As of today, the Always Be Watching daily newsletter is being hosted at the open source newsletter Ghost. For the past 2+ years I was sending it through Substack.
Substack gave me an easy-to-set-up platform to launch a newsletter. It also handled payment from my supporters (via Stripe). And it had constant uptime. Substack is a robust, reliable service. For my needs, Substack was the perfect solution.
Until it wasn't anymore.
Substack is the face of self-publishing - but is it the face of running an ongoing business?
I joined Substack pretty early on. It was still a bit fringe-y, but it didn't take long for Substack to catch on with journalists seeking independent publishing futures. They began leaving comfortable, safe jobs with marquee publishers to become independent publishers. The thinking is that these journalists have strong online followings and can take that audience to Substack and charge access to their reporting/wisdom/opinions.
I understand the appeal, especially in being able to work for yourself and potentially make more money while doing it. But I am skeptical.
Are audiences as invested in the writers work as individuals as much as these journalists think the audience is? A masthead does a lot of heavy lifting. What happens 1-2 years from now when you have been out on your own for a while and your shiny new digital publication is an established product? Where is your subscriber growth coming from? How are new readers discovering your work? And what will keep them interested once they do find your new masthead online? Everything about Substack seems built to create hurdles to these challenges.
Dan Barrett - publishing mogul
I run Always Be Watching - it's a daily newsletter that curates the most interesting news stories and culture pieces related to screen culture. I'm mostly focused on TV and streaming video, but I'll also cover a bit of film, social video, video games, AR, and VR. I try to keep it to approximately 10 quick-read stories a day (a mix of bullet points and longer sections that run just a few paragraphs). If that's something that you'd be interested in, please sign up.
I came to Substack early in and it provided me with the tools I needed as an independent publisher to get started both publishing my work and providing a payment mechanism for my loyal subscribers. But the deeper into Substack that I got, the more I realised that Substack simply wasn't meeting my needs.
While I may not be the typical Substack user, the challenges I face in writing and growing my publication are likely more typical than I would assume.
I have needs
Quite simply, the reason I left Substack was that it wasn't offering me enough as a Publisher. I want to offer my readers and paid subscribers a quality publication/user experience. And Substack is too inflexible to provide that.
The experience for subscribers is kinda awful
Visit a Substack page that you've never been to before and the first thing you get is a full-screen page asking you to surrender your email address.
How about you buy me dinner first, Substack?
As a user journey, that's really dreadful. You want to have an idea of what the content is before you sign up. I shudder to think how many people reached my page, saw the email request screen, and then just clicked away. I would have.
Consider Casey Newton's high-profile Substack page, Platformer. Before you can get to his content, you get a full screen serving of this:
That's the first roadblock. But then the process of subscribing is a terrible journey as well. (Why am I using Casey Newton's substack as my example? I forgot to screenshot my own. Plus his Substack publication is quite good.)
Let's say you decide you want to subscribe and pay your hard earned money for his newsletter. First you click the Subscribe button at the top of the page:
You'll then be asked to surrender your email address. "But how much money is a subscription?", you might ask. Stop asking questions and give us your email.
Only then are the prices revealed.
US$100 for one writer is too rich for my blood, so I haven't subscribed to Casey's Substack. But it does reveal the biggest annoyance I have with Substack - the free option is just labelled as 'None'. This is not something you could change. Casey can't change it. I couldn't change it.
The thing I jokingly refer to as my 'business model' works as a tip jar. I'm curating articles and not creating 100% original material, so I'd feel gross demanding money for it. But I do ask my subscribers that if they value the time and energy I put into it each day, that they become a paid subscriber (it's what I think is a fair five bucks a month or a cheaper $37 a year). But I am happy if people sign up to my free tier. Maybe they'll find value in my work and support me down the track. That'd be great.
But when a person doesn't see a free option. Instead there is just 'None'... again, how much of my potential audience am I losing? How many people see 'None' and think that there's no way to access my content? I'd assume quite a few.
Language is important. An email platform for writers should understand that.
I'm frustrated by the inability of Substack to offer segmentation. If Substack is a business dedicated to email as a platform, then why does it not offer one of the core features of every serious commercial email product?
If you're not familiar with segmentation, quite simply it is the ability for me to decide as a publisher to split my email recipients up into groups and be able to send different emails to the different groups.
Every morning I send out a newsletter, but on Fridays I send out a bonus email with a guide to new and returning TV shows people might want to watch. But maybe people don't want that extra email clogging up their inbox? Or *GASP* maybe they only wanted that weekly email and not my daily newsletter? Either way, it'd be great to have the option to let my readers opt in to what they want to receive from me.
Oh and then there's my podcast that I'd like to promote with a weekly email, but I almost never do because I simply don't want to annoy my readers. The podcast has TV reviews and news and info, so it is relevant to my newsletter audience. But also, 7 emails a week from me? Ugh. That's too much for most people (even my wife would balk at that). Still - it'd be great to allow readers to opt in.
Every Substack looks the same
Browsing through Substack publications is the literary equivalent of that Paul Kelly song. They all look and feel the same. That's actually fine for your email inbox. If a publication is to land in whatever email client you use is, it is best being displayed as simply as possible. You only want complicated design elements if your email is for marketing purposes with multiple links to click through to.
But the web isn't email. The web is great for discovery, while email is great for deep engagement. Substack is mostly okay for the deep engagement side of things. But if you want to get discovered, you need two things:
- Strong SEO.
- An attractive website when people land on your page. I don't care how good your words might be, if your website has an unattractive visual style, your audience retention is going to suffer.
Not only does every Substack look the same, but that look is also basic. It doesn't deliver any energy to the page at all.
And on the subject of SEO, it's almost as if that isn't a concern to Substack at all. The opportunity to tweak your settings to enhance your SEO is, to be as polite about this as I can, 'limited'.
I moved to Ghost
Ghost is an open-source email publishing platform. Think of it as being like Wordpress, but for email. Like Wordpress, you can install Ghost on your own server. Or you can pay them money to host it. Serving as an email platform is a relatively recent pivot by Ghost - it's certainly how it landed on my radar.
Why Ghost? It wasn't a difficult choice.
- It wouldn't look like every Substack and gives a point of difference. Yes, I'm currently using one of the Ghost free templates, but (like Wordpress) there are templates that I can buy and customise.
- I can add a lot more info in the back-end to make it search engine friendly.
- I'm free to write my own on-boarding phrases to make signing up to a free newsletter far more appealing.
- The site isn't trying to harvest email addresses at every page load.
- The customer service so far has been exceptional both in regards to a real person helping to migrate my content and subscribers over to the new platform, plus genuinely good well-written user guides that helped me handle some of the DIY aspects with ease.
The only thing Ghost doesn't have yet is segmentation. That's disappointing. But I'm planning to bother them about it and it seems like the sort of flexible platform where this will be on their roadmap sooner than later.
Why did I leave Substack? Simply - it's easy to set up a Substack publication, but it's clear that there's little consideration given to the longterm viability of running a newsletter on Substack. It isn't feature-rich, there's no ability to customise, and it alienates the audience at every turn.
Good luck to any writers and journalists who are planning to make a living from Substack. They're not going to make it easy for you.