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:
- In the late 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers shut off part of Niagara Falls.
- The San Diego Zoo has a "Frozen Zoo" which stores DNA of thousands of species -- and in one case, used some DNA to clone an endangered species.
- How meteorologists calculate "chance of rain" (or snow, etc., I guess).
- After the Apollo missions, returning astronauts were quarantined to make sure they didn't carry some weird lunar disease with them.
- There's a shortwave radio station in Russia which predates the fall of the Soviet Union and broadcasts buzzes throughout the day, and no one will explain why.
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.
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”?
Where I get ideas from:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.) ***
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.
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?
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.
Have you ever had an embarrassing retraction or correction?
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.
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?
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.
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?
Not exactly. Maybe some day. :)
Love your emails! They're great to read when you're on the train =D
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.
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?
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.
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...
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.
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?
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.
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:
How much do you make off of Now I Know?
When do you write most of the articles? The night before? Or an entire weeks worth over the weekend?
How many people do you have subscribed to you?
Keep up the awesome work!
Okay, I need to know the backstory to how the facts helped you in that department.
More than beer money, less than full-time job money. Call it "vacation money."
I write whenever I can. Time is a limiting factor, as is the spark to write sometimes.
As of right now, 55,129, assuming they're all people. Some may be cats.
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.)
and I come out of nowhere to intercept it from both sides
You need more friends.
Do you have another job in addition to publishing the newsletter?
Are there any facts you stumble across that you won't publish due to topic/content/etc?
Is there a goal you're currently working towards with your newsletter, like maybe publishing a "Now I Know" book?
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.
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.
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!
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?
It's not my primary source of income. Couldn't be, at least not at this point.
Baseball Question: What is it that makes Justin Verlander so good? Is he just a freak of nature?
Five plus pitches which he can locate plus excellent endurance.
Thanks for the AMA! How do you manage to come up with new things to write about every day?
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.
What is your favorite fact, one that still stuns you know matter how much you think about it?
I've already answer this (I don't have one) but it's such a popular question, I'm going to make it up. :-)
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?
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.
How does the newsletter differ from the archived stories? Is there something extra?
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 :-)
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.
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 :-)
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.
Yeah but it's a pain... I hope a redesign can help there.