I subscribe to more than 50 Substacks. I even pay for a handful. I think it’s a great platform and I recommend it often to clients. That’s not so much because I love Substack the company, but because I believe in email. And Substack, if anything, makes it easy for non-tech people to harness the power of email, whether free or paid.
I myself have published a free newsletter for a decade (Electric Speed); it now has 24,000 subscribers. In 2015, I launched a paid newsletter, The Hot Sheet, before Substack existed. I had to roll my own tech for it, which I’ve been using for six years. (I stack ChargeBee, WordPress, and Mailchimp.) The newsletter grosses about $75,000 per year. In 2022, if I put more effort into it, I’ll get into the six figures.
So I have a lot of reasons to believe the hype around Substack. But the PR and media coverage it’s getting is all out of proportion to reality. Journalists are falling for Substack’s PR machine without an ounce of critical thinking. Let’s take a look.
Serialized books are a burgeoning business at substack (Publishers Weekly)
This article is about a nonfiction book traditionally published in 2014 that the author wants to revisit and re-promote. The publisher, Norton, doesn’t see sufficient benefit to releasing a new edition or designing a new cover. So to pacify the author, Norton has granted the author permission to serialize the first two chapters on Substack.
That’s it. A “burgeoning business”? No. As Guy Gonzalez tweeted, Publishers Weekly confuses a story about a traditional publisher not knowing how to market a minor backlist title into a story about Substack.
So let’s move on to the next article; this one’s about an author who is in fact serializing a new, original work.
Substack paid an advance to author and entertainment writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg to serialize a book, We Are All Musicians Now, on Substack. Each week a new installment drops to paid subscribers. Greenburg told the New York Post that he opted to go the “Substack route” because it offered him more financial upside, although the terms of the deal were not disclosed. He said, “All in all, with the advance money being in the same ballpark, I’d rather go to a place where I can be my own boss with a higher upside than try to force it through an old business model that I think is broken.”
The New York post headline claims that Substack seeks to “disrupt” book publishing, but later the article acknowledges that serialization isn’t a new model. In digital media, for 20 years, authors have serialized and market-tested their work on blogs, podcasts, and email newsletters; on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook; through creator platforms like Patreon, Kickstarter, and Wattpad; and even through Kindle, particularly when Amazon Publishing had a clunky serials program (nothing like Vella) in 2012.
There’s also nothing new about a startup luring a creator away from an established player with cash and/or freedom. Lots of Internet companies, established businesses, and startups have done this. Amazon. Spotify. Apple. Etc.
Most important, the market for a serialization and the market for a book are not the same. I learned that when talking to Amazon years ago about their serialization program. More than half of the revenue arose from book sales after the fact. And I’ve seen that same dynamic play out for other authors in both nonfiction and fiction. Some people like the serialization experience, and some people like books—and the overlap between the two is smaller than you might think. So I hope that Greenburg negotiated his deal carefully.
This article was written today, now that Salman Rushdie was lured in by a Substack offer. Yes, Salman Rushdie! So what will he do there? He says, “Just whatever comes into my head, it just gives me a way of saying something immediately, without mediators or gatekeepers.” (Wait, is he not on Twitter?) More formally, Rushdie says he will serialize a 35,000-word novella, and I have to wonder if his publisher refused to take it.
I find this akin to Margaret Atwood working with Wattpad some years ago. Sure, it was neat. But it did not change the fortunes of Wattpad. A bunch of A-list writers didn’t migrate over to the platform as a result. Wattpad’s business model remained the same. Is Atwood doing any work now on Wattpad? No. I doubt Rushdie will continue on Substack in any meaningful way beyond his first year.
Substack is clearly trying to spread its wings, but will it work?
After getting $65 million in funding in March, Substack must be under pressure to grow. With its focus now turned to fiction as well as comics, Substack may be trying to compete with the likes of mature and developed creator-publishing platforms such as Wattpad, Tapas, or Webtoon.
