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I write Now I Know, a free trivia/quirky facts email newsletter which goes to 50,000 people a day. Today was issue #500. AMAA.

Jun 27th 2012 by MrDNL • 44 Questions • 1009 Points

This is Now I Know. A bunch of redditors already subscribe and I'm a long-time (six years!) redditor myself, so this felt like a good way to celebrate hitting five hundred issues over two years.

What I write about is pretty eclectic -- basically, what's something new to me and fascinating. The last five, to give you a taste:

All the archives are here (Well, there are about a dozen missing, but I'll fix that this week and next.) They're kind of random, but hopefully interesting.

Keep the questions to Now I Know and I'll answer just about anything. I'll also answer questions about baseball, just because.

(Edit: Proof I am who I say I am)

EDIT 5:00PM: Taking a break for a bit but keep the questions coming! (for real this time)

EDIT 8:50PM: Back at it! Send'em!

EDIT 7:15AM next day: People were asking me how many new subscribers this lead to and I said I'd post it. About 2,750.

Q:

Thanks for doing this AMA! I love getting your email every morning, and congratulations on 500. So, how do you come up with them, and how long does it take you to write? Also, what is your personal favorite “Now You Know”?

A:

Where I get ideas from:

  1. I read a ton. My RSS reader and instapaper and unmanageable stuffed, and I read a lot of reddit comments and tweets and at this point, I have lot of people sharing thing with me.
  2. I have a really good feel for what makes something make people say "hmm, neat." Like today, a friend shared some weird political rant article on Facebook and there was a tiny little aside in it which didn't seem possible to me, but, hey, it was, so there you go, topic.
  3. I've been doing this for a long time. I don't mean writing the newsletter... I mean, collecting odd facts and making weird connections in the back of my head. I'm in my mid-30s now but in high school, I used to get teased (in a friendly way) by making random connections between unrelated things. ("Random, Dan, Random!" was the refrain, for what it's worth.) ***

Time:

I can write most in an hour, often less. It's really just stream of consciousness at this point. In 2002 I wrote a dots-and-dashes NFL rumors column for a long-defunct site and had to comb through daily newspaper columns (digitally, of course) and turn them into 500-800 word pieces. I got very good at reading a lot of stuff and boiling it down to a short piece, and all under 90 minutes.

The bigger time commitment is the other. Reply to my email and I'll read it and, 95% of the time, reply, for example.

Personal favorite... not really. I mean, I'm sure there are a few I like more than others, but that changes and in any case, it's mostly subconscious.


Q:

A follow up to this question: Do you ever get writer's block when trying to finish an article? Do you have a bunch of articles on the back burner ready to release in case that happens?

A:

I don't get writers block once I start writing. Happens a lot when I sit down to write and can't pick a topic.

How many I have "ready to go" varies. Right now I have three drafts just about done and two topics I know I want to write about. That's close to my high water mark, too -- until recently, there were MANY days when I was writing tomorrow's newsletter the night before.


Q:

Are there days where you're racing against a deadline and don't make it? I've noticed a couple occasions where the newsletter does hit my inbox until late morning. Great job by the way, reading these articles is part of my daily routine!

A:

Early on that happened a lot. The 6:45 ET send time is 100% because it worked well in my schedule a year ago -- now it's mostly a relic from there. I schedule the emails the night before.

Sometimes technology gets in the way and there's a sending blurp. I made up that word, blurp. But you get the idea, I hope.


Q:

Would you be interested in signing up for daily cat facts?

A:

Only by text message.


Q:

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE NOW BEEN SIGNED UP FOR DAILY CAT FACTS VIA REDDIT!

Did you know that the original Scottish Fold was a white barn cat named Susie who was born with a strange ear cartilage mutation near Perthshire, Scotland in 1961? Her new breed wasn't recognized until 1966 and was called a lop or lop-eared before that date. Scottish Fold, however, had many long years ahead of them and had to fight for their right to be show cats for decades after that culminating with Mr. Harvey Laps His Milk Like a Good Boy, a blue and white Scottish Fold, who finally overcame adversity and gained Scottish Folds the right every to be shown as show cats.

Would you like to hear another Daily Cat Facts?


Q:

Have you ever had an embarrassing retraction or correction?

A:

All the time. The general story has been right every time, but I've made some pretty stupid mistakes in the details, like when I talked about presidential assassinations and I said that Warren G. Harding was murdered (he wasn't). Or when I said "centuries" and meant "millennial" or stuff like that.


Q:

Do you mean "millenia"?

A:

Yeah that.


Q:

So you are human!

A:

I hope.


Q:

Thanks for taking the time to answer questions!

