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June 8th, 2022:

Is Substack Special?

Sometime very early this year, probably January, a reader asked me in an email what I thought of Substack, and if Contra would be better off there. She likes my work, and told me she “binged” on my old entries. At the time, I’d heard of Substack but never looked at it. Over the last couple of days I googled on the site, went there, and learned a great deal about it.

The answer is no. I’ll be 70 in three weeks, and I don’t have the stamina to try to blog for money. Ten or fifteen years ago, I would have been sorely tempted. No more. I have my loyal readers, and I don’t need the money that badly. But…but…if I were on Substack, I’d be famous!

No. Anybody can be on Substack. If I were already famous, I might try it. But I’m not. (I do have a certain fame. It’s five miles deep and three inches wide.)

Basically, Substack is Kindle for newsletters. And newsletters in this context are long-form blog entries. You can charge readers a subscription fee, minimum $5/month, or any dollar amount greater than that. (Newsletters can also be free if you prefer.) Readers can then read your entries on the Web, or on the iPhone app. (They’ve been a thing since 2017, and they don’t yet have an Android app? That’s just, well, stupid. They say they’re working on one. Sheesh, I hope so!)

Substack has thousands of newsletters, and as of the end of 2021, over a million paid subscribers. The top 10 writers in aggregate make $20M per year. That’s better money than I’ve ever made doing anything. But if you look at who the top ten writers are, it becomes painfully obvious: All of them were famous working in other venues long before Substack ever existed.

I’ve read Andrew Sullivan sporadically for a lot of years. I read him on the late back in the ’90s and lots of other places since. He’s the #5 writer on Substack. He’s interesting, funny, and doesn’t bend the knee to partisan bitchlords demanding unquestioning allegiance. I haven’t subscribed yet, but I may. He’s damned good.

Other writers I’ve heard of and read elsewhere include Bari Weiss, Matthew Iglesias, Matt Taibbi, and Glenn Greenwald. (Greenwald is #1 on Substack.) A chap I know, Tom Knighton, has three different Substack newsletters. (You’re not limited to one.) I’m sure other people out on the edges of my circles have Substack newsletters. (Have one? Let me know!) However, I’m guessing that there’s an 80/20 rule on Substack (or maybe a 90/10 rule) stating that 20% of the writers make 80% of the money. That’s the rule in a lot of business models, Kindle included.

That may just be the way the universe works. You have to build a platform, as the agents put it. In other words, you have to promote yourself, especially if you don’t already have a pre-existing reputation and thousands of cheering fans. As some of my self-published author friends on Kindle have learned, you sometimes have to do so much promoting that you don’t have the time (or the energy) to write new material.

So I won’t be there. I’m having too much fun on 20M and writing new SF. What, then, do I think? No question: It’s worth it, if you’re young and energetic and can write interesting text on a definable topic on a regular basis that at least a few people might pay $5 a month for. I have one concern about Substack’s viability: They do not currently discriminate against conservative writers, or centrist writers who don’t care for progressive dudgeon. Apparently a number of progressive writers have ditched Substack because–the horror!–Substack doesn’t censor conservative viewpoints.

Not yet. If they ever start, it’ll be the end of them. In the meantime, you have your choice of a very broad spectrum of very good writers. A lot of the posts are free, and you can sample any author you want. I’m budgeting myself four paid subscriptions, not because it’s expensive, but because there are only so many hours in a day.

Go take a look. I was moderately impressed.