fbpx
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.

It's rational to move somewhere beautiful to write

Having unique and true ideas is, pound for pound, the most valuable human resource in the world. If you are blessed with periodically arriving flashes of insight, in the long-run it is economically worthwhile to organize everything around recording and publishing those insights.

The greatest inhibitor of unique ideas is everyday social conformity, which increases with the number of one's friends and the degree of one's dependence on those friends.

High-status cities contain the largest number of potential friends with power, which means dependence. These cities are huge conformity traps.

Natural amusements and challenges—random things such as learning how to kayak down a river—generate a kind of internal motivation and clarity when it comes to thinking. Many dumb social preoccupations suddenly dissipate. Basic truths and observations appear in sharper relief. Writing them succinctly on a blog feels more like a simple, obvious, internally gratifying practice. There's not much else to do when you're in the house.

Going into the mountains to focus on writing has typically been a romantic but economically self-destructive idea. In a remote-working era, if going into the mountains to focus on writing increases the number of unique and true ideas you publish on the internet, then it is the pound-for-pound most effective technique for improving one's economic position, in almost any situation, whether that be getting a new job, getting customers for a startup, improving one's network, attracting potential hires, or even selling one's writing.

The most old-fashioned romanticism is now aligned with the most hard-nosed rationality.

How I made $3,300 on a short niche philosophy book

The Based Deleuze project is now officially complete, so it’s time to do some final accounting. Here I will review the financials, the labor/time costs, and the main lessons learned.

Based Deleuze was conceived and executed as a hard test. In research design, a hard test is a study that’s unlikely to find evidence for a hypothesis. If you use a hard test and you still get the results predicted by your hypothesis, then you can be extra confident in your hypothesis. As soon as I quit academia, my top priority was to generate reliable data about how much I could earn for my research and teaching on the open market. So for my first book, I strategically chose to do something as fringe/weird/unmarketable as possible, as quickly as possible. If I could get half-decent results, then I could confidently make future plans based on that data, because it’s very likely future books will do at least as well, and probably much better.

No matter how much I planned and strategized, I knew that my first attempt at a whole product cycle would be riddled with imperfections, so I purposely chose to do something that felt fun, light-hearted, and low-stakes, so I could move as quickly as possible.

I did so many things sub-optimally that I’m dumping most of those observations into a separate document, which I’ll post later. In this post, I’ll outline some of the biggest mistakes I made and highlight a few of the main things I did well.

Pre-launch

It all started on June 20th, when I tweeted an idea for a short book. It only got 6 retweets, but that was enough to take the idea seriously.

I made a pre-order product on Gumroad priced at only 5 bucks, drafted a quick cover on Canva, and then I literally DMed the link to everyone who retweeted, liked, or replied favorably to my tweet. This worked well and honestly it was a pretty great tactic for securing some initial buzz. I told them if it doesn’t get to at least 50 sales, I’m not doing it (this also gave them reason to share it, if they really wanted the book to happen). It crossed 50 sales so I committed to doing it. I set the release date to September 20th.

Then I got to work writing, which was my main project for about 2 months. I probably did about a thousand words per day, 2-3 days per week, on average. Pretty easy-going, to be honest, especially because I was free to do it however I pleased. I crossed my minimum target of 20k words after about 2 months. Then I did editing, formatting, and logistics in the time that remained.

The writing itself only took about 70 hours (measured hours of focused time actually writing, not a vague estimate of my time at the desk). See my detailed time-tracking below.

It was good that I announced a release date and a minimum word count from the beginning. The release date forced me to be done at a certain point, whether I was satisfied with the book or not (you never are). And the minimum word count gave me and pre-sale buyers at least some kind of objective standard for what would be enough. That was the only cold, hard promise I made about what, exactly, I would deliver on September 20. So I had at least some measurable standards for what I needed to achieve, and by when.

While writing the book, I tried to regularly tweet interesting and insightful stuff about Deleuze. I also made some Deleuze videos and uploaded them to Youtube. When uploading content I would generally link back to the pre-sale web page on Gumroad. I am pretty sure that work was effective at driving some sales but I did not measure any of that very carefully. And I had no systematic plan or schedule for this “content strategy.” I just did what I felt like doing.