Quick question: When you first started out, did you - at some point - get a big bump in subscriptions? If so, what caused it? Or has the growth been pretty steady from the start?

A:

It was pretty slow at first. Started it 6/22/10, sending it to 20 people. On 9/22/10, I was at 486, which seems like a lot then but now, not so much.

In December 2010 -- six months in! -- the awesome people at Mental_Floss agreed to syndicate some of my back issues, and the list doubled. 948 on the last day of November, 2,010 on the last day of December.

I've had months where I've picked up a net of +10k subscribers, and I've had a month or two were I've been flat or even down a bit. It's chaotic.


Q:

After this AMAA is done you should report back on how many subscribers you picked from this. +1 here

A:

OK!


Q:

Thanks for taking time to answer my question. I subscribe to Mental Floss, too. Didn't know they were syndicating some of your content.

Speaking of which . . . have you been contacted about possible book deals?

A:

Not exactly. Maybe some day. :)


Q:

Love your emails! They're great to read when you're on the train =D

A:

Thanks! :)


Q:

I love my coffee and Now I Know first thing in the morning. Can't begin to imagine how you find the topics. Just wanted to say thanks. Keep it up.

A:

thanks!


Q:

One of my favorite issues was the one about graham crackers basically being invented to thwart masturbation. You said you almost didn't run it due to the subject matter. Are there any interesting topics you haven't run because it was too obscene or controversial?

A:

The graham crackers one first:

I've known about that for months and... it's a difficult one to write up. First off, the spam filters may eat it up due to the subject matter. Second, it's really hard to not be incredibly snarky and sophomoric. And lastly, I know that there are a lot of parents who talk to their kids about the day's issue and... do I really want to do that to them?

But it's such a great historical oddity, and it's true, so, yeah, it went out. And besides, this one is 10x worse.

I generally don't shy away from publishing things which are truly interesting but I don't want to be political about things, especially about modern things. So that's my one barrier, I guess.


Q:

Blehhh. That is 10x worse.

A:

Sorry. But I did warn you first.

EDIT: I have Google Analytics' real time thingamabobber open and it's kind of funny to see how many people are reading that. It's the most popular article right now. I feel like I just trolled a bunch of people by accident.


Q:

Do you get offer's from corporations to advertise their product and talk them up in your newsletter? I am sure you could make a killing, but it would defintely jeopordize your credibility...

A:

Not really. I've gotten requests for swaps of "dedicated emails" where basically, I'd spam my list for them and they'd spam theirs for me. That's not going to happen because that's really disrespectful to my readers -- I mean, that's not why you're reading.

I'll plug things in that little top italics area if I think it's cool, but otherwise not, and I've asked others to reciprocate before. But if you want to advertise your product w/me, buy the ad space. That's why it's there.


Q:

Hi Dan. Like everyone else, huge fan of the newsletter—thanks so much! Here's my question:

What has been your favorite reader response to a newsletter? Or maybe the weirdest or most interesting?

A:

Favorite reader reply was the unsolicited $100 gift paypalled to me as a thank you. :)

Second favorite... recently at least? I wrote about this abandoned theme park-in-construction in China and the next day, a reader sends me a picture of it. She and a friend (?) were driving in the area, saw a decrepit/unfinished spire in the middle of a field and took a picture of it because it was so weird. They had no idea what it was... and the next day, I emailed her the answer.


Q:

What was your dream job when you were young?

What do you think of George Plimpton?

Do you think you'd be talented at a trivia game show?

A:

Growing up I wanted to be a lawyer, which is funny, because I am one, and don't practice.

Agnostic about Plimpton... haven't read much if any of his work.

I'm OK at bar trivia but I'd suck at say, Jeopardy. It's "Now I Know" because it's what I just learned, not what You should know.


Q:

Aaaaaaand thanks for the earworm. :P

A:

Sorry.

No, I'm not. It's awesome.


Q:

Big fan of your work! I've gotten all my family and friends subscribed to you. Some of your facts have actually ended up getting me laid as well (bro five).

Anyway, as for questions:

  1. How much do you make off of Now I Know?

  2. When do you write most of the articles? The night before? Or an entire weeks worth over the weekend?

  3. How many people do you have subscribed to you?

Keep up the awesome work!

A:

Okay, I need to know the backstory to how the facts helped you in that department.

  1. More than beer money, less than full-time job money. Call it "vacation money."

  2. I write whenever I can. Time is a limiting factor, as is the spark to write sometimes.

  3. As of right now, 55,129, assuming they're all people. Some may be cats.


Q:

More than beer money, less than full-time job money. Call it "vacation money."

