Substack: A review

Every so often I have to remind myself of a rule that relates to my work output. It was very much the case in my younger years, but even now when I’m slowly beginning to increase my output, it still applies to me. As it turns out, I typically manage to be more productive when I’m facing a “hard” deadline.

Such is the case here, as I attempt to put together this blog starting on Monday with enough time to make sure it is completed on Saturday. Confidentially, it is also serving as a presentation for my writing group on the same day. As I once heard about the game of chess, if one move can accomplish two tasks at once, it is always a good move and usually the best move available in a given situation. So, this blog will serve the same purpose.

Introduction

It is strange how, during the course of my life, I’ve had the opportunity to see publishing, such as it is, warp from a 20th century print emphasis to a 21st century online emphasis. In the 20th century, you worried about finding a publisher for the work that you wanted to write, or possibly and agent. You would have to consult tomes, not regular books, such as Writer’s Market and other similar resources to find suitable outlets for your literary efforts. That’s how our great-grandfathers, grandfathers, and fathers did it, and we were expected to do it as well.

Then the Internet became a thing.

It turned out that you could go out onto what they called the online world and somehow make a living at doing different things. It turns out that people could take a look at something at Wal-Mart on a web site and order it to come to your house. People could reach potential customers from all parts of the world rather than just their own neighborhoods. Also, it opened up markets or services that went way beyond what people expected in the old days when people out West were amazed that you could order a Colt revolver that shot .45 caliber ammunition in their Montgomery Ward catalogue and have it arrive in person a few days later1.

So, if one is to look out into the online world, there are many places where people are trying to make a living writing online. The legacy newspapers and magazines considered the Internet a side gig where they could promote the print product until younger people realized they’d prefer to have the articles on their laptops or smartphones rather than some awkward pseudo-blogger (lol).

As such, I was trying to find the best platform for me to try and write and make a good living at it. And the more I hung around Facebook or other social media platforms, I kept hearing about something called Substack. I kept seeing authors I admired such as Robert Reich and Amanda Palmer using Substack as one of their platforms.

Although I have been blogging on WordPress now for about five years, I’ve been interested in other ways of reaching people through writing and at least making some money from it. From my initial glances at Substack, it seemed to be a platform that someone could make a living – not a prosperous living, but something to help authors out. If I wasn’t going to be a starving artist, and if I wasn’t going to be a hustler like some of these guys on YouTube and TikTok, I had to have something that would be simple, easy to understand, and capable of maintaining with few if any logistical complications.

I decided to look into Substack and see if it might meet my needs. As I do that, I will also look at my experiences using WordPress and comparing my experiences with those services.

Getting Started

Getting going on Substack is insanely easy on www.substack.com. Once you have an email address to use for setting up an account, signing up for an account is as easy as pretty much any site or online service you might encounter. They also have an app in the Apple store for Substack. I went ahead and got both the app for my iPhone and also access the site through my desktop, although the mobile app is only a reader for the service and does not have editing capabilities.

There is no cost to setting up an account or using Substack’s basic services, although if you do start charging for subscriptions they will take a cut of that. But I’ll get into that later.

Writing Something Down

When you start composing something for publication, you do so on the Dashboard section of the site. The Dashboard is the way you access not only your posts, but other information such as for subscribers, statistics, podcasts, and other features which I’ll discuss later.

I did like the straightforwardness of the drafting and editing setup for posts. You are able to put in a variety of text styles and formats, and embedding other items such as YouTube videos, Spotify tracks, and others is as easy as cutting and pasting the link into a new line of the post. I still have frustrating memories of trying to get HTML programming perfectly and trying to cut and past relevant codes I had saved for different posts on an old Blogger site I operated for a few months way back when I had a lot less motivation to write. I’m very glad sites in general are more plug and play, so to speak, than they were before, and Substack fits this bill.

The one disadvantage, however, to the editing is that you can’t substantially change the style of the Substack posts themselves, the basic formatting. By contrast, WordPress gives you several paid and unpaid options for changing the look of your blog which I have used to freshen it up at least a couple of times over the years.

When you do publish posts, Substack gives you the option of simply posting it to the web or both publishing and emailing your subscribers at the same time. One good thing about that is if you have to revise or change something, it won’t send out other emails when that happens, so that cuts down on spam quite a bit.

