Substack complaints miss the mark

Substack is neither unaccountable nor a scam.

I’ve resisted writing a Substack post about Substack up til now, since it feels a little like inside baseball. But my friend Annalee Newitz wrote a post calling Substack a “scam”, and a number of other people on Twitter have echoed some of their complaints, and so I thought I should explain why I think they’re (at least mostly) off the mark. Which is not to criticize Annalee, who is a brilliant writer whose work you should read whenever possible (you can buy their latest book here). I just think Substack is a much more benign thing than they and the other critics make it out to be.

There are basically three complaints here:

  1. Because Substack doesn’t disclose who it pays to blog for them, it has a secret editorial policy that people deserve to know.

  2. Because Substack doesn’t disclose who it pays to blog for them, it scams writers into thinking they can make more money than they actually can.

  3. Substack lets certain writers violate its terms of service.

Of all these complaints, only #3 is worrying (if it turns out to be true; it is, as far as I know, completely unsubstantiated at this time). But the others, I think, aren’t right. Substack is not a scam, and it does have accountability.


Substack’s editorial policy

Annalee writes:

Substack is not merely an app. It’s actually a publication. Why do I say that? Because Substack’s leadership pays a secret, select group of people to write for the platform. They call this group of writers the “Substack Pro” group, and they are rewarded with “advances” that Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie calls “an upfront sum to cover their first year on the platform [that’s] more attractive to a writer than a salary, so they don’t have to stay in a job (or take one) that’s less interesting to them than being independent.” In other words, it’s enough money to quit their day jobs…

By doing this, Substack is creating a de facto editorial policy. Their leadership -- let’s call them editors -- are deciding what kinds of writing and writers are worthy of financial compensation. And you don’t know who those people are. That’s right -- Substack is taking an editorial stance, paying writers who fit that stance, and refusing to be transparent about who those people are.

(As an aside, I was one of the people Substack wanted to recruit for Substack Pro! I turned them down, since it would require me to quit my Bloomberg job, and I have no desire to quit my Bloomberg job.)

Substack Pro works much like a book advance. Substack pays you to blog for a year, and in exchange they take all the money (Update: Actually, only 85% of the money!) that your paid subscribers pay over the course of that year. After the year is up, the subscriber money goes to you instead (minus Substack’s 10% fee). This isn’t exactly like a book advance, since the point at which subscriber revenue switches to the author is a point in time (1 year) instead of a certain revenue amount. But it’s pretty darn similar.

But anyway. Is paying certain people to quit their jobs and write for Substack a de facto editorial policy? Sure, yes it is. That’s not why they do it of course — they just want famous people to switch to Substack so they can build their brand and make money. But it is a de facto editorial policy nonetheless.

The question is whether this matters. Annalee thinks it makes it harder to hold Substack, the company, accountable:

One of the most important elements of ethical journalism is transparency at all levels…Editors, for their part, must be honest about what their publication’s policies are, including who they are paying and what kinds of gatekeeping they do to hire those writers…For example, newspapers generally share the names of their editorial staff, with ways to contact them, so that anyone can contact an editor with a story idea or question. There is a masthead with staff writers’ names on it. 

All of this is to say that when a story appears in a publication, we know that’s because it has passed through an editorial process -- usually involving payment, but possibly some other arrangement -- and that publication is putting its brand or imprimatur on the story. The publication takes responsibility for what it publishes, in both ethical and legal ways. When this process breaks down, it’s a big deal. People get fired. 

Not at Substack, where their editorial policy is to cover up who writes for them. How can Substack be held accountable for what they pay to publish if the writers they pay -- let’s call them staff writers -- could be literally anyone on the site? The answer is that they can’t. 

First of all, I think Annalee overstates their case a bit here. Editors at publications are generally not open about what kind of gatekeeping they do to hire writers; no one at Bloomberg has ever told me how or why they decided to hire me, or whether there were any qualifications I had to meet.

Furthermore, Substack’s editorial policy, in terms of how it actually oversees, approves, and edits individual blog posts, is 100% open and universally known — it is nothing. Substack exerts zero editorial control over anyone’s posts; you just hit the “publish” button. If you want to talk to someone and complain about that, you know who to talk to — the employees of Substack, the company.

Finally, as I said before, Substack Pro works much like a book advance, and as far as I know, publishers don’t publicly disclose how much of an advance authors get. So there’s a clear industry precedent for not disclosing something like this.

OK, but since Substack doesn’t tell you which writers they pay, does that mean you don’t technically know which writers to hold them accountable for? The thing is, in practice this means they can be held accountable for anything written by any writer, even the ones they don’t actually pay! If you don’t like something in a Substack post, you can simply assume that that writer is part of Substack Pro, and hold Substack accountable for it, until and unless they reveal that that writer isn’t part of Pro. Again, much like book publishers are, in practice, held accountable for every author they publish, regardless of the size of the author’s advance.

In other words, Substack’s refusal to say which writers they pay actually opens them up to far more criticism, and far more accountability, than if they disclosed who they pay. With secret Pro, Pro becomes the default assumption. That’s probably going to create problems for Substack, since it’s going to increase the number of people yelling at them. If I were them, I’d just disclose who’s part of Pro. But I don’t think it’s something we ought to really worry about.

Is Substack a scam?