Thanks for answering this, even if not with a precise number. Sometimes people are so evasive with this question that you can't even get an order of magnitude estimate out of it.

Also, thanks for all the fun facts. I've been subscribed for a few months now (I believe starting when I saw you mentioned on reddit somewhere.)

A:

Thanks!


Q:

I sent that bitch a fact. Bitches love facts.

(True story. I used to dumb myself down when talking to girls because I thought all they wanted to talk about was Jersey Shore, but then I got wise and started spitting some Now I Know game.)

A:

Huh.


Q:

o/\o/\o

and I come out of nowhere to intercept it from both sides

A:

You need more friends.


Q:
  1. Do you have another job in addition to publishing the newsletter?

  2. Are there any facts you stumble across that you won't publish due to topic/content/etc?

  3. Is there a goal you're currently working towards with your newsletter, like maybe publishing a "Now I Know" book?

  4. And since this is an AMA.... if there were to be a "Now I Know" fact about you, what would it be?

Thanks for doing this AMA!! Love the newsletter.

A:

1) Yes. :) Easy to figure out what, but not going to talk about it, sorry. That's the last A in AMAA.

2) Yes. I try very very very hard to be apolitical, which is often hard. I have one draft half-written which I'm not going to publish because it's too politically charged and I can't seem to soften it.

As an aside: I once published something which I assumed was totally politically neutral (I don't recall what it was) and I got two angry emails about it, both about politics, in the "HOW DARE YOU" vein. One was from the left, the other from the right.

3) Maybe. Writing a book takes a lot of time, as does writing the newsletter. I kind of think the latter is cooler but yeah, a book of some sort could definitely happen.

4) I have a voluntary nystagmus.


Q:

Or second to last A?

A:

Oh yeah.


Q:

re: 4 TIL I have a voluntary nystagmus. I didn't know there was a name for that. I just thought it was weird that I could do it. Thanks for a personal Now I Know fact!

A:

Any time!


Q:

back lock

backlog

A:

Yeah, that.


Q:

Do you personally know TheForderator and sirsosay the other mods on the sub about your newsletter, /r/nowiknow/?

What made you start the newsletter?

Do you enjoy /r/todayilearned more than most people?

How has Reddit changed in your 6 years on the site?

EDIT: Do you wish you middle name was Day?

A:

I don't know anyone on the NowIKnow subreddit personally.

(Starting the newsletter I answered elsewhere.)

I like TIL a lot. It's very pop-culture-y now which is nice because I'm not, so it's not all that redundant :)

I'm sure reddit has change a ton over my six (!) years here but honestly, it's been more evolution than anything else, and I don't really think about it. I mean, I was obviously here way before subreddits, but can't recall that time period.

EDIT: Just saw your edit. No.


Q:

Thanks for the reply!

I thought of some more questions if you don't mind.

Do you wish you middle name was Day?

Would you mind researching and doing an article on anesthesia and redheads? Those of us on /r/RedHair would certainly appreciate it!

Thanks again! You're awesome.

A:

Sure thing:

1) His last name is Day-Lewis. His middle name isn't Day. And it goes back generations. I may do one about him because he's fascinating, too. I mean, dude saw a ghost. A GHOST.

2) Yeah, I keep meaning to do that one. There's something else about redheads (not the no soul thing, I stick to facts), but something about sperm donation. The hard part (pardon the pun) about that one is that I have to get it through spam filters, and typically, anything involving those types of words gets stuck.


Q:

I subscribed to your emails when you did your last AMA. It's a great thing to wake up to and read on my way to school/work. Is Now I Know your primary source of income? How do you come across all of this obscure stuff?

A:

It's not my primary source of income. Couldn't be, at least not at this point.


Q:

I've been a subscriber for a couple of months and overall I quite enjoy it. How long does it take to do an issue from research to queuing it up for mailing?

A:

I can do the whole thing -- find concept, write it, set it up for send -- in under an hour if I'm inspired. But I have a reader who edits them when he has some time (thanks Steve!), so if you factor that in, about a day.


Q:

I love the newsletter :) At this point, do you make enough from ad revenue to comfortably quit your day job if you want? If not, are you close?

Feel free not to answer this one, but about how much do you make from each issue in ad revenue, and does it fluctuate much depending on the issue? Have the new insert ads that you have been trying made a positive or negative impact, both in terms of money and reader perception? What is your current subscriber growth rate?

A:

I don't. Not even close. But I probably could at about 250,000 subscribers. Could, but wouldn't. I like having my own little side project (even if it could be a not-so-little project).


Q:

What's the last thing you ate? :)

thanks for your always inspiring newsletter though!!

A:

A baby carrot.

