Social Media, Digital Publishing, and their Love Child: Substack

By Grace Mattsen

If you care about writing, reading, or publishing, you are likely familiar with the digital publisher, Substack. The venture-backed subscription-based company explores an alternative to traditional publishing, offering a place for writers to share their ideas while directly interacting with their paying readers. Founded by Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best, and Jairaj Sethi in 2017, the creators maintain that Substack is not social media or a newsletter company, rather they define it as a “subscription network”. Substack functions differently than traditional newspapers or journals; rather than hiring writers for specific articles or columns, writers on Substack are paid directly through their subscribers. With this model, Substack claims that having “a few hundred paid subscribers can support a livelihood. A few thousand makes it lucrative,” (Substack website) which encourages Substack writers to grow their platforms in order to potentially gain handsome earnings. Subscribers are only paying for the content they want and in doing so, they are monetarily supporting their favorite writers. Writers earn 86% of the money they make from their subscribers, Substack receives a 10% share of subscription earnings while 4% accounts for payment fees through Stripe’s payment processing. This model provides the writers with flexibility regarding how much they want to write, what they write about, and the subscription prices they want to charge. While the platform allows for greater agency for writers, it also ensures that the customer is at the center of the process. 

The traditional digital publishing elements featured on Substack include the content of articles and the length of the writing. Trained journalists and writers like Heather Cox Richardson and Grace Lavery have embraced the freedoms that accompany a platform like Substack. They are not constrained by strict character limits nor assaulted with vulgar and aggressive replies as they may be on X (formerly Twitter), and they are earning significant amounts of money from their writing. Richardson is currently the highest earning political contributor on Substack, and made over one million dollars on the platform in 2020 with her newsletter, “Letters From an American”. Substack allows Richardson to combine her knowledge as an American history professor with her lucid and approachable prose to discuss American politics without adhering to the restraints or expectations of established newspapers nor the hostility of some social media platforms. 

While some articles from Substack may fit well in traditional newspapers or magazines, the content of many newsletters may not align with some publishers. The content on Substack drastically varies between authors and even between individual newsletters. The informal tone and niche pop culture references in Emerson Alumni, Hunter Harris’ newsletter, Hung Up, featuring titles like Drake Is A Loser but We Already Knew where she argues that the rapper is “reaching for the God-level cornball quality,” (Harris) may not be accepted in articles published by traditional newspapers or magazines, but with Substack, Harris has a platform that thrives on honesty and fosters continued engagement with an audience that is deeply interested in the niche topics she writes about. Exploring multimedia options, Substack also now offers podcast subscriptions. While Substack’s normal newsletter subscription enables authors to include videos, the podcast option requires a separate subscription. Substack’s embrace of high-quality writing about current events from a wide population of voices coupled with its subscription-based business model allows for a new, less traditional form of digital publishing. While Substack has provided a new and expanding digital place for important dialogues and entertainment, there are plenty of improvements to be made.

Recently, Substack has received criticism for continuing to provide a platform for writers who spread hateful rhetoric and misinformation. In 2021, some writers publicly left Substack after the company allowed writers to publish anti-transgender content. Transgender Substack writer and associate English professor at UC Berkeley, Grace Lavery, wants “Substack to be more aggressive about stopping harassment, but said she didn’t think threats to boycott the email service over writers she disagrees with made political sense” (Smith). This is not a new phenomenon; social media platforms, newspapers, and journals alike have experienced backlash for providing bigoted individuals a space to share their writing and ideas. Despite the controversy surrounding hateful speech on Substack, the company remains a leader in the digital newsletter industry. The publisher also provides a platform for those in marginalized communities to share their experiences that may be ignored by more traditional publishers. 

Substack melds the creative freedom and customizability of social media—insofar as users only follow who they want to follow—and the high quality writing of traditional digital publications, forming a new and exciting way to create and share writing. As many Emerson students are budding writers and publishers, Substack offers us a new way to think about the rigidity and outdated norms of these industries. Writers do not need to rely on publishers to acquire their works or self publish a book only to get four sales on Amazon; instead Substack offers a digital space to both publish pieces and cultivate an audience. Substack continues to provide writers a platform to make a living from their writing without limiting their self expression, challenging the formality of traditional publishers.

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