Welcome to Hell World is one of the most popular newsletters on Substack today. It’s run by journalist, author, and poet Luke O’Neil.
His newsletter combines a commentary on US current affairs with poetry and insights from Luke’s life. Luke’s writings aren’t for everyone and he’s not afraid to say it. A blurb on his new book reads: “The Left’s new low.” —Tucker Carlson
Check out this week’s interview.
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Bryan: Hi there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. Before I recorded this week's podcast episode where I interview Luke O'Neil, the writer of the popular Welcome to Hell World newsletter, I was waiting to do this myself, and it said that there's a recession in Ireland. There's a recession because of the corona pandemic and there's a recession, not just in Ireland, but in many countries.
And we're not sure how long it will last or when it will end. And it actually got me thinking about the last time there was a recession back in 2008. Back then, I was a freelance journalist and I wrote for a number of technology publications in Ireland, but I wrote for one particular publication that I was overly dependent on. And when the recession arrived, who do you think they were the first to get rid of? Well, it was freelancers. Because when you're a news media publication and you're running out of money, you're going to cut freelancers because you need to protect your full-time staff or even your bottom line.
And at the time, my freelancing contract dried up and then my other freelance contracts dried up. And basically, I was out of work for about a year. I ended up drifting into another profession that had nothing to do with journalism. It took me quite a while to find my way back to writing. But I remember at the time thinking, "I'll never be so dependent on one source of income or on one employer like that again." I wanted to prepare for the worst.
So these days, I earn a living from writing through creating online courses, through recommending writing software that I use, through advertising and also through some freelance writing. Now, I know it can feel like a lot to figure out how to develop all of those income streams if you're a new writer. So, one strategy that's working really well for many former journalists, for many freelancers and nonfiction writers is creating a newsletter. Creating a newsletter is fantastic because you don't necessarily need to work harder because your publications can scale up even if you don't. And if you encourage people to pay for your newsletter, you can quickly earn a living because of shear maths.
If a hundred people pay you $5, you can quickly calculate how much you could earn if 1000 people paid your $5. One person who's doing that quite well is Luke O'Neil. He's the writer and the man behind Welcome to Hell World, and he's also an author and journalist. And in this week's interview, I wanted to understand why Luke decided to set up his newsletter in the first place. And that's what we get into at the start of the interview. And Luke also explains why he feels there's room for different types of writing for a nonfiction writing for anybody who's going to create a newsletter today.
Of course, before we get into this week's interview, I do have an ask. If you enjoy the show, if you could leave a short review on the iTunes store or wherever you're listening to us, or rate the show. Because your review or your rating will help more listeners find us. That said, let's go over to this week's interview with Luke O'Neil of Welcome to Hell World. And I started by asking him to explain what exactly his publication or newsletter is about, and why he decided to set it up in the first place.
Luke: It's kind of a curious mix and I think that's why people seem to like it. I send it out two or three times a week, and one might be a reported feature from a scene of a political rally or something like that. One might be an interview with somebody who's doing some good work in labor organizing or other leftist political spaces. And one might be memoiry type writing about my own life and mental health and things like that. And then, sometimes it might be all three stacked on top of each other, weaving back and forth into one another. And I don't ... probably certainly not the first person to try to mix all of those things into one thing, but it's a little bit rare. And so for that reason, I guess I'm lucky that people have taken to it.
Bryan: Yeah. I would say, although some journalists are trying to do that, you don't often see it in many publications or sites today. So it's quite difficult to do well. Your articles or newsletters air on the longer side. I think I read one that was about 4,000 words. Is that fair to say?
Luke: It's funny. The email service, I use Substack, which has become quite popular of late. I didn't know that there's a limit on how long an email can actually be.
Bryan: Neither did I.
Luke: No. And so I find out almost every time. I mean, that also has to do with including media, like pictures and stuff, that curtails it a bit. But I think that length is part of what I think distinguishes that, and what I said, I've been a more traditional journalist for a long time, almost 20 years now. And I really got fed up with the online news writing ecosystem where everything has to be short and punchy. Everything has to have a hook that draws people in. Every story you write, the idea behind it is supposed to be for as broad an audience as possible.