Gumroad before Amazon

I decided to publish the ebook first, via Gumroad, and only much later publish to Amazon. I made this decision because Gumroad allows me to stay in touch with readers, whereas Amazon doesn’t. For obvious reasons, this is quite valuable for someone who plans to write many more books.

The audiobook and video course supplements

When I published the ebook on Gumroad, I also created and published a DIY audiobook and a 6-lecture video course. I learned this from Nathan Barry’s book Authority. One takeaway from that book is you should always have a few options, and one should be relatively quite expensive. This is because some small fraction of your audience wants everything you can possibly offer, some fraction is relatively wealthy, and some fraction just wants to give you more money because they like what you represent.

Gumroad let’s you create tiered products through what they call product “variants.”

So initially the price for the ebook was $5, I asked $10 for the ebook+audiobook, and $50 for the ebook+audiobook+course. These were bad prices. One huge mistake I made was under-pricing all of these things (more on that in a later post). I just lacked confidence for my first attempt, so I sold myself short. Maybe that’s necessary at first, though. Now that I’ve delivered on my first serious offering to seemingly happy readers, next time I’ll feel comfortable asking for a bit more. In the case of Based Deleuze, I would later bump up these initial prices, as you’ll see on the product page now, but only after 90% of the sales already came through.

One of the other big missed opportunities was not including the audiobook and the video course options as variants in the initial pre-sale product. I only added them in time for the Gumroad release date. I’ll definitely do all of that up front, next time.

The audiobook took some time but it was pretty simple. I just recorded myself reading the book. I did some basic editing but not much. It’s not quite Audible-quality but it’s really quite good, I think. My sales data below show that this was worth the labor. It also came in handy to have extra audio content. I posted the Preface of the audiobook as a podcast, for instance, to help promote the book.

For me, offering some kind of video course was a no-brainer because, as an academic, I can fire off lectures quite easily. But when I published the ebook on Gumroad, I hadn’t yet prepared any course content. So I just created a separate variant of the product, posted a planned curriculum of videos, slapped a $50 price tag on it, and in the description I said buyers would get the content over time after purchasing. I followed through with 6 one-hour video lectures uploaded over the course of a few months.

So let’s review the results separately for Gumroad and Amazon.

First launch on Gumroad, September 2019

I didn’t do a very sophisticated launch. I just uploaded to Gumroad, clicked “publish” or whatever, tweeted a bit, and emailed my list. At the time I had 1,215 subscribers. 52.2% opened the email. And 23.3% clicked the link to Based Deleuze. Here is the email I sent.

I earned $1,243 in the first month on Gumroad, as you can see in the graph below. By the time I was ready to publish, I had accumulated a healthy number of pre-orders, and then some publication buzz brought a bunch of new buyers.

Revenue From Based Deleuze: Gumroad
Revenue From Based Deleuze: Gumroad

The second spike in March 2020 coincides with the paperback release party in Los Angeles. Interestingly, launching the paperback on Amazon increased sales on Gumroad as well.

We can break down the number of sales for each variant of the product. As you see below, I only sold 11 courses but this generated more revenue than the 49 audiobooks.

Breakdown by variant: Ebook, audiobook, and course

Second launch on Amazon (paperback and Kindle), February 2020

The launch of the paperback was even more haphazard. The release party was at the very end of February but, to this day, I never really did a proper online launch for the paperback. I tweeted some stuff and mentioned it in my weekly newsletter, but there are a lot of things I just never did. For instance, I never even emailed the buyers of the ebook to let them know the paperback is available. And I never made a concerted effort to encourage Amazon reviews. I later learned that reviews are quite important for a few different reasons. (If you want to leave a review, I’d be grateful!)

