Some authors believe that if they could just find the right social network, they’d be on the easy path to fame and fortune. Authors often ask my opinion on the latest hot, new social network. Most of the time, I discourage authors from pursuing the latest social network fad.
For example, I don’t think Threads is worth your time.
For every author successfully using Pinterest to build a platform, thousands of others struggle to get noticed. They’re wasting massive amounts of time that could be spent writing a book. The cost of failing at Pinterest is the catalog of books you won’t write because you’ve given your time to something else. The same goes for Instagram, TikTok, and all the others.
The best way to take advantage of trends like BookTok and Bookstagram is to pay influencers to promote your book rather than trying to become an influencer yourself. Paying an influence who has already mastered the platform will allow you to spend your time developing your craft and writing great books. Don’t try to do both. Almost no one can pull it off.
With that said, believe me when I say that when I find a new platform I’m willing to recommend, I don’t do so lightly.
What? Thomas recommended a social platform?! Have the bots taken over the podcast?
You’ve probably heard authors talking about Substack. It’s all the rage, so I’ve spent several months testing and researching it.
Substack is one of the most intriguing tools for authors that I’ve seen in a decade. It’s not really a social network, but it is amazing. There are some downsides to Substack authors need to know about before they start using it, but it offers authors some amazing features and capabilities.
What is Substack?
Substack is a blogging platform functions like Zynga or Blogger of years gone by. But it’s not just a blogging platform.
It’s also an email platform like ConvertKit or MailChimp. But it’s not just an email platform.
It’s also a podcasting platform. You can host your podcast on Substack as you would on Blubrry or Buzzsprout. But it’s not just a podcasting platform.
It’s also a funding platform like Patreon or SubscribeStar. But it’s not just a funding platform.
It’s also an RSS reading platform like the old but awesome Google Reader.
And here’s the crazy bit. Substack offers all these functions for free in the best possible way.
But aren’t we supposed to be cautious about free?
As you know, I’m very suspicious of free.
When a tool like Instagram is free to you, it’s only free because you are the product being sold. When you’re the chicken, food in the coop is always free because you’re the product being sold. The chicken is not the customer and therefore isn’t paying for the food.
On nearly all free social platforms, you, the user, are the product being sold. You’re not the customer. You are the product. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and TikTok are designed to serve advertisers.
To use those platforms efficiently, you need to be the advertiser–the platform’s customer. Facebook is expensive for authors, but advertising on the platform can be effective. If you spend $10,000 on ads, you could potentially make $20,000 in sales.
On Substack, there is no advertising. They’re not trying to thrill advertisers. They’re not selling your attention to advertisers.
How does Substack make enough money to offer their service for free?
Substack hopes authors will sell content to their readers directly through Substack. When they do, Substack takes a percentage of the earnings.
They’ll take around 10% of your sales, and you’ll pay an additional credit card fee, which means they’ll get about 13%-15% of your sale.
That might sound like a large commission until you realize that Amazon takes 30% and Audible takes 70%. So Substack is very competitively priced. They’re giving you a much larger percentage of the money than their biggest competitors.
Substack is email-centric. Its primary substance is the email newsletter people subscribe to. Your email newsletter is turned into a blog post automatically, so subscribers can read your old newsletters just as they would scroll through your past blog posts.
The primary function of Substack is email. That’s a huge pro because email is the biggest “social network” in the world. Everybody has email.
You Own Your Relationship with Readers
Through your email list, you own your customer relationship, and since Substack is email-centric, it’s better than every other social network.
On Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network, the company owns and controls your relationship with your readers.
If Twitter doesn’t like what you’re saying, they can sever your relationship with your followers without your permission, knowledge, or consent. And when they do, you can no longer communicate with your fans and followers. You can’t share your side of the story behind your cancellation because you’re erased from the platform. It’s like Orwell’s 1984, and you no longer exist.
But with Substack, that can’t happen. You have access to your subscribers’ email addresses. If you leave Substack, you can export your email list and take it to ConvertKit or MailerLite. On Substack, you own your reader relationship, and you can take that relationship with you to another platform.
However, you can’t take the funding relationship with you. Substack won’t share the credit card numbers of your subscribers, which is a really good thing. People’s credit card numbers shouldn’t be floating around like that.
How does Substack encourage you to stay with their platform?
For example, if you have Substack subscribers paying for your content, those paying subscriptions wouldn’t move with you to Patreon. You’d still have their email addresses, but you’d have to ask them to re-enter their credit card information on Patreon, and that’s a big hassle.
