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Should you start a Substack?

TLDR: For most of you, no, starting a Substack is not the best way to build a financially sustainable long-term writing project. You should definitely build an email list, but you should do it with a free newsletter you run alongside a website/blog that you own. Especially for people like me, who write and speak mostly about abstract intellectual topics that are not directly useful, writing should be the way you build your audience and not the way you monetize your audience. After you’ve built an email list through consistently publishing your writing for free, you can monetize in other ways that make more sense for our kind of work and will earn you more money in the long-run.

A few people have asked me this, and we’ve discussed it a couple times in IndieThinkers.org, so I figured I’d set down my take on this.

If you don’t know, Substack is a platform that makes it quick and easy for authors to launch paid newsletters.

Substack is a good model for you if you meet at least one of the following two criteria:

  1. You already have a sizable audience on some other platform
  2. You have authority and expertise on something that’s useful

If neither of these describe you, you probably should not start a Substack.

In all other cases, you are better off starting a free newsletter through a blog.

It is true that Substack lets you build a free newsletter just as well as a paid newsletter, but for reasons I outline below, it’s not the best way to go. Substack’s specialty is paid newsletters and that’s what they’re going to be developing the product for over time.

Substack is particularly unattractive if your work is like mine—or what I call the indie thinker model. If your main focus is on relatively disinterested truth-seeking domains such as philosophy, science, literature, or personal creative writing of any kind (i.e. work that can be great and gain huge audiences, but is not obviously useful). If this sounds like you, then Substack—or any paid newsletter for that matter—is unlikely to be the right option for you.

Why a free newsletter is better for indie thinkers

There are a few reasons why most of you will be better off building a free newsletter, by publishing free content, on your own internet property.

If you’re not super famous, then one of your top goals is growing your audience, and the best way to do that is by constantly creating awesome free content.

A paid newsletter might get you some recurring revenue, but you won’t be publishing as much free stuff, so your audience growth will be significantly hampered.

Super famous writers can get away with this because they don’t need to grow their audience to make a good living, and they have other ways of growing their audience (like guesting on top podcasts, etc.).

For indie thinkers, if you’re content is not directly useful, the fact is that not many people will want to pay for your writing alone. But if people like your work and style, they will gladly sign up for free email updates from you, and this lets you earn money later in a variety of ways that make more sense for indie thinkers.

Examples include books, courses, premium communities, merch (if you build a brand), affiliate commissions, or mentoring (in the biz world they call this ‘coaching’).

These offerings are more sensible value propositions for your audience than asking them to pay for your recurring words. Your words don’t feel monetarily valuable so not many people will want to give money for them. But creating and facilitating a 6-week experience for your readers to think, write, and discuss some of the themes you write about? That’s a genuinely edifying and potentially transformative experience that people can easily justify paying a few hundred dollars for.

And you’re not shutting down your audience growth by paywalling the very thing that should be attracting new people into your orbit. Every time you launch a new paid offering, you can reasonably expect to make more than you made the last time.

If all your most loyal readers pay you a decent subscription fee monthly or annually, it’s a bit harder to launch other offerings later. You risk being overly transactional. By building and maintaining an audience of loyal readers by consistently publishing free work, you’re also building a reserve of good will. If four times a year, you simply let them know you’re offering a paid course, or a book, or whatever, people who choose to pay will be all the more happy to throw you some money, and people who aren’t interested will at least never call you rapacious. If you’re paywalling your main everyday writing, and later you develop paid offerings, you’ll probably have fewer buyers (“I’m already giving this person money”) and might even ruffle some feathers (“All this person cares about is money.”)

A few other things

Substack takes a pretty hefty fee of 10%.

Eventually you’re going to want more sophistication from your email service provider and Substack is currently very, very basic. This is why I use Convertkit, a fully-featured email provider made for writers and creators. You’ll eventually want to build automated email sequences, for instance, to thank someone after they buy one of your books, and stuff like that. Convertkit has a nice free plan to get started. There are a few other options out there, too.

Substack does not let you use a custom domain, which means Substack technically owns any traffic you drive to your posts. This might not seem significant, but if you’re in this for the long-term, then you really want to own every piece of what you build.

One exception

Perhaps one exception would be if you’re truly very bad with even simple technology and you have no longer-term goals to make a living from your writing; you just want to starting writing consistently, for fun, and start building a modest email list for your writings immediately. In this case, starting a Substack with no paywall is not a bad way to go.

Conclusion

The overwhelming majority of writers and content creators should focus on publishing free content and driving your readers to opt-in for free email updates. Offering a free weekly newsletter is a fine way to do this, but you can also just offer content updates (send an email every time you publish a new blog, or every time you publish a new podcast, or every time you publish a new video).

There are many great platforms for blogging and most of them will integrate just fine with email service providers like Convertkit. If you don’t have strong opinions on the kind of platform you want, I generally tell people that a self-hosted WordPress installation on a host like Siteground is probably the cheapest way to start a fully-featured website you have complete control over (~$35/year). Then start a free trial on Convertkit, which gives you 1k subscribers (with limited functionality). Integrate Convertkit with Siteground until you hit 1k subscribers, then start launching paid experiments, which will pay the bill for Convertkit.

In the IndieThinkers.org Library, I have a three-part screencast tutorial on how to do all of this. It will take you less than a couple hours if you follow my walk-through. A little more work than starting a Substack, but for the average indie thinker at the beginning of a longer-term vision, your chances of building something financially sustainable are much greater.

This approach gives you the foundation for almost any kind of monetization model you could possibly want to develop later (including a full-fledged business of any kind). And if you want to get off WordPress for something a bit hotter but more expensive, like Webflow or Ghost or whatever, you can do that later without too much trouble.

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