View Full Version : Publishing with Substack (monetized serialization or newsletter, alternative to Patreon)

05-03-2019, 08:38 PM
I just posted over in the Promotion section about how I've started an author advice column using Substack. (https://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?342042-Ask-an-Author-Advice-column-on-the-business-of-writing-and-publishing&p=10535619#post10535619) I'm super duper loving Substack as a platform so far, so I also thought I'd post here sharing a lot of experiences from the launch. I think it might be a great way to publish both nonfiction articles and serialized fiction... or just for an expanded author newsletter, if that works with your brand. Who knows, but I'll keep reporting back!

When I first decided I wanted to do an author advice column, first I looked at Patreon. Looked at deeply, created an account, created rewards tiers, got them critted, kept running into frustrating roadblocks of what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. I’d heard of Substack only a few weeks ago as a shiny new way of monetizing newsletters, and it intrigued me as something I was hearing people having great success on. But I don’t know how to get the word out about a newsletter, I thought...

But once I started looking into Substack, they appear to be able to do exactly what I want to be able to do.

Things that surprised me:

They also publish your free content to the web, quite beautifully, and all engineered to get people to sign up for the newsletter.
You can publish both free and paid content, with the paid content teased on the web and the free content free on the web, so you get search engine traffic and everything funnels toward getting people to subscribe.
People who sign up can then read all the paid content through the website, including anything in the archives they missed, not just paid content going forward. So you can tempt people with excerpts of prior articles that are locked.
They very strongly believe in the ethos of *paying for the writing* as the sole attraction, which, to me, is awesome. I didn’t actually want to do Patreon rewards tiers -- I want to put my effort into a side writing project where the articles themselves would be of value to people. Substack is much simpler than Patreon; people generally pay a monthly or yearly amount to get the newsletter ($5/month or $50/year is a pretty standard ask, and what I'm doing).

They have a very simple design on the web side which is both good and bad -- VERY fast and easy to set up, but also very little customization. Ideally I would have liked one or two more custom pages (other than the blog-like newsletter archive, they only have an About page). But it’s very sleek and has a nice design.

Payments are through Stripe, and you can set up the Stripe account right through the Substack dashboard, or link a pre-existing account.

It feels pretty easy for subscribers to sign up. Most confusing is how to subscribe to only the free content -- it looks like if you hit “subscribe” but then skip payment, and that’s how to get on the free list, but it’s not obvious. I dislike that bit of non-transparency but I can live with it.

I'll post more here about how I find it working as I go! I want to share enough in this thread that people can use it as “anatomy of a Substack launch” if they’re thinking of trying it themselves.

And if anyone wants to see my Substack and poke around to see what things look like, it's here: https://askanauthor.substack.com/

I am steadfastly not looking at my subscriber numbers yet (I only just started it), but I'll try to report on those periodically in this thread like people do with sales in some of the self-publishing diaries, so people can see how well what I'm doing is able to grow. :)

Has anybody else tried Substack? What did you think?

M. H. Lee
05-04-2019, 06:57 AM
Agent DongWon Song is using this, too, for his newsletter (https://publishingishard.substack.com/). I had subscribed, but it turns out there's a minimum amount of posts I expect to see if I'm paying for something so I unsubscribed after about a month. It's an interesting idea. I've thought about doing a Patreon re: AMS Ads because they change so fast that updating a book is pretty much impossible if I want to write anything else. Will be interested to see how this turns out for you.

05-04-2019, 07:48 AM
Yes, I talked to DongWon about his! I figured I'll need to post more than he does anyway, as he has more built-in cachet what with being an agent and all, lol. He did tell me the Substack people recommend two posts a week and 75%-ish paid content (versus 25%-ish free) for maximum success with their model. So that's what I'm trying for at first. I'm actually glad to hear you'd be looking more content because some other friends were advising me to cut it down because of the amount of work and I was also slightly concerned about inbox load, but I thought less than two per week seemed not enough to ask people to pay for, and now I feel vindicated for sticking to that, so thank you :roll:

