by D. JoAnne Swanson
Why are writers so excited about a new online newsletter publishing platform called Substack - to the extent that they're calling it "the future of journalism" and "one of the most exciting publishing products out there"?
It's their business model.
Founded in 2017 by software developer Chris Best and tech journalist Hamish McKenzie, Substack is a startup that offers an integrated "stack" of tech tools to help writers get paid directly by their readers. Substack’s mission: “Make it simple to start a publication that makes money from subscriptions.”
Though Substack is in beta as I write this, the platform lured me away from Patreon without hesitation.
Much as I respect Patreon, I find Substack's business model more impressive by orders of magnitude. It’s the first I've seen that shows serious promise of getting lots of independent writers paid well enough to quit their day jobs over the long term. Meanwhile, many professional writers - myself among them - have reached a point of diminishing returns on Patreon, a point driven home by Brent Knepper’s recent essay No One Makes a Living On Patreon.
In response to Knepper, Cory Doctorow writes that the right way to measure Patreon’s success is the amount of revenue Patreon delivers directly into the hands of creators. By that metric Patreon is succeeding brilliantly, he argues, even if only a handful of writers ever make a living there.
They’re both right. Patreon has given many writers a way to bring in a steady income without compromising creative freedom; that’s groundbreaking for sure, however modest that income may be for most. Nonetheless, Knepper's point stands.
When I left Patreon recently after a two-year run, my monthly intake on the site had peaked at about $100. Everyone in my extended networks who was interested and able to become a patron of mine had already signed up. To reach a wider audience and attract more patronage, I knew, I’d need to build a larger following - a “platform,” as they say in book publishing.
Pushing past my instinctive distaste for self-promotion, I had concentrated on expanding my social media presence, keeping my eyes on the prize I’d yearned for all my life: being in a position to write full time, on my own, without sacrificing my editorial independence. Eventually, however, I figured out that even if I’d been successful at building a large social media following, it wouldn’t have been sustainable for someone in my circumstances. Without the support of a spouse, a business partner, or an unconditional basic income, I simply didn’t have it in me to manage a household and juggle three full time jobs: a day job in copywriting, my solo freelance writing business, and frequent interaction on social media. Plagued by exhaustion, always teetering on the edge of burnout, I remained stuck in the Patreon catch-22: can’t attract more patronage without more social media work, but can’t free up time for more social media work without a sufficient income. I’d reached an impasse: a built-in limit to growth.
Despite my best effort, no amount of time management skill-building ever freed me from that catch-22. But the real clincher was the deleterious effect of social media overuse on my writing. Social media typically leaves me with shallow, “choppy” attention, reducing my ability to concentrate. That’s a big problem for writers who work the way I do. Since I rely on cognitive capacity to pay the bills, I need to manage those brain cycles judiciously. The deeper states of consciousness I must inhabit to write well become inaccessible if I fail to set firm limits to the splitting of my attention. And social media is a major splitter of attention. Typically it takes me 20-30 minutes of repetitive physical movement (e.g., dance, yoga, walking) and a brief nap to clear my mind and recover my ability to enter deep creative flow states after using social media, and even then I don’t always succeed.
In addition, it’s never far from my mind that social media capitalizes on unpaid labor. Facebook is the most egregious example. As On Substack puts it, “Facebook is in the business of converting your attention into dollars.” Yet none of that revenue ever makes its way into my pocketbook. Not only does Facebook refuse to compensate me for my time and writing, it’s constantly trying to extract even more money, choking the reach of page posts unless I pay.
Social media can still play a role in alerting readers to a Substack-hosted newsletter, of course, but Substack’s platform offers less labor-intensive ways for new readers to discover a writer’s work. Substack hosts an easy-to-navigate web archive of all previous issues of each newsletter, for example, so new readers who stumble upon a newsletter through a keyword search can quickly scan the entire list of titles and choose back issues to read at their leisure. There’s also a discovery tool, allowing readers to browse the newest public posts from each periodical at a glance, and click through to read more. On Facebook, by contrast, posts typically have a short half-life, and then they vanish into the ether, rarely or never to be seen again (if they’re even seen at all).
Another way Substack minimizes the administrative burden for writers is by simply not requiring a crowdfunding campaign. There are no reward levels to set, no promotional videos to record, and no public comments to manage. The whole setup frees up more time, attention, and energy for writing.
