain and therefore anyone who wants to participate doesn’t need to buy the book. Also, you’ll be sharing the entire chapter in most cases, which is the point of a serial.
How often will your release schedule be? This is very important.
Halfway through the first book of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz I realized that one chapter per week was just too long of a gap between each release. I longed to speed it up a bit but didn’t want to affect the hundreds of readers I had developed over the course of half a year. So, I decided to ask the subscribers for their feedback. Substack has a great poll feature that I have found indispensable to me when it comes to any changes I make to Beyond the Wizard. Turns out I was not the only one who felt weekly chapter releases was far too long. So, through a series of polls I was able to increase the rate of delivery from once a week to twice a week. The pace is much better now and it means we can get through at least 4 books a year vs two books, which is what it would’ve been like had I kept it the way that it was.
Don’t be afraid to make changes as you go, just always remember to poll your readers before you do, otherwise you can lose them quickly.
What day(s) of the week will you deliver chapter(s)? I went with Wednesday and Saturday. Why? I had no real reason except that initially it was just Saturdays and when I added the 2nd day I wanted it to have a couple days on either side of Saturday. I also liked the idea of having one a weekday and the other a weekend. I’m sure if I were to look at analytics and whatnot I would discover that Wednesday and Saturday are not the best days of the week to release anything but as you will see, analytics aren’t as important as community.
Once I knew what I wanted to do, how often, and when, I needed to get the Substack looking ready to go. This means creating a few early posts and pages before I even had my first subscriber. Here’s what I created:
THE ABOUT PAGE
Every Substack should take full advantage of an about page. It’s no different than the about page on a writer’s personal website. This is your chance to let a newcomer know what your serial Substack is all about. Make sure you answer the key questions they might have such as what you will be serializing and how often. If you’re not starting till later on in the year (or next year) then mention that. This makes a great FAQs page without needing to create a completely separate one. Here is the About Page for Beyond the Wizard.
First, I wanted to have an index page where anyone who came to the Substack could easily see what we intend to read and have an easy way to navigate to any book they wanted. Here is my index page for Beyond the Wizard. It might seem a bit overwhelming as it is 40 books. But what’s important to take note is the clean way in which I present the information. I grouped them by author and beside each book is a convenient link to the free text as well as free audio version of the book. I also include a link to purchase the book in print via Amazon if they want to. I also include a link to the next post I create per book.
THE TABLE OF CONTENTS AND INTRODUCTION
This is an email I send a few days before a new book is starting. It contains exactly what you might think: The current book’s table of contents. And in the case of every L. Frank Baum Oz book, he includes an introduction letter that I add just before the TOC. I’ve also been able to find the audio version of the introduction so I embed that as well. As each chapter is sent via email I will come back to this post and update it with the link. Also, it’s this post that I will link back to in THE BOOKS page. This way, if someone wants to see all of the chapters for a particular book we’ve read already, they can easily navigate to it. Here is an example of the TOC and Intro post for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
A NOTE ON SECTIONS
What makes Substack unique and specially suited for serialization is the feature of Sections. Each book I start gets it’s own section. This allows the chapters to all be gathered together on one page. Here is the Section page for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As you can see, I also took the liberty of pinning the TOC & INTRO page at the top of that Section. Again, every choice I make is to make it as easy as possible for someone who stumbles upon this Substack to catch up, follow along, and most of all, want to subscribe.
Of course, none of this is possible without a community to make it all worth while. There are several Substack serials out there that have thousands of subscribers. The most notable being Dracula Daily (you could say they started it all?) with nearly 250k subscribers! You don’t need to be that large to make this worth your while. For me, I wanted the feel of a community of readers joining me. So, I set out to find a way to encourage engagement. One thing I couldn’t help but notice with all of public domain serials I found was the lack of engagement. Sure, many of them take the community somewhere else (Discord, etc) to have that kind of engagement. I like that Substack has given us tools to keep the community in one place.
My first goal was to engage the person who would never leave a comment or want to step out of the darkness. That reader who just wants to read the chapters. So, I came up with an idea for tracking when we’ve finished a chapter. The LIKE button on this Substack is there solely for the purpose of tracking. When you’ve finished reading the chapter, you click the Like button. And I’d say it works! An average of 10%+ subscribers are clicking the Like button. And what makes it so amazing is knowing that they are clicking it for a reason and not just because. Just as an example, here is the graph for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Like count:
Next was to engage the reader who actually wants to go a step further. The person who wants that book club vibe but not in person. Just like me! So, I set out to use the Substack feature that allows for comments to be written under each chapter. An email with the ability to comment back and forth with readers is great and so easy to do. Sure, the same people are leaving comments but that is the point. And every now and then I’ll see a new person join in on the conversation. Organic growth is the best growth.
THE OZ GAZETTE
Yes, I know, there is already a legit “Oz Gazette” in existence. This is purely for the Subscribers and for no one else. On the 1st of every month I send out a newsletter. This includes a chart of the previous chapters with a count on how many people have read (aka Liked) a chapter, recap on the last month’s chapters. I also will include various facts and information about the book we’re reading that I’ve found on websites like Wikipedia and Oz fan sites.
When I created this Substack over a year ago I never publicized it. I did zero promotion for it. This is one where I let Substack do the driving to get me traffic and in a matter of 6 months it grew from zero subscribers to 400+! That was wild to me and still is. There has been little growth since that time but I will admit it’s likely because I need to step in and do my own advertising and it can also be because there aren’t as many lovers of the Oz series as there are of Dracula or Moby Dick or Les Mis. I’m not too upset at the lack of growth beyond 400. Especially when you consider I really did all of this for me and my own selfish reasons. I am doing research for a series I’m writing that takes the well known tale of the Wizard of Oz and changes it completely. It likely won’t be Wicked famous but if and when I decide to write it and release it, you could say I have a built-in audience primed for reading it.
TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF
Are you considering starting your own Public Domain Serial on Substack? If so, what are you thinking of reading? There are millions of public domain books and so many join the list every year! Use this as a way to get interested in the classics, meet others, find inspiration for your own writing. There are so many reasons for starting one and all of them are worth it.