Can You Really Make Money Writing on Substack? (May Result in Orgasm)

May 15, 2023

The answer may give you an actual orgasm—especially if you’re a writer

I have been investigating Substack because it’s my job to experiment with and examine the hottest new trends for turning your creativity into a career you can do from anywhere in the world, and Substack fits the bill…for some.

Oooo, a cliffhanger! You gotta love a good cliffhanger.

On Substack, you can publish a newsletter without even knowing your name, your shoe size, or your salami preference, and that’s a big part of its appeal. (My salami preference is as spicy as a human GI tract can handle.) No need to figure out email marketing systems, websites, and trying to find readers alone in a silo; Substack is like a social media network for newsletters, and writing here feels like blogging did in the 2010s: full of possibility.

The mission of Substack is to get writers paid—at least, that’s their (genius) public messaging—so the focus is all about paid subscriptions. You’re encouraged at every turn to turn on a paid subscription, not only as an exercise in self-worth, but because that’s how Substack earns money: they take a 10% cut, which is obviously the real mission: create a profitable company. (And rightfully so.)

I want to take a minute to highlight how clever this positioning is. Instead of saying, “Hey, come write on our platform, and we’ll take 10% of your profits, hardy, harrrr harrrrr” evil mustache twirl they said something else.

“We’re on a mission to get writers paid for their writing. You get 90%—we just take a small fee for our fearless efforts.”

And that, my friend, is the beauty of smart messaging. Turns out, they saw an opportunity to shape a narrative, one where writers could be heroes again.

(Contrast this with what happened when Gumroad said they were going to take a 10% cut: creators revolted. But Substack’s writers seem pleased to pay—grateful to do so, in fact. That just goes to show: if you’re not telling the right story, you’re not going to be in business.)

To be honest? I love what Substack is creating. The concept is warm and fuzzy. It brings back a nostalgia for the early blogging days, when life was easier, ideas mattered, and not everything was a beauty contest requiring a white marble kitchen in the background and a golden retriever named Iris. The idea that a writer could simply write again, and not feel like an out-of-touch nob fossil trying to be current on social media, is the real brilliance behind Substack: the timing is perfect. It’s given generations of writers the chance to feel relevant again—here, long-form writing isn’t passé, it’s hip! And, while platforms such as Medium might also promote long-form writing, writing on Medium feels like you’re in competition with other writers, whereas writing on Substack feels like you’re on a team. Medium’s whole “get paid based on how many minutes someone reads” is a popularity contest crapshoot, like you’re a peon merely hoping for a scrap of Medium’s pie. With Substack, on the other hand, you feel like you’re in control: you can charge what you want for your writing, and we’ll give you a network of readers.

“Publishers,” as they’re called on Substack, champion one another in a way I haven’t seen in some time. There’s this sense that everyone’s in it together, and the new “Notes” feature only further highlights the effect. Notes is like an internal Twitter for Substack users, but the neatest way it’s being used is for highlighting sections of other people’s writing you like and then “re-stacking” it with commentary. Turns out, this is lovely, because everyone’s promoting everyone else’s writing. In many ways, Substack feels very much like a community of writers, and there’s real joy in that. It’s like being in a secret club. And, Substack writers—excuse me, publishers—love it.

Maybe that’s because so many traditional journalists have figured out that you don’t need to beg big media outlets to let you write a column, or give you a salary, or deal with the bureaucratic nonsense that comes with having to please advertisers: you can just come and write. And with the Substack model, you can get paid.

Of course, that’s not really new: paid newsletters have existed forever, but you had to know how to internet. I ran my first paid newsletter in the ancient year of 2011, back when my neck was far less wrinkly, and charged $97/month for proprietary industry information and strategy. That’s far more than the average Substack publisher, who is charging $5/month. Sometimes $8/month. Sometimes $10/month. Rarely over $15/month. But, that’s because the way Substack thinks about paid subscriptions is different: they’re actively trying to overcome what they call “the Patreon effect” where writers and creators feel like they need to give up a kidney and all sorts of special perks to paid subscribers, and instead, just let the writing itself be valuable. That the writing makes the money worth it.

