Substack and the future of publishing

The opportunity to rethink how creators are rewarded

Words are not violence

I have been kicked off a variety of email marketing platforms for the crime of having Unauthorised Beliefs™. At present I have found refuge at Substack, as they profess to be against censorship, and in favour of a contest of ideas. The platform comes with all the user experience polish to be expected of the best of Silicon Valley (and we are allowed to celebrate the bits of Big Tech that serve us well).

Substack has a large functional overlap with those email platforms (content authoring, bulk email delivery, subscriber management, and open rate reporting). However, it contrasts sharply in its intended use and business model. Rather than charging a fee for the technical act of sending emails and hosting static articles, it instead takes a cut from the subscription revenues of paid content.

Having used the platform for a few months now, and gained an appreciation for its capabilities and limits, I thought I would share my experience. I started blogging in 2003, so I have a long history in this space, and understand it well. I would like to see this service thrive, so the following is intended as constructive criticism.

Doc Searls has written for many years on the difference between making money from content versus with content. Substack’s paywall allows you to earn revenue from the content you create by excluding (or delaying access) to those who don’t wish to pay. This is fine if your metric of success is revenue, but mine is not. I am engaged in an information war and its struggle for “narrative supremacy”; revenue is for “soldier salaries and digital ammo”, not an end in itself.

I personally can make revenue from the following sources:

  • Ongoing patronage via SubscribeStar
  • One-off support via PayPal
  • Art products (calendars, prints) — with changing teaser image
  • Paid books for sale (paperback, audiobook)
  • Free books for download with links to reward author
  • Subscription to BOSS/MAKER (the one paid newsletter I do each month)
  • Special limited edition products (e.g. NFT art, signed books from censored imprints)

I no longer offer consulting services, and am disinclined to participate in public events, so speaker fees are off the table. I don’t have any affiliate revenue sources, since these lack sufficient transparency, and compromise independence and integrity. I am not opposed in principle to promoting third party products (e.g. MAGA merchandise) but it doesn’t fit my personal aesthetic and ethos. However, these are all also valid forms of income arising from content publication.

There is a place for paid content, especially for time-sensitive intelligence, or vertical market niches. The reality of today’s media landscape, however, is “all journalism is warfare”. Everyone is either endeavouring to tell the truth, or to obscure it. Power and socioeconomic control shifts with which narrative gains the most credence with the audience. That means the value is mostly outside of the content, not within in. The business model for premium content should reflect this.

At present I am not paying Substack anything to send you these emails, and that actually saddens me, as I would be glad to pay them. That is because their paywall model doesn’t fit my revenue model, even if their business ethics claim to be a match. I understand the need to “do one thing really well”, but I am unconvinced that this narrow focus on subscription revenue alone will have the desired impact.

Paywalls limit the reach of novel ideas, and are in fundamental opposition to the impact goals of many creative types. I would be happy to give Substack a “finder’s fee” for each new SubscribeStar supporter, which would offer Substack a (time limited) annuity stream. This may require Substack to form alliances and integrations with other “Brave Tech” companies who resist the siren call of Cultural Marxism. Cross-feeds of revenue also help to stabilise against assaults by payment processors and other (compromised) partners.

There are two places in Substack where I can manage my content: the article editor, and a separate settings area where I can create standard headers and footers. If you scroll to the end of this article (if you read it via email) then you will see my current template. In the past I would simply replicate each email campaign and adapt/update the commercial offers below the article. Now I have two disjointed places to manage each mailout — one part for content, another for the offer.

Sometimes it is not appropriate to make any commercial offer to readers, such as an in memoriam announcement for a personal friend or industry colleague. Sometimes a particular product is especially relevant to the article content. The challenge I see is to manage a portfolio of offers that “make money with content, not from content”. This could be a mixture of manual selection, together with machine learning. It is possible Substack could have relationships with advertising or retailing partners to add offers and take a cut of affiliate revenue.

Seemingly small matters of layout and display do matter. I used to have side-by-side image-based links to SubscribeStar and PayPal in the email footer, but that requires a tables or multi-column formatting option. Substack lacks that, and there’s limited user zeal for scrolling beyond the end of each article. My revenue has tanked, but that’s OK, as I am in it for the outcome, not the income. Nonetheless, I have bills to pay like everyone else. Visually managing the “call to passion” was easy on Mailchimp, but is now harder.

Substack doesn’t have any way for me manage “support Martin” as part of the hosted Web copy of each article. I can manually add in links to author reward mechanisms at the bottom of the article, but that’s really clunky and ugly. I would be more than happy to share my revenue with Substack, and pay them vastly more than the email marketing platforms got off me! They just need to make the enabling capabilities, and ideally automate the integrations with “pro-freedom” partners like Donorbox. Maybe people who are already signed up who view the Web article could be solicited to donate rather than subscribe?

Speaking of which, trustworthiness is a key issue right now. Even platforms like Gab have seen allegations (which I cannot prove or disprove) of people being unfollowed without permission. It might be a false accusation, or it could be that a good organisation has been infiltrated by bad people. I cannot know. Transparency and audit are really important. I would like to see an immutable audit trail of subscriber additions and removals, as well as evidence that emails actually were sent (just as newspaper circulations are audited). Shadowbanning needs to be “designed out”.

I have used services like Steemit, which let you “publish to blockchain”, and cannot be censored. One of the problems of using a service like Mailchimp is that every link goes dead if they deplatform you. It would reassure me if Substack also upgraded governance to “offboarding” to “first class” parts of the design process. That means being clear and transparent on how the acceptable content guidelines are being enforced, and not leaving people “in limbo” should they find themselves (fairly or unfairly) deemed in transgression.

This is a solid platform with a slick user experience. It puts the needs of writers first, and contrasts with Medium in how it relates to “controversial” topics and “difficult” authors. Its strength and weakness is a singular focus on one revenue model: paid content. I would be nervous of deplatforming if I became too successful here and dependent on one paywall working! The reality of being a citizen journalist today is that you need to have a portfolio income, and (in my view) the most successful platforms will be the ones that best align to that fact — and exploit it.