The new hot thing in online media is starting a Substack. For those unfamiliar with Substack, it’s a newish platform that allows people to build followings via an email newsletter and charge a subscription fee for certain content. It’s made charging readers for your content ridiculously easy, and it’s caught on quickly. Lest Substack thinks I’m picking only on them, Twitter recently acquired Revue, a Substack rival, and Facebook have said they plan to offer a similar feature. Fan subscriptions are where it’s going to be in the coming years.
Thousands of journalists are starting their own ‘Substacks’ (many in addition to their paid media gigs) though some high-profile names – like Andrew Sullivan, Matt Taibbi, and Glenn Greenwald – have made the move to charging their own fans for access to their reporting. Many are hailing it as a way for independent reporters to making a living from their work – free from reader, editorial, and governmental interference.
Let’s face it, though, beneath the surface Substack is just bare-bones blog software with an easy to use paywall. We’ve been here before. As someone who rode the blog wave of the early 2000s, this feels like exactly the same kind of zeitgeisty thing – everyone is doing it – so you should too. As someone who, in my business outside of Blacknight, runs a content website that started as a blog in the late 2000s, I’ve thought a lot about starting a Substack. Another platform, really?
Substack is free to start a publication. If you never plan to use their payment functions, it will continue to be free. At the most basic level, it’s a blog hosting service. They’re a relatively new startup as well, who’ve grown quickly and nabbed that critical venture capital funding. They’re doing lots of good things. I don’t argue with that. But as someone who has been burned time and again by all these platforms that start off giving you something for free, only to pull the rug out from under you later on (I’m looking at you, Facebook), I’m hesitant to start anything on a new platform lest it grows quickly, only to lose access to the audience or the reach. It’s not that I don’t trust the intentions of Substack; I don’t trust their VC funding, who, ultimately, will decide how it’s run in 5-10 years.
Substack is Expensive
So, beyond free Substack, once you start charging your readers, that’s when the real cost starts. Substack takes 10% off the top plus 3% going to Stripe as the payment processor (the only option). 10% of nothing is not much. But if you were to become successful and get 1,000 or 10,000 subscribers paying you $5 a month – do the math. 13% is a HUGE chunk of your bottom line every month. What are you getting for that? Payment processing and hosting. Maybe distribution, but once there are tens of thousands of Substacks (and that’s where this is headed), distribution becomes worthless. You will only succeed with the audience you bring with you and the audience you grow after.
I’m sorry, but I just don’t think that’s worth 13% of your revenue every month, forever, just because you won’t want to deal with hosting or managing your subscribers yourself.
You Need Control
If you hitch your wagon to Substack, you have lost control. You may seem in control at first, but you won’t be in the long run. They can shut you off. They’re saying they’re advocating free speech and that they intend to run the service like that, but they have not faced a big backlash yet from the internet commentariat for the content they host. What happens when someone who falls afoul of the internet speech police is identified with being on the service? Moderation and future moderation is a concern here. Do you really want to be associated with any platform that has to deal with a major free speech backlash? All of a sudden, you’ve hitched your wagon to something you didn’t expect when all you wanted to do was write? Substack is also slow to add features that you would expect from a publication platform. They only just now allowed you to use your own domain name (you used to be on a subdomain of substack.com). Always control your online brand!
Substacks are basic
A ‘Substack’ is a very basic thing – they only recently allowed you to customise the design in any meaningful way. They all pretty much look the same and work the same. Substacks don’t have nearly the customisation you could have on your own publication. It’s designed to publish an email newsletter and provide access on the web. If you’d like to do anything beyond that – like have custom pages or functions like a forum – you simply can’t do it. You certainly may be able to one day, but that depends entirely on their development timeline (which we are not privy to) and what their VC money is willing to fund.
The Substack Subscription Model
The model for running a Substack model is this – you build an email list of followers (or bring it from somewhere else). Then you publish regular content for free. And then, once you’ve built up the following, you then charge for exclusive content – like an article a week or month – that only subscribers will have access to. The goal is that you have basically two audiences, the large one that reads your stuff for free (like most people are already doing on most publication websites) and a small core group of dedicated fans who are willing to pay for something more worthwhile. It operates on the theory that if you can get 1000 fans to pay you a monthly (or yearly fee), you have enough for a modest living. It’s worked well for quite a lot of people – which is why Substack is so hot right now. The big names who have hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers on Substack will always be the exception, not the rule. Most writers with a large following will probably only ever have a churn of a few hundred subscribers, if that.
You Need Portability
You must control all aspects of your subscription data. I have first-hand experience with this. Years ago, I started a print magazine and sold subscriptions to my readers; I used an off the shelf WordPress plugin to manage it. Well, I chose the wrong plugin. After a year, it was very clear that I needed something better because it just didn’t work (it failed to auto-charge renewals, and I couldn’t fix it). Well, the problem was that when you run a subscription-based business, the most important thing is the auto-renewal of subscriptions. You generally cannot move this between third party software programs, and moving payment processors requires programming/API knowledge. When I finally moved to a new subscription manager, I had to basically start from scratch and individually email my subscribers and practically beg them to move to the new system. Many didn’t bother. Now, several years later, I’m actually trapped in the ‘new subscription’ system; I’m now going to need it for much longer but have to keep paying the expensive monthly fees until I don’t need it anymore.
What I’m saying is that you need to be able to move your data – your subscribers, and your payment processing and everything be seamless. Substack will let you export your data, but you will need a programmer with knowledge of Stripe to move it anywhere else.
I highly recommend looking at this website Open Subscription Platforms. It will give you a rundown of each membership platform and how portable your data is. But I also want to emphasise that while some of the platforms seem perfectly ‘open’ right now – they might not stay that way – which is why you should roll your own solution.
It is Very Alluring
Look, I perfectly understand the allure of using Substack or one of the other alternatives right now. Everyone is doing it. If you’re a jobbing writer, it’s a great way to supplement your income if you have a large enough following. Substack handles pretty much everything; you just do the writing and grow the list. You don’t have to think about the nuts and bolts of it running the publication and collecting the money. Just write.
The fundamental problem is that to be successful in running an online publication, you need to be somewhat familiar with all the aspects of running a publication, and that includes the technical aspect. You need to understand how the billing works. You need to understand audience acquisition and retention. You need to understand marketing. You can’t just write and hope for a living. You have to turn yourself, the writer, into a business.
And this is extremely difficult. I’ve been working at it for over a decade, and while I’ve had successes, I’m not currently making a living from it and couldn’t without basically starting over.
With all this being said, if you want to run a publication and charge your fans for access, there are loads of options for doing this yourself. Join me next week for part 2 of Build Your Own Substack, where I’ll talk about self-hosted options for running your own publication that has subscription payments (and crucially email).
Own your own printing press, don’t use someone else’s.