You can also set up separate sections of your Substack site that can host different newsletters and podcasts, for example. This can be done through the Dashboard.

Building Readers

Writing something is one thing, but actually getting someone other than yourself or (maybe) your significant other to read what you write is something entirely different. Both Substack and writers on Substack, in some of the articles on the site regarding operations, gave me some good initial advice toward how to build such a readership. Some ways that Substack suggests to promote your site include letting people know about your site by word of mouth and promoting it through any communications and social media. Another thing they emphasized was being consistent with publishing content that displays your personality. They definitely have an idea of how to create a name brand.

Another method to promote yourself is using the Recommendations feature. This allows you to recommend fellow writers that you have admired, while also allowing you to be recommended in turn to others. This feature is pretty straightforward and is a lot simpler than trying to make an Amazon review and wondering if it will get deleted because you and the author are connected on social media.

Subscriptions (Free and Paid)

When talking about subscriptions, I should mention that they can be either free or paid. Either kind are alerted to new posts via email. Free subscriptions are recommended for new authors on site. This gives you the opportunity to help build your audience for when a paid-subscription service is viable.

As for paid subscriptions, they can be at varying levels depending on your wishes. You choose how much those subscriptions are and what do readers receive for them. The website will receive 10 percent of the income that you receive from paid subscriptions as well as any credit card fees. The general advice that the site and its users give regarding paid subscriptions is to build your free subscriber base first and have a very solid plan for what people will get for those subscriptions.

Paid subscriptions are supported through a payment system called Stripe. I managed to get signed on to Stripe with little difficulty in about 5-10 minutes.

Metrics, Statistics, and Traffic

The Dashboard for the site is the place to find out all sorts of information about what is going on with your page. When it comes to posts, it gives detailed data regarding who’s seen it, shares and subscriptions from reading a post, click rates, and several other items.

The dashboard also has specific subscriber statistics. It tells you who has signed up for your email lists and its growth. You also get the total email list, total subscribers, and the revenue from those subscribers.

Other statistics the site provides includes where the traffic to your page is arriving from, along with unique visitors. There are also other sections, such as email and podcasts, that provide data for those specific operations.

Podcasting

Substack also has a podcasting feature by which you can host a podcast on your page. It allows you to import existing podcasts to the Substack page through RSS, and allows you to submit your podcasts to Spotify and other services.

However, while Substack does allow you to upload any audio files for the podcast, there isn’t any functionality that allows you to produce, edit, and revise podcast episodes. By contrast, WordPress is in partnership with Anchor (a Spotify division) that provides a very good production element). In some of my initial work with Anchor, I was able to use it to provide a fairly solid production, complete with intro/outro music, effects, etc.

What if You Need Help?

Substack has an extensive help and support section. Some of the articles are produced by the company, while some others have been contributed by successful users who pass along their knowledge. I found all of the articles to be quite helpful in walking through the publishing process. They also have “Writers’ Hours” during the week, but that can be at an inconvenient time for many. For example, they are usually going on during middays on Thursdays, so people who work during the week might find it difficult to participate. I would love to have either some later times or weekends to be able to take part myself.

Comparisons Between Substack and WordPress

WordPress has been my main blogging platform, so I usually compare a blogging platform to my experiences there. Both Substack and WordPress have an ease of use about their sites. However, I think it might be easier to embed items from other media into Substack. The statistics I get from Substack were very thorough and easy to understand. However, the ability to customize Substack doesn’t compare to WordPress.

In addition to WordPress’ ease of use, I like the creativity it allows me to alter the look and feel of my blog. The mobile app for WordPress is much better than that of Substack because it allows me to post and edit posts, unlike the Substack app. However, I do have to make some modest investments – maybe around $150 annually – to have the site have the functionality that it does as well as for domain and email services.

My verdict

Substack has potential as a possible supplement and revenue stream for my writing work. With the time and effort I have put into my WordPress blog, as well as the features of the platform that I think can match what Substack does, I don’t see myself abandoning WordPress as a result, but I get the feeling that I will be crossposting items from WordPress to Substack in the near future.

I’d score Substack as being 4 out of 5 stars. It’s a great program, but it doesn’t necessarily have every single function that I would like in a publishing platform. It’s something I will make use of in the future.

Footnotes:
1. I’m trying really hard not to get off topic. I might not succeed. But I am trying.

3 thoughts on “Substack: A review

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