Last week I wrote about how you should not jump on the Substack (and similar platforms) bandwagon and instead build your own platform to monetise your readers. Before you read on, I highly recommend reading that article.
It’s OK; I’ll wait.
Back now? All right, now this week, I want to go through some of the self-hosted solutions on how you can build your own membership/subscription-based newsletter using open source and off the shelf tools. Some are free. Some cost money, but many are a one-time cost. One thing to keep I mind, though, is that if you invest a little money and time upfront, you will save substantially more than you would signing up to Substack and letting them take 13% of your revenue forever.
The Self-Hosted Newsletter Basics
To host your own paid email newsletter, you need just the following five elements:
- A domain – Your brand/publication/platform needs the perfect domain name. Obviously, we can help you with that! You’ll need an SSL to go with the domain, too.
- A content management system (CMS) that can publish articles – Like Ghost or WordPress for publishing.
- A way to manage subscriptions – Ghost has this built-in, WordPress requires plug-ins, and there are many. It needs to take sign-ups and let users manage their subscriptions themselves.
- A payment processor – A way to take recurring credit card payments automatically. Stripe is what most are using for this. Their low fees and ease of use make it the best one to go with for novices.
- A way to send emails to your subscribers – Once you have all of this setup, you need a way to actually *send* your emails. While I advocate self-hosting as much as you can, email deliverability is best left to third parties like Amazon SES, Mailgun, Mailchimp, etc.
So, keeping all of this in mind, I will go through two ways to set up your own self-hosted Substack alternatives with two examples I set up for this experiment (these are live websites but still in beta!).
Now, Blacknight is in the hosting business; we would love to host your new publication. We have many options available – from basic web hosting to cloud VPS hosting to dedicated servers. But this is where you’ll need to learn about the basics of web hosting (which we can help with).
Here are some platforms that will allow you to build your own Substack-like publication.
WordPress and WooCommerce
Of course, WordPress. This runs 40% of the web currently. When most people think of ‘blogs’, they think of WordPress, but it ceased being a platform for just blogs long ago. It is infinitely extendable and customisable. You can easily create your publication with it (and do a lot more with it, like have contributors) and create a Substack-like paywall with plugins. Now, this is where I must acknowledge that finding the right plugins, and the combination of them, will be a challenge. WooCommerce can do most of the subscription stuff out of the box, but you will need something for email (like Mailpoet, which was recently acquired by WordPress).
We can, of course, host your WordPress website on all of our hosting packages.
For this experiment, I set up a brand new WordPress website called Brit.news. It’s meant to collate all the interesting press releases about British stuff I happen to get in my inbox. I spun up a WordPress website and customised a theme – it’s simple and meant to be simple. This example does not have a paywall. The newsletter is free.
I decided to use Mailpoet for the email function. Whenever a new article is published, Mailpoet will send an email to all the subscribers with the latest post. Subscribers sign-up on the website in handy subscription boxes, and all the emails are automated.
Mailpoet is free to start with, and you can have up to 1,000 subscribers. You can opt to use their mailing service for deliverability, but you don’t need to. I installed the WP-SMTP plugin and send emails via Amazon SES, which is pennies for every 1,000 emails sent. There are plenty of other email sending services you can use with WP-SMTP and Mailpoet.
Now, if I wanted to install a Paywall, that would be pretty simple. There are plenty of plugins that do this. WooCommerce Subscriptions is the most robust with the biggest user base – it costs $199/year for a license. You can set up your newsletter subscription for however much you want to charge and then have all members automatically added to the Mailpoet list. There are other plugins that have similar functionality. Then you can use the plugin to lock away and segregate content so that only subscribers can view it.
There isn’t one out of the box solution here; you’ll have to try a combination of things to make it work. Once you have everything set up, you can focus on writing and building your audience. It will just keep working. And $199 a year for WooCommerce Subscription is much cheaper than paying 13% every month to a third party. There are also many third-party services seeking to turn your WordPress site into a full-fledged member site. But a lot of these tools stray into the ‘not owning the printing press’ territory as you just end up paying them a chunk of your earnings instead. There are promising alternatives like Newsletter Glue which has an affordable yearly licensing fee.
Ghost as a Substack Alternative
Ghost is a CMS and WordPress alternative that came onto the scene a few years ago and has grown a steady following. In the last year, they’ve gone all-in on newsletters and subscriptions to the point where it’s being integrated into the core of the software.
Ghost is non-profit, and the software is open-sourced. They offer a hosted version of Ghost that has a subscription/members function and all the features you would expect from a hosted blogging platform. It starts at $29 a month (goes up from there based on traffic). But the costs are predictable and you have complete control. The functions to run a subscription-based publication are pretty well developed and are included for free, and there are even themes that would let you make your publication look like Substack (the Substation theme by Dan Rowden).
However, Ghost has a free version as well that you can self-host anywhere that supports it. Crucially all the integrated membership/subscription stuff is included for free – so you can run your subscription business practically for free (once you’ve paid for your hosting), and the only ‘extra’ fees you’ll be paying are the credit card processing fees. This will save you thousands of dollars if you build a large newsletter following.
The caveat here is that Ghost is ridiculously difficult to install and run yourself on your own server, at least it was. When I moved to a dedicated server last year, I spent way too much time trying to figure it out. I never did. But there’s another solution.
I purchased a Virtual Cloud Server (VPS) from Blacknight, running CloudLinux and the Plesk Control Panel. Plesk allows you to run NodeJS, which is what Ghost uses to run. Installing it is not as simple as installing WordPress, but it is now a lot easier than it used to be. I followed these instructions here (I’m working on adapting these instructions with examples for a later blog post).
So, for my experiment, I set up a brand new website – it’s called Britannia.photos. The newsletter model is simple; if you subscribe for $3 a month or $25 a year, you get a pretty picture of Britain in your inbox every morning (in desktop wallpaper resolution) along with a short little essay related to the image.
Once I installed Ghost, I had the bones of the newsletter set up within hours. I quite like the Ghost interface and way of publishing. It’s very minimal (which, if you’re coming from WordPress, maybe a bit of a shock to the system – for example, there is no media library at all). I set up the members function (enabled under the ‘Labs’ section in the admin section). I linked it to Stripe, and after a few beta tests, I can take subscription payments. There was some troubleshooting with emails needed, however (thanks Michele Neylon for being my guinea pig!).
Now, for the actual sending of emails, you have to use Mailgun; that’s the only thing Ghost supports currently (this may change soon). So, I had to sign-up for a Mailgun account, but it’s free to start and has low usage fees on a similar model to AmazonSES.
Now, if you don’t fancy buying a VPS server and setting all this up yourself, the easiest way to just pay to do this is just set up an account with Ghost. $29 is a low monthly fee, you still own your printing press, and they handle all the server admin for you (and your data can easily be exported). But I’m generally always in the camp of ‘do it yourself.’
So, What Would I Do?
I never run out of ideas for new publications. There are not enough hours in the day! But if I were to start a new publication, the primary business model would be selling a subscription to it. If I were to choose a platform based on all the things I’ve discussed, I would choose to host my own instance of Ghost and run everything myself. While I setup Britannia.photos as an experiment for this blog post, I think I might give it a go and see if it brings in a little bit of extra income. It’s already set up, and it won’t take more than an hour or so of time a week to schedule new images. It could be fun! Ghost has some big updates coming with their 4.0 coming down the pipeline, so their subscription and membership functions will only get better. It’s never been easier for writers to start their own publications. What an exciting time!
Interested in starting your own publication and need hosting? We can help you build the perfect infrastructure to succeed on the web today. Click the link below to send an email to our sales team right now.