But this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, given what really stands out right now on Substack: political commentary, opinion, and various types of journalistic content. Perhaps Substack can honestly be called a disruptor for a certain type of writer: op-ed columnists, professor-pundits, political journalists, or people in news-adjacent industries.
I’m the least surprised by its success in that realm. When I worked at the Virginia Quarterly Review (a very literary journal), I learned something critical on the first day of the job: fiction and poetry sank like a stone in terms of online traffic. Only nonfiction gained traction. Our audience simply did not read fiction online. They read books—usually print books.
Who does read fiction online, particularly on mobile devices? If you look at the established demographics of Wattpad, Tapas, and Webtoon, they’re all quite similar: young, diverse readers who consume comics, manga, graphic novels, and genre fiction. There are also sites like Radish and Royal Road (and now Vella), where you’ll find troves upon troves of genre fiction—lots of romance, science fiction and fantasy, and RPG stuff. It is possible to make money on those sites, but you are writing in established corners for established interests. It is not the same as going off to your Substack garret to pen the Great American Novel.
As far as I can tell, Substack has a different core audience than Wattpad, Webtoon or Tapas. They currently reach the type who also visit independent bookstores, probably know about LitHub and Bookshop, and prefer and maybe fetishize print. We shall see if Substack can successfully push beyond this literary type.
That brings me to Elle Griffin, a writer who has spent this past year analyzing how writers make money by publishing fiction, through her own Substack newsletter (but of course). She started a Discord server, Substack Writers Unite, where people gather to talk about how to build their author platform and get subscribers. Her work has garnered a lot of attention and sharing, as it should—it’s valuable insight for anyone who wants to know how authors today earn a living outside of the traditional publishing path. But her motivation, as she’s made clear all along, is to accomplish one thing: launch her paid Substack serialization of her upcoming novel.
I wish Griffin every success and I hope it works out. But so far she has established an audience for writers who want to learn how to make money writing. And that is not the same audience who reads fiction online. Sure, there could be some overlap, but it’s a well-known problem among writers that blogging about writing and becoming an expert on publishing doesn’t translate into readers for your fiction. You end up in an echo chamber.
The gritty reality for Substack’s middle class (Simon Owens)
Here is an article that speaks the truth, finally. Journalist Simon Owens has been trying to achieve lift-off on his own paid newsletter effort. He harbors no ill-will toward Substack, but like me, he’s a little tired of the hype.
Many aspiring creators have this fantasy that they’ll be able to work on their newsletter as a side hustle and then quit their full-time jobs at the exact moment that the newsletter revenue replaces their full-time income.
This scenario is known to happen sometimes, but it’ll be difficult to achieve for most. Why? It all ties back to growth.
While we’d all like to say that content quality is the biggest driver of growth, the truth is that publishing consistency often plays a much bigger role. You can produce the most brilliantly-research[ed], well-written newsletters, but if you’re only publishing twice a month, you’re not going to grow very fast, at least without a large following on some other platform or a sizable marketing budget. All things being equal, a daily newsletter will grow much more quickly than a weekly newsletter, even if the daily newsletter is slightly lower in quality.
What does this mean in practice? That embarking on a newsletter career requires a leap of faith — a departure from full-time work so you can increase your content output, even though you’re not yet generating enough income to replace your salary. In other words: you need some sort of financial cushion.
For my own paid newsletter, it took me a couple years to hit what I’d call “salary replacement income.” And that was with (1) 100,000 visits to my website, (2) more than 20,000 free email newsletter subscribers, and (3) 200,000 followers on Twitter. Now that I’m six years in, I might be able to hit six figures if I put aside other work in favor of it. As of today, the majority of my income is from online classes.
None of these projects I’ve discussed here are foolish or bad—nor am I against people using Substack. I applaud innovation and experimentation. I love seeing new paths and opportunities open up for writers. But Substack is just one option among many. And let us not forget Substack is a VC-funded enterprise, just as Medium was. Remember The Atavist? Byliner? Vook? Pronoun? Oyster? No? That’s because they’re buried very deep in the graveyard of publishing “disruptors.” Keep your eyes wide open.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.