The Shadow Editors of Substack
A small army of underpaid editors is quietly lurking behind the scenes of the newsletter platform dedicated to ‘writer autonomy’
When Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie talks about the email newsletter platform, he focuses on the writers, boasting how its eye-popping, six-figure contracts are about securing “writer autonomy” and freeing them from pesky gatekeepers. Substack does not require, nor even particularly encourage, writers on its platform to work with an editor. The company made a name in journalism circles by offering controversial, editor-allergic writers like Glenn Greenwald a place for their unfiltered thoughts to reach the masses. But as the service has grown and added more writers, the number of editors at work behind the scenes is steadily expanding.
Some editors are contracted by Substack as part of its centralized support services, including “healthcare, personal finance, editing, distribution, design, and coworking spaces.” (Yes, it would appear they have just invented… the newsroom.) Others are being approached by writers who’ve signed one-year contracts and are paying them out of their advances.
Substack’s generally hush-hush approach to editing also extended to the editors who spoke to The Fine Print, none of whom wanted to be named. While they have not been public about their Substack employment, they said they aren’t prohibited from listing it on their resumes.
While some Substack writers have quit full-time jobs in journalism to devote their full attention to newsletters, editing for Substack is not particularly well-paying. One editor being paid directly by Substack said he was offered $75 per hour with a maximum of 12 hours of work a month per newsletter (or $900), which he believes, based on what he’s heard from other editors, is the top rate Substack is paying.
Another editor hired by several Substack writers estimates she makes about $1,000 a month on average and is capped at $2,000. The kind of editorial work they do is largely determined by the writers themselves. Some want a full range of services, from editorial development to line edits, and others just want a single pass from a second set of eyes before their words go out to the public.
Most of these shadow editors are simply using it as another small scrap in the attempt to cobble together a living as freelancers — though some are quietly moonlighting while holding staff jobs at prestigious publications. (For these clandestine after-hours editors, a potentially awkward wrinkle: What to do if they have to edit a story about Substack at their day job and have to recuse themselves?)
So it should be no surprise that the loyalty of Substack editors, it would appear, lies more with individual writers than with the Silicon Valley company valued at $650 million. An editor who came on to help out a writer friend said he enjoyed watching the company squirm when they came under fire for welcoming writers with a history of anti-trans rhetoric onto the platform. “[They did] these tortured gymnastics to try and deny that they were a newsroom with anybody making editorial decisions,” he said. “Meanwhile, I’m hearing about this editing stable.”
As long as the newsletter content remains breezy and subjective, the job of the editor does, too. The $1,000 per month editor said she has lost some writer clients after they decided her light touch edits weren’t worth the dent in their own paychecks. But the $75 per hour editor said he worries what will happen if his writer comes to him with a juicy, hard-hitting scoop. Writers whose subject matter makes them vulnerable to frivolous lawsuits are encouraged to apply for the “Substack Defender” program, which entitles them to up to $1 million in legal fees (on a case-by-case basis at Substack’s discretion).
The same protections are not afforded to their editors. An indemnification clause in the standard editor contract, reviewed by The Fine Print, was part of the reason one editor turned down the gig: “To the fullest extent allowed by applicable law, the Editor agrees to indemnify and hold Substack, its affiliates, officers, agents, employees, and partners harmless from and against any and all claims, liabilities, damages (actual and consequential), losses and expenses (including attorneys’ fees) arising from or in any way related to the Editor’s acts or omissions under this Agreement.”
Without the prestige, pay, protection, or camaraderie of a newsroom editing job, some of Substack’s editing contractors are asking themselves if it’s all worth it. They say their writers are too. “The people I work with are tired,” says the $1,000 per month editor, who works on several newsletters at any given time. “Unless you’re someone who lives, eats, breathes this, it is exhausting to do this level of output… Even if [the writers are] doing well and they’re liking it, they’re not often able to leverage a big enough audience to make it worth their while.”
While the rest of the industry waits with bated breath to see what happens when the first batch of Substack’s famous one-year advances expire, this editor isn’t optimistic. “I think there’s gonna be a drop-off,” she said. I think people are just taking the money, and then they’ll take the money somewhere else.”