Why some authors are preferring Substack to trade publishers

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Introversion

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Interesting. I’d heard the name “Substack” but never followed up to see what it was about.

The newsletter platform has poached big names including Salman Rushdie along with a slew of comic book authors from DC and Marvel

The subscription newsletter platform Substack announced on Wednesday it had signed an exclusive deal with Salman Rushdie – but he is just the latest in a growing number of authors making the leap to write serialised fiction delivered straight to the inboxes of subscribers who pay a monthly fee.

Several comic book writers and artists have announced lucrative deals to provide exclusive content for the California-based company founded four years ago, in some cases eschewing contracts with Marvel and DC to do so.

Among the comics writers making the move is James Tynion IV, whose star is certainly in the ascendant, and who turned down a three-year contract writing Batman for DC in order to write for Substack.

Tynion, who was earlier this year named best writer in the comic industry “Oscars” the Eisner awards, has two series in development as TV shows, and scripts The Nice House on the Lake series for DC’s “mature readers” imprint Black Label, as well as penning Batman.

It’s the success of those creator-owned titles, in which he and the rest of the creative team retain the rights, that prompted him to turn his back on the caped crusader.

On his blog, Tynion wrote: “DC had presented me with a three-year renewal of my exclusive contract, with the intent of me working on Batman for the bulk of that time … And then I received another contract. The best I’ve ever been given in a decade as a professional comic book writer. A grant from Substack to create a new slate of original comic book properties directly on their platform, that my co-creators and I would own completely, with Substack taking none of the intellectual property rights, or even the publishing rights.”

Also signing up with Substack are Molly Knox Ostertag, Skottie Young and Scott Snyder. Marvel writers Saladin Ahmed (Ms Marvel) and Nick Spencer (Amazing Spider-Man) are also on board.

This differs from, say, creating content on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, through which many comic projects are financed and delivered straight to pledgers. Substack is paying advances to content creators. And that’s how they’re hoping to lure big-name prose fiction authors such as Rushdie to the model as well.

Lulu Cheng Meservey from Substack says the company calls this a “pro deal”, with advances on a sliding scale depending on a writer’s profile. She says: “We do have several authors in our sights who are currently traditionally published, and are proactively approaching writers we think would do well at Substack. Over the next couple of years you will see some very recognisable names.”

Other authors currently using Substack include Maggie Stiefvater, who publishes one exclusive fictional short story a month for paid subscribers, and music writer Zack O’Malley Greenburg who is serialising his book We Are All Musicians Now.

Substack takes between 10 and 15% of an author’s earnings from subscriptions, and offers editing, proofreading, art and design, and legal services as part of their packages.

While comics have a strong independent, DIY ethos, with prose writing there’s still a divide between traditional and self-publishing. Can Substack overcome what many see as a stigma attched to the latter?

“Substack is very liberating for authors,” says Meservey. “They can publish directly to their readers, they have total control, retain all their rights. We build a community around them so they can have direct contact with their readers. They can publish serially, just like Charles Dickens did.”
 
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lizmonster

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I subscribe to a couple of Substack newsletters. I also subscribe to a newsletter that's migrated from Substack to Ghost, because of the issues discussed in this article in NYMag:

But this was not the focus of last week’s Substack discourse. Rather, what roiled media Twitter was the revelation that Substack poached some of its big-name columnists by providing them with a guaranteed minimum income for their first year on the platform. This arrangement isn’t philanthropic. In exchange for guaranteeing Yglesias a base salary of $250,000, Substack reportedly required him to let the platform collect 85 percent of the gross subscription revenue his newsletter generated; had he declined this offer and accepted the standard terms of service available to all Substack users, the platform would have claimed only 10 percent of such revenue. Ultimately, opting for Substack’s star treatment will cost the columnist hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is not clear how many of Substack’s top writers secured similar deals, as the platform does not mandate such disclosure from all the writers it directly finances.

In a much-discussed Substack post, the journalist and fiction writer Annalee Newitz argued that this policy rendered the platform a “scam.” Specifically, Newitz contends that by secretly providing salaries to certain elite pundits, Substack is effectively scamming less-established journalists into thinking that newsletter writing is more remunerative than it actually is. (Newitz also argues that by withholding the names of these elite pundits, the platform is effectively maintaining a secret editorial policy that is contrary to journalistic ethics in principle, and harmful to trans people and cis women in practice. But this is a distinct argument that isn’t germane to my purposes here.)

TL;DR: Substack pays some high-profile writers a guaranteed wage, while everyone else picks up whatever subscription revenue they can.