Substack also recommends that you make your posts that are the biggest draws free posts, counter-intuitively, because they say that that's what draws people in and then they subscribe just to get a little more access to your brain. This I'm going to have a harder time with, because the posts that are the biggest draw are prooooobably going to be the posts that I'd be afraid would attract trolls/harassment (like diversity in writing) or are posts I myself want a tiny bit more privacy on, for all that privacy is an illusion on the internet (like money stuff). So I'll have to see how that goes. I'm thinking I might have to make a concerted effort to make more of the more "tempting" posts free as I'm trying to build a following? I'm guessing the way forward might be to try to aim for a few free posts that are shared around a lot. I'll let y'all know if that ends up working. Substack recommends aiming for signups rather than paid subscribers -- they say their experience is that about 10% of free signup-ers subscribe in general, so the best strategy is to aim for getting people on the free list and some percentage of those will subscribe. (I did a lot of research, ha! I keep remembering things.)

And M.H., you should totally do something on some platform for AMS ads. That's SUPER valuable info, I bet a lot of SPers would be all over that! If I were still self-publishing novels I would have been looking into AMS hard lately (and getting super frustrated, knowing myself as I do). So somewhere that walked me through would have been very tempting to sign up for!

Cobalt Jade
05-04-2019, 08:12 PM
This I'm going to have a harder time with, because the posts that are the biggest draw are prooooobably going to be the posts that I'd be afraid would attract trolls/harassment (like diversity in writing) or are posts I myself want a tiny bit more privacy on, for all that privacy is an illusion on the internet (like money stuff).

This makes me think. What would you do if you have a subscriber that completely trolled you and is paying for the privilege of doing so?

05-04-2019, 11:43 PM
This makes me think. What would you do if you have a subscriber that completely trolled you and is paying for the privilege of doing so?

That's a good question! I should see if there's a way to block a subscriber (and, obviously, also not accept their payment).

I could also see particular subscribers being a problem in other ways -- for example, I know Patreon has had a problem with people who subscribe only to content scrape and post the writing elsewhere. :(

Substack has been really good about answering questions, I'll see if I can find this out and report back!

05-09-2019, 11:23 PM
Interesting (to me) revelation on the $ side:

I have 5 subscribers so far, but 3 of those people paid for a year. So that's $160.

I've estimated that I need $200/month to make this at least minimally worth the time I'm putting into it, which is 40 subscribers. I figured I'd have to work up to that and be working at a "loss" for a while...

But because Substack offers yearly, and people seem to be going for it, I don't need to hustle up to 40 subscribers fast. I only need four new yearly subscribers per month.

Thinking about this as trying to build a handful of new subscribers per month rather than "I need to get to 40 fast" is so much more manageable! And, if it works, it will give me what I need to sustain the column right from the start.

In conclusion: The yearly sub thing is cool, and might make sustainability happen so much faster than if I waited for a monthly sub pool to build up!

Oh, and editing to add: I was just talking to a friend who's thinking about trying to use Substack for fiction. I know it's been done a little already -- I'm really interested to see people working that model for serialized fiction writing, and whether it goes well for them!

Cobalt Jade
05-10-2019, 08:45 PM
Yes, I am thinking of the same thing. I write in a genre that is not viable commercially - SFF adventure with LOTS of explicit sex, and the adventures revolve around sex and sexual situations. To self-publish and distribute on Amazon on similar sites would be winding up in the porn ghetto, but it's really too outre and finely crafted for that.

On the hand, a small erotica press, say NineStar, wouldn't want to touch it, because there's also flagrant abuse, deviancy, and violence that occurs and not enough romance. There's examination of sexual relationships, but romance arcs and lovey-dovey really aren't part of it.

So that particular niche (and love let's be frank) of mine is a very odd duck. This might be a solution.

05-12-2019, 01:10 AM
Cool! Someone else was just asking me about Substack's TOS in re: 18+ content -- I don't know the answer, but I hope they have no problem with it. Because yeah, I think this could be great for erotica writers. Give people a taste, and then they want more.... ;)