Thoughts on Substack’s Subscription Model

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A few months back, for the first time ever, I paid to read a blog. It was Joe Posnanski’s blog, “Joe’s Blog” on Substack. I absolutely love Joe’s writing. His book, The Baseball 100, was my favorite book of 2021 out of more than 80 books that I read last year. I even managed to get my Dad a signed copy of the book for the holidays. I love Joe’s voice, his style, and the subjects he writes about. I wanted more and his blog on Substack was one way to get that. An annual subscription cost $60/year and I was happy to pay that to be able to read more of Joe’s writing. I haven’t been disappointed. It has been well worth the money.

Along the way, I discovered that another writer whose writing I enjoy also has a blog on Substack. (I am calling these blogs out of habit. Technically, they are newsletters.) In this case it is the journalist James Fallows who, along with his wife, Deborah, wrote my favorite book of 2020, Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America. In addition to being a journalist, Fallows is also a pilot, and since I was once a pilot, I appreciate what he has to say about flying in his writing. I also think he write sensibly on political subjects. He recently wrote a post, “Four Facts on the Filibuster” which is a good example. That post was published on his blog on Substack, “Breaking the News“. I enjoy James’ writing enough that I subscribed to his newsletter/blog as well, again for $60/year.

Then there is Molly Knight, who writes on baseball and the Dodgers. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a lifelong New York Yankees fan. But I lived in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years from the time I was 11 until I was 30 and over the years, the Dodgers have grown on me for nostalgic reasons. If their play doesn’t affect the Yankees, I root for them. Molly Knight is another baseball writer who wrote for The Athletic and who know has started a newletter on Substack, “The Long Game,” which I subscribed to, in this case for $50/year.

You can see the problem. Each of these newsletters/blogs is worth the money to subscribe to them, at least to me. But in combination they add up quickly. In total we’re talking about $170/year for 3 newsletters/blogs. This doesn’t seem scalable to me.

Back in April 2021, the New York Times had an article, “Why We’re Freaking Out About Substack” by Ben Smith which detailed how writers are taking advantage of this model to make money in their professions–in some cases, a lot of money. As a writer, I think this is great. That writers can earn the kind of money the article talks about is a positive sign. That platform like substack allows them to take more control over their careers is another positive sign. The problem is, as more and more writers move to this model, it becomes harder and harder for readers to fork out limited funds to support them. If ten writer I really loved to read had subscriptions on Substack for $60/year each, that would cost $600/year to read all of them. That’s a lot of money.

I’m not sure how Substack will handle this. As it stands, writers pay 10% of their subscriptions to Substack. They keep the rest. That makes it difficult to introduce a “bundled” model. I think a bundled model would be useful for readers. Say, for $200/year a reader could access unlimited newsletters. This is essentially what Medium does today. But that would seem to take away some of the control that the writers have gotten in this model, to say nothing of the money as well.

This model also got me thinking about my own blog. Would people pay to read what I write here? I honestly don’t know, but I’ve always been hesitant to charge for what I write here. I’m even hesitant to put up a tip jar. Part of my hesitancy is that, at present, this writing is a hobby for me. I do it because I love to write. Once money enters the picture, it starts to seem like work, and I already have a job. Part of my hesitancy is that I’ve built up a loyal following of readers and I don’t want to scare anyone off. But the biggest reason I’ve hesitated to introduce a subscription model or even advertising is because I enjoy reading blogs that aren’t cluttered by ads. I am not doing this to make a living the way Joe Posnanski, James Fallows, and Molly Knight are.

Still, seeing the kind of money that some writers are making on Substack makes me wonder if I am missing an opportunity. If I was making money on the blog I could afford to subscribe to more newsletters on Substack.

For now, there is no need to panic. I have no plans to introduce ads or charge for subscriptions for the foreseeable future. But I am interested in seeing how things go with Substack, and how their funding model will evolve to make it easier for readers to subscribe to more newsletters without breaking the bank.

Written on January 18, 2022.

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6 comments

  1. You have hit on exactly the issue I have with the Substack model. As a writer, yes, I would love to make a ton of money or at least earn a living knowing people are reading my writing directly, and want to pay for a subscription to my own newsletter. But in reality, this model isn’t going to work for most writers. The writers who are making a lot off of Substack have generally already established themselves in some way, whether it was through traditional media or slowly building an audience because they managed to hit the zeitgeist of the time.

    And as for readers, your comments (as I noted) are spot on. I have a bunch of free subscriptions to certain writers on Substack. I know I’m missing out on whatever they are sending to their paying readership, but here’s the thing: for the most part, it doesn’t matter to me. Unless there’s a specific voice I feel I must have, I can get plenty of commentary from other sources.

    One thing I did appreciate as a subscriber to The Atlantic is that they recently recruited a bunch of writers to provide newsletters. These are mostly for paid subscribers only, although some issues are free. One of these was a writer who had gone to Substack but whose work I couldn’t access all of because of the Substack model; now I can read all his newsletters and I’ve discovered some new writers I hadn’t heard of before. So in a way, the Atlantic is already doing the bundling you suggested for Substack. (I will note that there were some technical glitches and I missed a few newsletters; fortunately, for paying subscribers I can access them on their website.)

    For a long time I have felt that your own blog is more of a traditional column, and in an earlier world or a more just one, you would be crafting these for a media outlet and getting paid for them. You deserve much more exposure for your articles on life in the 21st century. I’m just not sure how to go about getting you the audience you deserve.

    1. Michael, I so appreciate your kind words about the blog. It was interesting to read the NY Times article I linked to because Substack seems to have 2 models. One is where any writer can sign up and charge a subscription fee. This is probably the vast majority. The other is one that is similar to a traditional publisher model, where writers are given an advance against future subscription fees. That’s the one that I think the writers with an audience are flocking to. Some of those advances listed in the article were huge! And some people turned them down because they knew they’d make more directly from subscriptions in a shorter period of time.

      What I find interesting is that Medium has a model in which you pay an annual fee ($50) and have unlimited access. They pay writers by popularity. This has its own set of problems, I imagine, so a pooled model might not work either. James Harris (see subsequent comment) had a thought that I liked: Substack is really a patron model, which makes sense to me and differentiates it from a magazine subscription or a pooled model like Medium.

      I also subscribe to the Atlantic, but I didn’t know about the newsletters for some reason. I’ll have to look into that.

  2. It sounds like subscribing to a Substack newsletter is a form of patronage rather than being periodical subscriber. You do it because you admire the writer as a person. $50 is the price of two books. Your three subscriptions is what I pay the New York Times, and I get far more content. I also pay $10 a month for Apple News Plus were I have access to 300+ magazines. I would never use Substack just for content. But I also don’t know any writer I just want to support either, but I’ll think about it. When I was younger I had favorite writers I would have supported, especially if their Substack was about them personally, and their writing life. But all my favorite writers are dead.

    1. James, I think you hit the nail on the head: Substack is a form of patronage. I hadn’t considered that, but thinking of it that way helps to distinguish it from Medium (a pooled model), or a magazine subscription. You also make a good point: I use Substack to read specific writers, not as general content. For that I have blogs, to say nothing of the Apple News+ that you mentioned–and a half dozen or so magazines I still get in print form, so that I am not staring at a screen 24×7.

      1. I’ve been thinking about subscribing to print magazines again. They aren’t as convenient to read — I’ve gotten so used to reading everything on my iPhone — but I crave time away from screens. But it’s so hard. Screens are so convenient, so adaptable to what my eyes prefer, so versatile, presenting books, magazines, newspapers, online content, videos, and audiobooks.

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