Should I start a Substack?

Working with creative people, one of the questions I hear most is "Should I start a Substack?" 

It’s not hard to understand why. We hear stories of people making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year with the platform, some even receiving 6-figure advances from Substack itself.

To the creative mind, this sounds like a no brainer. After all, "getting paid well to write about stuff I care about" is what all writers want, and, frankly, is not always that easy to find.

But are platforms like Substack all they're hyped up to be? Or is it another quintessentially American "Hope you got there early!" money rush?

That's the question I'm hoping to help you answer in today's blog.

Substack: The latest big new thing

A little background: I’ve worked in content marketing for the last 8 years. I started in 2014, right at the very beginning of the “pivot to video” era that drained newsroom budgets and led to thousands of talented writers being laid off. That era (which, it turns out, was based on quite a few lies) felt just as urgent and insistent as this one.

As humans, and especially creative business people, there is a certain understandable obsession with getting to good things early. Most people love to discover an artist before they blow up. It’s easy to think that if we’d just kept up with that 2013 YouTube channel, we’d probably have a house in Calabasas by now.

To some extent, those assumptions might be true. These social platforms love and often reward creators who produce a high volume of content. Which makes sense: The platform makes money by selling ads, and the more content there is to endlessly scroll through, the more ad space there is to lease out.

The trouble is, this is often not how art and creativity work. Good writing takes time: Time to research, draft, edit, trash and try again.

You still need consistency, sure — you’d be hard pressed to find a writer you admire who does not credit their success to a habit of sitting down and writing each day.

But there is a difference between needing to sit down at your desk each day and do the deep work of writing and thinking, and needing to log onto a notoriously addictive social app several times a day to please an algorithm with “consistent” public content.

Personally, one of those options feels like working for myself. The other...well, feels like working for this guy:

Mark Zuckerberg Facebook GIF by GIPHY News

Enter Substack. Founded in 2017, Substack promises to “make it simple for a writer to start an email newsletter that makes money from subscriptions.”

“You don’t need to play by the rules of social media to succeed,” their website writes, directly addressing their customer’s biggest pain point.

And yes, to be clear, the writer is Substack’s customer — not the reader. Their money comes from collecting a percentage of subscription revenue (10%) and in exchange they offer creators an easy way to publish content. Much like TikTok and YouTube would be lost without video creators, without writers, Substack would cease to exist.

The company’s raised over $80 million in funding as of this writing, and seems to compete most with Patreon — the main difference (besides a 2% increase in subscription tax) is that while Patreon allows creators to set up a number of payment tiers, Substack right now only has the two: monthly or annual.

So...should I start a Substack?

The answer to this question lies in your business strategy.

What do you want? If what you want is to make money writing independently and you know you can attract paying readers, maybe.

If what you want is to build a business that employs writing and newsletters as a growth tool while selling a variety of products and/or services, probably not.

Here’s my thing about the Substacks and Patreons of the world: Unless you already have an engaged audience, they’re most likely going to take a while to be financially sustainable from subscriptions alone.

The prices are often pretty low, and with good reason — when you position yourself as a “publication,” you’re competing with The New York Times and Vanity Fair for a slice of that reader’s monthly subscription budget. These are publications that have a high enough volume of readers to be able to compete very deeply on price.

If you’re not careful, that pricing strategy will have you jumping through hoops, working overtime to produce all of the content you promised when you thought you’d be rolling in dough.

Often, at least with clients I’ve worked with, this ends with a regular person working at a rate much lower than minimum wage.

I don’t care what anyone tries to tell you or sell you, it is not that easy to convince a thousand people to spend $7 a month on something. Like with any other offer, you have to build a case for that subscription’s value — you have to be able to demonstrate what it will add to the life of your reader.

For some people, your early adopters and superfans, this will be a no brainer. But again, unless you already have a significantly engaged audience, getting those numbers up to “quit your day job” level is probably going to take a while.

What is Substack good for? Writing.

One of Substack’s biggest selling points is the ownership. If you decide to leave the platform, you get to take your email list with you.

If you’re thinking, “Well, I would certainly forking hope so!” I’m with you — this seems like the bare minimum from an email platform. But hey, I didn't write the sales copy.

To me, the main benefit of Substack is that you don’t have to pay to play.

Unlike with something like FloDesk or ActiveCampaign, tools you’d have to pay for in order to send emails, with Substack you can start sending emails, sharing content and pay no fees until you sell your first subscription.

And yes, Substack does seem to make it pretty simple to set up a publication and go.

When you publish, you choose whether the post will go to free subscribers, paid subscribers or both. You’ll have the option to send the post as an email to subscribers, and (my personal favorite) you won’t have to “repurpose” the content to a blog — Substack will hold all of your posts in one convenient place, so the casual reader can binge-read and the search engine Gods can get your work to more people.

What is Substack not good for? Email marketing.

Let’s consider all of the things email marketing can do for a business that sells things online:

  • Nurture new subscribers through automated welcome sequences
  • Sell out products and programs with dedicated sales campaigns
  • Segment people by interests, locations, birthdays, open and click rates
  • Send personalized emails to particular readers

In essence, a whole lot. Email marketing has been around since long before 2017, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

The trouble with Substack is that it’s not an email marketing tool — it’s a publishing tool. This means that it doesn’t yet include many of those features that make growing an email list so lucrative.

If what you really want is to grow a product or service business online, you’re likely going to find yourself needing...more.

You’ll need things like landing pages where people can fill out a form and sign up for a free workshop (and automated thank you emails when they do).

You’ll need to be able to segment and see who on your list has or has not bought your web design package.

You’ll want to be able to send subscribers a “Happy Birthday” message with a 15% off code, or automate a campaign that captures their attention right when they first find you.

And to be clear, just because you use these kinds of marketing tools does not mean your newsletter have to sound like a used car salesman wrote them.

Your emails can still be simple, beautiful, short- or long-form. You can still hop on, write a post and send it out with the click of a button. You’ll still get to keep ownership of your list.

And when it is time to monetize, you’ll still be able to sell things to your readers. You'll go through the same process of building a case for that offer’s value as you would convincing them to subscribe to your Substack or Patreon, without trading off a percentage of the sales.

The question of whether or not you should start a Substack is a personal one, reflective of things like:

  • Your audience
  • How you want your life to look
  • What you value
  • What kind of business you want to run

Without this information, it's impossible for me to tell you for sure what strategy is right for you.

So, what do you think? Does starting a Substack or Patreon feel right for you?



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