But that is how Substack keeps you on their platform, and I believe it’s one of the least evil ways a company locks you in. The least evil way of encouraging people to stay is by allowing them to leave.
Substack Reduces your Tech Stack
Using Substack reduces the number of tools you have to pay for and use. You don’t have to learn or pay for different platforms since the blog, email, funding feature, and podcast hosting are integrated. You only need to learn how to use Substack…for free.
For authors, Substack is not as powerful as those other tools are individually.
Buzzsprout has better podcast hosting, and ConvertKit has better email functionality, but Substack has about 80% of what you’ll need, and it’s free.
As a beginning author, you probably aren’t making money off your writing yet, so you don’t want a lot of ongoing expenses. You could start your podcast on Substack for free, and then down the road, you could switch to Buzzsprout when you’re ready to use some of their more advanced functions. Plus, you can take your subscribers with you.
On any podcasting platform, I always check to see if they offer an RSS 301 redirect. If they do, you can switch your Substack subscribers to Buzzsprout or another podcast host without creating friction for your listeners.
Companies that allow you to move to a competitor tend to treat you well because they know you can move. Companies that won’t redirect your RSS feed usually don’t feel obligated to treat you well as a customer.
Substack is a platform built on respecting the content creator.
Monetization is Baked In
Substack’s model encourages you to write quality newsletters people would pay for, even if you give them away for free. You don’t have to charge, though. Even if you use Substack for free, there is still a way for your backers to pledge money.
In fact, after I sent my first Substack message, one of my backers said, “I want to support you financially. Turn on funding.” So, I turned on the funding feature during my experiments to see how it worked.
Substack has a respectful approach that helps you start earning money right away. You might not think anyone would pay for your newsletters, but you might be surprised.
Great for Serialization
If your newsletters contain a short story or a serialized version of your novel, Substack is better than Kindle Vella or Wattpad because you own your connection to the reader. There’s no algorithm between you and your reader on Substack.
The big flaw for authors on social networks is the algorithm between you and your reader. If the algorithm doesn’t smile on you or you’re not good at playing the algorithm’s game, your reader won’t hear what you’re saying. They won’t get your messages.
That kind of control over speech is very concerning. It’s concerning from a political as well as a commercial perspective.
When Facebook used to allow people to speak to their followers for free, authors invested a lot of time and money in building a following on Facebook.
After a while, Facebook decided you could still talk to some of your followers for free, but if you wanted all your followers to see your post, you’d have to pay.
Next, they allowed you to share posts with only a few followers for free. If you wanted most of your followers to see it, you had to pay.
Now they don’t show your posts to any of your page followers unless you pay. They slowly ratcheted down the free version and ratcheted up the paid version, and now you must pay them to talk to your own fans.
No Ads on Substack
Since Substack doesn’t have advertisers, they don’t have to worry about brand-safe content. Big corporations dictate what kind of content they want to advertise on, which also tends to be very anti-free-speech. By taking advertisers out of that relationship, Substack allows for corporate free speech.
For example, if Budweiser doesn’t want you bad-mouthing Bud Light, they try to cancel you for bad-mouthing their brand. It happens all the time on other social platforms, but it doesn’t happen on Substack because they have no relationship with Budweiser or any other advertiser.
Without ads, social platforms fundamentally change in really good ways. In a way, Substack is taking the internet back to how it was in the early 2000s.
Free Speech Terms of Service
Substack is free-speech-friendly in its terms of service. Essentially, their rules are as follows:
- No spam
- No porn
- No threats
- Follow local laws
As long as you don’t publish spam, porn, or make physical threats, which is often against the law anyway, and you follow the laws of the country you’re in, you can post whatever you want.
Many independent journalists use Substack. I follow the war in Ukraine very closely through journalists who break down combat footage to give you a sense of what’s happening on the ground. Some of the footage is violent and would violate the terms of service on a platform like YouTube.
But on Substack, the only people consuming the content are people who’ve paid for it. Nobody sees the content if they don’t want to see it. That policy allows independent journalists to do journalism without worrying about algorithmic censorship.
Creators have full control over what they create, and readers have full control over what they read.
Built-in RSS Reader
If you’re using Substack to read other people’s Substack email newsletters, you also can follow blogs that aren’t even on Substack. You can add the non-Substack blog to your reader via the RSS reader. It functions like Google Readers used to.
Substack is fixing much of what has broken on the internet in the last decade, but it’s not all roses.