Many Substack publishers are, of course, rallying for this:

“Yes, turn on paid subscriptions! We must normalize this! This is how writing will become valued!”

I’ve seen this same call-to-arms numerous times in my few short weeks experimenting with the platform. The hope is, of course, that the cultural shift toward paid subscriptions for everything from Netflix to vitamins to avocados to The New York Times will carry over into the writing world; that independent writers shouldn’t “write for free”; that you’d pay for a book, and this is no different.

These three little words keep ringing in my head: “write for free.”

That’s how you know someone’s coming from traditional media.

The thing is, no one on the internet writes for free. And this, right here, is where the confusion occurs.

There is writing.

And there is content.

Much of the writing you see online today—including most newsletters—is content. That is, it’s writing designed to do a job: get leads, get subscribers, get fans, sell your work. (Or sell someone else’s work in the form of partnerships or ads.) The work being sold creates the financial reward, while the writing is the vehicle to get there.

Under this model, the writing isn’t actually free at all: it’s a cost of doing business. But, when done correctly, that business should pay multiple dividends in return. That’s the point of content: to act as a catalyst.

What’s interesting is this is how all newspapers, magazines, and media outlets have always worked: the writing has always been a vehicle for selling advertising, and now subscriptions. Traditional journalists got paid a salary to write things in order that the publication could sell things. That’s the business model.

So now what we have is a lot of traditional journalists looking to start writing independently, but they don’t have a business model behind their writing. They’ve just got their writing, but no one to pay them for it. They don’t see themselves as miniature media empires; they see themselves as writers without a home.

This is where Substack swooped in at the perfect time. They essentially said “it’s okay you don’t have a business model behind your writing; we’ll get you paid for the writing itself.” So, Substack works because it provides a place where writers and consumers can connect directly.

The question: Is It Profitable?

Well, yes—and no, depending on what you’re comparing it to.

Consider the average online course or program, which today sells for anywhere between $300 – $3,000.

Then consider the $5/month Substack model.

In both cases, a creator has to convert that buyer with a sale—except one person makes $5, and the other person makes $500+.

From that perspective, writing on Substack—compared with creating and selling your own intellectual property—is the harder way to do things. It means you need volume. It means you need to overcome churn. It means you need to keep writing in perpetuity, because you are the product, not your IP.

But, there’s still a certain romance to it all, isn’t there? Instead of having to become an entrepreneur, you can just do what you do best: write. That’s the dream of many, and it’s a dream Substack is working on fulfilling.

Of course, you still need to build an audience. The idea is that you’ll find one on Substack, but the question remains: how easy is this, really?

  • Alex Dobrenko (Both Are True), a humor writer, has been working on his Substack for 14 months and has just recently hit 111 paying subscribers, each paying $5.23/month, which comes out to $580.53 a month or $6,966 a year. He didn’t have an audience when he started, and that’s where he’s at.
  • On the other hand, Emma Gannon (The Hyphen by Emma Gannon ), a British author, imported her Mailchimp subscribers from the past six years, so after a year on Substack, she’s now got 21,000 free subscribers, and approximately 550 paid subscribers at $8.22/month. She states in this article she’s earning about $55,000 a year from Substack right now. She also states that 10% of her free subscribers are now coming from the Substack network, so a good 2,100 people came organically.
  • And then you’ve got the #1 paid publication on Substack Letters from an American, with over 1,100,000 subscribers, earning an implied minimum of $5,000,000 annually. (It’s written by a history professor at Boston College.) You can see other top-ranking Substacks and their implied minimum earnings here, which dip into the millions.

This is all very good, and there seems to be a real opportunity if you’re keen to take your writing seriously. One of the biggest challenges with Substack, however, is simply this: subscription businesses are hard, and it’s harder when you don’t know how to sell your work.

