Anton Howes Discusses Innovation, Researching the Obscure, and Growing his Age of Invention Newsletter

I literally love nothing more than reading some obscure source and sharing it with people.

- Anton Howes, Age of Invention

Dr. Anton Howes was shocked when his Age of Invention newsletter surpassed 6,000 subscribers.

He had come to Substack with a 10k Twitter followers and the experience of blogging on Tumblr for years, but only 200 people subscribed to his newsletter initially.

Driven by his love for reading obscure sources and sharing his findings with his audience, Anton posts regularly enough to see his content being shared by influential readers.

The resulting growth of his newsletter has left him wondering, “who are these people who want to read about the British Industrial Revolution?!”

Here are Anon's insights on turning a passion into a primary source of income:

Question/Answers

Does your newsletter feel sustainable to you, and is that something you thought about at launch?

Yes, and yes. Perhaps this is extremely egotistical of me, but at the back of my mind I had a pretty strong hunch that it may end up being my main source of income/activity.

I had the aim of reaching about 3,000 people on the free list, as I mentioned earlier, because at the time it seemed like a lot of the early Substacks had a roughly 10% conversion rate to paid. So that's a livable wage right there, at about £10 per person per month.

I put off going paid until just a few months ago, despite having reached over 6,000 by then, largely because it felt like doing so would be a commitment that distracted from the book-writing. But having flipped that idea on its head, and treating them as complementary activities, with both spurring on the other, it seemed good to just take the plunge.

I was also quite inspired actually by a talk given by Byrne Hobart, who writes the very successful The Diff. Obviously he has a much wider potential audience, as he writes about current technologies rather than their history, and can draw on the "just expense it to your business" crowd. But in a podcast he said: "I also think there's this near-moral obligation to sell your stuff. Well, if you think it's good. And I think that part of why people are reluctant to sell is impostor syndrome or maybe some form of cowardice."

That comment was running through my head and haunting my dreams for quite a few months, but I think what bothered me the most was that on some level I felt it was probably true, and I was just dragging my feet because I was afraid nobody would buy.

Now, I'm nowhere even close to a 10% conversion rate to paid now, but every time I post a free one or tease something on twitter from the paid one, I get a few more signups, and there's been a constant but small progression. I don't really need that progress to be constant, but just to reach a level where I can be funded just to carry on what I'm writing and have that independence. So it's a work in progress.

As for sustainability of material to write about, this is definitely definitely definitely something I will never run out of. I literally love nothing more than reading some obscure source and sharing it with people, and I can even be somewhat repetitive (but in new and interesting ways), and that works too. There are so many millions of words of notes in my Scrivener "second brain" already, that I probably have enough material already for multiple lifetimes, and of course it's also a matter of how you combine these things.

The more I learn, the more I reevaluate older things I thought I knew, or gain new perspectives. So it's just an ever-expanding field of stuff to draw upon. History is vast! I probably have at least 10 book ideas too, which I will only ever get around to if I finish the current one. So each of those is potential further material.

For me then, the key constraint is really on the demand side, rather than the supply side, in terms of sustainability. Finding those few hundred people in the whole wide world who will each pay a little each month for me to just keep on going and going and going.

How does the process for writing a book differ from that of a newsletter?

So in a sense, with the book I'm writing right now (You can read a summary of the book's argument here) you're actually seeing bits of the very first draft of it being posted a lot of the time onto the Substack.

The key difference is one of space to talk about things without having to constantly re-justify it to a new reader, or reintroduce a topic. So sometimes I take something from the draft and re-package it, having to add context, explain why I'm talking about it, and have an actual conclusion or theme there. And sometimes I do the opposite, taking one of the bittier Substack pieces, removing that stuff, and trying to work out where it fits in the book draft.

In general though, I'd say they're highly complementary processes. In fact, I recently went paid on Substack to help me finish my book, because it incentivises me to write much more regularly, and to deadlines (when people pay, I feel I owe them; and to get more people paying, I have an incentive to post the free ones every other week regularly too, as it's the main way they sign up).

Otherwise, the issue with a book is that it expands (or contracts) to fill the time allotted. And if you don't have a proper deadline, you may never finish it. With my first book, Arts and Minds, I gave myself a year to research and write the whole thing (it was commissioned by the Royal Society of Arts, who are the book's subject), and they were basically going to pay me for that year. But I told the publishers to put a year and a half in the contract, just in case.  Well, fortunately the RSA paid me for that extra half a year, because I handed the entire manuscript in a couple of days late after a year and a half. And what I discovered is that you can write a LOT in a short space of time. 

