Ben Smith of the New York Times wrote an excellent piece about the rise of writers building their own businesses, most prominently newsletters based on the Substack platform. This part, about competitors to Substack, struck me for some obvious reasons:
Ghost isn’t the only alternative, of course. Twitter recently bought the newsletter platform Revue, and Facebook is developing ambitious plans for a rival that will provide a platform for local journalists, among other writers. The left-wing commentary site Discourse Blog moved to a rival platform called Lede. Others, like the tech analyst Ben Thompson, cobble together email, blogging and payment services to be what he calls “sovereign writers.”
Like Ben Thompson, we here at Six Colors are cobblers. We have used Memberful, MailChimp, WordPress and Stripe to build a membership program that lets us post free stories as well as members-only content, and then bundle it all up into an end-of-week newsletter.
Would I move to Substack if I were leaving my job at IDG today? Possibly, though it’s more limited in form than what I’ve been able to put together here. But that’s kind of the point of services like Substack—not everyone wants to be a cobbler. In fact, most independent writers who are likely to benefit from moving to a platform like Substack are probably not well versed in all the technical details of going independent and shouldn’t waste their time figuring it out when they should be writing:
Substack and its backers are alert to the risk that the service could be replaced by someone charging a few dollars a month. But they note that many writers simply don’t want to be bothered with anything other than writing, and happily pay the premium for that. (“I don’t have time to sit around trying to figure out platforms,” [Roxane] Gay said.)
Roxane Gay’s got it exactly right. Substack’s “secret sauce” is that it’s easy for independent writers to get up and running with a few clicks. Great if you’re a writer, maybe not great if you’re Substack—because countless other companies are busy replicating the model. (That competition, in turn, will also be good for writers. In the next few years you will find that many of the writers on Substack will abandon it for other platforms that will take a smaller cut of the proceeds. Others will pay experts to build something a bit more custom and to their liking. Or, alternately, Substack will be forced cut the share it takes in order to retain them.)
In any event, the die is cast as far as we’re concerned. I’m pretty happy with what we’re doing here. But then again, we’re cobblers.