Substack is separate from your website. While they have a friendly terms of service, they’re still a San Francisco-based company backed by venture capitalists. Nothing would prevent them from changing their terms of service.
They may start policing speech at some point. But since you own your relationship with your readers, you could easily move to another platform.
And since they don’t allow advertising, they’re not being pressured to police speech.
You can add a Substack subscribe form to your website, so it can integrate with your website, but it is still separate.
Not Open Internet
Substack is a company, not a technology. If you leave Substack, you can’t move to a competitor that has the same technology. But you can move and take your followers with you. You’ll just have to move to different technology.”
WordPress, on the other hand, is open internet. If your WordPress host kicks you off or goes out of business, you can move to another WordPress host and everything is the same because WordPress is a technology, not a company.”
Not Great for SEO
Substack has no canonical URLs and very limited SEO optimization. It’s not going to guide you into creating search-friendly content.
If ranking on Google is a key part of your platform-building strategy, Substack may not be the best tool for you. You won’t rank on Google using Substack as you would if you were posting to your own blog.
Additionally, if you’re posting to your own blog and Substack simultaneously, you’ll have a duplicate content issue that could hurt the search engine rankings of your primary blog. From an SEO perspective, Substack isn’t great.
Now, if you’re writing fiction, telling your story in a serialized way, you don’t care about SEO. You’re not trying to get traffic from Google, so Substack’s SEO limitations aren’t an issue. It’s also irrelevant if you’re using Substack as an email newsletter tool because your email newsletters won’t rank on Google either.
Tons of Marketing Emails
Once you sign up for Substack, you tend to get a lot of Substack emails from Substack, in addition to the emails from people you follow there.
When you move from MailerLite, for example, you can export your list from MailerLite and import it into Substack. However, those people you imported to Substack might also start getting emails from Substack. I haven’t confirmed that. It may only happen after they create their own Substack account.
Be aware that you are potentially increasing someone’s email burden. But many readers are already on Substack, so the burden is already there.
Certain communities haven’t discovered Substack yet. Your readership may not be familiar with it, but your readers don’t have to know how Substack works to get the emails because it’s email-based. You don’t have to log in to Substack to read the email.
Since it’s email-based by default, people also don’t have a password. They can log in to Substack, type their email address, and Substack will email them a link that logs them into their account. That’s what I mean by email based.
No Email Marketing
Substack does not support email marketing. If you use your email newsletters to announce frequent discounts on your books, Substack might not be the right tool.
Author Chautona Havig has more than 52 books, and every week she uses her email newsletter to announce a new discount on one of her books. Each book goes on sale once a year.
On Substack, you can’t do that kind of promotion. Substack wants to promote the kind of newsletters people would pay for. You probably wouldn’t pay for a discount newsletter, even though it’s valuable.
I imagine you can include some promotional content. I’ll occasionally include information about an upcoming webinar in my Novel Marketing emails. As far as I can tell, that is okay, but I couldn’t send a straight marketing email.
That is a real downside because you occasionally want to send pure promotional emails to your list, especially when your new book releases.
That said, Substack is very author-friendly, and they want to be accepted by the author community. The marketing email policy is a little vague, and I suspect it’s not tightly policed unless people on your list start complaining.
I doubt they have an army of content moderators. They’re letting subscribers decide what they want or don’t want. It’s a “You’re an adult, and it’s a free country” philosophy.
Some Algorithmic Content
If you sign up for Substack, you’ll get an email with post recommendations, and they’ll occasionally show you related content. I’m not a big fan of this feature, but it could help you get discovered.
Some authors have been favored by the Substack algorithm and become famous there, but I don’t think that should be your plan or hope. You must build your audience one person at a time, just like everybody else.
If the algorithm smiles on you, so much the better, but don’t make that your plan or hope for success.
How does Substack compare to Patreon?
If you’re thinking about using Patreon to support your podcast, short stories, or serialized versions of your novel, you could use Substack.
I don’t plan to move Novel Marketing from Patreon. Getting 400 people to sign up on a new account is too much to ask, and I’m happy with Patreon because it does some things Substack doesn’t.
Substack vs. Patreon
Patreon won’t help you find an audience.
Patreon helps you solve the funding problem, not the fame problem. Substack can help you find an audience to some degree. If you’re just starting, Substack is probably better because Patreon will leave you at zero forever.
Patreon cares about your politics.
Patreon prefers Democrats. I’ve been on open calls with their executives and heard them discussing it. They’ve canceled some famous conservatives simply because they didn’t like what those creators had to say.