For example, I’ve seen numerous calls for Substack to introduce a “donate” button. There’s nothing that screams desperation like a donate button. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but people on the internet don’t push donate buttons unless there’s a tragedy, and hopefully your writing is not. Even if one poor soul does out of pity, it’s not going to provide a real, sustainable income. This is not how people on the internet transact. People will pay for something, but they will not give you something. Therefore, I’d say this reduces your perceived authority; everytime I see a donate button, I assume this person has no experience in business.

Then there’s the equally cringey concept of “tips.” This is juvenile approach to selling your work—i.e. the approach where you sheepishly put up a button and don’t actually ask anyone to buy it, because you are embarrassed at the idea of selling. Donations and tips belong in the same place: at high school car washes and strip clubs. Neither one of these are going to support your income the way you wish they would. (Or even buy you a sandwich.)

I’ve even seen folks calling for the ability to let readers just purchase “one-off access” to only one post. This just goes to show how (a) naive non-internet people are and (b) how uncomfortable writers are with asking anyone to value their writing in the first place, even if Substack is begging you to. There’s this magical thinking that occurs where, in some far-off world, strangers are so riveted by your opening paragraph, they’re going to whip out their credit card and pay—what, $1?—for the privilege of reading the rest. Then, they’re going to do it again on your next article, like they are at the slots. They can’t get enough, so eventually they upgrade to a full $5/month subscription: THE GLORY.

Of course, this fails to account for human buying behavior, which is just to hit the paywall and click off the thing and go eat a burrito instead, but it also fails to account for the psychological pain of purchase. Whether you’re spending $1 or $1,000, there’s friction there, and spending any amount of money makes us feel things. Asking people to pay over and over again to unlock your latest magnum opus is a terrible idea—not to mention, it circumvents Substacks entire business model, i.e. subscriptions.

In order for the Substack business model to work, it needs to be subscription based. And, it also needs writers who aren’t afraid to convince their audience to pay. And it needs business minds to contemplate what things are worth paying for. And it needs marketing minds to position that writing as something that’s worth paying for. And it needs consistency, consistency, consistency, and an unwavering commitment to your ideas (one of the hardest things). Honestly, Substack is betting its entire business model on writers being able to do all of this effectively. After all, a platform full of forgettable newsletters with poor value propositions written by writers who don’t believe in themselves and only show up once in a while isn’t going to make anyone any money.

So, this is the real test of whether or not you can be successful with Substack: can you show up for yourself and convince other people to show up for you?

On that note, Substack could also do with some more powerful sales tools that introduce the life-changing magic of what internet people know: that you must make strong offers to your audience, rather than limp, half-hearted two-line blurbs hidden at the bottom of an email asking bashfully for a reader to upgrade. (Though the new “Boost” feature looks promising.) Unfortunately, limp, shamefaced calls-to-action are what most Substack writers do, because they’re just getting their sea legs, and they’re not interneters who are used to selling their work. And everyone knows that beginners are always the worst about promoting themselves: they feel like they’re bothering people, when in reality what they’re really doing is delivering even more joy to the very same subscribers who signed up for it in the first place. Like I say in my book, even Tom Cruise needs to show up and promote his movies.

Substack is a wunderkind, mostly because of the way it’s championing writers and making writing cool again. This alone is worth the price of admission. There are a few drawbacks, however, including the never-ending hamster wheel you’re potentially putting yourself on (though there is a “pause billing” option for when you need a vacation), and the more profitable digital business models you may be forfeiting by investing most of your energy here, but if you’re a writer and you love to write and want to return to a simpler time? I gotta say, the air feels different over here. You can be yourself online in a way you haven’t been able to for a really long time. You can be real. You can be silly. You can be thoughtful. You can be you. You can write a Substack about your weird, favorite hobbies and passions without having to always tie it back to “tangible takeaways”—a trap that many interneters find themselves in. You can write the things you’re interested in, and you can fall in love with writing again. You can start fresh. You can do something new. And you can do it all while earning a modern income from anywhere in the world—so long as you have the guts to champion your own ideas.

And, of course, turn on “paid.”

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