So what I did with the newsletter is I took every single one of those things and said, screw it. And instead of 800 words, why not 4,000. Instead of an eyeball patching headline that might go viral, a more of an opaque poetic headline that you're like, well, what the hell is this about? I don't know. And also a sort of unconventional grammatical structure where I hate to use commas and I write really long run on sentences. So basically, I did everything that you're not supposed to do just as a cue to the conventions of online media in the late 2010.
Bryan: What you are describing sounds more like literary nonfiction than journalism.
Luke: Sure, indeed. But even with literary nonfiction, there's conventions that I achieved against. There's so much emphasis on narrative and it seems like every ambitious literary nonfiction writer now is writing, thinking with the goal of selling it as a movie or a screenplay and things like that.
Luke: The greatest, whatever we think of as the peak of the nonfiction writing was the New Yorker or whatever that type of magazine, they all have the same type of constraints on them. I never wrote for them, but lots of the magazines that I've written for, the editors will try to push you into that set, three part structure with the opening scene and then you step back and there's your data section. And then you bring in the voices from the people involved and then you wrap it up tightly. That's great in a way, but it just came to feel too constrictive to me. So I said, screw that too. Although sometimes I'll still operate within that framework, but mostly I just wanted to do whatever I wanted to do, and I didn't want anyone telling me why I shouldn't do it.
Bryan: I like that, that would apply to a lot of people who set up online businesses or other publications. How do you go about writing something that's 4,000 words meant as a newsletter? Although I would argue maybe they're many essays. What's your process like?
Luke: Well, the subject matter of the newsletter, the name Welcome to Hell World, it seems probably self explanatory, especially if you're following the news here in America in the past couple of days. The problem isn't finding things to write about, it's looking at this massive field of terrible things about this country and winnowing it down. Trying to find an entryway is the hard part for me. Because you can just perceive the entirety of everything that's wrong with America at once and be overwhelmed and just throw up your hands and say screw it. So I'm constantly reading the news and constantly looking at Twitter and trying to find stories that get at the problems of our structural racism and our carceral state and our nightmare healthcare industry, and tell them in a way that isn't just like, all right, here's the day. Here's how many people were shot by the police this week.
It's like, here's what it feels like for the people involved. And also at the same time, here's what it feels like for me to be reading that information. And it's a sickening feeling that people are supposed to come away with, and I often feel that they do. But to answer your question, there's no lack of inspiration. Turn the TV any day in America and you'll see something and say, wow, that is terrifying and stuff. And just any person in empathy or who wants to see the world be better than it is would find inspiration in that. And for me, I just like the idea of writer's block. I know a lot of writers talk about that, but that just doesn't really ... it's never really been ...
Bryan: So do you just sit down and work through the entire piece on Mongo, or?
Luke: Yeah, I basically will ... it takes a few hours to write it. People may be surprised or maybe someone who don't like it, but it takes me four or five, six hours just to sit down and read through it.
Luke: And the stream of consciousness writing style of it helps in that because I can just, once the first sentence is written, it's all rolling downhill from there.
Luke: Unless I happen to be especially hungover on any given day, in which case it's a bit harder. And then if I am, I just work that into the story too.
Bryan: I have to try that.
Bryan: Yeah, I write when I have hungover.
Luke: No, it's a bit harder.
Bryan: You talked about reading the news and it's terrifying. I'm certainly with you on that. In fact, when I worked as a journalist, I actually found, when I got out of journalism, my mental health improved quite a lot.
Bryan: The news is pretty bleak and depressing. So how do you manage that when you're constantly-
Luke: I don't, I don't manage it. I have very poor mental health skills and I drink way too much, and I'm poorly adjusted, barely functioning human being. I'm half kidding about that.
Bryan: Yeah. You do talk about your personal experiences in your newsletter, which I think is why readers like it so much?
Luke: Yeah. I think there's this thing that you're supposed to ... there's so many traditions and mores in journalism that you're not supposed to be part of the story and things like that. But how can you write a story about police executing a person of color just in broad daylight on video and not have an emotional visceral response to that?
Luke: I think that's what I do differently than standard newspaper, whatever. They'll just tell you what happens, but then I break away in the middle of telling you what happens to how it's making me feel as I'm thinking about it. But just in general, I feel pretty terrible all the time. That's a part of my own mental makeup, but it's also really ... it would be hard not to, especially in America. There's certainly no shortage of bullshit over there for you guys too.
Bryan: Yeah, true.
