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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