Revenue From Based Deleuze: Amazon KDP
Revenue From Based Deleuze: Amazon KDP

Naturally, sales decrease over time, but I’m actually quite pleased with the lower numbers in the quiet months. In those months, I pretty much did zero work on promotion. If Based Deleuze continues to earn $100/month over the next several years, the financial success of this book would will be substantially more impressive. Maybe I’ll report back again later!

How much time did it take?

From beginning to end, I clocked 195.28 hours. These are focused hours, and I am pretty hard on myself about subtracting for distractions. I also don’t time all the little tasks that sometimes pop up randomly, so this estimate is a lower bound.

As you can see from my Toggl data below, writing the book and producing the lectures were the two most time-consuming parts of the project. Then, learning how to format the book for Amazon KDP was the third most time-consuming task. Fortunately, I learned a lot about how to do these things efficiently, so future projects should be significantly easier.

Time Spent on Based Deleuze
Time Spent on Based Deleuze

One big lesson here is that I should have outsourced more. Next time I will definitely not transcribe the lectures manually. That was stupid. My intern Ben Williamson helped with editing the videos, and my wife gave the final book a one-over for spelling and grammar mistakes. I think the grammar and spelling is quite solid; there are 2 or 3 sentences I cringed at after revisiting the book, but what can you do? As for the formatting and cover design, they are as good as my amateur design skills were ever going to get them.

The other lesson is that I definitely could have sequenced things to derive more positive externalities. I have a lot of ideas on this. Tweeting in a way that feeds the book content, writing the book content in a way that functions as lecture material, and so on. I’ve noticed many little ways one can structure and sequence a project like this to increase a bunch of little efficiencies, which might multiply quite powerfully. I’ll try to put them into practice for my next book and I’ll be sure to report back again.

Conclusion

At the time of this writing, 8 months after publication, the Based Deleuze project has netted a grand total of $3,290. That’s net revenue after platform fees, but before taxes and excluding my monthly fixed operating costs.

In terms of units, I have sold:

  • 452 copies of the book (ebook and paperback combined)
  • 49 copies of the audiobook
  • 11 copies of the video course

For the 195 hours I spent, I effectively earned about $17/hour so far. But if Based Deleuze continues to earn about $100/month for, say, another 3 years, that would roughly double the total revenue to $6,890 for an hourly wage of $35/hour. Still nowhere close to what a PhD generally commands, but as I said at the beginning, this was a hard test: Writing a weird super-niche philosophy book—which promises the reader nothing economically valuable—is one of the hardest possible ways to make money on the internet. I can certainly choose to do more lucrative projects, if necessary.

This is just the beginning. It’s hard to know how dramatically these numbers might improve as my audience increases, as I build up a catalogue of books and courses, and as my systems improve with every iteration. Personally, I’m pleased enough with the results to feel quite confident that writing and publishing books will continue to play a major role in my post-academic intellectual business model. I’m now most excited to observe the delta between book one and book two…

Lessons from Nietzsche’s Awful Publishing Results

“…the marketbell—The Daily Press—is only run for their own clique and not for the proud and solitary One.”

Nietzsche’s publisher Schmeitzner on the complete failure of Thus Spake Zarathustra

Independent intellectuals today should study closely one of the most profound and impactful thinkers in all of modern philosophy: Friedrich Nietzsche. I’m not referring to his ideas (although one should study those, too). I’m referring to the difficulties he faced publishing his books, and their utter failure in his lifetime. All the historical facts and figures below are drawn from Schaberg’s The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography.

If you’re an independent intellectual, a review of Nietzsche’s publication history should fill you with a profound sense of gratitude and potency.

To start, consider Nietzsche’s book Human, All Too Human. When it was first published, one thousand copies were printed and only 120 were sold in its first year (1879). And that’s with the benefit of public controversy around Nietzsche’s break from Wagner and the scandal of being banned in Russia! Imagine today publishing a truly brilliant and original book, having a public and talked-about controversy with a famous and influential philosopher such as Slavoj Zizek, and only selling 120 copies! It’s unthinkable. Today, if there is anyone at all talking about your book, you will sell 120 copies at the very least. There are many reasons for this, most of them now banal (speed of information transmission, density of social networks, etc.). The comparison, however, is profound.