Luke: In many other countries around the world, but just like a dark cloud over everything right now. And it doesn't seem to be getting any better. And this was before the pandemic, this is how I felt before-
Bryan: Yeah, I got that.
Luke: Yeah. Now, adding that into the mix, it's like, Jesus Christ.
Bryan: [inaudible 00:11:54]. Anytime I've used personal stories in my work, not avenues to the same extent that you have, but I was getting readers, sorry, emails from readers complaining.
Luke: Oh, really?
Bryan: They don't like personal stories. Like for example, I wrote an essay about parenting a while ago and somebody who was unable to have kids emailed me back a letter giving ... are complaining about what I'd said. So I can imagine for you that's 100 times more because I'm sure some of your articles aren't for everybody. So how do you manage that? Do you just ignore complaints?
Luke: I get lots of crap and harassment on Twitter, because I'm pretty active there and I'm a loud mouth, and constantly posting about politics and things like that. I don't get too many negative emails, but I definitely get my share of harassment. I've certainly been on the receiving end of particularly the gun nuts here, and people who love the police and that sort of thing have threatened me multiple times and that sort of stuff. It doesn't bother me if somebody tells me that I'm stupid or that I'm an asshole or whatever. But occasionally, if someone sends you like a photo of their machine gun, that can get me, every now and again, that sort of stuff can be a little unsettling.
Luke: But for the most part, I go into this knowing that it's not going to be for everybody. That's freedom in a way. I'm not trying to reach a million people. I reach, there's a little over 10,000 subscribers and that's amazing to me, that 10,000 people will read it. Would I like to reach 20,000, 30,000? Sure. Yeah. Great. That'd be great. But I'm not trying to reach a million people, and that unburdens you of a way of thinking about wanting to be liked by everybody.
Bryan: And what was key to getting 10,000 subscribers for you? Did you have a conscious plan for growing your newsletter, or what did you try?
Luke: No. I just did, as I said, I went into it saying, I'm just going to do this weird thing. And if it works, great, and if it doesn't. And the people behind the newsletter company, they came to me and explained to me that, if you get 100 people paying you $5 a month, which is a very attainable goal, it's like, that's 500 bucks a month you didn't have before. What do you get to lose? Even for people who are thinking about starting out newsletters, who may not have as big of a following to begin with as I do, I certainly could use 500 bucks a month. That's like half your rent or whatever, if you're lucky. If you don't live in ... I imagine in Dublin, it probably doesn't go that far.
Luke: Start it out. I'm lucky to have a pretty big social media following to begin with just from having been writing for a bunch. I was writing for Esquire for a bunch of years and The Boston Globe and places like that, so I built up a following already. So right off the bat, a lot of those people just came over to check it out. This might sound weird, but the thing that I did was I took it seriously. I was like, "Oh, well, all right, I've got 1000 people." That seemed like a lot. A year and a half ago, I was like, "Wow, I got to take this seriously. I can't embarrass myself by putting out something terrible. I got to actually put a little work into this now." It was daunting at first, but then to my surprise, it continued to grow. And fortunately I had a couple of viral incidences last year that they put the newsletter in the national spotlight in the media.
Bryan: I was researching your publication, it was in The Boston Globe, and then suddenly it wasn't.
Luke: Yeah. I had a thing where, I guess it was two years ago, I don't remember, maybe it was really only last year. Time is weird now. But I wrote a pretty controversial article. I was opinion columnist in The Boston Globe, and I wrote about the Department of Homeland Security and all the people that are responsible for our concentration camps we have here. I said that they should be shown in public and not joked about, like spitting in their food and stuff. And that really caused a big hullabaloo here. It was written about in basically every website about how I'm this terrible evil, leftist, terrorist and shit.
Luke: And then at the same time, I had just done a story on Fox News and about how terrible that is. I mean, I think people over there are aware of Fox News to some extent, right?
Luke: This space, the Murdoch brand is strong, but about how people literally, like families have been broken apart and people have abandoned their ... not abandoned, but broken up with their parents in a way because they can't stop spouting this terrible propaganda that this evil cable news channel talks about. And that went super viral, that helped bring in a few more thousand subscribers as well. So the advice to grow your newsletter is to very simply get a job at a major newspaper, get help spectacularly, and then very simply write a super viral post that basically everyone in the media and your country shared.
Bryan: Okay, I'll do that stuff.
