What is the Point of Substack? Making Money? Quality? Community? A Substack Writer’s Thoughts on the Game
There’s a consistent debate within the Substack community about what the actual purpose of the platform is. In my mind it’s a fairly silly discussion, really, because it presupposes, as almost all cultural contemporary discussions do, that there’s some sort of easy, obvious binary answer.
Substack can be anything you want it to be, basically. As a longtime writer who’s had dozens of short stories published in literary magazines and journals over the years (one nominated for the Pushcart Prize), who’s written 13 [unpublished] novels, who’s interned for a literary agent, who’s been a developmental book editor since 2013 working with many authors who went on to be published with major houses, I, personally, take myself seriously both as a person and as a writer.
This seems to be more or less in the minority.
Many on Substack seem to feel that the notion of asking people to pay for your work is not only ridiculous, but borderline evil. Good writing, these people quip, should be pure of all capitalistic incentives. All writing should be free. The point, some say, is not to make money but to produce quality writing, or as some say, “content,” another word which gets debated a lot. (Is it “content” or “writing”? Does the differentiation actually make a difference or mean anything?)
Another take comes from the opposing side: Of course you should ask people to pay for your work; it’s YOUR work and you put your blood, sweat and tears into it.
I fall somewhere roughly between these two poles, but definitely closer to the paid side. I started writing on Substack in August, 2022, about 14 months ago. I began with 50 free subscribers who were a mishmash of family, friends, acquaintances and former clients. I now have 1,150 subscribers with 70 paying. I’m not rich from Substack, but for the first time I’m bringing in a few hundred dollars per month. Not bad for a freelance writer in 2023. Usually writers nowadays make very, very little. (Especially creative writers.)
The reason I ask people to pay for my work—not all of it: Some is free—is because I genuinely think my work is quality. I realize I’m far from the strongest writer around, on this platform or anywhere else, but I think my stuff is really good. Am I allowed to say that? Or do I need to practice insincere humility to sound good online? My stack IS called Sincere American Writing. That’s my sincere feeling: My writing is good. Solid. Powerful. (I feel the same about many other writers on Substack, such as Sherman Alexie, Writers at Work with Sarah Fay, Castalia, Bowen Dwelle, Dee Rambeau, Latham Turner, Joshua Doležal, Lyle McKeany, Alison Acheson, Junot Díaz, and many many more.)
The truth is: it doesn’t matter. Substack is fantastic because it’s specifically for writers; there aren’t an ads or hidden costs; they take a fraction off the top of your paid subs (if you have any); and there’s a warm community feel even if you’re tiny and just starting. If you want to start out only doing free subscriptions, or even stay that way permanently: Go for it! If you want to add the paid sub option on your first day writing on the platform: Do it! I did what many have done: Started out free and, later, after gaining a few hundred subscribers, turned on the paid option. And then I slowly started adding in paywalled posts alongside my free ones. At this point I’m probably doing 75% paywalled posts, 25% free. Something like that.