Oh, but there’s more. An unobtrusive, easy-to-locate membership link at the top of each published newsletter takes readers right to the subscription page, while an equally unobtrusive (but convenient!) link waits patiently at the bottom of each newsletter so readers can access all the back issues if they wish. Newcomers don’t even need to bother signing up for an account, presenting one less barrier to payment; they can simply enter their card information at the bottom of the page. Readers can stick with the free subscription tier as long as they like without being subjected to pop-ups or any other such annoyances. They can take time to become more familiar with the writer's voice before they pay for a subscription, or wait until their financial situation improves, or whatever suits them. Or they can just stay with the free tier indefinitely.
A++ design choices, Substack. Would browse again.
Did I mention that there’s no advertising anywhere? That means Substack’s incentives are aligned with both readers and writers. When writers make more money because enthusiastic readers are subscribing in droves, Substack makes more money too.
Substack offers writers what Bandcamp offers musicians: an easy way for audiences to pay artists fairly and directly for their work. They can sample the offerings freely and in one convenient place, too, just as music fans do on Bandcamp.
Even a cursory glance at today’s digital publishing landscape suggests that the launch of this new subscription platform is well-timed. Readers have grown weary of listicles and clickbait; the climate is shifting. More of us are prepared to pony up for subscriptions to quality reading material.
Just before I discovered Substack, I commented to a fellow blogger:
"The glory days for independent bloggers are long over. Seems like everyone and their brother is publishing ebooks now. We've passed some kind of saturation point. I’ve experienced this recent shift in the media landscape as a reader also; I myself am less likely to click on links and read than I was even a year or two ago. It's not for lack of interest, though; it's just that there’s such a vast territory of material out there to choose from that I’ve become more selective. Can't blame my readers for doing the same. That said, I think there will always be an audience for good writing that respects readers’ intelligence; it's just more difficult to find. But how do we connect with those devoted readers now that the online publishing landscape has shifted so much? Beats me. If I could answer that, I'd be all set!”
Substack’s answer to that question is to make it easy for those devoted readers to pay a trusted writer to handle curation of content tailored to their interests. That service will become increasingly valuable (and, therefore, increasingly worth paying for) in the coming years, as the volume of reading material continues to expand and it gets even more difficult and time-consuming to locate quality writing targeting niche interests.
There’s a lot of great writing out there that would not interest traditional publishers, but that readers want, and are willing to pay for. So publications that weren't financially viable before - because their market is too small and advertisers see no money in them - may now become viable due to increased reach and appropriate market timing.
Substack is giving these publications a home.
But perhaps the most promising aspect of Substack, from a social justice perspective, is its potential to bring greater financial ease to the lives of struggling writers on the margins. As one of those writers myself, I’m well aware that there are few paths open to me that are likely to result in a sustainable livable income. Most of my options involve an endless future of hard work doing things I don't want to do to earn money. Patreon marked an encouraging step in the right direction, as it brought me a small income that allowed me to take on more work I want to do. Building a larger social media audience remained out of my reach, however, which limited my patronage. Patreon’s search tool also plays a role in limiting income growth, since it displays only the top 20 earners with the highest patron counts in each category. This contributed to keeping struggling writers hidden from view, and keeping interested patrons from locating less popular writers whose work they might enjoy. (Graphtreon maintains a full list.)
Skeptics may be asking: “But isn’t there a risk that most writers won’t be able to attract enough readers to make a living on Substack either?” Of course. There are many more factors involved in determining that besides the company’s business model - including structural factors, some of which I write about in my newsletter. I’ve been a supporter of unconditional basic income for over 20 years; it isn’t my intention to imply that any writer can or should launch a newsletter with the hope of making a living that way. But for my own case, I’ll put it this way. My newsletter, The Anticareerist, features topics I’d be writing about in this format even if I never earned a dime from the effort. That’s one reason I know this is the right path for me. Writing about the structural injustices of earning a living and championing the importance of leisure is not exactly a lucrative venture, to put it mildly. It’s cost me dearly to continue with this project, in fact - financially, emotionally, and socially. Until Patreon came along, enabling me to bring in a bit of income directly from my readers, I funded this project out of my own pocket and sustained it entirely with my unpaid labor. For 20 years.
With Substack’s direct subscription model, it would take about 300 paying readers for me to reach “critical mass,” enabling me to work on The Anticareerist and other self-driven creative projects full time. That feels like it’s within my reach, while with Patreon I remained stuck in a catch-22. The psychological value of that potential should not be underestimated, especially considering my limited options elsewhere. In any case, there’s nothing for me to lose by trying, and a great deal to gain if I succeed.
Sounds like a good risk to me.
Substack’s model sets in motion a positive feedback loop that benefits both writers and readers, and that’s the heart of why it lured me away from Patreon. Whether I have one subscriber or thousands, I’ll be doing the same amount of work. My task is straightforward, if not easy: to consistently deliver high quality writing that respects my readers’ time and intelligence - writing they appreciate so much that they’re willing to pay.