Luke: 1,2,3, there you go.
Bryan: At what point did you decide to make a newsletter your main gig? To monetize it and focus on it?
Luke: Well, for a while I was doing it on the side and while contributing to guardian and wherever else, and newspapers and websites here and there. And I will still happily do that from time to time just because, why not? I love to work and I feel useless when I'm not working on something. That's definitely dried up here during the pandemic, for me and for everybody, with a lot of websites and newspapers and stuff shutting off their freelance budgets and things like that. But then, I don't know, I started to actually make a real decent amount of money, once I got up to ... I'm almost up to, so I said, there's 10,000 subscribers, but there's almost like 1500 people paying, which adds up to ... it's a solid living that I'm making.
Luke: And so I was like, "Well, I guess I don't need to try to get this $200 for pitching an essay to a newspaper or wherever." Or $300, whatever it is. And that's great. I do not miss that part of this being a freelance journalist at all. You know?
Bryan: That's the great thing about something like a newsletter that you can control. And that you can do the same amount of work, but it will scale up without you having to scale up. I'm glad you mentioned that about freelance budgets. When I was a freelance journalist back during the recession in 2008-
Luke: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Bryan: Not the current one.
Bryan: All my contracts dried up when I was unemployed for about a year. And that was a painful lesson that if you are a freelancer and a newspaper are short on funds, you're the first to go.
Luke: That's right.
Bryan: Which makes sense, I mean, they have to protect their full-time employees, but it was a painful lesson to learn. So I said I would never be back in that position again.
Luke: No, it's very vulnerable. You're flapping in the wind as a freelancer, and not only do you have no labor protections and you have no union backing and you're isolated out on an Island. Another part of it is just the process goes, like you think of a story and you pitch it and you might have to wait, who knows how long, to even hear if you're going to be allowed the privilege of doing the work. And then you do it, and you might wait weeks to see if they like it, that is. And then once it finally comes out, you might wait months to even get paid. So I don't miss that part of it, that's for sure. And if anyone, I encourage anyone who's listening, who can and thinks they can strike out on their own to do it, because it's just such a unburdening in a way.
Bryan: Yeah. I would argue with that if you were a freelance writer. You've already struck out on your own, but just maybe you don't have the system set up to help you if one of your contracts dries up. You also talked there about how it can take months for an article to appear in a publication. Typically, my experience was in Ireland, it would take about four to six weeks. Whereas, with the newsletter, I'm curious, what's your cadence of publications for paid versus free subscribers?
Luke: That's a thing that I might still figuring out, a year and a half into this. I do probably maybe every fourth one, sometimes every third one is just for paid subscribers, but I still can't really tell whether or not people who are subscribing are doing it because they want something extra, or because they're trying to support me like a writer that they like. If that makes sense.
Bryan: Yeah. Like Corby Bolt, do you mean [inaudible 00:20:54] that people will support creatives they admire?
Luke: Yeah. Some people probably, but you got to figure anyone who likes it enough that they want all of it, would also like the writer in question to know enough just to support them, I think. This is an analogy I use a lot when I talk about it. But if you were going to pay for the New York Times or whatever, you'd obviously going to get a lot more, probably a much better quality of reporting, although the commentary is shit, than you would by subscribing to my newsletter. But people like supporting an individual rather than a big corporation.
Luke: You obviously are going to get a lot more music to listen to by getting a Spotify subscription, but if you send the 10 bucks directly to the band and buy the LP on vinyl or whatever, you get people feel like they're actually supporting an artist that they like, rather than giving them pennies for their music.
Bryan: So the platform you're using is Substack. Did you consciously pick Substack or did you [inaudible 00:22:00] by chance?
Luke: No. Yeah. They sort of made me do it. They were like, they've been pushing real hard lately in the past couple of years to get writers to sign on, and I met with them and another writer on there is doing a great job, [inaudible 00:22:12], I think he passed my name along. And so, they were like, "You should do this." I was like, "I don't know, it sounds like a lot of work. I don't want to, it's different." And then they basically pitched it to me the way I've said, like the freedom of scheduling, you are your own boss, ability to get paid quickly. And I thought, all right, what do I have to lose?
Bryan: Okay. And in terms of hours per week that you spend on the newsletter, have you quantified that or?