Next, consider that the reception of Nietzsche’s books got worse over time, which is the opposite of what happens to contemporary indie authors if their systems are set-up even 50% correctly. Nietzsche’s first book, Birth of Tragedy, made a splash: It received a polarizing but lively reception and sales were presumably healthy (I could not find quantitative sales data for that book). By the time of Zarathustra at the end of Nietzsche’s publishing career, however, Schmeitzner would write in a letter: “There is no question that the distribution of your books is getting worse.” Schaberg reports that Zarathustra was never acknowledged by “the press, the public, or [Nietzsche’s] peers.”

Thankfully, if you’re a blogger or indie book author today, it is nearly impossible for the sad fate of Nietzsche’s late works to befall your late works, unless you have zero systems in place. When you sell an indie book on the internet, you don’t just receive a bit of cash; if you sell through a platform like Gumroad, you gain a personal contact, an email address. And if you’re an open, generous person sincerely interested in your readers, many contacts even become genuine personal relationships. For these reasons, every new book by an indie author should sell at least as many copies as the previous work, and typically more. This, by the way, is why I published Based Deleuze on Gumroad first, and only published on Amazon after Gumroad sales plateaued.

But maybe Nietzsche’s small fanbase was super passionate, you think to yourself. Continuing with Human, All Too Human as an example, Schaberg documents precisely four instances of positive feedback. Two of them were personal friends of Nietzsche (Rée and Gast) and one was a lady he flirted with at the Bayreuth Festival. The only legitimate positive feedback from an objective and significant third party was from Jacob Burckhardt (most famous for his study of The Renaissance). Notably, Burckhardt called Nietzsche’s book a “sovereign book,” which would “increase the amount of independence in the world.” Personally, I think that’s wonderful praise, but even this is a backhanded compliment! He’s not saying it’s good; “independence” or “sovereign” is a praiseful way of calling Nietzsche bonkers.

On this point, the lesson is that you should prepare for nobody to care about your book, except your friends. Consider yourself blessed if you encounter even one polite negging from one smart and disinterested reviewer. Of course, you may very well enjoy more of a splash, I'm just saying you expect and prepare for... crickets.

The first year of Nietzsche’s Observations book saw “200-250” copies sold, then about 30-50 copies per year. Schmeitzner refers to this publication glowingly, suggesting that it was probably Nietzsche’s high-water mark. Based Deleuze has already beat Nietzsche’s high-water mark.

Nietzsche had to spend 881 marks of his own money to print 600 copies of Beyond Good and Evil. That’s somewhere vaguely in the ballpark of $15k in today’s US dollars. He must have turned over in his grave when Amazon first introduced print-on-demand publishing. It is now utterly unremarkable to note that anyone can publish and sell thousands of books for an up-front cost of zero dollars. But compare yourself to Nietzsche to see things with a new light. If that doesn’t give you a real jolt of intellectual virility then nothing ever will. If Nietzsche could follow through on more than 10 books, remind me again why you’re still struggling to publish one?

And then, all the little things.

To publish a book, someone like Nietzsche had to hand-write at least dozens of letters back and forth with his publisher, via snail mail. What a pain in the ass!

When there was an error in a published book—as there was with Human, All Too Human—someone had to go through all the printed books and fix the mistake with a pen, by hand. Today we just edit the file once and re-upload it to Amazon or Gumroad.

Nietzsche frequently dictated his writing, which means that another person was required to type as he spoke, often for about 2 or 3 hours every day for months at a time. Whether he or his publisher(s) paid for this labor isn’t clear. Regardless, we now benefit from computers, which can, for pennies, automatically transcribe spoken words at about 95% accuracy.

Don’t even try to tell me it’s difficult to write or publish a book, don’t even try! I will send you this blog post to shame you!

