“It feels almost like there is money in writing again.” So the historian and New York Times bestselling author Dan Jones tells me. Is he referring to increased book sales, or lucrative adaptation deals? Not this time. Instead, he’s discussing Substack, which launched in 2017. It has now become the platform of choice for writers to develop their careers on their own terms, without having to give substantial percentages away to agents, publishers and lawyers. For years, authors have felt that they have been little more than galley slaves, flogging themselves and their wares for the profit of multinational corporations. Now, finally, they have been given an opportunity to take back control of their own careers and destinies.
The format is a simple one. Writers create an email newsletter via the Substack platform and then decide whether to launch it as a paid-for entity from the outset or to offer it to subscribers for free, in the hope that they will eventually build a brand that can be commercialized. The financial rewards are considerable. The minimum monthly subscription is $5 — although more can be charged if desired — and so a comparatively well-respected author who can attract a paying clientele of around 1,000 regular readers is assured an annual income of $60,000. As Jones says, “I do believe that having a paid-subscription product is a sensible move for any writer with a reasonable following and something to say. I have a small monthly newsletter which generates significantly more annual income than I earned as a newspaper columnist in the 2010s.”
Of course, what each author offers via Substack differs. Those who are content to rest on their laurels and assume that their readership will be interested in “will-this-do” posts about the trivia of their domestic and professional lives are almost certain to find that their subscription base declines and dwindles quickly. Like a reputation, once a paying readership has vanished, it is all but impossible to rebuild it. Therefore, its practitioners have to put the hours in.
Jones offers his subscribers a “substantial” monthly essay, Q&A section, recommendations for books, films and music, and a competition to win a signed book by him or another author, all the while tracking what his readers are and aren’t responding to via the glories of analytics. As he says, “You need to have something to say, be good at saying it, put some effort into building your mailing list and stay committed to putting your product out on time and to a high standard. People are paying for this, after all.”
Novelists, meanwhile, see Substack as both a financial and a creative opportunity. Salman Rushdie announced in September that he would be publishing his new novel — his twenty-first book — on the platform, at the suggestion of his super-agent, Andrew Wylie. It will be serialized to his paying subscribers, in the style of a Dickens or (briefly) Stephen King, at the rate of a chapter a week for a year. Rushdie was inspired by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret, whose Substack he called “so witty and enjoyable… he’s clearly having a wonderful time doing it.” So, at the age of seventy-four, Rushdie has embraced a new technological opportunity to connect with his readership. He has described what he is doing as “just diving in here and que sera sera… it will either turn out to be something wonderful and enjoyable, or it won’t.”
The bestselling ghostwriter and novelist Anna Wharton, meanwhile, is offering her Substack subscriptions for free, for the time being at least, and is using the platform to showcase a mixture of short and previously unpublished fiction, guest posts from other novelists and writing advice. She professes herself impressed. “I’ve never been a fan of ‘free words’ but I’ve enjoyed building a mailing list on Substack. I offer writing lessons and a successful mentoring program through the platform, as well as reading my own short stories, and am planning on launching into podcasts and more guest author posts, too. It’s a great way of building an audience in a creative way, but you need to be in it for the long haul, and consistent with your posts and the topics you handle.”
She plans on publishing longer-form fiction on Substack soon, and describes it as “a really exciting new platform that will discover new writers and aid existing ones.” It also may well be the answer to the democratization of an industry that, for all its showy determination to embrace new talent, has often made entry into a writing career impossible for those without contacts. As Rushdie says, “Potentially something like this, with its lack of gatekeepers, could also enable a more diverse set of voices… if you want a Substack you can start one. You don’t have to be invited.”
Yet the private school- and Cambridge-educated Rushdie is not setting himself up as the champion of the little man, or even of the platform. “I don’t want to be their cheerleader. It was interesting for me to have a go with this and all I’ve done is make a twelve-month commitment. A year from now, I’m going to see where we stand, and I’ll either go on with it, or I won’t.” And, crucially, the likes of Rushdie and Chuck Palahniuk are selling their wares via the Substack Pro platform, which guarantees an upfront advance whatever the subscriber base. Palahniuk described the advance that he received as comparable to what he had previously been offered by Hachette.
It is easy to see a two-tier system developing that makes a mockery of the platform’s commitment to democracy and egalitarianism: all Substackers are equal, but some are more equal than others, whatever their existing online and social media presence. And so publishers are both cynical and laissez-faire about the potential threat that the company poses to their business. Michael Bhaskar is an author and founder of the digital publisher Canelo, which prides itself on treating its writers fairly and transparently. As far as he is concerned, Substack is little more than another overhyped bubble with existential limitations in both its business model and its delivery. “I am in favor of anything technically or commercially innovative in book publishing, but I do think Substack’s efforts could struggle to live up to the hype.”
Bhaskar’s reasons for doubt are twofold. “The main one is the loss of focus and attention that it means, and this is one of the core USPs of books in the digital world. It turns out e-book readers work well precisely because they don’t do anything else. Reading novels is valuable because it gives a totally different experience of reading to emails, tweets and the rest of it. Substack just subsumes it into the morass.”
Bhaskar also suggests that the long-term novelty value of receiving paid-for spam from your favorite writers is likely to pall — “most people are subscribed to too many newsletters already” — and that the company has overestimated the sustainable business that it will engender. Those large, potentially unrecoverable advances to Rushdie and Palanhiuk may not be the masterstroke that the company believes that they are.
As someone who collects and treasures physical books, I cannot say that the Substack form of distribution particularly appeals to me. But as an author, I cannot deny that it has a seductive appeal, not least the opportunity to build, and reach, an audience on my own terms. After all, who would not relish the opportunity to monetize one’s social media following and raise awareness and excitement for forthcoming books simultaneously? Jones cites Charlie Brooker’s 2005 television comedy series Nathan Barley in defense of the platform. “In an age where writers have to face up to the fact that we are, alas, what Nathan Barley called ‘self-facilitating media nodes,’ Substack and other platforms like it are here to stay.”
Wharton agrees. “Although readers are always going to want to hold a book in their hands, which makes the possibility of a simultaneous physical release desirable, I can’t see a downside to the platform if it’s helping writers make an income from the trade, although the publishing industry might.” But Bhaskar remains skeptical, both for personal and professional reasons. “Over the years there have been many experiments at enhancing fiction or reviving the old episodic publication, Dickens style. But no one has yet fully pulled it off. This could be it, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2022 World edition.