Luke: No, it's hard to say. And that's the question that I always talked about, is like, when you're a freelance journalist or writer, does it count as working when I'm reading the New York Times or whatever, or does it count when I'm reading a book that's going to inspire some thoughts or make some connection in my brain that I hadn't thought of? Does it count when I'm ... I guess it counts when I'm talking to people and interviewing them and stuff. So in that sense, it's hard to say. It's a lot, but it's nowhere near a real job, an honest job, someone who actually has to go work for a paycheck. Compared to that, sitting around reading the news and thinking about it and stuff doesn't really count as hard work in my opinion. But I don't know, 30, 40 hours, I don't know-
Bryan: Yeah. And the newsletter has also evolved into a book as well, a book of the same name.
Luke: Right. That was another thing. I feel like I'm giving bad advice here because I just had a series of fortunate accidents that have happened to me. So I don't know if my path is replicable, but yeah, this publisher in New York here, and they loved the newsletter and they, I don't know, I never liked the idea of writing a book because that is so much work, and you have to write half of the book or a third of it before you can even ... and then start pitching it around, all the time knowing that there's a slim chance that it's going to get picked up by any publisher. And then it comes and goes quickly like most books come and go, and maybe you make 30 grand if you're lucky.
I'm pretty cynical in general about the business in case people can't tell, sorry about that. But I happen to be lucky enough that a newsletter subscriber runs this small, but respected publishing house here in New York. And I said, "I'll do it." But I just want to do it, I'm not going to edit it ... not edit it, but I'm not going to change my writing style and I'm not going to use commas. I'm going to keep the long sentences, then he said, "That's great, that's why we like it." And so, I was super lucky to have somebody who liked what I was doing.
Bryan: Is the book based on your newsletter?
Luke: Yeah. It's sort of the best of the newsletter. Refined a bit, and packaged together in a way that makes sense. And plus all of the best pieces I've written for other magazines and stuff over the past couple of years, that fit under the theme of Hell World.
Bryan: I'd like to know your opening chapter, so I don't know what this book is or nothing. It's like the anti introduction. And you also used blurbs in an interesting way, I think you've selectively picked blurbs, some people who don't like your publication, like Tucker Carlson.
Luke: Yeah. Well, that was from the thing that I mentioned about The Boston Globe. Like, God, all those guys. Ben Shapiro and Rush Limbaugh and all of them were talking about how terrible I was. So I thought, anyone who hates Tucker Carlson would see a quote from him saying that I suck, and they'd be like, "Well, this guy must be good if Tucker Carlson didn't like him."
Bryan: True. Substack also has a feature for podcasts, some of the Substack newsletters that I follow. The publication and is also a podcast, is that something that you've considered?
Luke: I've tried it a couple of times. I've toyed with the idea. I never wanted to really personally do a podcast. It's just not my ... I don't know, I don't feel like I'm a broadcasting personality, I'm a writer. And there are two different skills as you probably know, and you've probably had to learn transitioning between the two yourself. Also, I just don't really like, this may sound surprising to say since I've been rambling here for half hour, but I just don't really like to talk, I just want to be left alone. I just want to sit in front of my laptop and write things. So, no, I don't think it's for me. Everyone tells you to do though, obviously you can get a big audience and make a nice living with podcasts these days, but I'm-
Bryan: It's not your role.
Luke: Yeah, for sure. For sure. I just want to be a writer.
Bryan: Finally, do you have an idea of morning at the moment or a morning routine?
Luke: Well, it's a little different now, into the pandemic. We go to bed pretty early nowadays, we wake up ... my wife and I, she's a teacher, so she's here right now trying to teach kids on the computer, so that's a little bit different for us. But I just wake up and I drink a shit load of coffee and smoke a shit load of cigarettes until I get agitated enough to need to write something down, and that's about it. It's basically a process of changing, drinking coffee until it's time to drink whiskey, and just repeat the cycle.
Bryan: Oh my God. Where can people find Welcome To Hell World?
Luke: It was luke.substack.com, or I think you can just Google Welcome To Hell World. And I think you might find it a little different and not everyone's going to like it, and that's fine. But if you are angry at the world and think our countries could be better than they are, and our leaders are letting us down, and you also happen to like poetry for some reason, which I included in the newsletter a lot, then I think you might like it.
Bryan: It was great to talk to you today Luke.
Luke: All right man. Well, thanks for having me and I hope you guys all stay safe and make it through this together.
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