There’s still no guarantee that I’ll make a living by publishing issues of The Anticareerist at Substack, of course. Much depends on other factors, such as how many new readers discover my publication, and how much those readers care about the topics I address. Nonetheless, I believe I’ve got a much better shot at it on Substack than I ever would on Patreon. Even if it isn't possible soon, it’s likely to become more possible as the online media landscape continues to expand and curation services increase in value. Substack takes a 10% cut of writers’ revenues; if it works to support the work of independent writers as well as I hope it will, it will be worth every penny.
If a platform like Substack had been around when I was younger, it might have changed the entire course of my writing career.
Despite its limitations, Patreon earned my respect for its success at achieving something long overdue: getting more money directly into creators’ pockets. So I didn’t leave on bad terms. Substack simply offers me a better chance of building a sustainable subscription publication over the long term, and that’s the main reason I switched.
To sum up, then, here are a few of the things I appreciate about Substack:
* A streamlined, uncluttered, easy to read interface.
* No advertising anywhere. No affiliate links, no pop-ups soliciting my email address before I’ve even read a single word, no autoplay videos, no sponsored content, nothing.
* A no-obligation, guilt-free way to sign up for either free versions or paid ones, according to what suits the reader’s budget and interest level.
* A no-rush way for free subscribers to convert to paid ones.
* Set-it-and-forget-it: once readers have subscribed, the publication shows up in their inbox indefinitely, unless and until they cancel.
* An easily accessible, at-a-glance list of archived material for each publication.
* Fosters a direct relationship of mutual trust and appreciation between readers and writers.
* Facilitates engagement: readers get to demonstrate their appreciation by paying the writer directly.
* Variety. Periodicals hosted on Substack include link collections, quotes with analysis and commentary, personal narratives, mixtapes with liner notes, long-format essays, and much more. They may be released daily, weekly, monthly, or sporadically. The attraction they share? Careful curation by a knowledgeable, trustworthy specialist who writes with skill and passion.
* No crowdfunding campaigns, cluttered comment sections, or intensive social media work for writers to manage = more time for writing.
* Nothing to distract readers' attention from what they're there for: the writing.
Thank you, Substack. Writers have been left holding the short end of the financial stick for so long, and so much valuable writing time goes to waste when we’re forced to chase our pay. Thank you for what you’re doing for writers and readers alike.
I hope this direct subscription model spreads like wildfire, and changes the future of online publishing forever.
Dear readers: This is an all-access issue of The Anticareerist. If you appreciate my writing, I hope you’ll consider a paid subscription at $5 per month, or $50 annually. Subscribers who choose the paid tier enable me to spend more time on writing and publishing The Anticareerist. More paid subscriptions = more writing time for me = more for you to read. That’s the best kind of positive feedback loop!
However, there’s no advertising, no pressure, and no guilt-tripping. You can start in the all-access tier and switch over to the paid tier later on, or stick with the all-access tier indefinitely. The choice is yours, according to your budget and interest level. Both subscriber tiers will get something to read every month, and I’m happy to be able to share my writing with you either way. You can unsubscribe at any time.
Subscribers in the all-access tier receive a minimum of one newsletter each month. Paid subscribers receive additional exclusive material, including special draft excerpts from On The Leisure Track: Rethinking the Job Culture as progress on the book manuscript continues.
Here’s an outline of what I write about:
Notes To Self is a personal narrative letter series delivered by my inner council, offering guidance along the path toward being the change I wish to see in the world and the path away from "earning a living." Topics include non-doing, unlearning shame about "laziness," nurturing ancestral connections to motherlands, and more. The first and second letters in this series are all-access issues.
Get-A-Job Nonsense is a series in which I unpack and critique lazy bums rhetoric, do-what-you-love advice, the notion of financial independence, and other pernicious lies of job culture.
On Doing Nothing is a series of philosophical reflections on decolonizing time, non-doing, building a leisure ethic, leisure as resistance, and envisioning a culture of leisure.
The Deep Sorcery of Colonial Capitalism is a series in which I unpack and make visible the structural violence of “earning a living” and the ways it’s normalized.
Feminist Valuation is a series making visible the unpaid and emotional labor that undergirds "earning a living."
The Anticareerist Bookshelf features book commentary and quotes focusing on unjobbing, dejobbing, and building a culture of leisure that can be accessible to marginalized people.
Slothy Awards is a series recognizing and appreciating writers for their contributions to my anticareerist thinking over the 20+ years I've been studying in this “field” toward a world beyond "earning a living." (Thanks to Heimlich A. Laguz of Elhaz Ablaze for the title Slothy Awards.)
You can subscribe HERE.