The first chapter effectively took me the first year, the second an extra 4 months, the next 1 month, the next 1 week, and by the end I was almost writing a chapter a day just to meet the deadline (warning: don't try this at home, it was extremely unhealthy, and while in retrospect I'm sort of grimly proud of having exerted myself that way, I can't imagine repeating it, and don't think I could do it again. It was extraordinarily stupid, actually.)

The problem now, for me, is to make book-writing process a regular one - something I do a bit of every week, to build up into a whole, rather than having that mad, mad dash at the end. And actually, the thing I learned was that the publishers didn't actually care about that deadline whatsoever, so I can't repeat it because I now know they don't take it seriously! The book took another year and a half to finally get published, after peer review (academic press, though a popular-ish one), editing, copy-editing, indexing, etc.

How do you deal with the delayed feedback loop of writing a book vs a newsletter?

Not sure if there's anything to deal with there, per se. 

I actually just like having both. My first book came out at literally the worst time possible that could have been chosen for publishing a book in the last few decades, seemingly - in May 2020, when pretty much every bookshop in the world had closed, or was being avoided. So sales were almost entirely driven by me, online. 

In fact, I'm still bitter about Waterstones (the UK Barnes and Noble equivalent) never having stocked my book at all, and still not stocking it, having moved on to the newer releases. It's not like I expected it to be a runaway success or anything, but it had a wonderful cover, was wonderfully produced, etc so I thought it'd be a winner in bookshops. So that was disappointing. And the feedback loop in general is just so slow. I found myself very impatient.

I think having a Substack - initially weekly, for a time more sporadic, and now weekly again (alternating paid and free) has helped a lot though. Gives me the dopamine hit of applause, while continuing to write the book, and actually is even more important in some respects as it allows me to test-drive arguments, see how people respond, see what's actually interesting, etc.

It's hard to know what Substack metrics to pay attention to, as I think quality of readers is perhaps more important than quantity, but it's really nice to essentially get these more frequent reviews of my work.

So again, I suppose complementary rather than a tension there. Somehow, what I can't abide is the feedback loop from papers, which is why I left formal academia. Has to either be books or blogs!

How do you actively try to grow your newsletter?

I think the main thing that works is just to post fairly regularly. 

The more you post, the more chance one of them ends up being shared in ways you don't really expect. Posting is itself the main source of growth I think, and I basically can't predict what will do well and what won't. I expect it sometimes comes down to one influential person one day having time to read, and creating a sort of cascade effect as they tell other influential people and then tell others, etc. or another day they're busy and don't read it.

Otherwise, main place I go for new readers is Twitter. I don't really know how to use Reddit, and I've found that people rarely seem to click through at all on facebook anymore so I've stopped bothering. Sometimes I'll do a twitter thread if I feel like it (but I find these to be a lot of effort, again for very unpredictable response, so rarely bother). Other times I just post the link, RT after an hour, and occasionally re-up it by replying to it and creating a thread.

I sort of came to Substack with a bit of a twitter following already, derived from just using that platform and because I had an older blog (on tumblr of all things, which I had treated like it was Wordpress or something, not realising it was its own thing), and then on medium for a while, but I think they mutually reinforce one another.

The initial signups to the newsletter was about 200 people, and it's grown from there. In fact, I've been amazed at how large it's grown. When I first started I was hoping to eventually grow the list to 3,000, and it's now over double that. Who are these people who want to read about the British Industrial Revolution?!

Do you intentionally form relationships with your more influential readers?

I try to eventually reply to pretty much everyone who comments or emails me back. 

Sometimes those people are the most influential, sometimes not. (I occasionally forget to reply of course, as it can slip my mind, etc) But I don't think I go out of my way to court influencers. If someone very influential follows me on twitter I might follow them back, and maybe start to reply to them occasionally. And for some posts I'll tag people who work on similar things who might be interested, or where I'm in their lane a little. 

One thing I do wish for is that there were more people working in my precise line of research in the same kind of public manner, as then we could get some blog conversations going like we used to get c.2015-16, which for some reason died out. That was, I think, a sort of golden age of economic history twitter and blogging. 