The NYMag writer doesn't have a lot of sympathy for people who find that unfair. Their argument is that the guaranteed wage for many of these high-profile authors is actually less than what they'd make in subscriptions. Which doesn't really address Newitz's concerns at all.

I'm not sure what I think. The lack of transparency is bothersome. On the other hand...outside of that, it's kind of like plain ol' trade publishing, isn't it? Some people get robust backing; most people have to fend for themselves. But at least in trade pub it's easy to find out who's who.
 

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Listen to The Writing Life podcast with Elle Griffin (30JUL21) to get a great discussion of this point. If you work it right, you can make more by serializing your novel on Substack (or other media) than you would likely ever get via conventional publishing. (Some genres, like Romance and Horror, may be an exception to this rule of thumb.)

Sounds like you have to have some hustle in your make up to do this, but maybe it's for you.
 
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ChaseJxyz

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In the heyday of The Streaming Wars, Facebook did something similar, paying big companies like Buzzfeed a minimum $$$ to get people to stream live video to their platform. The idea was to poach from Twitch...did not go very far. The only livestreams people knew Facebook for were incidents like the Christchurch shooting. And people doing QVC-type LuLaRoe "shows." Microsoft's Twitch competitor was able to pay top streamers, literally, millions of dollars to switch...and the platform died out anyways. Only now people are (willingly) leaving Twitch for YouTube (gaming) because of Twitch's terrible policies, and at least everyone already goes on YouTube all day every day.

I mean, any new platform has to pay people to join it in order to give users a reason to check it out, so that in itself isn't NEW. Or inherently bad. Hulu paid over $1 M per episode of Seinfeld when it first launched (and quite a while before it started making its own, exclusive content). It is a gamble, do you want a guaranteed income of $X or hope the platform takes off and make Y%?
 
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Fuchsia Groan

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This sounds to me like something that would only pay off for authors who have already become big names via trade publishing, comics, social media, or whatever. Or am I missing something? Do people actually browse Substack looking for fiction the way they would browse Amazon or fanfic sites?

I’ve tried serializing recently and discovered I really enjoy the challenge of shaping a story that way, but I don’t expect to be paid for it. It’s a labor of love and a way to earn a small but committed readership, something I haven’t found with my trade books.
 

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I subscribe to a couple of Substack newsletters. I also subscribe to a newsletter that's migrated from Substack to Ghost, because of the issues discussed in this article in NYMag:



TL;DR: Substack pays some high-profile writers a guaranteed wage, while everyone else picks up whatever subscription revenue they can.

The NYMag writer doesn't have a lot of sympathy for people who find that unfair. Their argument is that the guaranteed wage for many of these high-profile authors is actually less than what they'd make in subscriptions. Which doesn't really address Newitz's concerns at all.

I'm not sure what I think. The lack of transparency is bothersome. On the other hand...outside of that, it's kind of like plain ol' trade publishing, isn't it? Some people get robust backing; most people have to fend for themselves. But at least in trade pub it's easy to find out who's who.
I've seen that objection to Substack's payment policy, but how is it different from Traditional Publisher X paying a huge advance to its big-name writer and little to no advance to the unknown, new writer?
 

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This sounds to me like something that would only pay off for authors who have already become big names via trade publishing, comics, social media, or whatever. Or am I missing something? Do people actually browse Substack looking for fiction the way they would browse Amazon or fanfic sites?

I’ve tried serializing recently and discovered I really enjoy the challenge of shaping a story that way, but I don’t expect to be paid for it. It’s a labor of love and a way to earn a small but committed readership, something I haven’t found with my trade books.
I don't disagree, but it seems that media like Substack provide a mechanism for cultivating a large following (if you're willing to hustle and self promote, which I'm not). Further, publishing there doesn't have to be for payment. I understand one can post articles, stories, chapters with free access. Would that be a way to create a following of readers who might later be willing to pay for a serialized novel? I don't know, but it seems feasible and even tempting. I'm eager for this to be discussed so I can evolve my own thoughts.
 

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Man, this is a confusing industry. I really wish I understood more about the publishing business, because a lot of things look like just variations on old themes to me but apparently aren't based on the buzz they generate. Serialized novels were all the thing in the 1800s, and some appeared throughout the 1900s. Many (most?) of the classic Victorian novels were serialized first, weren't they? David Copperfield was published first in monthly installments. That seems to have died out in the 20th century by going straight to books (with some exceptions, as noted in the first link above), and literary mags focusing on short stories. How would the Substack of today differ from the Collier's or Harpers of the days gone by?

This sounds to me like something that would only pay off for authors who have already become big names via trade publishing, comics, social media, or whatever. Or am I missing something? Do people actually browse Substack looking for fiction the way they would browse Amazon or fanfic sites?