There are no humans on the internet

The best way to build community and make friends on the internet is to treat all internet interlocutors as if they are real humans in a real-life, local village. If you do this, over time many people will like you and want to form an alliance with you. Because most internet behavior is so atrocious, if you abide by traditional inter-personal norms (reciprocity, manners, courtesy, etc.), you quickly become a strange attractor. You become a kind of weird avatar from another time and place. Of course, you will encounter many haters in the short-run. They will interpret your quaint earnestness as an ironic performance, or “soy boy” pusillanimousness, or some kind of 4-dimensional hyper-grift. But in the long-run, traditional interpersonal ethics are irresistibly attractive because they are, in fact, good and superior.

Now, of course, there is a reason why average internet behavior is so atrocious.

It is seemingly impossible to abide by small-village norms on the internet, simply because those norms evolved in contexts where villagers had no choice but to play iterated games and everyone could remember everyone else’s behaviors. On the internet, neither of these conditions hold: nobody is forced to remain in any grouping over time, and there are so many people that nobody can remember everyone else’s behavior. There are strong incentives to exploit others, and no obvious reason to invest much care into others. So if you treat every potential interlocutor with care, you’ll quickly waste all of your resources and be exploited into nothingness.

However, it is feasible to apply traditional ethics to everyone who enters your personal sphere for the first time, and then simply ignore them as soon as they fail to reciprocate. In game theory this strategy is called “tit for tat,” and in my contexts it is found to be the best possible strategy. Many people seem to follow a variant of this strategy, in their “blocking” behavior. On Twitter, many people will block someone at the first indication of their enemy status. But most of these people are not really playing traditional-ethics tit-for-tat reciprocity because usually they’re usually also lobbing hand-grenades into the enemy camp for fun and profit on a daily basis. I’m saying one should treat the entire universe of internet denizens on a courteous, tit-for-tat basis: If they’ve done me no wrong, then I won’t do them any wrong. If they come into my sphere, I will treat them as a real friend until evidence of bad behavior, in which case I will not retaliate but simply ignore them.

Anyone who abides by this strategy will be surprised by how quickly a meaningful community emerges around them. This might seem obvious, even trite, but what’s not is how to scale this strategy. Most people who operate this strategy find themselves in relatively tiny clusters. And almost inevitably, they form their own imaginary out-groups and all the pitfalls of group-psychological bias emerge. What I’m really interested in is how to make this strategy scale, without limit or cessation.

I think I have figured out why this strategy is so hard to scale. The solution is hidden behind a deeply counter-intuitive paradox. It’s so counter-intuitive that it’s too psychologically difficult for most people to execute. But in certain ways I think I have been learning to do it, which is how I’ve become conscious of it.

The paradox is that to treat internet denizens humanely at scale, one must cultivate a brutal coldness toward all of the internet’s pseudo-human cues, which are typically visual (face pictures and text) applied to your sense organs by corporations for profit. These pseudo-human cues are systematically arranged, timed, conditioned, and differentially hidden or revealed to you by absolutely non-human, artificial intelligence.

Your goal should be to hack this inhuman system of cues on your screen, with a brutal analytical coldness, in order to find and extract humans into potential relationships. One must stop seeing the internet as “a place to connect with others,” but rather see it as nearly the opposite: It is a machine that stands almost impenetrably between and against humans, systematically exploiting our desire for connection into an accelerating divergence and alienation from each other. It is only when one genuinely cultivates this mental model, over time, that it becomes psychologically possible to treat one’s computer for what it is: An utterly inhuman device for conducting operations on statistical aggregates, a device which only accidentally comes pre-packaged with an endless barrage of anthropomorphic visual metaphors.

Those are not people “behind” the avatars on your screen, those are functions in a machine. When we speak of “the algorithms,” we generally imagine them as code behind apps, but the difficult fact to admit is that “the algorithms” are primarily other people, or at least those names and face-pictures we “interact with.” The codebase of the Facebook app doesn’t really manipulate me, the code is not “gaming” me, because I have no biological machinery that allows complicated lines of technical language to trigger changes in my behaviors. It is ultimately the creative energy of other human beings, uploaded to the machine, that is the driving force of what is manipulating me; the codebase only provides a set of game-rules through which other human beings are incentivized to apply their creative effort.