As for history of invention stuff, most blogging historians of technology aren't necessarily making arguments for me to respond to; the one exception being Jason Crawford, who I talk to quite a bit, and we occasionally cite or respond to each other in our posts.

I do end up meeting and talking to a lot of very influential people, but it's more a byproduct of just putting stuff out there rather than targeting anyone. Obviously I get very excited when a very very famous person subscribes or whatever, but I just keep doing what I'm doing. Maybe it's because I'm British though, and would feel awkward hustling a bit more like that.

The one exception was when I published my book and was working out who to get the publishers to send free copies to. In that case I obviously did get in touch, and went through trying to work out where I might get a book review, etc.

In some cases that actually resulted in creating a bit of a relationship (even though most of them never reviewed the book!) I must admit I'm a little guilty of that now myself; I now get sent review copies of stuff (a nice sign I'm making it??) and will tweet about them but have rarely got around to actually reading and reviewing. There's an irony that, as a writer, one rarely has time to read! (or not get distracted thinking about what to write, when reading).

Of all the innovators you've researched and written about, who are the two or three you admire most?

Not sure I've thought about who I admire the most, but I certainly have some favourites for leading such rich and interesting lives.

Top of the list is Benjamin Thompson, an American-born inventor who actually fought on the loyalist side in the War of Independence. He was just an ordinary rural schoolteacher, but somehow convinced the British that he was an expert on American affairs, so got lots of cushy jobs and military ranks. Ended up being quite infamous for converting churches into fortifications, and using gravestones as ovens for his troops.

After the war he toured Europe, and became something of an innovation consultant, especially for the Prince-Elector of Bavaria. Because he entered foreign service this way he got a British knighthood, and then in Bavaria had all sorts of schemes like inventing thermal underwear for its troops, working on the thermodynamics of ovens, and coming up with ways to alleviate poverty. 

He had all sorts of Bavarian ministerial positions, which made the local nobility quite jealous. At one point he went back to England, where he tried to become the Bavarian ambassador to Britain, but the king refused to accept him because he was his subject; while there he toured the country advising people on improving the efficiency of their fireplaces, and founded the Royal Institution, a sort of pro-science organisation that still exists.

He returned, however, to find that Bavaria's capital, Munich, was being threatened by a French army. He was technically still commander of the Bavarian armies (one of his ministerial positions) and having turned up managed to negotiate that the French would spare the city! 

Because of his Bavarian service, when the Prince-Elector was briefly a regent of the Holy Roman Empire, he made Thompson a Count - but interestingly Thompson chose a place back in America, Rumford, to be where he would be Count of. So Count Rumford may well have been one of the only titled nobility of a place in the United States (which had abolished all such titles). The Americans tried to recruit him back, too. Would have been interesting to see if they'd have kept using his title. 

After that, Thompson ended up marrying the widow of the French chemist Lavoisier - one of the founders of modern chemistry - but it turned out to be a tempestuous relationship. There are all sorts of stories from his letters, like his wife pouring boiling water over his roses when he wouldn't let her hold an intellectual salon at their home. Anyway, check him out. Fascinating person, and I've barely even done him justice.

What does your research process look like for each piece that you write?

Oof, this is perhaps the hardest question to answer! 

Very much a kind of tacit knowledge, that's difficult to express. In fact, when people ask me how I found even particular pieces of information I can rarely describe exactly how. It's come from long practice of searching for historical nuggets.

A broad answer that may be at least a little satisfying, however, is that I essentially have a few external brains. 

I have one vast Excel spreadsheet of the inventors I've researched, and pretty much everything I've written in the past few years is all contained on one gigantic Scrivener file for my book, which includes almost everything I've published on my Substack too, and literally millions of words of notes from when I just find something interesting and start taking detailed notes - e.g. take this post I did last week, Age of Invention: An Absent Atlantic. It's essentially from reading one source, which I describe in some detail, but I've derived insight from a few things in just 20 or so pages that really stood out to me.

I'll typically just open Substack and start writing, and then go with whatever I find interesting, and relate it to wider problems I've been working on, or seeing how it differs from what most people expect. 

So in this sense, some of the stuff I was reading was surprising - it seemed English involvement in the Atlantic and especially things like the slave trade were much smaller before the 1630s than I expect most other people think, especially because with hindsight we know just how much those things grew. 

