What Is Substack For?
As the first wave of Substack Pro deals expire, which writers thrive on the email newsletter platform and which ones struggle is coming into focus
For most startups, figuring out what they are for is something that emerges over time. Bravo started out as a premium cable channel for “film and the performing arts” before morphing into the home of real housewives. eBay was a place to sell Pez dispensers, Amazon was for buying printed books, and Facebook allowed Ivy Leaguers to appraise their classmates. Part of the process of products growing and maturing is settling into new uses. When Substack launched in 2017, as Anna Wiener wrote in The New Yorker, it had a mishmash of purposes, from saving a crumbling journalism industry to enabling “journalist autonomy” to countering “the social-media diet” to allowing people who type good things to “get rich.” Recently, as Substack has been embroiled in controversy about the preponderance of anti-vaxxers on its lists of most-read newsletter writers, the founders have put the “defense of free speech” at the core of its mission.
But there’s another way to answer this question: How are the writers who Substack lured onto their platform with “Substack Pro” deals faring now that some first-year advances are paid out, and the only way to make money going forward is to sell subscriptions? For a while last year, Substack had the media industry rapt as it inked a string of Substack Pro deals, some with advances reportedly exceeding $200,000, including a high-profile slate of journalists who left well-funded publications like The New York Times and Vox Media along with historians, bloggers, and Salmon Rushdie. Under the terms of the agreement, Pro writers would be treated as investments. While they were drawing the advance in the first year, Substack would keep 85 percent of any subscription revenues they generated. After a year passes, the terms flip: the guaranteed payment ends, and writers receive 90 percent of their subscription revenue, while 10 percent is retained by Substack (the same terms as anyone else who signs up without a Substack Pro deal).
Substack has never made its Pro selection criteria explicit. “With Substack Pro,” wrote co-founder Hamish McKenzie in a post about the program in March 2021, “we aim to host a broad array of voices because we believe a diversity of thought is essential to healthy discourse.” He added, “We like this structure because, while some who get these deals are already well off, it gives financially constrained writers the ability to start building a sustainable enterprise.” Now, with the first year of the first Pro deals starting to expire, the question is: who’s well off and who’s struggling to build a sustainable enterprise?
“I don’t think I would have started a newsletter had Substack not approached me,” said Alexis Coe, who publishes researched pieces centered mainly on presidential history, for her newsletter “Study Marry Kill.” Her Pro deal lapsed this month, and she said, “The experience was valuable, but it will look very different now that the Pro deal is over.” Substack won’t be her primary income. “I write books people can buy,” she said. “There are lots of other ways to support me.” For Coe, as a public historian, Substack is one of many ways to reach an audience, which is why she doesn’t plan to focus on selling subscriptions. To replace her advance and let her focus on her free list, she is bringing aboard a sponsor who she said contacted her toward the end of her Pro deal. “I would like to communicate my ideas and have them be accessible to everyone,” she said.
A Substack spokesperson said in a statement that “the Substack Pro program has succeeded by allowing writers who otherwise couldn’t take the financial risk of going independent to create their own publications, own their work, and control the relationship with their audience.”
All of the Pro writers The Fine Print spoke with appreciate their Pro advances, saying they have allowed them to write independently, either as their sole source of income or a substantial chunk of it. They also suggested that the writers most likely to stick with Substack after the first-year advances run out will be the ones who resemble those at the top of its current leaderboards, such as Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Matt Yglesias, and Bari Weiss, who draw readers in with unfiltered, opinionated work, usually pegged to something in the current news cycle. While Substack is known for encouraging writer autonomy, Pro writers said the advice it gives for building up a paying subscription base tends to be very specific. There is a lot of emphasis on frequency, under the belief that the more often they send newsletters, the more paid subscribers they’ll get.
“I think you do get a better kind of readership if you publish continuously,” said another Pro writer, Lauren Wolfe, whose newsletter Chills, which she agreed to publish twice a week in her Substack Pro contract, offers a “behind-the-scenes look” at her own investigative journalism. Wolfe’s year of the Pro program is coming to an end this month. She told The Fine Print that though she plans to continue writing with Substack, her thousands of subscribers won’t allow her to live on her subscription proceeds alone, and she intends to take on other work. She said her experience with the Pro program has been largely positive, especially because her subject matter is relatively niche. “It’s valuable to have a space where I can explain [my journalism] to people,” she said. “And I don’t know where else I could do that.”