The horror of big social network platforms is not to be found in “technology” or “capitalism,” it is to be found in what we have become. Capitalism is only the name of that which aggregates from the raw reality of what we really want, of what we really do. The solution is to desire differently. Desire is amenable to updating and collective organizing, at least to a degree, which cannot be said of advanced capitalism.

We must get to work, with icy discipline, creating systems to extract humans from the machine, which means to produce human relationships from what we do have in abundance: data. Human relationships are no longer given to anyone by default, so if you want them you must produce them through engineered systems, or else pay someone who can engineer them for you.

As an aside, “independent content creators” are somewhat misleadingly named; perhaps they are primarily community engineers. Truly independent creative effort, which successfully differentiates itself from the passively extracted “creative effort” of social media sheeple, is like a lightning rod that organizes around itself other like-minded humans looking for an exit from the machine. But of course, the independent community is its own machine, and successful “content creators” are essentially disciplined entrepreneurs running often rather sophisticated systems.

We should seek to build independent systems that are even more aggressively inhuman than big social network platforms — because they hack desire with even more precision — but they should output relationships and experiences that are far more authentically human than anything else currently available. And they should be able to do this at scale. More artificial intelligence, more automation, more precisely optimized processes, but engineered by individuals and small-groups against, rather than for, the pseudo-human web.

The Optimal Podcasting Process for Indie Thinkers: Automate and Proliferate

Here is the podcasting process I’ve developed over nearly 2 years of iteration. It’s not perfect, and it’s not for everyone, but for many indie thinkers I think this is the best system. Certainly better than any other piece of “how to run a podcast” content I’ve yet to encounter.

This is intended to be directly useful to at least some of you, but I’d also love to hear questions, comments, critiques, or specific requests for additional explanation/instruction. I will probably build this out in some way.

I just listened to the a16z meta-podcast on how they run their podcast. I was struck by how — though filled with strategic insight — their entire framework and all of their advice was totally useless for individual thinkers/makers/creators bootstrapping a podcast as one part of a socio-technical production system. The main reason their strategic framework is useless for people like us is that it assumes a huge production budget! If you have the money to pay a team of editors, their advice seems great. But what if you have no budget at all, and hardly enough time to produce one podcast every week? And not to mention, if you’re interested in obscure intellectual stuff that doesn’t lure anyone with dreams of great wealth, like a startup podcast does?

That’s the strategic challenge I’ve been trying to solve for the past 2 years. After so much iteration, it’s about time I share the framework I’ve developed. Then I’ll explain in detail the tools and workflows I use to run my podcast in line with this framework.

The framework: Automate+Proliferate

In podcast system design, there is a tradeoff between quality and quantity. Within a given period of time, a fixed supply of labor power, the more effort you allocate to improving quality, the fewer podcasts you can create and publish.

The main hypothesis at the core of my system is that creative thinkers and makers with modest audiences and little funding should heavily favor quantity over quality. Given how many thinkers and makers I’ve met who seem very concerned about their podcasts’ quality — and, at the same time, fail to deliver volume consistently — I’ve come to realize that my system is very far from obvious. So let me explain the rationale and give you the concrete details of my own system.

The diminishing marginal returns of audio quality

Assume that audio production quality (including audible features but also substantive content density, which is an editing artifact) can be understood as a distribution, such that an unedited recording of my marijuana-hazed ramblings with an analogue tape recorder in a busy nightclub produces a podcast in the zero percentile of production quality. Basic consumer technology is now good enough that nearly any podcast recorded by anyone, in any empty room of their house, with any digital technology lying around, with no editing, would already be somewhere around the 60th percentile.

Professional podcast producers differentiate themselves by moving from the 80th-90th percentiles of production quality to the 95th-99th. This makes sense if you already have money and a substantial audience to start with. But you have to understand diminishing marginal returns. The value derived by moving from the 80th percentile of production quality to the 95th is much less than moving from the lowest percentile to the 60th percentile. This is one of the key facts undergirding the logic of my system.

