Yesterday, Hamish McKenzie sent out his Substack Newsletter to say Facebook and Twitter are coming for Substack.
Of course they are.
According to Hamish, there are more than 500,000 paid subscriptions across Substack, and the top 10 writers collectively make over $15 million a year.
He ought to know. He’s the co-founder of Substack.
Founded in 2017, Substack lets writers set up a newsletter, free. Not free up to a certain number and not free for 30 days but free forever.
Plus, you can set up a paid newsletter. Substack will bill your customers, pay you your earnings, host your list and and host your newsletter content — all for the sum of 10% of your earnings. Servers aren’t free, after all. Stripe will take another 3%. The rest is yours.
Perhaps most empowering of all, Substack promises to supports its writers in pursuing tough stories. Its legal program — called Substack Defender — offers writers access to top-notch lawyers who provide advice on legal uncertainty or complexity related to their writing.
Substack allows writers and journalists to say whatever they want, without censure by editors. Writers that join the platform own their content as well as their list. There is no obligation to stay. Writers can leave anytime — and they can take their list with them.
That freedom is a draw to any writer who has tried to build an audience on platforms that give no access to their subscribers. Go ahead, try downloading your follower list on Facebook or Amazon.
From the ashes of a dying industry, a new era of media is seemingly being born — the rise of newsletters, led by Substack.
And 15 million by the top 10 writers alone. Of course Facebook and Twitter want a piece of that.
A new model, or more same old, same old?
Substack’s founders, investors, and marketing materials all have different ways of describing the company’s mission. They are “reinventing publishing,” “pioneering a new business model for culture,” and “attempting to build an alternative media economy that gives journalists autonomy.”
But no matter the language, Substack is a place where anyone can start a newsletter and rise to the top. At least in theory.
As Substack CEO Chris Best has said, the goal is “to allow writers and creators to run their own personal media empire.”
For some writers, the dream came true. Emily Atkin, for example. Previously at The New Republic and ThinkProgress, she is now the author of a climate-focused Substack newsletter, Heated. Emily earns more on Substack than she earned at any salaried journalism job.
But plan on working your butt off to grow your empire because Substack is busy working their butt off to bring bigger fish to their pond.
Move over little fish, there’s bigger fish to fry.
In 2019, Substack raised fifteen million dollars in funding, primarily from the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, whose portfolio companies also include Lyft and Instacart. They spent a great deal of the funding acquiring top level writers.
Andreessen Horowitz provided $15.3 million in Series A funding in 2019, some of which went to bringing high-profile writers into Substack’s network. Substack has provided some content creators with advances to start working on their platform [wikipedia]
For a struggling writer, it’s a tired old story. Offer the moon and stars, and then quietly bring in the big names that draw more investment dollars.
It’s a familiar story to writers at platforms like Medium, where less than 10% of writers break the $100/month threshold and NewsBreak where writers get customized terms based on what they bring to the platform. Add to it Vocal where pay is determined by views. The bigger you are, the better the pay.
But how to get there, that’s the question. Facebook and Twitter might be the answer for many who have amassed larger followings on the older platforms than they can build on Substack. I suspect they’re banking on it.
Will Facebook and Twitter hurt Substack?
Hamish McKenzie, one of Substack’s co-founders, told The New Yorker that he sees the company as an alternative to social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Hamish says he truly welcomes them and implores them to go all in.
If Facebook and Twitter are earnest in their pursuit of this opportunity, I implore them to go all in. They have enormous influence and can make a big positive difference in the world by taking the lessons from Substack to heart. This is about more than just doing the right thing for writers; it’s about improving the entire information ecosystem. — Hamish McKenzie, Substack
It’s a lovely sentiment. I’m just not sure they can deliver on it. Given the choice between doing “the right thing” for writers and the right thing for the board of directors in a world that operates under the rule of shareholder primacy, I know which I’ll be watching for.
But time will tell. If nothing else, writers will go where the readers are. Whether or not they make bank — that will remain to be seen.
“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” ― Frank Herbert