A Year of No Significance

I started The Cleaver and the Butterflyone year ago, and added a payment option almost exactly six months ago. It seems like an appropriate time to take stock.

Here are the raw numbers: 253 total subscribers, 35 paid subscriptions, gross annualized revenue $2480.

From a strictly financial standpoint I am encouraged by some behind-the-curtain trends.

A) It took six months to go from 150-200 subscribers, but just two more months to jump to 250.

B) The revenue figures don't include income from six commercially published stories that can be directly or indirectly traced to specific newsletter posts.

Nevertheless, I will be the first to admit that these figures are not exactly eye-popping. Financial solvency is not in sight.

Substack is a great platform, but as far as I can tell, the people who are making serious cash from their newsletters tend to publish much more frequently, or cover timely and important beats, or were already famous (Andrew Sullivan). I am dubious I will ever be able to cover my bills writing 3000-word meditations on fried rice, garlic and ginger, and the application of Daoist philosophy to redwood ecology.

Of course, my basic competitive nature lusts after better metrics and I am constantly plotting strategies for cleverly connecting my esoteric interests to the virally-potent affairs of the moment. I am always ecstatic when one of my pieces mysteriously connects with the wider world and half a dozen new subscriptions suddenly pop up on my phone. I crave more. And the ever-sadder state of commercialism demands a lot more hustle.

But in a much deeper sense, the writing of these essays has been their own reward. Market considerations notwithstanding, a writer has to write. This newsletter frees me to exercise my creativity with a purity most rare. I treasure it. I could not have gotten through this year without it.

So without question, the experiment will continue! And I'm extraordinarily grateful to everyone who has signed up for the ride!

(A note on the title of this post: 1587, A Year of No Significance is the title of a superb work of Ming history by Ray Huang. Huang chose to focus on a year in which nothing particularly dramatic happened, and delivered a compelling tale of dynastic decline, in which all manner of things turn out to be embodied with tremendous significance. So I am, haha, making a little joke. If you'd told me when I started this project a year ago that I'd end up publishing posts in a desperate attempt to maintain equanimity while navigating a pandemic, a recession, the complete implosion of relations between the US and China and the most nerve-wracking election year of my life, I might have decided to choose a different path. But I guess I'm glad I didn't!)