This was my first thought. Salman Rushdie can get a lot of attention publishing a serialized novel, but Chris P not so much. It seems I would have the same challenges as I would with any outlet; it would depend on the amount of marketing and publicity support they would offer, relative to how much I would have to do myself. If I can do it being published in one outlet, I'd be able to do it equally well in another, wouldn't I?

I don't disagree, but it seems that media like Substack provide a mechanism for cultivating a large following (if you're willing to hustle and self promote, which I'm not). Further, publishing there doesn't have to be for payment. I understand one can post articles, stories, chapters with free access. Would that be a way to create a following of readers who might later be willing to pay for a serialized novel? I don't know, but it seems feasible and even tempting. I'm eager for this to be discussed so I can evolve my own thoughts.

I don't argue that there aren't writers hitting it big by offering free material to build a following, but my understanding is that for 99.99999% of writers "getting your name out there" is a horribly inefficient time waster. I used to think that if I wrote a story that got read by 30 random people, those 30 would get 10 more to read it. When I wrote the next story the 40 readers of the first story would all read the second story, plus pass it to 15 more, plus I would pick up another 30 new random readers, who would pass it to 10 more, and with the third story . . . and so on until by the tenth or so story my readers would number in the thousands. Publish a book, and whammo massive sales and profits ensue. Had I spent that same amount of effort writing the book* and either getting an agent and good publisher or self-publishing and learning how to market (or some combo on different books, that works for some folks) I would hit those thousands of readers much more directly. It seems to me serializing a novel to build a following would have the same obstacles as building a following by publishing a bunch of short stories. Maybe harder, actually, since the installments of a serial might not stand alone, requiring someone who discovers it after the first installment would need to commit to going back to Part 1 and start reading there, which a certain percentage of readers aren't going to do.

Both approaches are equally naive in their own ways, but folks seem to have better success with the "good book/good business" approach than "get your name out there by any means you can."

*As an avid reader and writer of short stories, I don't meant to imply that short story writing and publishing is in any way a step down from novel writing or a waste of time (I've pushed back on any such suggestion strongly--and I hope respectfully--elsewhere on AW!). My point is that if your goal is to get a novel published that will be widely read, you are better off learning how to write a novel that will be published and widely read, not building a platform with short stories. Write short stories to write short stories, write novels to write novels.
 
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I thought Substack was exposed as a scam by Annalee Newitz.
See the article I linked above (although the author candidly disagrees with Newitz).

The difference between Substack and ordinary trade, I think, is that in trade you know who's getting the big advances. You may not know how much, but you know who.

Substack apparently has made a deal with some of its big names, but won't say who.

And...I suppose as long as I know that, I can't really see it as a scam, per se. It's not like people don't know how newsletters work. It's not like someone like me could expect to keep up with Heather Cox Richardson.

I may not be fully understanding Newitz' argument. But it's not like there's anywhere in publishing that's a level playing field. And perhaps that's their point.
 
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Fuchsia Groan

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A handful of people have gone on from serializing their novels on Wattpad (and AO3, in one case I know of) to big trade publishing deals. Those platforms don’t pay, but they did build a large enough readership to catch the interest of the folks with the money.

I suppose the same could happen on Substack, or if they built a following, maybe the platform would start paying them. Right now, though, I would go to Substack for pundit newsletters, not fiction, and certainly not the Wattpad/AO3 type of fiction. Maybe I should go there and see if I’m wrong.
 
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So I went onto Substack and looked at the top 25 paid literature newsletters....Salman Rushdie isn't on it. Also most of them don't seem to be actual stories, it's more like newsletters with stuff or thoughts. So the actual number of authors that are using it to publish stories is probably really small....Honestly Patreon might be better for something like this. Give your Patreon subscribers a 1 week -1 month exclusivity period and the rest of the story is on your website (or wattpad or ao3*) for free.

As Chris P said, this, ultimately, isn't different than things that already exist. Silicon Valley's true power is re-inventing things that already exist. Vending machines, bus lines, trains....Substack is no different.

* Technically you're not supposed to monetize anything on ao3, or even say "hey if you wanna give me a ko-fi you can....". But you can say "find more on my website!" and then on your site link to your patreon/ko-fi/etc. A little more work for your readers which can cause some drop-off but also it makes the lawyers happy so
 

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Interesting. I’d heard the name “Substack” but never followed up to see what it was about.
Cripes, I'd never even heard of Substack before I'd read the article about Rushdie. I'm not sure if I should feel out of touch or what.
 

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I think we need a YADS-equivalent term for serializing platforms. The number of people who break out from galatea wattpad webnovel etc etc is pretty limited
 

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