My theory here is mostly based on my observation of other projects and my own trials and errors iterating my own system. The only data I have to support my theory come from my own results. My podcast is not huge but for a solo podcast about my own fringe ideas and random friends on the internet, with no clear branding or particular value proposition or even a coherent tagline, it punches far above what you would predict by listening to its audio quality. (~80th percentile globally, or more than 1000 downloads per episode on average.) Regardless, my theory is speculative and I could be wrong, so take or leave my suggestions as you see fit.

General principles to Automate+Proliferate

As much as possible, develop a technology stack to optimize for volume, consistency, and quantity of outputs, but merely satisfice for everything else (doing the best you can with the least amount of effort). When it comes to preparation, editing, and promotion, first automate as much as possible; then, whatever can’t be automated, reduce to the easiest possible heuristics and decision rules. I keep the latter on index cards.

The basic rationale is that you don’t have the time or money to start with really high quality. If you follow the workflows of professional podcasters, you’ll bankrupt yourself temporally and financially before you ever get off the ground. On the other hand, quantity can be used to compensate for the quality you can’t afford. At least in the short run. If you follow my framework to produce one episode every week for 100 weeks, you might have the results of someone who produced one really high-quality episode every week for 50 weeks. If you can get your automations humming really nicely, maybe you can achieve the same result with 2 episodes per week over 50 weeks. To be clear, these particular numbers are arbitrary, I’m just using them to illustrate the idea.

A few people will eventually complain about the production quality here and there, but it’s surprisingly advantageous to have a few things for people to complain about! Think of it as a strategically placed tripwire, which alerts you when you have your first listener who cares… Also, something I learned in practice (I promise I’m not clever enough to have strategized this in advance): The low production quality will become a natural and reasonable hook if and when you decide to test the waters of patronage. “You want better quality? Here’s how you can help me deliver it!” In one way or another, as you gain an audience, you can gradually invest more in quality.

By this point, you might be wondering how I’ve setup my tools and workflows to Automate+Proliferate. Here’s my system, concretely.

Tools, sequences, and workflows

TLDR:

  • Livestream podcast on Youtube
  • Download audio track of the livestream
  • Automatic editing and uploading with Auphonic
  • Automated syndications via Libsyn
  • Automated distribution with Zapier

Recording on Youtube

First, by recording my podcasts via Youtube livestream, and then posting the audio to the normal podcast feed, I build my audience on two platforms with no extra labor. It limits my editing options, but really it justifies my podcast’s lack of editing and manages my audience’s expectation. You have to be creative piecing together such non-obvious complementarities, to make a system that works for you and your brand. My podcast listeners get that I record first on Youtube, because I tell them, so the imperfect audio is not as upsetting as it might be. “It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just that my podcast is recorded live so editing is not an option!” Also, people who listen to stuff on Youtube and people who listen to stuff on their podcast app — these are totally different people, I’ve come to believe. So I’m pretty confident this system-design choice really has built me two audiences for the price of one, rather than just splitting one audience into two locations.

After a livestream is done, I download the audio using an app called Clipgrab. (None of the online, in-browser utilities can robustly handle long videos, I’ve found).

Editing and posting with Auphonic

Then I upload the audio to Auphonic, which is an automated podcast editing service (paid subscription). It doesn’t make my Youtube audio sound like Serial, but it ensures that the speakers are roughly similar in volume, that all podcasts are set to one common volume level (industry standard -16db), and that any particularly bad background noises are dampened. The honest truth is I am not certain that Auphonic has delivered a tangibly improved listening experience, as I never noticed a major uptick in positive feedback when I started using it, but I think it does! At the very least, it eases my conscience knowing that I’m doing my honest best to deliver listenable audio, within my constraints. But an equally valuable aspect of Auphonic is that it helps you automate a whole bunch of other tasks in the podcast-uploading process. This is why it’s definitely worth the price. You can upload intros and outros and have Auphonic automatically add them to the edited audio track before it’s uploaded to your podcast host (also done by Auphonic). You can upload templates for your podcast show notes. You can export to multiple destinations, all at once. You can also generate a bunch of formats, including transcripts via AWS or Google Cloud. (Though I stopped doing these because I wager that the machine learning will be way better one or two years from now; I’ll transcribe all my podcasts then!).