Annalee’s next argument is that Substack tricks writers into thinking they can make a lot of money on Substack:

The vast majority of Substack newsletter writers will never make money that’s equivalent to a year’s salary, which is what the staffers get. Instead, they will provide Substack with free content, hoping to get that sweet subscriber cash one day. And Substack will dangle its “successful” writers in front of its rank-and-file membership to keep them going. You too could have a Substack that’s as financially successful as this guy’s Substack! Except you don’t know whether this “successful” Substack was bankrolled by the company or not. There’s no transparency about that. 

For all we know, every single one of Substack’s top newsletters is supported by money from Substack. Until Substack reveals who exactly is on its payroll, its promises that anyone can make money on a newsletter are tainted. We don’t have enough data to judge whether to invest our creative energies in Substack because the company is putting its thumb on the scale by, in Hamish’s own words, giving a secret group of “financially constrained writers the ability to start building a sustainable enterprise.” We are, not to put too fine a point on it, being scammed.

I don’t think this argument makes sense, for several reasons.

First of all, Substack doesn’t tell you how much money you can make writing on Substack. Nowhere will you find them advertising a number of dollars that you can make. It does NOT “promise that anyone can make money on a newsletter”, any more than Hollywood promises that anyone can make money being an actor or universities promise that anyone can get a tenured professor job. It does NOT imply that anyone can be a superstar with tens of thousands of subscribers, any more than Hollywood promises you can be Ben Affleck or universities promise that you can be one of the top-paid professors.

Second of all, since Substack doesn’t disclose how much money the Pro writers make (or even who they are), they’re not providing you with an overestimate of how financially successful any Substack writer is.

Suppose you look at a top writer and see that she has “thousands of paying subscribers” (Substack doesn’t list exact numbers, but it does give an order of magnitude). And suppose you decide “OK, I can be as successful as her.” What if she’s secretly a Pro writer? Did you just get a false estimate of how much money she makes?

No, you did not! Because if she is Pro, then she isn’t getting any of the money from those paid subs; she’s getting an undisclosed sum instead, and Substack is pocketing the revenue from her paid subs. But if you started a Substack, and if you actually did as well as she did in terms of subs, then you really would get as much money as you think she’s getting!

In other words, what Substack discloses is not the amount of money that writers make, as Annalee alleges. Rather, it’s the (approximate) size of their readership. And that tells you the (approximate) amount that you could make if you did as well, subscription-wise, as those writers. Which is exactly the number you should want to know, if you’re trying to figure out how much you might be able to make by comparing yourself to existing writers.

That’s no scam.

Platforming bad people

Annalee cites a post by Jude Doyle complaining about some Substack writers (Glenn Greenwald, Freddie DeBoer, Matt Yglesias, Jesse Singal, Graham Linehan, Andrew Sullivan, and Bari Weiss). Annalee adds:

Doyle notes that Substack also seems to have a secret list of writers who are allowed to violate the company’s terms of service. These people dish out hate speech, but remain on the platform with paid subscribers. Among them is Graham Linehan, who was already booted from Twitter for hate speech against trans people, and whose Substack is entirely devoted to the idea that trans women are a danger to cis women and should be stopped. 

This is precisely the kind of thing that happens in organizations that lack transparency and accountability…

So Substack has an editorial policy, but no accountability. And they have terms of service, but no enforcement…They claim in their terms of service that they will protect writers from abuse, but they don’t. 

If Substack isn’t enforcing its terms of service, then that is definitely a problem. They should enforce their terms of service! If they have a secret list of writers that they exempt from the terms of service, that’s bad. But so far that seems to be an unproven allegation.

As for whether those writers are bad in general, that’s not something I can address, since the only one I know well is Yglesias (whom I like and whose non-badness I will vouch for). But note how this episode demonstrates the point I made earlier: Substack does have accountability!

Because they don’t know which writers are part of Pro (except for Yglesias, who disclosed it), they simply assume that all of the Substack writers they don’t like are part of Pro. Doyle states, flat-out: “Substack is actively bringing the bigots in. Then it’s giving them paychecks.” 

So because Substack doesn’t disclose who’s part of Pro, critics of Substack can and do assume that every prominent writer they don’t like is part of Pro. And they can and do hold Substack accountable, rightly or wrongly, for all of them. This obviously creates a headache for Substack, but it indicates that accountability is definitely in place.

You probably won’t be a superstar

Anyway, in case anyone out there is dreaming of making big bucks on Substack — or on any other newsletter platform — I should warn them. Writing is not a lucrative career. As with acting or drug sales, only a few very lucky superstars make any money. People love to write, and they love to dream about being financially successful doing something they love, so the field is absolutely jam-packed with folks churning out free content and waiting for their big break. And so the average person doesn’t make good money at all.

I would never have gone into paid writing intentionally. I wrote a blog because I loved it, and did occasional freelance articles for fun. The whole idea of writing as a career struck me as ludicrous until Bloomberg called me up and offered me a good writing job. I got very lucky, and I am very grateful for that luck (though even so I would have made a lot more money as a data scientist).

But it’s not a thing I’d ever recommend that anyone else try. If you aren’t very confident that you have a large and loyal following that will subscribe to your paid newsletter, don’t quit your day job and try to be the next Andrew Sullivan. A better option is just to do a newsletter blog on the side, like I do, or like Ross Douthat does — have fun, build a readership, and maybe make a little extra cash.