So I sort of delved into that, to see what the details were, and related it to other knowledge I already have from the period and have picked up.

Or to give you another example, from just yesterday: Age of Invention: Knowledge Lost and Found. When reading through the same source I noticed a stray reference to something, looked it up, and discovered that there was this really cool scientific discovery about a kind of clay used since ancient times as an antibiotic, finding that it did actually work. So I wrote about that, and related it to contexts or similar themes I've written about before.

If I'm really, really stuck for something though, I'll typically just open my Scrivener and scroll through until I find something that stands out again and I think will be surprising to readers. Sometimes my most successful ever posts have been those! (which always surprises me, as I feel I put the least effort into them)

Others however will be prompted by questions - e.g. I had two on whether or not the Ottomans banned the printing press, which took 2 months of solid work, getting primary sources translated, etc and essentially collecting EVERYTHING there was to know on the matter and addressing it. (Funnily enough, I went paid after writing those as I realised I'd just spent 2 months doing something totally for free that wasn't my book, but was super interesting, and figured I may as well try and get paid a little for it!)

What are some of the more interesting similarities/differences you've noticed between innovation in 18th century Britain vs. modern day Silicon Valley?

The main one I think is a culture of giving back to the innovation ecosystem.

This is the big thing that other countries often fail to recreate. e.g. you can have a government give all the support you want to founders, but the BIG thing that makes the difference is when successful founders then use their gains to reinvest in the next generation of innovators. So the venture capital scene, and things like Y Combinator, Fast Grants, etc. are what makes SV special.

And that's what also made Britain (and London in particular by the way) so special in the 17th and 18th centuries. A lot of people assume the Industrial Revolution was a northern or midlands thing because of where the factories ended up being built, but actually most of the invention was happening overwhelmingly in London. 

Innovation as a practice spreads from person to person - it's essentially viral. So when you have innovators themselves creating institutions and structures that support innovators, that increases the virality of innovation in a way that's much more decentralised, and thus long-lasting and robust.

Which writers have influenced your work?

Hmm, good question. Not so many other Substack or blog writers really. 

I mentioned Jason Crawford on the history of invention side, as we often bounce ideas off one another. On the economic history side, the anonymous Pseudoerasmus has been a long-time interlocutor, though he now mainly just uses twitter rather than actually blogging anymore. A newcomer to the scene is Davis Kedrosky - he reminds me of me when I was a PhD student just starting to get into these topics, and he's actually even younger than I was back then. There were more before, but they rarely blog now.

Obviously I have loads of academic influences, the main ones being people like Joel Mokyr, Deirdre McCloskey, and others. Deirdre actually taught me how to write, too. 

She was one of my PhD examiners (in the UK you have two external people examine your thesis right at the end, rather than a fairly internal committee with you along the way like in the US). Pretty much all of her corrections were on matters of style - her book Economical Writing, 2nd Edition, is very good, short, and actually really funny. It's written using the mistakes, showing you why they're bad as well as just telling you. That, coupled with a few rules derived from Steven Pinker's Sense of Style were really influential on me - rules like "given, then new", "specific, then general", in terms of how you order words within sentences, or sentences within paragraphs, and how you place emphasis on certain words and rhythm, etc. I find many academics don't think about this stuff at all, but perhaps because I was blogging for ages and thinking about more public audiences, style seemed much more important to me.

Have you ever thought about cozying your newsletter up to the "just expense it to your business" crowd?

I mean, some of my readers are definitely people who are interested in innovation because of how it affects their business today, and so I presume they derive some insight from it to that extent.

I occasionally see my pieces shared on LinkedIn, for example. But I don't think they can justify expensing it as a source of analysis like they can with something more current affairsy, at least not without me changing the nature of the newsletter and making it less historical and writing more about stuff I see in business today, which I don't really know much about! There are often modern takeaways, but not in a consistent way.

Can you talk a bit more about the paid offering of your newsletter and what it includes vs. what you put out for free? And how do you make readers aware of it?

Sure. The main way to make people aware of the paid one is, somewhat ironically, to write a free one. 

Because then I say something along the lines of "here's what you missed, by the way this paid thing exists, etc etc".

Working out the split can be a little tricky. Substack rightly recommends that actually your best or most potentially viral stuff should actually be the free stuff. I think that's correct. But then working out what to put behind a paywall is tricky. You want it to be enticing, but not too good that it didn't deserve a much wider audience.