Still, the pressure to publish has proved taxing. “I’m someone who likes to report out my pieces and do longer stuff,” said Wolfe. “And to expect that twice a week has been rough. Now that the grant is wearing out, I’m having a harder time sticking to it. I’m noticing that it does affect my subscribers if I don’t publish a lot.” She’ll miss more than just the regular income. “I am crying inside,” Wolfe said of losing her editor, Thomas Ross, whose services Substack funded during her Pro deal. “He’s really just improved my writing remarkably, and gets the narrative stuff that I’m missing, and really shapes it.”
Substack Pro has been a boon, too, for Freddie deBoer, a longtime freelance writer and critic of establishment media who signed a deal for a $135,000 advance, paid out in installments, at the beginning of March 2021. deBoer often publishes pieces within hours of each other, rarely missing a day or two, and usually pegged to the trending topic of the moment: school closures, COVID measures, college admissions. The most popular edition of his newsletter so far carried the title, “Please Just Fucking Tell Me What Term I Am Allowed to Use for the Sweeping Social and Political Changes You Demand.” He said he’s pulled in about $210,000 in projected subscription revenue, a sum that he expects to increase before his deal is up. “It’s been a steady climb,” deBoer said. “I made a first year goal that I wanted to be realistic. And I crossed that threshold after six weeks.”
As a result, deBoer plans to continue with Substack, in part because the platform has offered him a stable if unconventional foothold in the writing world. “For me, it just made all the sense in the world to take the advance, given my lack of opportunity in the industry at that point,” deBoer said. “Substack has been very good to me. And I’m grateful for them, but it is a business for them. And it is for me as well.” deBoer said he had one-on-one drinks with McKenzie and found him to be “personally warm.” “I think that [Substack is] invested in my success,” he said. “Professionally speaking, they see me as the kind of person who they think would thrive on Substack, which is a writer who does not fit comfortably into some of the traditional roles in establishment media.”
Substack Pro seems to have worked best for those who resemble the type of writer most popular on the platform already: one who courts controversy and is comfortable churning out pieces on hot-button topics for an engaged group of readers. “No one writes for Substack – they write for their own publications,” wrote McKenzie in his introductory post last year. However, the kinds of content thriving on Substack have come under scrutiny lately.
On January 18, the UK extremism think tank Institute for Strategic Dialogue published a report headlined, “Why Anti-Vaxxers, QAnon Influencers and White Nationalists are Flocking to Substack.” Elise Thomas, an ISD analyst, wrote, “It should be concerning to Substack that their platform appears to be gaining a reputation as a safe haven for those banned from other platforms.” Another advocacy group, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, issued a report calculating that anti-vaxx newsletters, such as those written by Alex Berenson, who was banned from Twitter for spreading Covid misinformation, and Joseph Mercola, generate at least $2.5 million in revenue.
While Substack’s doors are open to all comers, at least among its most successful writers, there have been certain patterns. Greenwald, Weiss, and Andrew Sullivan all joined Substack after saying they no longer felt like they fit in at their prior outlets — The Intercept, The New York Times, and New York magazine, respectively. Shortly after Substack publicly announced its Substack Pro program, it faced an outcry and writer departures over anti-trans content. The company founders responded with a defense of free speech. “Of course, we are not comfortable with everything that is published on Substack,” they wrote. “We don’t endorse everything anyone says. But we endorse writer independence and autonomy. We endorse the free press.” They acknowledged that others might disagree with their position — “We recognize that this is not a neutral position” — including writers who remain free to use “other options — including from well-monied competitors who built the empires we are attempting to counter.”
Substack’s stance on anti-vaxxers has been similar, with the company founders resisting calls to remove misinformation from its platform. “As we face growing pressure to censor content published on Substack that to some seems dubious or objectionable, our answer remains the same,” they wrote in their statement. “We will defend free expression, and we will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation.” Substack’s head of communications, Lulu Cheng Meservey, made a similar argument on Twitter. “I read things on Substack all the time that I personally disagree with,” she wrote. “Open debate is not always comfortable. But neither, for that matter, is the sea.”
What Substack is for, exactly, may still be an open question. But this much is clear: it’s not for those who find its style of discourse and approach to publishing to be uncomfortable.