Which, of course, aren't babies.


Q:

Hi Dan! Thank you for doing what you do. Your articles are endlessly entertaining and extremely well written, and they always manage to brighten my day. Here are my questions:

  1. What made you decided to start Now I Know?

  2. Where do you get all of your interesting topics for Now I Know? Or, since I am assuming you have multiple sources, where do you get most of your topics? And where has been the weirdest or most unexpected place you have gotten a topic for Now I Know?

  3. Which topic covered has been your favorite so far? What do you find the most interesting?

Thanks again for doing this, and keep up the good work!

A:

Only going to hit #1 because the other answers are elsewhere in the AMA :)

So, why'd I start this?

In 2009, two guys I knew were starting a daily sports email newsletter. I knew the indy sports media world (but not email) and have built audiences for other web startups. They asked me to help build the list. I said sure, easy stuff. Email isn't anything different.

TOTALLY WRONG.

It was so freaking hard. Like, impossibly hard. And I'm supposed to be good at this stuff. It killed me.

So about a year later, I write a few blog posts on my no-longer-existing blog and they're about random stuff. Like, this concept bridge for Hong Kong and the bonus fact here etc., and those were popular on twitter. Rob Neyer, a baseball writer, retweeted the flipper bridge thing and suddenly I had a concept that could work and I could do and ... well, you get the idea. That was June 21, 2010. June 22, I sent the first email out. Called it an experiment and kind of figured the rest out as I went forward.


Q:

Baseball Question: What is it that makes Justin Verlander so good? Is he just a freak of nature?

A:

Five plus pitches which he can locate plus excellent endurance.


Q:

Thanks for the AMA! How do you manage to come up with new things to write about every day?

A:

Honestly, I just make shit up.

Tomorrow's is going to be about how you actually have three kidneys, but only if you are descended from Genghis Khan or Woody Allen.


Q:

I'd just like to thank you for continually sending really awesome facts and stories to my inbox. It lightens up my work day every day. Other people have already asked my question - Where the hell do you find these things? So don't worry about answering it. I would like to commend you, however, on always writing about things that I've never heard of before. Too often the "interesting facts" you find online/people tell you about are 1) Poorly sourced or not at all true or 2) Something everyone has heard a thousand times or 3) Both of the preceding.

All-in-all, thank you so much for the tidbits and good on you for doing it so well.

A:

Thanks :)

What I've learned is that there's a HUGE difference between interesting facts (or factoids, I guess) and interesting stories. Example:

Moon landing was 1969. The Little Mermaid came out in 1989. It's 2012. So the Little Mermaid was closer to the moon landing than to present day. That's mind-blowing interesting...

... but it's not a story.


Q:

What is your favorite fact, one that still stuns you know matter how much you think about it?

A:

I've already answer this (I don't have one) but it's such a popular question, I'm going to make it up. :-)

This one.


Q:

For those of us also writing/curating a daily newsletter can you give us some advice on advertising? and how do you get more people to subscribe?

A:

Getting subscribers is a freaking grind. It's horrible. Terrible. Really. You really need to get people to say "this is cool, try it out" and that's hard to do. I got a nice boost in the start b/c I know Jimmy Wales personally and he stuck his neck out a bit for me.

Don't worry about advertising until you have to. After that, it'll come. LiveIntent and Launchbit are good though -- google those.


Q:

Hey Dan ! Thanks for doing this , i always look forward to your e-mails

  1. Did you ever publish something that you came to find wasn't entirely accurate after the fact ?

2 . Bringing us such interesting news , do you find that you dont get "surprised" by the news you find yourself as often anymore ?

A:
  1. Nope. I've come close though. Cant' remember the (non-)fact, honestly.

  2. Not at all. The world is so fascinating.


Q:

How does the newsletter differ from the archived stories? Is there something extra?

A:

The newsletter one has a personal message from me on top of each. Sometimes I share interesting things, sometimes I just say hi, sometimes I announce things like this AMA :-)


Q:

Hi Dan! Thanks for this - I love your work!

I've always been curious: how much $$$ do you make doing what you do?

Do you hope to one day make a living off the newsletter solely? You experiment a lot with advertising formats (recently) so my interest is peaked.

A:

Vacation money -- more than beer money, less than full-time job money. And no, I don't want this to be my full-time job. I'd be very happy if, financially, it could be, however :-)


Q:

Have you considered making a mobile app? I love your e-mails but sometimes don't have time to sit down at the computer in the morning to read them.

A:

Yeah but it's a pain... I hope a redesign can help there.


Q:

Did you see Rampart? What did you think about it?

A:

I'm not here to talk about Cheers.