Leaving Substack for a self-hosted newsletter system is not as simple as creating an account somewhere. That's the appeal of a platform like Substack: you create an account and, within minutes, can start doing your thing. Self-hosting requires a lot more time, effort, and -- as we're discussing today -- money.
Managing your own site will always be more expensive than using a free platform. I've realized that while free platforms might not charge you, they sure are making money off of you. It might be through advertising (Google and Meta), taking a cut of your earnings (Substack), or harvesting your data for AI training (all of them?).
I'd rather spend some of the money I earn from writing to establish a platform I own and control. To me, these business expenses are worth the cost. At the same time, I also realize that they might not be worth it for you. When it comes to building an audience online, you have to make the decisions that make sense for you.
However, if you're interested in what self-hosting really costs, I'm cracking open the expense report today. To be clear, there are no affiliate links in this post.
Even if you have no plans to build out the entire website, you should purchase a domain. Most platforms allow you to point the domain to their service, which lets you start establishing yourself.
I've used Hover for a long time (decades?) and currently have 12 domains registered with them. Prices depend on the top-level domain (TLD) you go with. For example, .com is about $18/y, while .social runs about $40/y.
Substack offers a hosted domain service for $50. Frankly, I didn't think it was worth it. I thought the price would come with full DNS settings -- in other words, emails would send from the domain address. In reality, it was just the web presence. Sure, it helps build SEO, but other than that? Not worth it if you ask me.
Medium once charged to set up custom domains, but I don't believe they do any longer. Their implementation is similar to Substack's in that it is the basis for your posts. In this context, I do think it makes sense. For example, The Writing Cooperative has had a custom domain with Medium for nearly a decade.
You can also use your own domains with services like Mastodon and Bluesky. I use Masto Host for my Mastodon instance and gladly pay $9/m to maintain my own social media presence.
While these are great uses for domains (and part of why I have so many), we're here to talk about self-hosting your newsletter. So, let's dive into the next step.
Every website requires a host. Some platforms, like WordPress.com and Ghost(Pro), provide their own hosting services for a fee. While those are good options for people who don't want to handle server management, you do pay for that experience.
For example, Ghost(Pro) charges based on the number of newsletter subscribers (more on that later). Based on my current level of subscribers, I'd have to pay about $2,000 annually. While the monthly service fee for my Mastodon instance is worth the added cost, this one was too steep to handle.
Instead, my website, running Ghost, is hosted on Opalstack. I currently have a Single Stack ($150/y), but I am considering upgrading to a Double Stack ($250/y) to cover all of my various sites and projects. This gives me the server space and processing power to run the site.
As I shared before, self-hosting Ghost is not for the faint of heart. There are regular server updates, and I often discuss fixes with the Opalstack support team. They are amazing people who put up with my constant questions and help me learn as I go.
Based on all the different website platforms available, I chose Ghost because it offers a modern blogging system and newsletter management. Which brings us to the next step.
Sending bulk emails is expensive. The cost covers all the mitigation to ensure your email isn't automatically blocked by servers as spam. How Substack doesn't charge for these features is completely beyond me.
Honestly, this is where the biggest expense comes in. Ghost requires the usage of Mailgun, a mass email system with a terrible name.
Basically, you create an account with Mailgun, connect it to Ghost with an API, and it processes your emails. Mailgun handles the bounces, unsubscribes, and spam prevention. As such, it charges $0.001 per sent email. My mailing list is currently around 17,000 subscribers, so it's roughly $17/email.
Like I said, email costs add up quick.
However, here's where we get into another issue I don't understand about Substack. From what I can tell, they don't do any kind of email management. For example, the first email I sent from Ghost sent to over 600 bounced email addresses. Most of those were "hard bounces" where the address no longer exists. Why Substack didn't clean those records, I have no idea.
It also doesn't appear that Substack clears email addresses that don't regularly interact or open the newsletter. Again, this seems like a problem, given the cost to send emails and the fact that Substack is free.
Two weeks into sending from Ghost, there are roughly 6,000 addresses that haven't opened anything yet. My plan is to purge the unopened addresses after this week. Pruning roughly 40% of my audience might seem drastic, but it feels right for two reasons:
- It will keep my email expenses down.
- I'd rather connect with people who want to engage.
I've often said that my reason for writing and sending these emails involves connecting with you. I'd much rather spend the money it costs to send emails to people most likely to connect back. In other words, I wonder if the 6,000 people who don't open any emails are actually part of my audience.
Granted, plenty of email protection features now turn off email open reporting. I use these features on all of my Apple devices and strongly recommend that you do the same. So, it is possible that there are people who open the email that Ghost doesn't know about. If you think you're one of those folks, reply and say hello.
While Ghost can't always track email opens, it does track responses. And, at the end of the day, email responses are what I'm most interested in anyway. Getting to hear from you is, again, why I do this whole thing.
Adding It Up
To sum it all up, self-hosting a website is expensive. I'm currently looking at about $100/month between the server costs and emails. Once I prune the email list a bit, I will likely get that down to about $60/month.
For me, this expense is worth it. Managing my own site is an outlet for creativity. It's a sandbox where I can experiment with design, tools, and features. I can make changes quickly without waiting for updates to "roll out to all users over the coming weeks." In other words, it's a lot of fun.
Does it make sense for you? Only you can answer that. But I want to know! Hit reply and share your journey. And if you're self-hosting your site, I want to see it! The more creative the site, the better.
What Are You Looking For in a Newsletter?
Over the weekend, I asked Mastodon what they prefer in a newsletter issue:
- One long/detailed topic
- Multiple short topics
- One longer topic combined with a few shorter ones
- Some other combination
Tell me which you prefer. I have my preference, but I'm curious what my audience thinks.