I’ve been thinking a bit about the piece I wrote last week about Substack, how harsh it was, and why I think I’m so strongly vocal about the platform approach that they lean on.
In some ways, it’s great that Substack has made so much of this process easy for so many people. In others, I’ve had so much experience working outside of a closed system, to my own beat, that I think it’d almost be giving in to embrace it at this point.
There is ultimately a point at which criticism becomes less about what you’re criticizing and more about why you’re criticizing it.
And I think when it comes down to it, my concern is the open internet. With the newsletter trend, we got so close to something that could be driven by a platform-free approach, that in its purest form could work without any influence from Google or Amazon or Apple or Facebook (never Meta) or Microsoft.
(Of course, if you take the layers off, it looks a bit less pure: Amazon Web Services manages a lot of email that goes through email services run by Apple, Google, and Microsoft, on ecosystems fostered by those three companies. Facebook just heavily competes with it, runs an also-ran newsletter platform of its own, and is where we run the groups where we talk about newsletters.)
It’s with that in mind that I worry about how close we got to the edge of having one small piece of the open internet as creators, and I genuinely see Substack making moves to expand beyond its network of newsletters as really endangering what has been built so far. It introduces the potential that newsletter authors might have to give up significant chunks of their revenue to Apple and Google just because the venue has changed.
But I do want to be careful to highlight that what Substack has actually created is really impressive. In five years, the company has basically helped to reinvent digital publishing as something that is creator-driven for the first time in a while, and they did so while putting the business model first.
It’s at this point that I mention Nathan Baschez’s great piece on the ideological evolution of Substack—something he knows well, because he was one of the company’s first employees, and ended up later starting another publishing company, called Every. (I should note that I knew Nathan before he worked for Substack and it’s been great watching his career evolve. Also, like me, he’s a Michigan State grad.) As he noted in one part of the piece, the very thing I didn’t like about Substack at first—the lack of customization—was a feature, rather than a bug, intended to make the platform friendly to subscriptions:
The first thing they’ve done is make sure as many readers as possible are aware that they’re using Substack. When your login information and credit card is stored, and the sites all look pretty similar and function the same way, it reduces the friction of signing up and paying for new newsletters. This is why from the beginning it’s been so important to Substack to limit the level of customization possible within their CMS.
This might seem pretty small and trivial of a thing to base a network effect on, but it might work. Substack has said readers are 2.5x more likely to become a paying subscriber to one Substack newsletter if they’re already a paying subscriber to another. I’m sure most of this is attributable to the fact that these readers are the type of people to buy paid newsletter subscriptions at all (regardless if on Substack or elsewhere) but I’m sure it also helps a bit that their credit card info is in there and they know and trust the system.
This is a key distinction, even if I, personally don’t love the idea of losing customization, as a creator.
The thing I keep thinking about, and something I discussed on Twitter the other night, is the fact that the ecosystem effects of something like Substack haven’t actually been properly tested on the open internet. And what I mean by that is that the pre-subscription model for online writing—blogging, as we called it—was driven harshly by advertising (and bad advertising that didn’t respect creators or audiences), and not by an ecosystem of services that offer a helping hand in becoming a full-time publisher, which I think is secretly Substack’s value add, more than any app or platform.
All of this is to say that my disagreement about where they’re at and what they’ve become is not because I want to hate on the big player. It’s a difference of opinion, and I hope to see other publishing tools take another path, one focused on services and building out a broader ecosystem of services that makes it easier for writers to actually focus on the creative elements of their work.
So to clear the air—I don’t just want to be the guy who hates on Substack all the time. I do want to see what a non-platform version of their model might look like, because it might be surprising how well it works.
A chumbox-free open internet would be great for publishers.
Time limit given ⏲: 30 minutes
Time left on clock ⏲: alarm goes off, sigh; twice in a week!