You can have Auphonic publish immediately on Libsyn, or you can just have it push to Libsyn — and you can publish or schedule it later. I do the latter. I also have it push to my Google Drive.

Aside on patron delivery

Once it gets edited and pushed by Auphonic, I have Zapier automations that will push it to a private RSS feed reserved just for my patrons. That seems to work robustly and I was quite pleased with my time-saving cleverness, except that I eventually started manually creating Patreon audio posts anyway. That way patrons get an automatic email (I want them to know I’m hustling, in case they neglected to subscribe to the private feed I gave them) and also it gives me a regular flow of Patreon-branded items to share on social media (I shill for patrons much less than average, so I have to do something; sharing a link to something I posted on Patreon seems like the least offensive way to run some minimal, recurring “promotion” for patronage).

Mostly automated publishing, syndicating, and promoting (Libsyn, WordPress, Overcast, Zapier)

After I post a quick audio post to Patreon, I will schedule its release on Libsyn. Within Libsyn, all new published podcasts are automatically syndicated as blog posts on my WordPress site. I have an automation that will post a tweet for every new blog post. I have automations that add all new blog posts into a particular text file on Dropbox, as styled HTML links, such that I can copy and paste each item into my Friday morning newsletters. No writing on my part is required; metadata from the WordPress post is arranged by the automation to provide written context for the link.

Once it goes live on Libsyn, if there are particularly good moments, I might use the Overcast app on iOS to create some clips and share them to Twitter. (If I’m busy, I tend to neglect this step. Not sure if this is wise or not.) This is a really nice and convenient functionality, and the clips get a lot of listens on Twitter generally. I am not sure to what degree this clip sharing drives podcast subscribers. Podcast subscriptions and downloads are metrics that I have not yet given much attention to, honestly, in the larger scheme of my system. Getting too concerned with these metrics and specific conversion rates would require me to start running proper statistical models, which — trust me — I look forward to doing. But at my current stage, it would be vanity (similar to optimizing for quality). There are still obvious, lower-hanging fruits for me to optimize, and I’m not yet big enough that these kinds of analyses would be worth the labor. Maybe soon though!

For some time, I would post podcasts to relevant subreddits on Reddit but I stopped doing that. In part, it felt kind of spammy and somewhat egotistical to post my own podcasts. A few of my podcasts were shared by other people to subreddits, so after I saw that, I think I stopped sharing myself because I was hoping my fanbase would eventually start doing that all the time. I don’t think this has really happened. Sad. I’m agnostic about whether posting to subreddits on your own behalf is worth it. At the very beginning it’s probably worth it, beggars can’t be choosers.

I also have a Zapier automation that pushes a link to the podcast’s blog post on my Discord server.

Operations management

I track all my podcasts, at each stage of this process, in Airtable with a Kanban view. So I can see the whole system as a pipeline. This helps me ensure that the flow of the whole system is on track. The stages in my table are:

  • Need to invite
  • Youtube done
  • Patreon posted
  • Libsyn scheduled

Conclusion

That’s pretty much it. Maximum bang (of volume, consistency, and distribution) for the buck (of my own time and effort). I’m able to do one per week (most of the time) and there have been weeks I’ve done two, even while doing lots of other stuff. My audience grows, modestly but effortlessly. As I said at the beginning, I’m now in the 80th percentile globally, according to the data I’ve seen. If you want to be a fancy professional podcaster, get some money and hire a professional audio engineer. If you don’t have money and just want to pursue disinterested intellectual interests, develop your ideas, make friends, and slowly build a modest but nonetheless real audience, consider using my framework. Let me know if you do!

The content of this website is licensed under a CREATIVE COMMONS ATTRIBUTION 4.0 INTERNATIONAL LICENSE. The Privacy Policy can be found here. This site participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.