My sell really is that you get a sort of more intimate and personal director's cut, with additional stuff I've been reading and working on, and at some point I plan to add honest book reviews of the stuff related to my topics. So it occasionally reads more like a somewhat bitty journal, with updates.

But now and then I write them more like proper pieces with an intro, argument, and conclusion, like my free pieces. In a sense, the paid ones allow me to be a bit more freeform, not having to assume that I need to re-explain things for my readers and treat them as standalone pieces like I do with the free ones, as those can end up being shared with total newcomers who need at least some context outlined or explained every time.

I guess there's also the guarantee that I'll always post the paid ones, but may not post the free ones. But given I now have this (unforeseen) incentive to post free ones, in order to get more paid subscribers, I expect I'll continue posting. I actually just posted my latest paid one for free, as a sort of taster, after one of my very first subscribers suggested it to me.

At some point, the plan is to do something a little more community-based too, taking advantage of Substack's thread features. Tbh I'm only just starting to think about what this might look like though. I don't think my readers will be that interested in what other readers think about history, as they are people who've signed up for my expertise. But I think there's some stuff I could do around the invention angle, rather than the historical angle, given one of the main aims of my work is actually to inspire people to become inventors today.

When your readers engage with you in response to newsletters or on twitter, what do they usually talk about?

They tend to ask followup questions, or occasionally point out other interesting things.

The problem here, however, is that for a community to work best I think it can’t just be me talking to them, but them to them.

People have signed up for my expertise, and I doubt they’re super interested in just what other readers think on the subject (unless they’re experts too of course, but that requires curation - like these AMAs!).

I’m told community elements work best when it’s framed as a question for the readers. I need to work out what I think both I and the other readers would find interesting or exciting or valuable about what my readers know or think. And also encourage them to contribute. 

Otherwise it risks being like when I used to teach seminars when I was in formal academia, asking questions to which I already had answers I wanted them to get to or explore. That’s more a course than a community, though maybe that’s something I should explore too.

Do you ever consider playing around with mediums other than a newsletter? Like podcasts or video?

Absolutely. Something in the works soon actually, though I can’t yet say what! 

Only issue there is it’s seemingly so much more effort. When the second book is finished I’ll think more seriously about recording a regular podcast I think. One option is also to just record my Substacks when I post them. Matt Clancy does this, and it seems to work well. I keep meaning to do this, but keep forgetting!

Are the types of people who've signed up for your newsletter the ones you had expected to when you started out?

Not sure who I expected really!

I just assumed there'd be at least a few thousand people in the whole wide world with interests very similar to mine! History buffs, current inventors and improvers, etc.

I actually don't know much about who the people on my email list are exactly, other than the tiny proportion who write to me. I've discovered I'm seemingly quite popular amongst Nigerian venture capital twitter for example, who occasionally will share older posts out the blue.

I'm not totally sure why my stuff appeals to some particular online communities, but they seem to like what I'm writing, and that's quite exciting. This is where I hope to do more with the community stuff - hopefully find out more about who my readers are, and see what might come out of them interacting with one another.

What would it take for you to make age of invention your main source of activity? Do you have a wage target in mind or are there other considerations?

So it kind of already is really, in parallel with the book-writing.

I think the Substack will be a much larger long-term source of income, but publishing gets you attention of a more mass media sort - reviews in newspapers, etc., as well as the fact I'd like to be cited for my main thesis about the Industrial Revolution in the academic literature on the subject - lots of people in the area are aware of my work, but I don't think it's (yet?) acceptable for people to cite my Substack! Overall though it's about increasing the sort of surface area by which people come into contact with my work.

My aim for the Substack is to have about 300 paying subscribers. And hopefully keep those and build on that. But I plan to keep writing books, and doing other complementary stuff - anything that advances the aim of encouraging people to recognise themselves as improvers really, and becoming inventors.

What advice did you find to be helpful when you were getting your newsletter off the ground?

I was probably among the first Substackers about history, at least that I know of, so it was more applying lessons from blogging, which I'd done before rather than seeking much advice about the platform.

And I was coming to it from already having almost 10k twitter followers, built up over years, which isn't huge, but is still a fair amount to bring over to the newsletter.

I'm not sure I had much advice or many lessons for building it up which would apply to someone doing it from scratch!