There’s a big class action lawsuits and lots of political drama. But the political drama exists because page Patreon views themselves as good people who are making the world a better place by using their power to control the flow of money to make people more like them.
They’re also San Francisco-based venture-capital-backed company, and they want to use their corporate power for political ends. If you’re a Democrat on Patreon, you probably won’t have any problem.
Substack does not care about your politics.
I have an emergency plan in case Patreon kicks me off without notice. That said, Patreon seems to have backed off its censorship because it got burned by the political drama several years ago. They’re feeling the pain as people switch to Substack.
Substack’s monthly pledge starts at $5.
Currently, the minimum for becoming a patron of Novel Marketing is $4. If I moved to Substack, I’d have to raise the pledge level to $5 at a minimum.
Substack has one primary pricing tier (Plus Yearly and Founding).
Substack has one primary pricing tier. You could argue that it has two more tiers, including “Member” and “Founding Member.”
Patreon offers multiple funding levels and rewards.
Patreon allows you to create dozens of pricing tiers. I used to offer my mastermind groups as pledge levels on Patreon (they’re now on Teachable). If you pledged at a high level, you could be a part of my mastermind groups. I couldn’t do that on Substack because there’s only one pledge level.
As of July 2023, I have three Patreon pledge levels for Novel Marketing:
- $4 Level: Comes with a bonus episode and a Q & A webinar.
- $10 Level: In addition to the first-level rewards, you get access to the Podcast Host Directory, which is integrated with my WordPress website. I couldn’t offer that on Substack because they don’t offer multiple pricing levels or content integration with WordPress.
- $25 Level: As a Featured Patron, you and your book are featured at the end of Novel Marketing Episodes, in addition to everything in the first two levels.
Substack seems to have better coders and offers a better user experience.
Substack seems to be a little easier to use. While Patreon is still powerful, and you could technically host a podcast there, it’s difficult to use.
You could technically use Patreon for email and blogging, but it’s not as user-friendly because Patreon isn’t built for it.
Substack vs. ConvertKit
Substack is free!
I like ConvertKit, but I also recommend MailerLite, which is cheaper. I wouldn’t be surprised if Substack completely gobbles up MailerLite. If you’re cost-conscious, ConvertKit is expensive. If you’re considering switching to MailerLite because it’s cheaper, you might as well move to Substack, which is free!
Substack is free, while ConvertKit starts at $10 per month and up, depending on your number of subscribers. If you have a large list, ConvertKit is pricey.
ConvertKit allows promotional emails.
Many authors are happy to pay for ConvertKit because they can profit from their list by sending promotional marketing emails. Substack is not for email marketing.
ConvertKit has more powerful features.
ConvertKit is more powerful in terms of integrations. It’s more of a business tool whereas Substack is more of a content tool. For example, ConvertKit integrates with Teachable and allows you to set up robust automations, drip sequences, and reader magnet delivery.
The only way I found to deliver a reader magnet through Substack was to set up a Book Funnel delivery and then manually import the CSV of the email addresses to Substack. That’s a hassle.
Some of my recommended email marketing methods aren’t possible on Substack. Onboarding sequences, automation, list cleaning, and reader magnet delivery are either difficult or impossible on Substack. Still, Substack is free, and you can potentially get paid by using it, so the limitations may be worth it to you.
Substack’s philosophy is that you don’t need to offer a reader magnet because your emails are so valuable that people will pay to get them.
Bottom Line on Substack
Substack won’t make you famous.
It’s not a discovery engine. You’ll still have work to get the word out by guesting on podcasts and writing books worth talking about. It won’t solve your discoverability problem, but it may help you a little.
It can, however, simplify your tech stack. Instead of having four different services for podcasting, email, blogging, and monetizing, you could do all of it through Substack.
At the very least, I recommend using Substack as a reader. If you already use it, tell us about your experience in this episode’s post on AuthorMedia.social and drop a link to your Substack.
Substack is an excellent option for serialized fiction.
If you’ve been wanting to give away your story in a serialized form and get paid for it, Substack is the obvious first choice. I think you really need a reason not to use Substack because it’s so much better than Kindle Vella and the others.
Substack is an option for a free email newsletter.
If you want to distribute your email newsletter for free, Substack is your best option because it’s free in the best possible way. Since you’re not the product being sold, Substack treats you like a customer, hoping you’ll become a customer.
Want to discuss these pros and cons? Head over to AuthorMedia.social and let’s talk about it more.
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