My favourite self-publisher might not even be seen as being a creator or self-publisher at all in the common understanding. The Browser is a daily newsletter curated and edited by Robert Cottrell. It’s a handcrafted selection of top-reads from somewhere in the internet.
If you think, that a good recipe for starting a successful newsletter business is to find a niche and to confine its content to this niche, you are right. If you think that is without alternative, The Browser debunks this conviction. As far as I can see, Robert’s interests have no limit. Arts, science, philosophy, politics but also trivia of any kind may be the topic of what The Browser recommends to read. Once, I’ve spent more than half an hour on reading a text about the pros and cons of paper towels vs. electric hand dryers in public restrooms. They were entertaining 30+ minutes!
The Browser charges for curation of free texts
From a business perspective, what fascinates me the most is that Robert managed to create a paid for business by curating articles which are free to read. I remember, when this paywall thing started, there were agnostics. Their main argument was: there is so much good stuff for free in the internet. Who would pay to read something behind a paywall? To me, this objection against charging for content never was convincing. But to set up a business which basically sells a collection of links to texts which are free to read virtually smashes the argument.
Robert’s fans pay because they trust in his recommendations. They pay, because he spares them the exhausting work of reading through hundreds of boring articles just to find the few text jewels. And they pay, because Robert entices them to read with his humorous descriptions of what to expect from each story which he recommends.
The development of a business
Robert started The Browser in 2008. But it was not before 2013 that he started to charge for his service. Then, subscribers had to pay US$20 per year. When I became attentive of this – that was in autumn 2014 – Robert already hat found more than 7,000 people paying for The Browser. At that time, he already employed a ‘publisher’, a person who cared for the business side of The Browser.
From July 2015 on, subscriptions to The Browser were sold for US$34 per year. In October 2018 the price went up to US$49. The subscriber count then was at 10,000. In April 2020 it was 11,000!
Not all of them are paying US$49 – probably not even half of them. That’s because The Browser does something which I think is one of the most effective customer loyalty mechanics I’ve ever heard of. Current subscribers are exempted from raising prices.
So who did subscribe before July 2015 and who did not cancel in between still pays the initial amount of US$20 per years. And subs which started between July 2015 and October 2018 still cost US$34 per year, not US$49. I think that mechanism makes anyone with the intention of cancelling think twice about that.
The Browser started as a paywalled website. Meanwhile it is a newsletter published via Substack. And there are franchises. The Listener, curated and edited by Caroline Crampton, recommends three podcasts per day to subscribers who pay US$5 per month or US$30 per year. The Viewer is a weekly newsletter with “hand-picked video recommendations to surprise and delight you”. It’s still free.
addendum (2020-09-30): last month, The Browser left Substack and switched to Ghost. Maybe, this step was taken to bring together The Browser, The Listener, and The Viewer on one platform. But for sure, financials also played an important role.